Rome 2: Total War is a limping herbivore of a game - until you fix it

It's little wonder that the second Rome game has divided opinions so starkly. But it is salvageable.

I was all set to love Rome 2: Total War. I hadn’t quite gone so far as to spread rose petals on my desk but I wasn’t far off it. This was a game I’d been waiting for, for a good long time, a vast sweeping affirmation of everything that makes PC gaming great. Beautiful visuals, complex gameplay, a deep and lasting challenge, this game promised them all.

How it delivered them, well, that’s not exactly straightforward.

The thing that is striking about Rome 2 once you actually get into a game is just how wrong so much of it feels when coming to it from the comfortable and well-worn experience of playing Shogun 2.

With Shogun 2 the big improvements that had come to the series over the last few generations were distilled into a smaller map and a more focussed game. Here’s feudal Japan, the game said, you go grab it. Although Shogun 2 added units and variations to the campaign over time the fundamental game remained the same, lines of infantry poking each other with sticks and swords or shooting each other. The Fall of the Samurai expansion brought the game into the industrial age, with samurai and ninja clashing with more modern infantry and rapid fire breach loading artillery, uncharted territory for the series but handled with aplomb. If anything the weakness of Shogun 2 was that the core infantry fighting game was so well done that elements like the ship combat and units like ninjas and cavalry felt superfluous. You could win the game comfortably without ever needing to do anything more sophisticated than field hordes of the same units you had at the start of the game.

Coming from the slick, effective, and immaculately presented Shogun 2 to Rome 2 feels not so much like a step back in time, but more like a change in direction. The user interface is improved in a few practical ways - for instance, you can launch the game directly into your most recent save position - but everything from the text to the unit cards looks to have had a really bad day at the office from a design point of view. In shooting for a sort-of-period feel, the designers managed to make something uglier and less intuitive, making it hard to tell at a glance which unit is which and so on.

The poor impression that the game creates extends into the campaign map, which has you overviewing the game world in the manner of a nosy god. The world is beautifully rendered and huge to boot, stretching from Scotland almost all the way to India with a decent level of detail; the cities and towns even do a little Game of Thrones thing when they expand. But there are clouds over this vision - not metaphorical ones, either. Somebody actually put clouds in, presumably because they thought it was a good idea. In a game where you are a god-type being, looking down onto the world below so that you can command an empire, somebody put clouds in the way. It is very difficult to fathom how a design decision this wrongheaded made it into the finished game.

Visually, the battles suffer similar problems. Your troops stand together in incredibly close formations, which would look good and feel fairly apt for the time period and style of combat except that everybody is so smushed together that they overlap and combat breaks down into a weird mess very quickly. You can’t see much of what is happening on the ground, the crowds merge into what looks like a cross between LARP and a mosh pit, and then one side runs for the hills in disarray, usually very quickly.

These problems with the visuals are secondary, of course, as there are some deeper problems with the way that the game actually plays out. These problems stem from two key weaknesses: the campaign AI and the over-reliance on unit special abilities in battle.

The campaign AI problem means that the enemy nations are extremely passive and almost entirely ineffective militarily. In Shogun 2 you’d battle your way out of the immediate starting area, grab a bit of land, get some scouts out into the world, and typically you’d find that a handful of clans had expanded rapidly and were dominating their side of the map. It would be these clans that you would later have to face. In Rome 2, even a long time into the game, it’s very possible for nothing really to have happened out in the world, with smaller nations and city states sitting there like dots on a Pac-Man map waiting for your armies to gobble them up. A second side effect of this is that the sheer number of factions at the start of the game, and the fact they don’t eat each other, means that when the AI takes its turn to play you can be waiting for ages as something like a hundred factions each do their thing.

Not only are the enemy passive before your advancing empire like so many woad-painted deer in headlights, but even when the AI does arm itself for war, it does it very badly. Because the AI doesn’t tend to build military buildings often, all it can build are skirmish units, and sometimes more than half of an enemy force will be men with slingshots or javelins. Skirmishers are useful to have to harass an enemy that is bogged down in a bun-fight with a strong line of hand-to-hand fighters, but are no use at all on their own. Many battles against German or British tribesmen become less about combat and more about finding the most efficient way to sweep ineffective peasants pinging rocks at me off the field. Rome 2: Total Riot Control.

The poor choices of the campaign AI mean that the battle AI, which is by no means as ineffective as it generally looks, is hung out to dry. A couple of units of cavalry get loose among the skirmishers; combined with the high pace of the combat and the low morale of the units, this means that the battles, which are really the centrepiece of the game, can become very brief, perfunctory affairs.

At times when a battle starts I can almost imagine the Battle AI looking at what he’s got to play with, looking across at the Campaign AI and saying, “WTF dude, seriously?”

“Don’t know what to tell you, bro,” says the Campaign AI as he goes to make a cup of tea and wait for his turn.

Special abilities in battle are something that has been creeping into the game over the years. At first you had one or two abilities that needed to be actively used on the general; he could rally the troops around him, or he could single out a unit to be inspired to fight better. In Rome 2, a good general can have up to half a dozen different abilities, with different types of unit also having two or three of their own. This invites a kind of frantic micromanagement into the game that is wholly inappropriate for a series which typically shines brightest when you are watching a plan play out, rather than frenetically clicking on things. It is hard to shake the nagging concern that somebody may have said to Creative Assembly something along the lines of, “Hey you guys, MOBAs are popular right now. Is there any way you can make Rome 2 more like a MOBA? Interface, paradigm, going forward, synergy, monetise?”

It’s easy to look at these criticisms and think that Rome 2 is a bad game, or a broken game, or an unfinished game. All these terms come out of the woodwork for a title like this and to an extent most are appropriate in one form or another. However there is one term that is almost never used yet is perhaps the most appropriate of all: out of tune.

A game like Rome 2 can look like a solid block of a game, a big, unwieldy lump that, in its present state, doesn’t work right. But this is not because it is broken or unfinished - far from it. Everything is in the game that should be there: the systems, the scale of the map, the character development and city management; it’s all present, it’s all functioning, and in this world of disappointing, unambitious and lazy titles, it is a beautiful thing to see that much time, effort and energy put into a niche title.

What is wrong with Rome 2 is strictly a tuning problem. The many thousands of variables that determine what the game will actually do are at fault, not the way that those variables are processed. It is as if Football Manager 2014 had been released with every player incredibly slow, or every goalkeeper two feet tall. Things would get weird really fast, and so they have in Rome 2.

So what do we do with these dodgy variables? We change them.

Something like the Radious Mod, for example, removes the clouds from the campaign map, makes the campaign AI more aggressive with a more militaristic building agenda, makes units route less easily in battle so that rather than playing Chase The Slinger, you’re actually having to dislodge thousands of belligerent spearmen from every town. By making small adjustments to the spacing between individual soldiers and the reuse timer on special abilities, the battlefield becomes less of a cluttered mess of random clicking and more amenable to planning and strategy. Other mods change the number of turns in a year from one to two or even four, which means your generals and characters don’t die of old age at the exact point that they get interesting.

Once you’ve fixed Rome 2 it is an entirely different animal to the insipid and non-threatening herbivore that Creative Assembly delivered. But without those fixes, it’s little wonder it has divided opinions so starkly.

Rome 2: Total War, official image

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

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge