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Rome: Total War

Mesmerising. Cerebral. Intuitive. Epic. Breathtaking. A masterpiece. Rome: Total War is all of these things. In fact, I'm almost tempted to leave it at that and simply send you skipping off to the shops to pick up a copy, safe in the knowledge that in a few days your eyes will be weeping blood from monitor glare, bladder haemorrhaging as you succumb to that all-consuming urge to play for just half an hour more. Of course, I'm not going to do that. After all I couldn't do that to you after all we've been through now could I? Course not.

But I am going to continue along similar lines, as despite a few foibles, faults and AI glitches, Rome is almost beyond reproach. In fact it's no exaggeration to say that rarely, if ever, has there been an RTS that has so redefined its genre, so comprehensively swept aside the opposition, so utterly shifted the benchmark of quality, intensity and entertainment as Rome. It isn't just an improvement over its prequel Medieval, it's a quantum leap, another giant's stride up the road of RTS domination trod by developer The Creative Assembly since it released the groundbreaking Shogun: Total War in 2000.

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A mere four short years later and Shogun's concept has evolved into an all-encompassing strategy game of warfare and intrigue, political machinations and personal advancement, subtle tactics and merciless brutality, melded expertly together to create perhaps the single most comprehensive, visually impressive and immersing war game ever imagined. Rome: Total War has finally arrived and it's ready to conquer all.

Despite its multitude of advancements though, Rome's core remains unquestioningly loyal to its predecessors. Just like Shogun and Medieval before it, Rome is split into two distinct sections. One, a turn-based strategy segment in which you move your armies around the game map in order to conquer new territory (encompassing Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor) - and in which you also deal with the finer points of running your empire. And two, a tongue-lollingly realistic real-time strategy battle section, where the game's true brilliance lies.

From the moment you first fire up the game and choose to command one of three Roman factions (Julii, Scipii and Brutii), to that distant day when your flag is unfurled in every corner of the known world to the delirious glee of your loyal Roman subjects, Rome: Total War simply oozes quality from every pore. A sea of possibilities awaits you, with each faction offering an almost infinite and wildly varying number of paths for you to trample down.

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Wherever I May Rome
Playing as Julii unlocks the barbarian-held, tree-matted lands of central Europe where Germans, Britons and Gauls await with their wild painted faces and massed but disorganised armies. Brutii brings you immediately into conflict with the tactically adept and organised Greeks, while Scipii offers an open route to the sprawling desert flatlands of Carthage and Egypt.

Each side brings with it its own unique approach, and once you've completed the campaign with one of the above factions, you're then free to do it all again with any of the other major empires of the time, including Carthage, Egypt, Greece and the Gauls, meaning the game's replayability is higher than a drawn cup final's.

But believe me, you're not going to be playing through the campaign as any of these other nations any time soon. Newcomers will struggle to complete the Roman campaign on even the medium difficulty setting, though the hardened vets among you (if you're shaving yourself with a machete right now, that's you) will find this level a little on the easy side. My advice? Head straight for 'Hard'.

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