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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era