All roads lead to Rome.
Creative Assembly has continued the ever-popular, and increasingly so, Total War franchise with another look at one of the time periods in history that saw more war than almost any other: Antiquity. In 2004, Rome: Total War set new standards in large-scale RTS combat and complex-as-you-want-it-to-be management of an entire empire. This time, Total War: ROME II (TWRII) has tried to raise the bar for epic sieges and empire building, and in a lot of ways, Creative Assembly has succeeded. However, there are a few, ultimately minor detractors that temper the experience.
The beginning of the campaign starts with your first great challenge: choosing a faction. Unlike in the previous game where some factions (like the Greeks or Germanic tribes) were lumped together, ROME II has divided each faction in cultural groups first, then into rival factions. For example, Rome, Greece, and Carthage each have three possible factions you can choose from, and each faction has their own bonuses and penalties. One faction might gain a bonus for cultural conversion while another might be better at trade and farming. While these individual traits add a small level of individuality to each faction, the penalties and bonuses will not be a great factor in determining your success or failure. Early on, they matter when you are knee-deep in wars, diplomacy, and trade agreements, but after taking twenty or so settlements, you can begin to alleviate any penalties and find bonuses in other desirable areas. In total, there are eight cultural groups and sixteen factions to choose from that places you in a separate area of Europe, giving you time to build up your empire before entering into a major conflict with another power.
Victory conditions have been updated and expanded to add a different style of play. You can choose a military victory (hold over 100 settlements and command forty or so units), an economic victory (ninety settlements and several trade-based conditions), or a cultural victory (hold thirty-five settlements and assimilate six key provinces). Each one forces the player out of their comfort zone and adds a level of strategy to a game heralded for its combat. For those of you who want to create the most dominate empire, you would be fulfilling all these conditions anyways, but it is nice to tailor your experience.
Your initial choices made, it's time to get into the campaign. You'll find yourself immediately faced with a familiar, yet different, campaign map. Settlement management is now condensed into regions where the main city in the province and its smaller territories are placed into one screen. From there, the building tree for each city is expanded once you construct and can afford to build new structures. This time around though, the players needs to plan their settlements carefully as only the main city has walls and cities can only support so many buildings. This is a positive and negative depending on how you play. If you want every city to be exactly the same and be economic and military strongholds, then this is going to annoy you. However, this does allow players to specifically tailor each city to his liking and make cities into what they need to be (military recruitment in a central Europe or an economic powerhouse in a small area in the southern Mediterranean).
Fielding armies, an important early task, has also been changed, yet is still familiar. Armies can only be formed by generals, so the number of armies is limited accordingly. Players recruit generals and soldiers in a similar manner by purchasing in the recruit screen and then waiting for them to be trained. Raising armies is easier now in that you can recruit soldiers anywhere in the province with your general. You can train three units in one turn early on and will be grouped with similar units once finished. This makes attack and defense easier and more efficient. As you fight and win, units and generals level up upon which you can assign them skills and bonuses. While helpful and certainly an x-factor in turning the tide of battle, these are exactly what they're called: bonuses. Skilled players can still defeat superior foes with careful planning. This does allow you to fine-tune a general for command or for governorship.
Sieges are now rare as walls are limited, but once you take control of any settlement, you have to convert their population. Cultural assimilation is key to maintaining public order and, consequently, the tax rate you want to pass. It will take time to Romanize, for example, a population, but it is worth it if you wish to turn that area into another cog in your war machine. In standard battles, the UI is mostly unchanged from Rome: Total War. Formations can be changed and lines show where your unit will march as well as the formation they will be in once there. Armies can also prepare for battle with the use of stances. You can lay an ambush, build a fort, raid the surrounding areas, or crack the whip and force march them into a key position.
To aid you in your conquest, a technology tree is provided and is divided into military and civilian branches. Once one is completed, several new paths open up so you have more freedom to customize your technology. Each technology requires so many turns to fully research and some can really add to your units military might or for your building efforts.
All of these features would not be nearly as enjoyable if your computer cannot run Rome II at decent settings. This game, due to its scale, is a system cruncher. My box has a GeForce GTX 660 video card, 8GB of RAM, and an overclocked Intel quad-core, and I was able to run most settings on Extreme (unit size/detail, building detail, shadows, water, terrain, texture quality) and at max res. However, that was only good for above 35 FPS during small encounters. After that, the settings were scaled down to prevent dropping below that number. Even at medium settings, the game is gorgeous and heavily detailed. The most impressive visuals are the different types of soldiers. Each unit is made up on a set of possible bodies, armors, faces, and helmets, to give the most realistic and historically accurate portrayal of Ancient armies. Some men in my early Hastati units had huge Greek-like helmets and large bronze chest plates while others had a light helmet and a small bronze plate covering a fourth of their torso. The unit will still maintain its stats equally, but this added touch adds another level of detail to a game that tries to make it as customizable as possible without changing the main focus of the game.
With that, let's get to the summary...