Last month, CVG was lucky enough to play test Creative Assembly's monstrously comprehensive new strategy game, Total War: Rome II.
We went hands-on with Rome II's Prologue chapter - a standalone introductory campaign, designed to ease new players into things and bring familiar players up to speed with the game's new features. In it, you assume control of a fictional Roman soldier named Gaius Fulvius Silanus, as he rises to prominence by repelling the Samnites as they attempt to take Capua and Campania from the struggling Roman Empire.
The campaign is approximately two to three hours long and verses the player on how to organise your troops and how to use special units such as the cavalry - but it only scratches the surface of the deep, tactical possibilities that unfold once you're into the game proper.
So to better explain what Rome II's all about, we cornered lead battle designer Jamie Ferguson and barked questions at him until he called the police on us. Below is in the transcript in full:
CVG: Rome II is your biggest game yet - not only in terms of budget (up 40% from TW: Shogun 2), but in terms of the overall playing area, we're told?
FURGUSON: That's right - in terms of envrionments we stretch all the way from Spain right out to Afghanistan, Scotland and down to Saudi Arabia and the Horn of Africa. With an entire continent to represent, we had to be sure to include all the different terrain you might encounter. So you'll see deserts, forests in the north, rolling planes to the east and when you reach the Lavant [modern day Slovenia] you'll encounter some very harsh terrain.
Do the different terrains affect gameplay, or are they largely cosmetic?
They all interact deeply with the actual combat system of the game. You'll see that the way people fight is affected by the environment, where the weather will tire them, the hills will slow them down and all of it has an effect on their mentality. So the result of that is they lose morale quicker if they find themselves in a situation where it's going against them.
"Elephants were used by the Carthaginians, who have access to a wide variety of mercenary units"
A bigger budget means bigger presentation - one of the things you've stated you want to do with Rome II is make the skirmishes 'feel' more physical. Can you tell us more?
Okay, so the human face of Total War is something we've been focusing on a lot. What we're trying to do there is give the player that feeling that they are involved in the combat and that these are real people and not just autonomous clones that are being ordered to their deaths. That these are people who are trying their very, very, hardest to do the best they can. You'll hear them complaining about being ordered around too much, about being charged into all sorts of different situations, and at the same time when it comes to the combat itself, it's very visceral. You'll see the real cut-and-thrust, the heaving and shoving as men get stuck in on the frontlines. When cavalry charge into men, you'll see the victims turn and flinch in fear just before they come in. Elephants will grab men and throw them to one side, then stomp on them.
Yeah, they were used by the Carthaginians, who are also very good at naval combat and have access to a wide variety of mercenary units that give them a very varied combat roster that allows them to adapt the way they fight and the approaches that they use, depending on the enemy that they're fighting. There are nine playable factions in all, and you'll see considerable diversity amongst them.
You mentioned the naval combat - this is one of Rome II's more eye-catching features, we think. Fans have been asking for the option to ram enemy ships for ages...
We've given the naval combat system for Rome II a complete overhaul. We've explored lots of different ideas, and at one point we had lots of ships within each individual unit, but we felt that fir easy access for the player, for them to be able to control things really well - to understand how to ram a boat and get their soldiers to board it - we wanted to go back down to a single ship per unit. We've researched the physics of the units so they're actually very close to what we think the reality might be, and we've used that to build them and work out the impacts between the two ships. The result is something that is very, very real, and you really feel the weight and that mass of the collision.
What other lengths to you go to to ensure historical accuracy?
Well, before every project we all start reading up on the period that we're actually going to be studying, and use that research to acitvely look for gameplay mechanics, for things that will make this game stand out from any other game and at the same time looking for that 'hook' that will make the player want to play this game and pick it up. And the way we do that is by going through all the history books, we also read novels about that period, as well as movies like Spartacus, and the Rome HBO series. All those things feed in to what we do with the game, and then we actually get around the table and we actually start talking about what kind of game that connects that brings out so for example things like testudo - the Romans actually used to create a situation in their units where they could raise their shields, and the result of that was that they would actually become far harder to hurt with missiles, but at the same time they were very vulnerable to being attacked by cavalry or units like that. All of those elements actually make for perfect gameplay and that's how we actually bring the history into the game, and how the game is formed by the history.
"We go through all the history books and read novels about that period, as well as watch things like Spartacus and Rome HBO"
There's a ton of new units in the game - which ones stand out as your personal favourites?
Obviously, warfare in terms of combat isn't just about men on the ground fighting hair-to-hair and toe-to-toe, there are also artillery pieces. These enormous machines that Rome's created that are capable of throwing stones vast distances and breaking down walls. We have a thing called the onager which when translated means the donkey, because it kicked like a mule. This thing could kill men in their dozens, just with a single ball hurled into the midst of a formation. We also have things like the scorpion. The scorpion is like the heavy machine gun of the ancient world and what that would do is it would be able to fire out, at a very high rate of fire, bolts that would pierce straight through a man, and could sometimes could go through up to three men at a time. That was something that was horrific to the opposition and part of the Roman war machine that enabled them to break down even the most determined enemies.
Diplomacy isn't explored in the Prologue - can you tell us a little about how it works in Rome II?
In terms of the things we've overhauled, obviously the diplomacy system's one of those things that we've actually taken a good look at, and we've tried to make it far more accessible to the player. What we're trying to do is enable them to understand why it might be that they're actually going to war with a particular AI enemy, or why one of their alliances may have broken down. They can actually look through the reasons that the enemy might have for that, and why they might want to do that. Also you can look at your friends and see why it is that they like you, what it is that they find so encouraging about your behaviour, and by that you can actually then modify your diplomatic actions. All of those things create something that's very easy to understand, but at the same time, you're not fully aware of all the consequences that are going on around you, so it's not necessarily the case that you can predict everything, but what it does let you know of is why something might have happened.
Finally, for people who are coming in for the first time, who may have seen the trailers and who are pretty excited about it, what kind of things have you put in there to make it accessible to them?
Tactical view is one of the best things we've done so far in the battle sense of things, because what that does is give you a complete overview of the entire battlefield and you don't have to just look around and try and work out what's happening - you can actually zoom up to a point of view in space directly above the battlefield, and actually see where all your units have dispersed to, and to see where the enemy is, in terms of whether they'e coming around your flanks or whether they're attempting to come from behind and that gives you an instant reaction to what's going on and you can immediately zone back to where that position is. You can then take control of those units and get them to attack at the right place at the right time. Again, we allow the game to be paused, so the player, if they find things are getting a bit too much, can pause the game, look around, try and work out what's happening, then they can begin the game again or they can give orders whilst paused and then let the game carry on playing itself out. That means that no matter what your skill level is, you can access the game and also understand how to play it.
Total War: Rome II is out on PC on September 3