Rome: Total War 2’s just been released and it’s a great game, except for the endless bugs, glitches, disastrous AI, and other peculiarities. Fans are reacting badly, and internet forums are full of outraged customers. What exactly is a games company to do?
A Brief History of Total War
The gaming industry has enjoyed a revolution since the first Total War title, Shogun, was released in 2000. Strategy gaming was popular among PC users where epic online battles were fought in real-time strategies such as Age of Empires, Total Annihilation and Warcraft. But management games like Caesar III and the Sim City series were ever popular, as were the Civilization titles.
So Shogun: Total War, with its Windows-only release, was falling on fertile ground. Set in Japan between the 15th and 17th centuries, it blended a turn-based tactical map, diplomacy, trading, city management and intelligent real-time strategy, all presented in detail which took advantage of modern 3D technology. It was groundbreaking and the critics loved it.
The game was followed in 2002 by Medieval, but in 2004 came what is considered the masterpiece: Rome. The map extended from the frozen lands of Scandinavia down to the deserts of North Africa, and players marched their factions on Greeks, Egyptians, Britons, Gauls, Macedonians, and Carthaginians to achieve world domination. Due to the expansive nature it won international acclaim.
The game remained a classic and, with a little help from some expansion packs, and a skilful modding community, the title never lost its sheen among multiplayer communities and solo campaigners. Medieval II came along, then Empire, and in 2011 the series came full circle with Shogun II. However, by this stage it was being pointed out how each game was essentially the same: turn-based mapwork, city building, and battles. Only the graphics changed. So it was time for an overhaul, and along came a sequel.
Rome 2 In Development
When Rome 2 was announced, the Total War fanbase understandably became excited. This was a return to the period when everything seemed right with the series. Creative Assembly embarked on a tease campaign which lasted for two years. There was a blog and numerous videos where the programmers and games designers discuss the game in detail.
One of the most exciting videos was in-game footage of an amphibious assault on Carthage. It looked stunning, with vast armies, now individually modelled down to soldier level, slipping into the harbour and laying waste to the city, street by blooded street. The narrators went out of their way to emphasise that although the graphics looked impressive, they were designed to run on relatively moderate gaming PCs.
As launch date approached, Creative Assembly dangled a free expansion pack in front of anyone who pre-ordered. Such was the trust people held the Creative Assemble in, they sold in their thousands. Then came the release. And the reviews. And then the forums went mad.
The (many) Problems
Several key problems cropped up in reviews. One was the waiting times between turns. After your move every other faction (of which there are dozens) have their turn, so progress is a tad slow; your 30-second build, train, and move can be followed by three minutes of sitting around watching the screen. Players on decent gaming PCs have reported juddering frame rates, even on the map, which should be less processor-hungry than the battles, and this was even with the settings turned down.
Another issue has been the computer’s AI, which has turned many of the world’s finest digital warriors into morons. In battle mode the opposition frequently won’t/can’t attack you. In Total War the most dramatic moment is when the enemy is charging towards you in their hundreds, but now they often turn and flee metres from you as if plagued by doom laden premonitions. Particularly unpopular is the new “capture the flag” victory condition. A game based on holding high ground, keeping lines and morale intact, using the element of surprise and the battle map’s topography to overcome superior forces. Everything could now be won or lost by standing around a flag for a bit.
There are some serious bugs, too. There’s a video on YouTube of a boat happily ploughing through a beach and into a town. Another shows armies marching round city walls and refusing to attack even though the gates are burnt, whilst elsewhere a defender against an amphibious attack can’t fire on an enemy’s formation as one of its soldiers is stuck on the landing craft. There isn’t the space here to go over every niggle, crash and weird gameplay feature, but a quick search on fan forums will chew up a whole afternoon. You can also see some amusing pictures here.
Are Solutions In Sight?
It’s fair to say some reviewers loved the game – most gave it a score in the region of 7 out of 10, compared to consistent 8s and 9s for the rest of the series. Still, this resulted in a respectable 80% on Metacritic. But glance at the users’ reviews on the same site and the real picture if revealed. At the time of writing it’s hovering around 40%. What could account for this difference? Perhaps pro-reviewers play on top-end PCs. Maybe some weren’t familiar with the series and had different expectations. Some critics acknowledged the glitches but assured readers they would be fixed by the day one patch.
The balance of opinion on the forums seems to be the game was rushed to launch, and it wasn’t play-tested enough. Optimists point out all Total War games launch with glitches and Creative Assembly always put out a patch a few months later that addresses them. But pessimists suggest many of the issues of Rome II aren’t simply bugs – they are intrinsic issues which would need a major overhaul to solve. This is worrying, as Square Enix discovered with Final Fantasy XIV. Recently re-released as A Realm Reborn (to strong reviews), the troubled MMORPG initially ran from 2010-2012 and was savaged by fans and critics along the way. This isn’t good for business.
Inevitably, comparisons are being made between the behemoth that is the Total War series and the fall of Rome itself – overstretched, overambitious, and maybe even a little complacent. Time will tell whether the game is more playable in six months. Creative Assembly have issued an apology and are, they tell us, working round the clock to sort the issues out. Strategy gamers and PC gaming enthusiasts will certainly be hoping the wheels haven’t come off this excellent series.