The entire game is ahistorical anyway, so what’s the problem? Image: Creative Assembly
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Why does historical accuracy only matter when a game puts women on the battlefield?

One of the many post-release fixes for Total War: Rome 2, Daughters of Mars, has involved the addition of female soldiers, and a very vocal minority of players are suddenly very concerned with ancient history.

Friends, Rome fans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Creative Assembly, not to praise them. Well bury is a bit harsh. Maybe kick dirt on their shoes.

When Total War: Rome 2 was released amid much fanfare and many inexplicably high review scores last year it looked set to be a winner. It was so pretty, it was so ambitious, it had so much potential, what could possibly go wrong? Well it turned out that what could go wrong would turn out to be a very long list in fact you could argue that the list of what went wrong was essentially the same as the list of features, albeit in a different order with more swearing.

Fourteen patches and eight pieces of downloadable content (DLC) later it is clear that Rome 2 is not the masterwork that it was hoping to be. Creative Assembly deserve a degree of credit for sticking with the game in order to bring it closer into line with expectations, but given that the road to redemption for Rome 2 has been paved with paid for DLC it would be naïve to think that the improvements have been entirely altruism on the part of the developers. The Total War series is Creative Assembly’s pride and joy and for all the commercial success enjoyed by Rome 2 to leave it in the mangled state it was in at launch would have been the death of that particular golden egg laying goose.

The most recent chunk of Rome 2 DLC is called the Daughters of Mars, which adds women to the battlefield for the first time in this game and coincides with the release of Patch 14. The patches themselves brought many improvements and bug fixes but it is a testament to just how broken the game was that fourteen substantial patches later there is still much to be done. At least we can say that here, a year after launch give or take, the ground combat which ought to be the centrepiece of the game now works. It is now a good time to get back into Rome 2 and, if not necessarily enjoy it, then at least find a new set of things that need to be patched or added with DLC.

One such problem, at least until Daughters of Mars was released, was that Rome 2 had been something of a sausage fest. Women had been relegated to roles as secondary characters and because the game had abandoned the idea of having a head of state, in favour of a weird political system based on generals, the likes of Cleopatra and Boadicea had been effectively swept out of the picture. While addressing this problem sooner would have been good, players are usually more focussed on the near fatal flaws in the games mechanics and systems. DLC like this one and before it the faintly ridiculous Beasts of War can feel like Creative Assembly fiddling while Rome 2 burns. The people making units aren’t the people fixing core systems of course, but it still looks a little shifty.

That said adding female units to the game did achieve two things. Firstly it has antagonised a vocal minority who really liked the idea that the battlefield is no place for a woman. Hopefully this will provoke a bit of historical study on their part, if not of the ancient world itself then at least of the Total War series, which has included units of women in the past. Of course it’s largely ahistorical that there should be battalions of women taking the field, but the entire army system is ahistorical in that regard. If we’re expect to believe that ancient warfare was fought entirely between armies of no more than twenty units of roughly equal size then I see no reason why units comprised of women should be such a surprise to anybody.

Secondly the addition of these units has given the mod makers a new set of resources to work with and this will almost inevitably lead to a great many more units being added than merely those in the DLC itself. This will mean that more historically accurate units will probably pop up. It cannot be stressed just how vital the decision was by the developers for Rome 2 to embrace modding at the earliest opportunity via the Steam Workshop. Without mods and easy access to them Rome 2 would have been irredeemable.

Rome 2 remains unfinished, but it is much more playable now than before. Certain aspects of it, such as the politics system and the naval warfare, appear to be so fundamentally bad that they may never be saved, but these enduring flaws are offset with the addition of things like the time of year now affecting the battle conditions, a big improvement that makes the bits of the game that work work that much better. Critical elements of the game that didn’t work properly, such as the AI for siege battles, now function as intended. While it is good to finally see that feature in particular finished it begs the question of how it wasn’t Creative Assembly’s top priority from day one and if it was why it took so long to get right.

We have to think that what the Total War series produces next, it will definitely be treated with a lot more caution.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era