Total War: Rome 2 preview: high above the battlefield

As my tiny force of Roman soldiers marched on the Samnite forces laying siege to the city of Capua, I zoomed in to look at my individual soldiers, wondering what I would see. Fear? Excitement? Fatigue? I wanted to see if Total War: Rome 2 could make good on its promise that the fortunes of battle would be etched on the faces of combatants on both sides. I had been told that there would be speeches, and that soldiers would mourn their fallen comrades. I didn't see any of that though; my little band of warriors looked stoic as ever as they hurried to meet the Samnites. I'm not sure it would have mattered either, because Total War: Rome 2 has much more going for it than it's supposedly Saving Private Ryan-like depiction of soldiers on the battlefield.

 focalbox In my time with Rome 2, the one attribute that stood out the most to me was pure scale. Put simply, the battlefields around Capua are huge, made all the more evident as huge armies shrink when the camera pulls back. The increased scope is there to accommodate the even greater importance of naval vessels, which can now bolster armies on the land. The side effect is that battles are now truly massive, hardware-taxing affairs, and on the right computer, they are impressive to behold. 

In a similar vein, Rome 2's world map is also much bigger this time around, encompassing everything from the northern tip of Scotland to the Horn of Africa. To put things into perspective, it's roughly four times the size of the map in Shogun 2. Aware that Rome: Total War was one of the most popular entries in the series, Creative Assembly is going all-out with Rome 2. 

I was most aware of Rome 2's scope during the preview build's first scenario: the aforementioned battle at Capua. As the Samnites laid siege to the gates, I snuck around the side with my little company of Romans, attempting to hit at their flank. To get into position more quickly, I had my army double-time it--a new feature in Rome 2 that allows soldiers to get into position more quickly at the expense of increased fatigue. When it came time to attack, it looked as if my army was a company of ants. Almost immediately, they were surrounded by the numerically superior Samnite units, and a pitch battle ensued, all while the siege continued in the background. Eventually, the Samnites began to disperse and flee, and I was able to turn my sights on the siege on the nearby hill. When it came time to attack the main body of the Samnite army, my Romans joined up with Capua defenders on the bridge, and an impressive battle ensued. Well, in the grand scale of Rome 2, it wasn't much more than a skirmish over one city, but it certainly did the trick.

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Later, I had to rebuild my army and position them at a mountain pass, and I was reminded of just what an oddity Total War really is among grand strategy game, combining top-level empire management on a traditional turn-based map with a real-time battlefield where the bulk of the action occurs. 

It's an interesting mix, even if the transition can be a bit jarring at times. Its main benefit is that it can feature the epic sort of battles that made Sins of a Solar Empire so special without sacrificing the depth of a traditional 4X game. This is apparent once again in Rome 2, where tension built as a Samnite army crossed the map to attack Rome while I frantically tried to build up enough of an army to head them off at the pass. When the Samnites arrived, they sent javelins ahead to pick off my shield bearers, but I was able to sneak a group of cavalry through a nearby forest and pick them off with a well-timed charge. It was all very tense and satisfying; the scale was hampered somewhat by the fact that it all took place in a relatively narrow mountain pass, but the spectacle of two large armies clashing and fighting still managed to be interesting to watch in the relatively confined space. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see any of the other new features that Rome 2 gets to bring to the table, like the apparently much-improved diplomacy, which will no longer be prone to suicidal declarations of war. The main point was to give me a taste of Rome 2's battles, and I have to say, I like what I see. Shogun 2 and Empire: Total War were solid games in their own right, but the much-expanded Rome 2 has me interested in the series again for the first time in a while. 

Rome 2 has a keen understanding of its roots: encapsulating the scope of its conflicts. Bigger doesn't necessarily make something better, but in this case, Total War lives up to its name.