The imperial campaign runs from the early days of the republic to the peak of its power, a period covering approximately 270 years. Given that each turn represents six months--there are summer and winter turns--this means a campaign game can last more than 500 turns. That's surely an epic-scale length, and a campaign can easily consume days, if not weeks, if you decide to play out all the battles. There's also a smaller campaign that only requires your faction to conquer 15 provinces and eliminate your principal rival or rivals. And in addition to being able to play as the three different Roman factions, you can also tackle the campaign game as a foreign faction, such as Carthage, Britannia, or the Gauls. The only prerequisite is that you must crush the faction in question during a campaign in order to unlock it as a playable side. This is a bit annoying, as you'll probably have to play several campaign games to unlock all the playable factions. But these factions are worth unlocking, because they have access to unique units in the game, including chariots, elephants, and axemen. Also, not every faction in the game is playable, so be careful not to get your hopes up.
The campaign itself takes place on a beautiful 3D map that depicts a living, breathing world. Tiny caravans travel the roads and highways, while ships ply the trade routes between ports. During the winter turns, snow covers most of Europe, and that has an effect on units moving and battling in those conditions. But, most importantly, the new map is easy to read and is a big improvement on the board-game-like maps found in earlier Total War games. There are terrain features such as valleys and rivers that serve as natural strategic choke points on the map, and you can place armies in those positions to block them, thereby protecting your cities from sieges. You can also hide armies in forests, which allows them to ambush passing units, to devastating effect.
The Romans are at the gates, and they've brought gigantic siege towers to scale the towering walls of this city.
Ultimately, the turn-based portion of Rome is an excellent strategic game by itself. Its only flaw is the relatively weak naval combat. Unlike the land battles, you can only autogenerate the results of naval battles--you can't control them or even watch them play out. The results are a bit unpredictable, as you're guaranteed a win only if you have overwhelming numbers on your side. This makes sense, since a battle between two comparable fleets should theoretically be a toss-up, but you'll still feel somewhat helpless at not being able to jump into the battle and help turn the tide in your favor. Furthermore, the results of naval battles are often reported incorrectly--the number of ships reported sunk usually doesn't match up with the number of ships that actually remain. And in certain circumstances, it's possible to get a fleet permanently stuck in position, rendering it useless and a drain on your resources, though we rarely encountered this bug. So the naval battles in Rome: Total War are underwhelming. However, the terrestrial battles most certainly are not.
Of course, the turn-based campaign is only half the story in Rome: Total War, as the most anticipated new feature in the game is the 3D real-time battle engine. The transition from the 2D sprites found in earlier Total War games to Rome's 3D units has an almost revolutionary effect on the battles, as the action comes to life like never before. It's simply amazing to watch battles unfold and to see thousands of soldiers trying to kill each other. Though there a few awkward moments--such as seeing your men scramble around a single soldier they're trying to kill--the carnage is generally well animated and occasionally over the top. You'll see elephants hurl soldiers 30 or 40 feet in the air at times, or see guys fly 20 or more feet after being hit by a cavalry charge. Yet there are countless moments when you can simply zoom in and watch as individual soldiers try to slash and spear each other to death in moments that are reminiscent of the huge battles in recent Hollywood movies.
Infantrymen brace for a cavalry charge. You'll want to use appropriate tactics in each situation.
The 3D engine also has an almost transformative effect on the way you fight battles, as it's a lot easier to comprehend the flow of the fight. It's also easier to differentiate between good and bad tactics, even if you're a novice. If you see the Greek spearmen lower their long spears in formation, you'll intuitively recognize that a frontal cavalry charge against that would be ill advised. But if you can keep the spearmen distracted while you send your cavalry around to their flanks or rear, you can watch your horsemen slice through the Greek lines like a hot knife through butter. You'll also notice that your troops gain experience over time, so it's worth trying to preserve them. After a battle, you can send your units to a city where they can retrain. Doing so will not only restore them to full strength (though a veteran unit may lose experience if it absorbs a lot of new recruits), but it will also upgrade their weapons and armor, making them even more lethal in battle, assuming you've built the improvements necessary to do so at that city.
You'll need a perfect storm of events in order to witness the largest battles possible, so most battles skew toward the smaller scale, with only a couple of thousand troops on the battlefield. These smaller battles still look amazing, and they are easier to manage, as you have fewer troops to worry about. You can pause the action and issue orders at any time, which is extremely helpful, though you don't have that option during a multiplayer game. At the highest detail settings, some of the largest battles and sieges can cause the action to stutter, but even at the lower detail settings the game still looks spectacular. The camera controls take a bit of getting used to at first, but you'll eventually get the hang of it. About the only flaw that we can find in the graphics is that it occasionally feels like you're watching clones on the battlefield, as all the soldiers in a unit look exactly alike. It would have been nice to have seen a little variation in the troops, but most of the time the action onscreen is so hectic you won't notice anyway.
The sound and music during battle also deserve some recognition, since they complement the visuals on the screen very well. When you issue a march order, you hear the stomping of hundreds of boots on the ground and the music changes to a fitting march theme. When battle erupts, the audio stands out, with the clang of steel on shields, the whoosh of spears and arrows in the air, and the cry of thundering elephants. Above it all, the music constantly shifts gears to fit the scene, much like the score to a motion picture. The driving tempo of the music helps sweep you up into the action.
Elephants are some of your most powerful units in the game, but they're expensive and may bolt out of control.
In addition to the campaign game, Rome comes with some historical battles and a skirmish mode that you can play if you want to get straight into the action. Then there's the game's multiplayer suite, which is limited to battles. There are essentially two multiplayer modes: a fast-paced skirmish game and a slower, more tension-filled siege game. The straight skirmish mode tends to run a bit quickly, due to the fact that all the contestants start in the open and it doesn't take long before a faction is wiped out. A good cavalry charge at the beginning can usually settle the battle by crippling one side. Meanwhile, siege battles can be great fun, as they're almost chesslike in that the attackers must probe for a weakness in the city's defenses while the defenders react to them. Rome's multiplayer browser makes it fairly easy to find a server, though the overall interface could have used a bit more work. In particular, there ought to be a time limit when deploying forces, as it can be annoying having to wait while a micromanager tweaks the starting position of every single unit.
But issues like these are easy to overlook when you consider the big picture. Ultimately, this is a deeply satisfying strategy game that can appeal to game players of all types. If you're looking for a complex, addictive, conquer-the-world campaign, you can look forward to the imperial campaign, which is good for countless hours of gameplay all on its own. Meanwhile, if what you want are realistic, cinematic-style battles, you can dive into the historical battles or the skirmish or multiplayer modes, or have the computer manage all the details in the campaign and just join the battles. And if you're looking for both, then you'll probably find Rome: Total War to be perfectly sublime blend of the two.