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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser