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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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.