Phil Hartup on videogames

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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.

The entire game is ahistorical anyway, so what’s the problem? Image: Creative Assembly
The entire game is ahistorical anyway, so what’s the problem? Image: Creative Assembly

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.