The Total war franchise has been going steady for fifteen years now. The first two entries were fairly popular with a unique blend of an overhead campaign map strategy game that zoomed in whenever your armies fought a battle and changed the game from empire management to being a general, and back again. I played the first Medieval Total War and enjoyed it, though the bland battle graphics did get a bit dull after a while (1). With Rome Total War, the series absolutely exploded, in a good way. It had a sizeable campaign with great scale and was set with Rome as the focal point, but in an era of growing nations and declining empires, any number of different factions could be fun to lead. The tactical battles were amazing, just look at this screenshot (2) and you can see two large armies going at it in amazing detail (for 2004 that is). The Creative Assembly (CA) usually has one or two expansions for their games and even the expansion for the first Rome Total War, Barbarian Invasion, was amazing and implemented great new features such as nighttime battles. The first Rome game was a defining point for CA and so when they announced Total War: Rome II, people were understandably excited.
After the first Rome game CA would revisit the medieval era with Medieval II, and they took a controversial leap into the gunpowder age with Empire and Napoleon Total war games before they finally hit another masterpiece with a revisit to Japan in Shogun II Total War. After Shogun, it was announced that Rome II was coming and the hype immediately began to build. As screenshots emerged we were shown a beautiful and expansive campaign map that stretched from Ireland to India and campaign terrain that had beautiful living cities and emphasized mountains and rivers (3). The game also featured stunningly detailed units with variety down to differing faces, for a game that can have tens of thousands of soldiers on the field at once; this was quite an impressive level of detail. When Rome II released in September of 2013 it was widely purchased, but proved to be an immediate letdown for fans as almost everything was broken or terribly optimized.
To start, as a turn based game Rome II needs to have loading periods each turn for the AI factions, typically a minute or less. In Rome II the full time for all of the AI could take 5-10 minutes all while the campaign framerate was so bad you were forced to just wait. Game crashing bugs were far too common and the AI was comically bad. One major flaw was an AI army assaulting a town would often stop just before reaching the gates and just wander around to be fodder for your arrows. The challenge of the game was deciding if your faction would starve, be broke or have constant slave rebellions as it seemed almost impossible to balance anything. Few people played the total war games for the thrill of simply being able to feed your population, and the terrible AI made the battle portions much less fun. The political system was more of a disorganized hassle than fun and the same goes for the naval battles.
Despite this terrible launch, the CA team did not go into hiding but worked for over a year to make it up to the fans of the franchise. Granted they also made more money but the dedication to getting things fixed and appeasing the fans really makes CA stand out from other publishers who so often abandon bad games rather than trying to right the wrongs. CA hit several major areas to redeem themselves and make Total War: Rome II a near-perfect game.
Patching a game after release is certainly not a new concept but CA took patching to new levels to repair the broken Rome II. Initial patches are filled with the words “fix for a crash…” and lowering of initial graphics settings to allow a wider audience to play the game. Then they addressed framerates and basically allowed the game to be easier to play without an error. Then they began humbly attempting to perfect their game, this means admitting that some features, such as having a baggage train as a capture point in an open field, were not good for gameplay and they simply cut them. They made it a little easier to worry less about food and squalor (unhappiness) and made battles more balanced and fun. Patches were constantly being applied with small patches almost weekly and a huge patch almost every other month. It seems as if the patching teams looked at the moding community and instituted some of the more popular modifications such as four turns per year with four distinct seasons. Even as CA was developing the now brand new Total War: Attila, they continued to bring new patches with more patches still on their way.
DLC (and FreeLC)
While this might be controversial to some readers as it was a way for the Creative Assembly to rake in more money, I do think that the stream of downloadable content went a long way towards gaining fans respect by making a more complete and varied game. The various culture packs which allowed various ethnic regions to be playable and adding new units were nice, but should have been free in my opinion. The DLCs that stand out to me are the small DLCs that includes a blood and gore pack and a beasts of war unit pack, and the large campaign DLCs which feature new maps and campaigns.
The smaller DLCs add some fun variety to the game by allowing the player to shell out a few bucks to have siege weapons throwing pots of scorpions (4) or Amazonian women of war. They were totally optional but a fun addition to have. The big campaign DLCs were amazingly done expansions which put the player in a totally new campaign map during a period conflict and let the player loose. The first was the Caesar in Gaul pack which took the Gaul portion of the main campaign and added many more cities and historical factions and leaders such as Caesar. I personally enjoyed the setup of the Hannibal at the Gates campaign, which shows the precarious Italian alliances of Rome and gives you the chance to do what Hannibal couldn’t in real life and conquer Rome. Other campaigns feature a zoomed in map of Greece for the Peloponnesian War and all of the Mediterranean for the war between Augustus and Marc Antony. Playing these campaigns yields totally different experiences and greatly expands the replay ability of Rome II. Yes, most of them cost money, but the DLC is reasonably priced and the largest scaled DLC, the Roman civil war campaign, was given to Rome II owners completely free, something fairly rare in the gaming world today.
Communication (Rally Point)
Prior to the release of Rome II, I had been greatly disappointed by the terrible release of the new SimCity which had abysmal digital rights management which focused players to be online to play a single player game, and then failed to get online which made it literally impossible to play. The worst part of the release was the communication by the publishers, who simply refused to make statements and when they did they were caught lying. Very little was done to address the fans of the decades old franchise and it was flat out frustrating. The Creative Assembly handled things completely differently. They released statements addressing the buggy release of the game and they pledged to make it right. Of course it did help that they followed up on their promise but it was a major boost to customer relations to efficiently communicate. One of the best ways they did communicate was through an official YouTube series titled Rally Point.
Rally Point was initially started due to the massive hype after Total War: Rome II was announced. The videos were created to show some behind the scenes for the upcoming game including video interviews and footage of new motion capture technology for use in the battles. The two hosts were full of energy and the videos are mostly shot inside CA studios. After Rome II had a disappointing release, there was a longer break in the Rally Point Episodes. But when Rally Point came back they didn’t hide the fact that they needed to fix the game and many of the subsequent episodes gave video overviews of new patches and previews of new content. The hosts did an excellent job of keeping the community engaged and new episodes continued to give real hope for a fixed and complete Rome II experience. Years later the Rally Point episodes are still coming, and though they now largely deal with the new Total War: Attila, they still guide players through the progress of past and future games.
Though modding a game is largely dependent on independent consumers, game developers can do a lot to ensure that their game can be modded and the CA went above and beyond in regards to working with the community. Previous total war games have had some legendary mods. My favorite has to be a total conversion mod for Medieval II Total War which changes the setting to middle earth at the eve of the wars in the Lord of the Rings. It was too much fun to be able to recreate the battle of Pelennor fields, riding against the Oliphaunts with hordes of Rohirrim. With Rome II, modders were able to get details and possibly attend a modding summit prior to release of the game and post release Rally Point Episodes give details on available modding tools. The openness to modification allows for anyone to creating something that can improve the game. In this sense anyone can download a handful of mods on their own to make Rome II more like their idea of how it should be. If you want to combine all the Greek factions into the Hellenic League, there’s a mod for that (5). I personally must have 10-15 mods going when I play and it is a testament to CA’s focus on compatibility that I can have so many mods and I can’t remember the last time my game crashed.
Rome II Now
I really wanted to play Rome II when it came out, but most of the time the glitches or outrageous loading times prevented me. It was hardly enjoyable. But as of this article I have almost 1,000 hours logged in the game and I still enjoy playing it. The base game is absolutely stunning, with a huge scope and incredible detail on the battlefield and the campaign map.
The patches made it playable, the DLC provided huge amounts of variety, the Rally Point episodes kept me informed on what changed and what to expect down the road and the vast amount of mods helped me create the exact Rome II that I wanted. I have a great deal of respect for the Creative Assembly now, and other developers can learn a lot from their success.