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Rome: Total War

/ Dec 2nd, 2004 No Comments

Rome: Total War has been under development by the good people at Creative Assembly for almost 4 years. The time and effort in producing this work of art was certainly worth it. ACTIVISION has just released the game, and this might just be the best game released this year.

We first saw R:TW at E3 and we noted in our column that R:TW had great graphics and cinematics – so good in fact, that THE HISTORY CHANNEL was using the game engine to reproduce historical battles and information for their high-quality programming. The demo trailer for R:TW was certainly a great “teaser”, but frankly – the game is MUCH better than expected and delivers a new level of quality higher than the teaser-trailer would have intimated.

Creative Assembly has now set a very high standard for the Gaming Industry. The overall quality of this product is simply fantastic. We have been playing the game a lot, and it is more than just addictive – it provides enough options and special features that we project the average gamer could play this game for months and not repeat a single engagement… and that is without playing the game online against other opponents!

Lastly, you can really tell the quality of a game by the historical accuracy and attention-to-detail employed by the game developers. R:TW is very accurate and the gamer will wind up, intentionally or not, knowing a LOT about the historical period from 250 BC to 150 AD – the period of initial Roman expansion and conquest, through the Roman civil war, to the final conquest of the known world. The game is historically accurate to a great degree. Creative Assembly did their homework and have earned an A+.

Graphics and Sound: Advancing the State of Gaming Technology

Before we get into the game and game play, we have to discuss the technology behind R:TW. Creative Assembly uses a new game engine for R:TW. The game engine can create and manage up to 10,000 polygonal, very detailed, individual units AT ONE TIME! This means that the battle sequences are fantastically detailed and real.

Individual units are able to interact to a huge degree, not previously experienced. For example, a war elephant (one of dozens on the battlefield) will throw opponents into the air and trample others into the ground.

With a good graphics card, the game will immediately see details and animations not previously experienced in any game. With a great graphics card, the game literally “comes to life” with a flourish of colors and details.

The game also contains several options for audio cards, including optimizations for the new Soundblaster Audigy-series cards, The audio we used for the Miles 3-D was exceptional – the background noises, cheering crowds, battlesounds, all merge to provide a true surround sound emersion in the game. Kudos for paying attention to the aural-side of game construction.

Overall, Creative Assembly has done their work very well. This is gaming craftsmanship at its highest.

For the innovations and high quality in R:TW, Creative Assembly is award the Gaming Illustrated “Special Achievement Award” for advancing game technology.

The Game – Historical

R:TW is the new standard in Real Time Strategy (RTS) games. It takes the classic elements of RTS and blends them into an excellent story – with a rich historical construct from which to draw…

In Rome, the “families”, old patrician families that could trace their ancestry back to the founders of Rome, dominated the Roman Republic in 270 BC. Three families (Julii, Bruti, and Scipii) were the most important of the three – receiving funds and arms to defend and protect Rome, and to expand Rome’s influence through trade, diplomacy, and war.

The Roman Senate provided a central government for the fledging Roman Empire, which was just starting to consolidate its positions in central Italy. But there were a lot of competing groups and civilizations: Greeks, Egyptians, Carthage, Britannia, Germania, Gaul, wandering Barbarians, and others. The Roman Senate issues requests to the various families, to take a certain city or blockade a particular port, and rewards the success with money and new units.

As the opponents of Rome are vanquished, Roman intrigue and politics bring Rome to the verge of civil war – as the competing families vie for control of the Senate. Once the civil war is over, and one family assumes control as Emperor – the continent of the known world lays before the new Emperor to conquer.

At the height of the Roman Empire, one quarter of the entire world’s population was under the direct control of the Caesars.

Originality and Game Play

As an RTS game, R:TW is played on Five separate levels: (1) strategic positions are established and contested among the numerous vying adversaries; (2) each player controls a territory and can manage (or auto-manage) the resources, buildings, and unit creation within the towns and territory; (3) armies, diplomats, and spies, are mobilized and dispatched on missions; (4) players can form alliances and make treaties (including trade, tribute, and single monetary demands); and (5) actual conflicts are executed at the battlefield level with the player, as the General, controlling strategy for unit placement, movement and combat.

Overarching the game levels, the gamer can choose the degree of difficulty in playing the strategic level and separately choose the degree of difficulty in playing the individual battles. In addition, the game offers and “auto-manage” capability for the computer’s AI to “take over” the administration of the various towns – balancing construction of markets and temples (which keep the people happy) with construction of military training and unit building facilities, and managing the overall tax rates (which fund the families’ army).

At the top level – strategic, the game can be played as the leader of the Julii, Bruti, or Scipii families. In addition, the game is purported to also be able to play as (we did not get far enough to actually test this aspect) as the Carthaginians, Britannia, and other opponents to the Roman families [note: you have to successfully play the Imperial Campaign first]. You keep track of the status of the numerous strategic alliances, status of enemy activities, and the politics of the Roman Senate.

In playing the game, we started as the Julii family (from where Julius Caesar arose), but we did play the Bruti and Scipii families to see if there was any “differences”. Actually, the Julii family had it pretty easy – their strategic position was in northern Italy and they had the Gauls and barbarians to contend with. However, the Bruti had the difficult task of going up against the more advanced Greeks, while the Scipii went up against the Carthaginians (Rome’s primary rival for domination of the Mediterranean!).

At the second level – territory, you start with a few particular towns under your control. Your objective is to identify likely expansion targets (since the Roman Senate can’t tell you everything to do) and begin establishing trade (diplomats) and getting good intel on the nearby areas (spies). The “fog of war” blocks your ability to see everything going on beyond your towns and armies – and it is critical to know who is moving where and not be surprised.

Inside your towns, you can manage everything: construction and taxes being the chief factors which generate income, keep your people happy, create new army units, and retrain (to higher levels) existing units. Although the player can “auto-mange” and let the computer take care of the cities/towns, we thoroughly enjoyed the considerable challenge of running our own fledgling Empire. Anyone who enjoyed CIVILIZATION will love the advanced challenges of R:TW resource management.

Fortunately, as a “turn-based-game, you are able to stop and devote your attention to each area/unit in turn and focus your attention on optimizing your particular strategy (e.g., making more military units, or creating trade and money).

At the third level – unit mobilization, you are able to select armies, diplomats, assassins, and spies, from the Regional Map and move them over the world. At this level, you are also provided with periodic updates on your families’ marriages, births (nice to get new generals created), and completion of construction projects… as well as receiving news from the Empire and directives from the Roman Senate.

Interestingly, you can acquire additional Generals (a general if stationed in a town becomes the Governor and administrates the town development – no Governor, no development!) by marrying off your family members and by having new births into the family (go to wait until they grow up however). This means you must both manage your towns, but keep your best Generals for your army – where they can positively influence the army’s morale and effectiveness.

At the fourth level – alliances and treaties, you are able to use your diplomats, spies, and assassins, and dispatch them as special units. The diplomats can contact others and create trade agreements (increasing income), or new alliances. The spies can enter a city to scout out the number and types of defenders, and even enter an enemy town to increase the chance of capture by “opening the gates” to your army. The assassins can be dispatched as a “hit man” to take out a particular leader – for an army without a General is at a severe disadvantage during an upcoming battle or siege.

There are also nuisances with “other characters” – retinue attendants that join your family and work with your Generals/Governors: cooks, bodyguards (remember the assassins – well, others have them as well!), etc. This creates a new level of detail and complexity to utilize in the game.

At the fifth level – battle combat, the game literally explodes with excitement. Yes, you can have the computer “resolve” the battle and not fight it on the battlefield – but that kind of defeats the purpose of playing the game doesn’t it? The battlefields are richly textured and the units are true individual motion-capture entities. This gives new richness to the game quality and the enjoyment of playing out each battle. Battles typically take a half hour or longer to resolve, although a great feature (you can control the game speed from pause, normal, fast and very fast speed) was added to “speed up” the mop up operations and large movement periods.

There are many battlefield and siege opportunities here. The use of siege equipment and the plethora of units (war dogs, ballista, etc) bring interesting and unexpected battle strategies (i.e., keeping the war dogs in reserve to release upon an enemy and pursue retreating enemies).

Game – AI and Interfaces

The games AI is particularly well designed. So far, I have not had any complaints about the AI sending my forces to the wrong locations, or overriding my instructions. The game’s town-auto-manage feature does a great job with several different options provided (i.e., balanced trade and military, high military, high trade, etc.).

The game view can be easily controlled with the mouse cursor, keyboard number keypad, and the keyboard arrow controls. Using the mouse wheel, you can easily zoom in or out for big picture or incredible detail.

Each turn equates to about 6 months in “game time”. Unfortunately, your great leaders gain experience (as do all units depending on battle outcomes) but also grow old and die at the most inopportune times. It is also a challenge to create an Empire when you only have 7 family members to head 7 armies or be 7 governors (recall that a city must have a governor to function properly). You quickly run out of family members and have to decide which cities you can leave in their current state and simply station troops there (a Captain will emerge to lead any army that doesn’t have a General).

Units are under full control and can be combined and grouped, selected as groups or individually.

The game features a nice “weather control system” that interjects the winter snows (slowing movement and making defense easier) to the summer heat. It is enjoyable to watch the Alps get covered with snow as your army encamps at the foot of the Dolomite mountain range in northern Italy.

Minor Nitpicking

Certainly every game has some minor issues, and R:TW has less than most games. However, the inability to scourge your territory from enemy bands is sustained by the inability of the game to resolve minor conflicts. For example, I had a massive army in Gaul and wanted to kill off a pesky Gaul contingent of 110 men – despite repeated attacks, the game would only indicate that the enemy was routed and the unit would immediately withdraw (not opening the battle window so I could use my cavalry to mow down and exterminate the enemy).

Setting up naval blockades, something the Roman Senate assigned me to do, can be a bear when you are trying to blockage Corinth… a Greek city, with their naval port inside a long narrow channel! If the enemy keeps a single ship in the channel, you can not approach the port to set up the blockade. You therefore have to wait outside and hope the channel clears before the Senate-imposed time limit expires. Also, naval battles are not resolved using the battle screen – they are automatically resolved, usually to a draw with the losing side withdrawing.

Moving units around on the battlefield to set up a more strategic position, is difficult. I spent a lot of time learning how to march my troops into various positions – for example, to move archers from behind one group to another group, the archers would break ranks and move at a 90 degree angle from their initial setup… resulting in disjointed lines until I could reassemble & reform the ranks (not easy).


The game can be played through “The Imperial Campaign”, or individual historical battles, and also on-line through Game-Spy. Head to head against other opponents, or playing in teams as allies, will certainly open up the options for multiplayers.

The Imperial Campaign is an epic adventure… literally; every turn offers unique choices on who to attack, whom to ally with, whether to follow the requests of the Senate (some can stretch you pretty thin running all over the world), and what to build/develop. We also played the same family several times in the opening campaign, to see if the Senate’s assignments changed. Although the first assignment is invariably to take over Seguesta (nearby town), the AI varied the remaining assignments significantly! This resulted in dramatic results later on, as the Bruti family went into Gaul while I was busy blockading and working “down south” (Caralis).

Individual battles are particularly interesting: and make this game a must have for any military history buff.

Since there are approximately 600 “turns” in the Imperial Campaign, and each turn can have multiple individual battles and numerous management tasks, a single campaign can last weeks. With the various options of playing different families, and replaying the campaign with different strategies (one effective strategy is to watch the other families battle and then swoop in with your army and capture the town once your ally has beaten himself silly wearing down the opponent!).


As you can imagine, Rome: Total War takes Game Technology to a new level. This is simply one of the finest RTS game ever made. R:TW is a MUST HAVE game for 2004. We’re already thinking this title will be the winner of the RTS Game Of The Year for 2004! Rome: Total War (R:TW) is a brilliant creation that advances the technology of gaming and significantly raises the bar for the Gaming Industry – Winner of Gaming Illustrated’s “Special Achievement Award for 2004” for advancing game technology. This is a MUST HAVE GAME, with stunning graphics, depth, detail and playability. This game provides a new level of challenge and enjoyment that other games will now be judged against. Run, don’t walk, and get this game.

Rome: Total War is awarded the Gaming Illustrated Editor’s Choice Award. Rome: Total War is also awarded the prestigious Gaming Illustrated Special Achievement Award for advancing the technology of the Gaming Industry.


Greg Gibson

Greg Gibson

Lead Reviewer / Editorial Contributor at Gaming Illustrated
Greg Gibson’s resume spans over 40 years in the world of nuclear engineering and technology, having received a Masters Degree in e-commerce in 1998. Our resident MMORPG expert, Greg’s ability to understand the dynamics of MMOs is unparalleled.
Greg Gibson


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