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

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear