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Rome: Total War Preview

publisher: Activision
developer: Creative Assembly
genre: Strategy

P1000, 256MB RAM, 300MB HDD, 64MB video card
ESRB rating: T

release date: Sep 22, 04
» All About Rome: Total War on ActionTrip

Until last week, I did not really know what kind of game Rome: Total War was. 2Lions had mentioned it several times when we have had conversations about games we are looking forward to, but I had way too much on my plate with current game assignments to give it much attention. Frankly, from what little I did know, I assumed it was another Real Time Strategy game with a slightly different mode for combat.  When Activision called last week and wanted someone from ActionTrip to come out to San Francisco to play Rome: Total War, you can understand how disappointed 2Lions was that he was already committed to another appointment. So when I arrived at the location they had setup for the play test of the game, I was basically not expecting much.

I was in for a very pleasant, although looking back now, very short, four hours of hands on time with Rome: Total War. I say short because after spending four hours playing it, I cannot wait for the game to be released so I can play it more. Upon arrival at the venue, I found that Activision had about twelve workstations setup and networked with the most current build of the game installed on each. Finding an open station, I sat down and quickly got started on the game tutorial. If you have seen any of the screenshots, movies of game play or tried the demo that was released on Monday; you know how rich the game is in visuals. Thankfully, the designers did not put all their effort into animations only, but kept that same level of quality in the voice over, music and pacing of the game as well. The tutorial I went through played more like a well made movie rather than training for a video game.

The screen opened onto a wide rolling field where an angry horde of barbarians were poised across from an equal number of Roman troops. As the camera panned and rotated around the battlefield, it quickly zoomed off to the side of the battlefield to another small group of troops that would be my army. As I was introduced to movement techniques, battle commands and camera controls the game wove this process smoothly in with the revelation that as the player, you will be playing a family in the Roman Empire and not just controlling a generic army labeled 'The Romans'. This point will become pivotal later in the game.

As soon as the movement and combat tutorial was over, I started the next tutorial which exposed me to other aspects of the game. This encompassed city management, troop building and movement, diplomacy and the other fine points involved with building an empire. I do need to put something to rest right now and that's the comparison that people are going to draw between Rome: Total War and the Civilization series. To be fair, the game does have a lot in common with Civ but saying that Rome is a 'me too' Civ clone is not a fair comparison. While Civilatizon is a very entertaining and complex game, Rome: Total War builds on what Civilization has established, refines the elements that made it so enjoyable and adds a whole new element to the mix: the control of your armies in combat. This is more than what we have come to expect in a standard RTS game. Tactics, troop composition and use of the battlefield play a much greater role and you really can take a battle that looks hopeless at the outset and pull out a win. I'll get to the example of this that won me over in a moment.

As I was managing the three cities that I started the round with, I did some things that were quite familiar to me in this kind of game: setting tax rates, consulting advisors to determine what buildings I should construct to improve life in the city and spur the population growth rate, set defenses and manage troop queuing so I would not be completely defenseless. Turns represent six months of time and soon I was caught up in the management of my domain. When I ended my turn, I watched as other factions from Italy went through their orders as smoothly animated men representing groups of troops bearing the standard of their faction moved about. Ships sallied around the coast hurrying from one port to another. Wagons and carts depicting trade routes wound their way on roads between cities, carrying goods and money into my domain. Diplomats from factions I was on good terms with made their way through the area of my control and continue on their way to parts unknown. Basically, all the standard fare I had come to expect from a turned-based strategy game.

After about a half an hour of managing my affairs and trying to grow my little family into an Empire ruling dynasty, I got jumped by the damn Gaul in my city furthest North, and most isolated from support. When troops assault a city, they have the choice to lay siege to the town and try to starve them out over a period of turns, attack immediately trying to batter down whatever defenses the city has, or split the difference by laying siege to the city for a couple of turns while siege engines are constructed to assist in the assault. The Gaul must have been impatient or they assumed that I would muster a force and march as quickly as I could up to support my endangered city. They chose to bite the bullet and forge ahead with an immediate attack. The computer gave me a quick run down of the enemy troop numbers compared to my defenses. Right away, things did not look good. The Gaul outnumbered me three to one. Sure, I sat inside a city with a barrier of wooden walls, but the computer forecast that my odds for victory were not good. It also presented me with the option of allowing the computer to quickly decide the outcome of the battle or (and this is an important distinction) take command of my troops and try to pull my bacon out of the fire. I was not going to go down without a fight.

After the screen zoomed in onto my besieged city, the scene dissolved into a view of my troops tucked behind the wooden walls that surrounded them from over fifteen hundred barbarians and their fury. As soon as I began taking inventory of my troops, my heart sunk further. I had one regiment of archers, one regiment of pike men, four regiments of light infantry, two regiments of peasants and two regiments of cavalry, one of which was lead by my family leader and general. His leadership skills and personal traits were an edge I hoped would prove the difference between noble defeat and a complete route.

In Rome: Total War, all of the governors of your cities and commanders of your armies, come from within your own family. As the turns go by, you will be informed of marriages, deaths and ascension into manhood which signify a new family member who is now fit for command in your Empire. These new recruits have strengths and weaknesses that can add or detract to combat and the management of your cities. In my case, it seemed there was a rather high amount of incest going on in my family because the crop of future leaders I had to choose from was the biggest bunch of slack jawed yokels and losers I have seen since the Jerry Springer Show held a guest convention in my town. The mouth breathing family I had to choose from included traits like Drunkard, Overbearing, Sickly and my favorite, Slow. While they did have some redeeming qualities, they were not the supermen I had hoped for to run my Empire.

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