Rome Total War and Total War Rome Remastered Review

Original Game
Rome Total War might be the game I have put the most hours into across all games I’ve ever played. Although my Steam page *only* reflects 100 hours, I did own this game on disk in around 2010. I then became so obsessed with the game that I convinced my parents to buy me it for a second time so I could play it while we visited my grandparents on their computer. Oh, and when I say “obsessed” I do really mean it; Arguments between me and my siblings would frequently arise when I would refuse to give them their turn on the computer because I was knee-deep in a campaign battle that they could scarcely comprehend. But what was it about the game that made it so compelling?

Well, like most Total War games, the way it blended real time combat with the turn based campaign was a big draw because I am a sucker for both of those things in strategy games. While playing as the Romans, the Senate would frequently send you specific missions to complete that usually involved the capture of nearby towns or the blockade of enemy ports, which would reward you either with money, units or the senate’s gratitude. Unlike every other campaign in the game, the Roman campaigns revolve around earning popularity with the people of Italy until you are so popular that they would not be opposed to you preverbally crossing the Rubicon; That is to say, with you walking up to Rome, besieging it and betraying all of the other Roman factions, as well as the Senate, for your own selfish desires to control the eternal city.

Truly, it is events that occur, like this Roman civil war, during the campaign that stop it from getting too stale or repetitive. Another one is the Marian reforms which sees a number of factions – primarily the Romans – get access to new more powerful units after the Romans reform their army into something more professional. Of course there is also the Macedonian Plague which can either disappear only a few turns after its arrival, or completely ravage Greece based on what you want to do with it since disease in the game can be transmitted if units, spies, assassins or diplomats leave a plagued city and move over to a new one. You can use this to your advantage by having a spy infiltrate an enemy city that has the plague, intentionally letting him get infected, and then sending him to visit the rest of your enemy’s cities. As well as doing damage to the garrisons and armies over time, the plague will also decrease public order as squalor in begins to rise across the enemy empire. Smaller scale events also occur at random like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and floods that damage buildings and soldiers in the relevant province, as well as endangering any present family members.

But while the Roman campaigns have a lot of depth on behalf of events like this, none of the others do at all. No other factions get consistent missions with rewards and only a small handful benefit from the Marian reforms, but even those factions benefit in a lesser way than any of the Roman factions do. Resultingly, the incentive to play as other factions is for the challenge. The game essentially dictates that the Roman factions have to succeed in their conquest to some degree, and they surely will if the player can’t effectively contain them in the early game. This makes playing factions like Greece, Gaul and Carthage particularly challenging, but never to the degree that it is unfair. In fact, I played a Carthaginian campaign in preparation for this review and it was one of the best runs I’ve had in a while, with battles consistently waging up and down Italy between me and Rome, while the opportunistic Greeks tried to steal weakened cities from under our distracted eyes. But the challenge doesn’t end when you destroy Rome, since all the factions that Rome was pretty much guaranteed to destroy will now have free reign to do whatever they want without the Roman AI cheating its way to victory. This means that although the Roman campaigns have more depth, it is by playing as the other factions that you will be able to get a more dynamic and varied experience on repeat playthroughs.

Family members are your bread an butter. They serve as both generals for your armies and administrators for your towns. Each family member has a set of stats: Command which governs their ability as a general, Management which governs their ability to oversee settlements, and Influence which increases the numbers of units in their bodyguard and, if you’re the Romans, their chance of holding a seat in the Senate. As time passes on they develop traits that can both increase and decrease these stats. A single general who wins numerous battles will quickly become popular with the people and gain the ability to pass on numerous morale buffs to his soldiers on the battlefield, while an administrator with high management may get traits pertaining to increasing public order, taxable income or decreasing building costs. It is inevitable that you may neglect some family members, however, and allow them to get some more negative traits. For instance, leaving a family member in a town with a more “jovial” type of temple may lead to them being a social drinker which, at first, is a very good trait… Until it develops into alcoholism and is a detriment to their ability to govern the town he was assigned to. Some family members are victims of circumstance, such as those who are flaccid or who have unfaithful wives meaning that their chances of producing children is decreased. Finally there are Retinues. Retinues are like traits but can never be negative and can give a variety of broad or specific buffs to your family members. They can be accumulated by doing anything, be it fighting battles, enslaving settlements or leaving your family member in a town that has an academy in it to help better their development. What separates them from traits is that family members can trade their retinues with others. So, when you’re ten star mega general looks like he’s the age where he is about to die and you don’t want to lose his massive retinue of movement speed increasing, morale buffing, command star rising followers, simply send a young up and coming general to his location and have the older fellow pass on the retinue to him so he can pick up all those lovely buffs. I had one instance where the conquer of Rome, my faction leader, passed on his pet lion to his son and heir to prevent the nearby Gallic assassins from murdering him.

The battles are also brilliant visually. While the graphics are dated by todays standards, watching soldiers get sent flying and entire units get pushed back by massive cavalry charges is incredible and (oddly) something you didn’t see a lot of in the modern sequel to this game. And while it is cheesy, all of the factions having a designated colour pallet does make the fighting a lot more comprehensible than some of the modern Total War titles where every soldier is wearing come combination of beige and brown tunics. When it all works together you can find yourself in enormous battles that are just large enough to put the pressure on you, but never so large that you feel entirely overwhelmed by all the micro managing you’ll be needing to do. This gives the game a casual feel, while still ensuring you feel some tension from the larger conflicts.

This game’s biggest strength, however, is how responsive it is. If you tell a unit to move, it will move the exact moment you tell it to and with all the speed it can muster, to precisely where you wanted it to go. Due to poor pathing, playing on larger unit scales in narrow city streets will almost certainly contradict what I just said, but should remain true for most open-field battles. To this day, I don’t think I’ve played a Total War game as responsive as this one. Other than that, the only exception to the rule is when trying to disengage soldiers from combat, but I feel like that’s reasonable given that they are being chased down as you’re trying to reposition them.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows because the fact remains that the AI isn’t just a little bit garbage, but it actively has no idea what the hell it is doing. On the campaign map it will frequently send armies nearby to your lesser defended territories, only to stand still in hesitation for ten turns while you muster a defence force so comically powerful that the AI is steamrolled when they finally do decide to get their act together. Even then the AI doesn’t know how to merge units to compensate for casualties and will often refuse to retreat from fights they cannot win, even if it means their faction leader and faction heir die in the same battle. In diplomacy, the AI will almost always choose death over becoming your vassal, and will send you the laughable deal of “Please do not attack. Accept or we will attack”, when you control the entirety of western Europe (for example) and they have been reduced to a single village up in Ireland.

In basic straight-up slugging matches the AI is okay in open field combat and it will make attempts to flank and use counter units against you, but it is still just weak enough that experienced players can exploit it. For instance, sending missile cavalry around the enemy will cause them to send at least one or two of their own cavalry to chase it off… Indefinitely. So while you have a big battle, the enemy will be fighting with less units that they should be because they’re chasing down a single unit of yours on the opposite side of the map that you didn’t value in the first place. Another thing you can exploit is the fact that the AI will always turn its army to face you in order to avoid being flanked. This means that if the AI positions itself on an advantageous hill, you can often manoeuvre your army around it in in such a way that when the AI adjusts itself to face you it lowers itself further and further off of the high ground.

To get around its many short comings, the AI often cheats in the campaign by spawning new generals it shouldn’t be getting when you kill too many of them and, in the case of the Romans, auto winning battles against enemy AI to make sure that they aren’t wiped out too early. The AI armies will also take a lot less morale damage than your troops do, as well as benefitting more from generals who pass of morale buffs. And yet, despite all of this, the game still feels incredibly easy unless you’re playing on hard/very hard.

Barbarian Invasion:
This is a piece of DLC set at the time of the Huns. The Roman Empire has been split between the east and west, and with the threat of the Sassanids in the east, and looming presence of migrating barbarians in the west, it is a bad time to be Roman. This DLC is pretty damn good because of how dynamic the campaign is. Now, if you destroy a barbarian faction, they don’t just disappear from the map like they used to. Instead they get turned into 4-6 full stack armies to represent their people having to migrate away from the destruction you caused. This horde will then walk around the map looting and destroying settlements until they find a place to settle, at which point they lose their hordes and return to being a regular faction. The only way to kill a barbarian faction is to get them to horde and then kill them before they settle which is a lot easier said than done. This adds a new layer of strategy to the game as it won’t be beneficial to destroy most of the factions, since the hordes that would produce would do more damage to you than it is worth, and thus the game requires a lot of vigilance on your behalf due to the amount of uneasy ceasefires you’ll find yourself in with folks who are floating armies a step away from your borders. Under certain circumstances new factions spawn on the map such as the Slavs, which arrive at a specific date during the campaign as a horde, and the Romano British who spawn in Cornwall if the Western Roman Empire loses all its holdings on Britain. But the DLC’s biggest strength is the variety. By playing as the Eastern Romans or the Sassanids you well get a close to traditional Total War experience. If you’re a masochist and enjoy losing, you might play the Western Roman campaign. However I had the most fun playing as the hordes themselves, particularly the Huns, because of how their comically large power as and early game horde contrasts with the difficulty of being a newly settled mid-late game traditional faction. Overall this is a particularly solid piece of DLC.

Alexander:
This is challenge Campaign that is much shorter and a little less dynamic than Barbarian Invasion. You play as Macedon and are in control of Alexander the Great. Your job is to unite Greece and conquer the Persian Empire, Egypt and even touch on the borders of India before Alexander dies. It is the most unique of the campaigns and also the most challenging because of how specific the win conditions are. It is also a challenge I have not overcome. I tend to have a more methodical playstyle, which doesn’t lend itself well to this fast paced campaign that wants you to get a move on right a way. However there is fun to be had in it with the new unit rosters for the Macedonians and Persians. The Indians are a fun faction to mess about with in custom battles too.

To summarise, this game very dated. However, it is also very fun, engaging and addictive. I am bias, but this is one of my favourite games of all time, so I don’t really care as much about the more dated aspects that might turn off new comers. I would highly recommend playing Rome Total War.

Remastered
The recent remaster of the game is, undoubtedly, not as good as the original release – or at least it isn’t at the time of writing this.

In some regards it has improved the game, particularly on the Campaign map where the AI will be a lot less hesitant and a lot more aggressive… Mostly. Whereas the early game of the original release largely felt the same for the first 20 turns or so, the same cannot be said for the remaster. In this version, the AI will actively take settlements the Romans normally b-line towards which leads to more early game conflicts. Other improvements include their ability to merge units to compensate for casualties and demolish temples not of their religion in new settlements they capture, in order to offset the cultural penalties to public order.

Diplomacy, while still far from perfect, has been much improved from the original game through the inclusion of a reputation system that allows you to gain and lose reputation based on whether you backstab allies, break treaties or honour your agreements. A high reputation will make the AI more likely to accept your proposals while a low reputation will do the opposite. In the original game it was very common for the AI to offer you an alliance, only to immediately betray you on the very next turn. This has been prevented in the remaster, albeit not because the AI is smarter, but just because the game is coded so that they cannot do so for a while. Additionally, they addressed the issue pertaining to the AI often choosing to die over becoming your vassal, by making them a lot more likely to accept that kind of deal if they are facing the extinction level event your massive faction poses to them.

Some of the lesser factions have received minor buffs to their roster so that they can stand up for themselves more in the Campaign, such as the Armenians and Parthians. Other factions, primarily the Egyptians, have been nerfed because they would absolutely dominate the eastern side of the map effortlessly, in the original release, every single time you played the campaign without fail.

But the biggest improvement is how squalor effects public order. In the original game, squalor increased as population increased and thus the larger your cities got the more unhappy they became. Although there were buildings to offset squalor, they were only really a means of slowing it down rather than outright preventing it. This meant that some cities would be unhappy forever and the genuine best way of dealing with this was to let the settlement rebel, recapture it and exterminate the population so less people were living in it, at which point it would be happy again. Thankfully the remaster fixes this by putting a cap on how much squalor can effect public order and by giving barbarian factions, who previously had no way to directly combat squalor, improvements that could be used to counteract poor public health. While it is still possible to lose settlements to squalor, it feels like it is much more the fault of the player than it is the game’s wonky mechanics.

But how is the remaster worse than the original?

Well for one, the game no longer feels as fast paced as it had used to. Missiles firing through the air seem to feel infinitely slower than they used to and don’t go well with some of the over-the-top death animations for the units dying to them. Cavalry, once the fastest and most fluid units in the game, feel slower, clunkier and less responsive – which can be said for most light infantry and missile units too. They’re not BAD to control, but they feel so much slower than the original game that I found it hard to adjust to the remaster straight after coming from the original. I guess what I’m trying to say is… The battles don’t feel like Rome Total War battles, they feel like those of Medieval 2. The problem with this being that the reason Medieval 2 was slower is because it put more focus on grinding infantry combat, which is not Rome’s strength. Rome’s strength was always skirmishing with missile units and fluid cavalry. And none of this is to down talk Medieval 2 – it is a good game- but it feels as though Rome Remastered has taken inspiration from that game’s identity more so than that of the game it is supposed to be a remaster of.

Beyond that, the battle AI is still god awful – easily distracted by missile cavalry despite how many casualties they take trying to pursue them, and how vulnerable they leave their main force in doing so. They are still easily lured from defensive positions by missiles and your manoeuvring, and rarely go on the offence unless they feel as though their advantage over you is significant – which I found to be a problem in custom battles more than the campaign. Though, when walking outside of city walls, the AI will avoid taking damage from guard towers where they can, they will still deliberately put their units at risk when the guard towers shoot inside of the settlement if your soldiers capture the towers in an offensive siege. In all honestly, I don’t think it would have killed the developers to address these problems but alas they remain.

And who can forget the load times? I have a PC that can load the campaign maps and battles of Warhammer II and Rome II fairly quickly on higher graphics settings, but I still struggle with criminally long loading times on this remaster when I play on similar settings, which do not compare visually well to the other modern Total War games.

My final criticisms are a little vain, but relevant I think: The UI, while not bad, is worse than the original. In the original game could construct a building within three clicks: First click on the settlement, then click on the building tab and then click on what you want to build. Now you have to click four times to do so: Click the settlement, click the building tab, click the “add new building” button and then click on what you want to build. Same goes for unit recruitment. The fact that recruiting units feels quicker and easier in Heroes of Might and Magic 3 – a game that released in 1999 – tells me that the new UI isn’t all that great. Then there’s the graphics; They are much better than the original graphics, but the unit designs are often over detailed compared to the simplistic art style of the battle maps. In a bizarre way, everything looks beautiful individually while looking out of place once it’s all put together, which is probably the opposite of how visuals are supposed to look. Also lot of the caucasian soldiers look more like a stale-grey colour than they do white, akin to walking zombie corpses rather than actual people. In fact, you could develop a pretty good undead mod using some of the game’s caucasian soldier models, and smearing some red blood texture on their faces.

With all this in mind I think it’s safe to say the remaster is a disappointment because, although it aims and succeeds in adding various new and updated quality of life features to a dated Total War title, it fails in making the changes to the game that would have actually mattered in the long term: Why has the campaign AI only been improved from awful to somewhat less awful? Why has the battlefield AI not improved at all? Why is the pathfinding objectively worse than the 2004 release? Why, in a game that has “Total War” in the title, does the AI never take initiative in custom battles, unless you specifically specify they have to be the attacker? And why do I regret buying a remaster to one of my favourite games of all time?

Well the answer is simple: In its current state, at the time of writing this, it is not so much a remaster as it is the exact same game it was before, but with a Campaign AI that will sometimes decide to take a city a few turns earlier than the old AI would have.

And the reason why I don’t condemn the original for the faults it shares with the remaster is because it is a product of its time – 2004 – and was one of the big 3D real time strategy games that helped define the genre, and one that stopped being supported a very long time ago. Undoubtedly dated, but for it’s time very good. And to be honest, you’d have to be pretty naïve to play a game of that era and not expect some degree of jank. But the remaster is a 2021 game, and remastering a game implies modernisation. And while the lighting is prettier, and Egypt doesn’t engulf the entire eastern side of the map anymore within thirty turns, none of the improvements feel meaningful. The things that have changed are things that could have waited to be included in updates down the line, while the things that haven’t are fundamental flaws in the original that the remaster could have corrected in order to create an objectively better experience.

In short, the closest thing I can compare this game to is one of those mediocre remakes of classic horror films that are more concerned with being released and purchasable than they are with actually doing something with the gold mine of potential they have. So no, I cannot recommend Total War Rome Remastered (2021). In fact, if you’re looking for a game that is Rome Total War but better, then just buy Medieval 2 Total War: A much better and cheaper game than Rome Remastered that takes the foundation of the original Rome and builds on it with its own quality of life improvements, increased difficulty and a lot more variety in both the campaign and custom battles. It features plenty of dynamic events and diverse unit compositions for all factions, that keeps all campaigns interesting beyond the initial challenge. Yes, now that I think of it, buy that game or the original Rome instead. You’ll have a much better time.

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