Game Reviews

Tough as Nails: Rome: Total War

I have many fantasies. Some include me being fed grapes by exotic Mediterranean women; another involves me secretly being a caped vigilante struggling to maintain my alter ego in everyday life, but then boldly and heroically revealing all to an enamoured femme fatale. But a favourite of mine is one which involves me embodying a grandiose military tactician, a present-day Nelson or Caesar. I’d be the sort of general who would always outfox the enemy with cunning manoeuvres and fearless forward marches; and when I would meet my rival on the battlefield, there would be the shrill trumpets and angelic voices of heavenly choirs, and terrifying, slow-motion cavalry charges. Over the years, however, the RTS-management Rome: Total War, revered, exalted and  immortalised in my hall of gaming’s most splendid, has gradually eroded this hyper-macho, egomaniacal fantasy of mine down to an impotent, emasculated stump.

You see, put in the real jackboots of a supreme military overlord, I would be thoroughly incompetent. While I may be able to explode the head of a 13 year old in Arizona (in Call of Duty, of course) with compliments from a Barrett .30 cal, or bisect a Locust drone in Gears of War with an assault rifle-mounted chainsaw, as an all-seeing commander ordering men-at-arms to bloody melees, with all that second-to-second responsibility, well, I’m a failure. The logical, calculating, precision-based part of my brain required for complex management is thoroughly vacuous; the rest is filled with romanticised stories of Valhalla, D-Day and the Battle of Agincourt.

The Art of War

For those unfamiliar with the Total War series, allow me to fill you in. Begun in 2000 by The Creative Assembly and their first instalment Shogun: Total War, budding armchair generals have since been treated to armed expeditions in antiquity, the Middle Ages, the early-modern imperial eras and most recently in 2011, feudal Japan once again in Total War: Shogun 2. 2004′s Rome: Total War puts you in the Bronze Age breastplate of a Latin dux, and from there, you must lead your family to senatorial domination, dictatorship and victory on the field of battle against the barbarian hordes and those blasted Greeks and Egyptians. The game is split nicely in two: managing one’s burgeoning mini-empire is conducted from a turn-based map of Europe, where armies can be moved, units trained, cities built, alliances forged and smashed, and covert agents put into play; when opposing forces collide, sluggish politics gives way to immediate crises, commanding your real-time attention as you move armies of tens of thousands into the fray, swords, spears, bows, horses and all. Here, Rome is won or lost; each victory promises booty, land and influence; each defeat brings the heathen closer to the gates of the Eternal City and worse, lessens your sway in the Senate.

No doubt the keen-witted pragmatist will have little issue controlling supply routes, backstabbing political adversaries and mastering the feigned retreat; indeed, Rome isn’t hard in the traditional sense of the word, but rather, it punishes those with little patience and logic (read: me) with an iron gauntlet to the backside, typhoid and half rations. Despite my immense love for them, I have struggled with management games all my life, always rushing into them headstrong and careless. I’ve yet to perfect or even attempt to perfect any sort of strategy or golden rule, and Rome is no exception.

Take the phalanx, for example, a formation of pikemen all standing shoulder-to-shoulder with five-metre long spears ready to kebab anybody foolish enough to take them head on. The general idea is that you combat a phalanx with one of your own, or – with difficulty – attack them from the rear. As an impatient general, however, I am usually discontent to watch hundreds of spearmen leisurely prod each other without the dramatic blood spray that a sword to the jugular might induce, and whatever cavalry I could use for a pincer manoeuvre are usually scattered across the battlefield chasing down skirmishers; so rather than wait for a more agreeable opportunity to take on a phalanx, I am usually compelled to charge them from the front, regardless of the horrific and inevitable casualties. But though my computer screen reflects little more than my auxilia infantry skewering themselves into fashionable human pincushions and speeding on towards breakfast with Pluto in the Afterlife, in my mind, I have done glorious battle, and brought honour to my family’s name and the gods. My dopamine emitters fire like ballistae; by Jupiter, am I having fun. Meanwhile, with my main infantry force now grilling over some Grecian barbecue, the battle is quickly lost and my Roman soldiers are forced out of  their newly acquired territory. The Senate spit acidic rhetoric in my direction and my secret enemies close in. Rome thinks I suck. I do suck. Sod it, though – it’s always worth it.

Reckless charges and colossal military blunders – preferably to the sound of Howard Shore’s “Forth Eorlingas” of The Lord of the Rings fame – are, in my mind, what make Rome worth playing. While I’m content enough to build farms and amphitheatres to keep my citizens fed and happy, highlighting all my units and furiously right-clicking the nearest enemy battalion is my guiltiest pleasure. It’s one of the reasons I prefer Rome‘s first expansion, Barbarian Invasion, to the vanilla game. Depicting the splitting of the Empire between East and West, rather than limiting you to antiquity’s imperial masters, Barbarian Invasion allows players to thunder into battle in the chariots of various pagan chieftains, from the Saxons to the Franks. It’s a perfect excuse to amass hordes of screeching druids and woad-painted wildmen and simply send them sprinting towards a legion of stalwart Romans as one thronging, angry mass. Of course, it’s terrible from a strategic point of view and my troops are almost guaranteed to rout, but it’s a sight to behold and never dull.

The Dark Ages

Essentially, I like to make Rome hard for myself, not by emulating the painstaking efforts of Patton or Montgomery, but through sheer controlled idiocy. Rather than occupy or enslave captured towns, I put their entire populations to the sword, quelling rebellion, but crippling my economy; I’ll besiege cities with a handful of troops purely for the fun of it, then perish miserably under withering arrow fire; I’ll never obey the Senate and then have my rebellious family members hunted and murdered by assassins; I’ll penetrate straight into the German interior with a massive army, only to be enclosed and cut off by Gaul to the south; and of course, I’ll waste my general’s bodyguard on a suicide charge straight into the tusks of Persian war elephants. As a result, after years of play, my Roman dynasty has never expanded its territorial borders beyond the Spanish march or Gaul.

Rome: Total War mightn’t be usual Tough as Nails material, but by allowing me to act out my boyish Charge of the Light Brigade/evil misanthropic dictator fantasies, the realities of military tactics and careful resource management bite hard. Screw the Macedonians and the Carthaginians – I’m my own worst enemy.

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