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Rome Total War: Gold Edition

Reviewed by Ursus

A review should be reflective of the medium under study. I'm not reviewing a scholarly book or even a classic film, but a popular piece of gaming entertainment. So let us drop all literary pretenses and get down to business! Whether you are an eager gamer of 16 or 60, you probably want a basic assessment to determine if the game is worth purchasing. To that end, I present The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of "Rome Total War: Gold Edition." The Gold Edition offers the original "Rome Total War" (RTW) as well as the "Barbarian Invasion" (BI) expansion pack.

The Good
When this game was released it was hailed as the pinnacle of audio- video perfection. The hype is generally deserved. From the first few seconds of the opening act, the game sucks you right in with its superb graphics and audio clarity. In most games, even good games, the characters look like obviously fictional pixels. Not so Rome Total War: it is as if every soldier were painstakingly painted from a lifelike portrait. From shirtless, green trouser wearing Gauls to armored Carthaginian war elephants, the rendering of detail is superb.

The music is surprisingly good; opera like, grand and eloquent. A male chorus intones during the heat of battle, and a touching female chorus chants Latin during the campaign map. I was greatly impressed. I'd rather listen to this music than most of what currently plays on the radio stations!

The game has an excellent tutorial campaign to introduce you into the mechanics of ancient battle. The game is divided between a tactical battle map and a strategic campaign map; A helpful centurion advises during the former, while Goddess Victoria offers sage counsel with the latter (and in killer British accents, I might add, produced as it was in Europe). You may dismiss the advice at will and follow your own initiatives. This I did regularly, as Victoria's constant lecturing grated on my nerves.

The Prologue campaign is the actual tutorial, but once completed continues over as a greater campaign to conquer Italy. The Imperial campaign is set during the middle stages of the Republic; with Italy conquered, Rome's greater Mediterranean ambitions bring it into conflict with Carthage, Hellenes, and northern Barbarians.

For those who tire of these lengthy campaigns, two alternatives are available. The Quick Battle function takes you to a set piece clash in some clearly defined scenario (for example, British tribesmen repelling a Roman assault on their hill fort). The Custom Battle function allows you to choose any two countries in the game, pick the right combination of units in each, and set them on scenery of your whim. The Custom Battle function thus offers endless possibilities of martial carnage.

As you advance into the game, some of the non-Roman nations become unlocked. Carthage and the Greek cities are the first two. The different military units give you a different feel, and the non-Roman countries are not divided into ridiculous factions (see below). Unfortunately it is hard to win with Carthage's weak military (see below). However, with a little clever strategy one can go far with armored Greek hoplites. I had fun making a reborn Hellenic empire in the East, and even sacked a few Italian towns for good measure.

The game offers one of the best collections of choice quotes from Antiquity, displayed before a battle. They all deal with war and strategy, of course, but these days it is probably a better exposure to classical thought than what many high school history courses offer. It is a nice touch!

Finally, when RTW was first released, one could find it usually in the $50 price range. Now, three years after its release, one can find the gold edition for a much more reasonable $20.

The Bad
Game play can be complicated at times. The Tutorial does its best to introduce you to the basics, but the mechanics of the Battle Map can still be hard to negotiate. This becomes exponentially true as the size of one's army increases. I discovered that the more units I had, the more I was likely to lose simply because I could not coordinate numerous units in real time engagement.

The game gives you the option of automatically resolving a battle on the campaign map rather than slugging it out on the battlefield map. The computer analyzes the numbers and strengths of the two armies and generates a win or loss with varying degrees of intensity. I found myself doing this quite a bit to spare myself the agony of a convoluted battle on the battle map. But yet the battle map is supposed to be the hallmark of RTW, and thus I felt I was missing the point of the game.

The campaign map is far easier to navigate, but also less exciting. Once a battle is won, one must improve one's settlements and conduct diplomacy and espionage with one's neighbors. Unlike the Caesar games, one cannot build the city oneself; one simply tells the computer which buildings to erect, then one waits for the construction queue to be completed. The results are usually less than spectacular.

The Ugly
But the central problem of RTW is that the strategic structure of the game is anything but realistic, unlike its graphics and audio.

The most egregious example is that Italy's resources and armed forces are divided among three great houses: The Julii, Brutii and Scippii. These families own their own towns and their own armies. The great Roman Senate assigns missions to these three factions, which the factions are free to accept or decline. If one successfully completes a Senate mission, one is rewarded with finances or military units. This is the fastest way of augmenting one's strength; unfortunately if one accepts all the Senate's increasingly burdensome missions, it means stretching one's resources across the Mediterranean before one has had time to fully utilize one's conquered territories. One can decline the Senate missions, but to do so too many times means alienation from the Senate and the other two factions. It is a delicate balancing act I never mastered. The only counterweight is that the factions can conduct their own diplomacy with foreign powers, forging military and economic ties that may hem in the ambitions of rival factions.

This is of course all ludicrous. The Republic did not work this way. Having Italy divided between three great houses which can ignore the Senate is sheer lunacy. The player should be able to play the Senate and command the full resources of the Republic. The current strategic set-up ruined the whole experience for me.

Unfortunately, this is far from the only non-historical element of the game.

The relative strengths of the various nations at war are completely unrelated to their historical validity. It took Rome three long wars to defeat Carthage; in RTW most of Carthage's territories can be conquered in under an hour of gaming. Simply put, on a level playing field Carthage cannot compete. Only changing the difficulty level helps equalize matters.

On the other side of the coin, some nations enjoy more power than they could ever hope to achieve. Ptolemaic Egypt invariably becomes the regional superpower of the east, despite the fact it was in gradual decline. Britannia as well seems to conquer large parts of Gaul and Germania, forging a non-historical empire.

I am no expert in ancient military matters, but even to my untrained eye some of the military units are pure fantasy. The most offending unit has to be the Arcani. These units are trained in upgraded temples to Jupiter, Saturn or Mars. They are equivalent to Roman ninjas, black masked assassins that can decimate most low-level infantry units. This is absurd fantasy.

As a pagan enthusiast I would be amiss if I did not comment on the religious element of the game. Every faction has 3 or 4 deities to worship, and upgrading these religious structures confers certain benefits on the players. But there can only be one deity per town. This is not how polytheism worked. Every town usually had a patron deity to whom the largest temple was dedicated, but there would still be smaller shrines to other deities. I should be able to build shrines to as many deities as I want in a given town!

Finally, those using Windows Vista may experience some performance problems with the game, but this is more an issue with Windows Vista than RTW. Nonetheless, having the game crash right before you score a major victory is a bit disconcerting.

Barbarian Invasion
The expansion disk takes one to Late Antiquity. The Empire is divided between East and West, and barbarian hordes are massing at the borders.

In this timeframe the Senate is irrelevant, and so fortunately one rules as an Emperor with complete control over one's respective half of the Empire. There is no more idiocy resulting from a Senate and three great families.

True to form, cavalry is far more important than it was in Republican days, and thus the make up of the military has a totally different feel. Huns, Germanic super tribes, and Sassanid Persia are Rome's great enemies, and each has their own strengths to bear. Finally, religion has become an important element. One must choose in a settlement whether to build a Pagan, Christian (Catholic, Orthodox or Arian) or Persian religious building that may convert the populace.

I actually enjoyed Barbarian Invasion more than RTW, but I still had problems resolving game play mechanics with large armies. Those playing the Western Roman Empire can expect a very rough time of things. But the fun of BI is to play not the Romans, but the various barbarian hordes. Act out your darker fantasies by pillaging throughout Europe!

Mods
Enthusiastic gamers have completed a variety of modifications, or mods, for use with RTW. They are available for free download from the web. Unfortunately some come at 200MB or more, so those with slow dial-up like me may not be able to avail themselves of this option.

Each mod offers something different, and some enjoy an excellent reputation. Some modifications attempt to remedy the non-historical elements of RTW, making for a more pleasurable experience. Others use RTW's game engine, but transport the gamer to a non-Roman world, such as Napoleonic Europe or Tolkien's Middle Earth.

I have not tried the mods myself and therefore cannot comment on them firsthand (UNRV's own Primus Pilus sent me a disk loaded with the Europa Barbarorum mod, but due to technical difficulties I could not get it to work).

Bottom Line
I played RTW for three weeks and then uninstalled it after having become disgusted with the seedier elements of game play with the Roman factions. I then reinstalled it and played some of the non-Roman elements, and had a much better time of it. BI has its merits but I would have preferred the earlier time period were it not so riddled with flaws.

All in all, this game is simply not what I had hoped for. It was a great idea that was seriously flawed in execution. I enjoyed writing this review more than I did actually playing the game. Some of the mods attempt to remedy RTW's faults, and I am keeping the game solely for anticipation of trying them.

For $20 it does offer a nice audio-visual feast, and if you are a hardcore military gamer you may find this to your appeal. Just do not look for history, as you shall not find much.

You can order this game online at Amazon

Get it now!


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Rome Total War: Gold Edition - Related Topic: Roman Games


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