Rome: Total War is the third Total War game from England's Creative Assembly, and, to make a long story short, it's the best one yet. It was naturally expected to build on its illustrious predecessors, which featured epic-scale real-time battles and impressive attention to historical realism and detail. Shogun: Total War was a promising start for the series, while Medieval: Total War built on that promise to create an even more engrossing strategy game. With Rome: Total War, Creative Assembly takes the next step, and it's as much a revolutionary step as it is an evolutionary one, thanks to a beautiful new 3D graphics engine that makes the series' tactical battles--featuring thousands of soldiers--better than ever. The results are nothing short of spectacular, helping make Rome: Total War the very definition of an epic strategy game.
Where do you want to go today? The ancient world beckons, if you're brave enough to take it on.
As in the earlier Total War games, there are essentially two distinctly different types of gameplay in Rome. There's the overarching turn-based campaign in which you conquer cities and provinces, make improvements, and move armies around the map as you expand your empire, and then there are the real-time battles in which you use tactics and maneuvers to crush your enemy in combat. After the helpful and informative tutorial campaign, you can tackle the main imperial campaign. You play as one of three powerful Roman families--the Julii, the Bruti, or the Scipii--attempting to increase the size and glory of Rome and shore up your faction's power and influence. As all three factions are Roman, there's literally no difference between them in terms of units and building types, though they do have different responsibilities. The Julii must deal with the Gauls and Germania to the north in a difficult, landlocked campaign. The Bruti are required to deal with the remnants of the Greek city-states and expand the empire to the southeast. And the Scipii are tasked with subduing Carthage, Rome's great nemesis to the southwest.
At least, that's the principle goal of each faction. But there's a fourth, unplayable Roman faction, one that can influence your course during the campaign: the Roman senate. The senate will order you on missions, from blockading a hostile port or conquering a city (and perhaps exterminating the populace, depending on the level of enmity between Rome and the faction in question) to forging a trade deal or an alliance with a foreign faction. It's up to you whether you actually obey the order, as sometimes the senate will try to stretch you thin on purpose. If you carry the orders out successfully, you stand to gain a monetary reward, a useful new military unit, or influence in the senate. Failing to carry out missions earns the displeasure of the senate and affects your standing with that body. By and large, though, the senate missions help to focus the otherwise huge scope of the campaign--instead of being faced with the monolithic task of trying to conquer Europe, you can instead look forward to accomplishing a long series of short-term goals.
It's helpful to perform senate missions because they can affect an improved feature in Rome: Total War--families. Each of the three Roman factions is essentially one huge family, and your generals and governors are related to one another by birth, marriage, or adoption. These are the leaders of your faction, and they all have traits--strengths and weaknesses--that define their abilities. A strong general may have an excellent command rating, but his disdain for bureaucracy would make him a poor governor. Meanwhile, an otherwise strong governor may have a dislike of farming, which would affect the agricultural output in the province he's in. But if your family members are selected to hold important senate posts, they'll gain influence and abilities once out of office. This introduces a limited role-playing component in the game, as you actually care about trying to further the careers of your family members so they can serve you better.
In addition to traits, family members--not to mention your spies, assassins, and diplomats--can all attract retinues. These are the hangers-on who surround important people, such as advisors, mentors, bodyguards, lackeys, sycophants, and more. Each of these can affect your characters' abilities. For example, a wrestler can improve a character's influence (by being able to literally twist arms), as well as provide added protection against an assassination attempt. You can actually collect and trade retinue members among your family, so you can transfer them to where they're needed the most.
You'll draw your faction's leaders from the family tree. Make sure not to kill off your heirs in battle.
Families are also critical because only family members can serve as generals. You can assemble armies without a general, but they'll be poorly led and will likely fare badly in battle. But with a general, the army's fortune can change. A general with a high command ability is a powerful force in battle, as a well-led smaller force can defeat a poorly led larger force most of the time. On the other hand, the fact that generals are drawn from the ruling family can be dangerous, because you need to make sure there are future generations of leaders and generals. A disastrous battle can wipe out whole branches of the family tree, cutting down promising young sons before they can sire heirs. This can have a crippling effect later on in the campaign, when you find yourself short of qualified generals and governors with a huge empire to manage. It makes for an excellent incentive to try and preserve your generals, rather than treat them as easily replaceable fodder.
Thankfully, when you're short of governors, your cities will be taken over by the "automanager," which is represented by an appointed official who runs the city in your name. You can give the automanager certain priorities, such as to follow a military or financial policy, and it will go about constructing the building and units required. (You can also turn on the automanage functionality in cities that do have governors, if you don't want to micromanage at all.) The computer is generally good at doing what you tell it to do, and this should appeal to players who don't want to spend a lot of time on the campaign map. But if you're a fan of grand strategy and want to control every detail, you'll want to make sure you have plenty of family members at your disposal.
You can choose to autogenerate battle results or fight the battles personally. In most cases, it's easier and simpler to autogenerate the smaller fights.
When you're not busy trying to crush your opponents, you can try to spy on, trade with, and subvert them. The diplomacy system has been completely overhauled since Medieval: Total War, and you now have a lot more options at your command. These include forming alliances, bullying your neighbors into becoming protectorates of Rome, and bargaining for trade rights. You can also dispatch spies and assassins to probe for weaknesses in enemy defenses, or to take out a key enemy general before a crucial battle. And in a nice twist, you can plant spies in your own cities, where they'll help keep unrest in check by acting as a secret police of sorts, rooting out the troublemakers.
The early to middle part of a campaign game can be quite tough, as you'll be hard-pressed on many fronts without a lot of resources at your disposal. In one particularly brutal game, our Julii faction found itself waging battles with Carthage, Spain, and the Gauls on three fronts. However, if you survive and defeat your enemies, you'll eventually have enough resources and momentum to deal with most other threats. The next big challenge occurs when civil war breaks out and you must march on Rome and defeat your rival Roman factions for control of the empire. This late-game development is particularly challenging, as all the core Roman cities have grown to massive size, and their close proximity to one another makes it easy for factions to throw advanced units at one another.