Saturday, 5 October 2013

'Total War: Rome II': The Same Old Problems

I have been playing the Total War series of computer games, produced by The Creative Assembly, and latterly sold by Sega, since 1999.  I have realised that I am not at all good at them and I struggle to win even on the Easy level.  No-one has told me how to win on any higher levels and despite playing these games for many hours, I have never improved.  In fact, I am now worse at the original 'Medieval Total War' than I was ten years ago.  However, I love to engage with the possibility of changing history.  I am utterly useless at shooting games, whether first person or third person, but I have enjoyed computer gaming for the last thirty years.  The Total War games are certainly immersive.  I love the attention to historical detail, even the scenery that you fight over.  Naturally, I had pre-ordered 'Total War: Rome II', despite the fact that these days you really just rent it from Steam and if your internet connection slows or decides to go down you cannot play a game you actually have the disks for (hence sometimes being compelled to go back to 'Medieval Total War' which was free-standing).

Lots of people will tell you that games sales now exceed movie watching.  This is why even quality newspapers now cover the industry.  In particular 'The Guardian' got very involved in discussing 'Total War: Rome II', though the debate was less than that around 'Grand Theft Auto V', which always attracts attention in part for the twisted morality of the game.  The Total War games, are, as this coverage shows, seen as standing above your average purchase.  In part, I guess because they are bought by reasonably well-educated, forty-something men like me and to some degree we are stronger opinion shapers than men twenty years younger than us with perhaps a lower income.

Though I love the game series, I have always had gripes about them.  I was not alone with 'Rome Total War'.  It functioned well enough and had innovations of its predecessors, but historical accuracy was sacrificed for playability.  There were Egyptian troops centuries out of their time and the Gauls had their territory cut back to provide more room for Roman factions.  The Total War games always have a lot of amateur built content and many of these variants, usually free to download, tend to have a greater impact on the next phase of the series than many thousands of comments by gamers.  Thus, 'Total War: Rome II' has a far larger map stretching outside the Mediterranean area right to modern day Pakistan allowing the building of empires to rival those of Alexander the Great.  Territories have been made more complex and cities have more points to hold so making an attack or the defence more challenging. 

Graphics are very good though there has been some simplification on the interfaces to speed things up, the images look appropriate for the era portrayed (the game starts in the early 3rd century BCE).  There were issues, and it must embarrass Sega that they have had to release three patches in the first month.  In part this stemmed from over-ambition as so many factions feature that running through all of them at the end of each term really slowed down the game.  The patches seem to have got the game back on track and it loads up and progresses faster than 'Total War: Shogun 2' despite that having a smaller geographical spread and fewer factions.

If the game is at least half-decent, why am I here writing about it rather than playing it?  Well, the simple answer is that there are core flaws in the Total War game that utterly exasperate me.  Foolishly, game after game, I think they will address these.  They never do and so pretty soon I ended up downloading an amateur-produced variant from Total War Center:  You can find numerous small-scale modifications, but I look out for ones that redraft the game to the way it should be.  I do not know whether it is worthwhile reprising my gripes or recognise that The Creative Assembly never pays attention and keeps including the same flaws in game after game.

My experiences of playing against real people online have always been unpleasant.  I enjoy playing against the computer.  However, in the Total War games, this is always an imbalanced experience.  It is one aspect that almost every Total War Center variant resolves.  Perhaps I like historical accuracy too much.  I cannot accept anyone pushing a trebuchet uphill in a storm to precisely hit my troops sheltered by the trees with rocks shot after shot.  In Rome II, you now even get conflicting advice.  It tells you holding a hilltop is a good position, but then points out you can be shifted from it by missile fire from below.  Perhaps with a 19th or 20th century mortar, but have you ever tried firing slingshot uphill and even arrows lose effectiveness.  Yet, I find ranks of my troops being swept away by slung stones from far below.

I cannot accept a ship even from the 20th century let alone the 14th or 1st centuries, being able to locate another ship on the other side of the Mediterranean precisely and move to sink it with exactly the correct number of ships.  The thing that angers me most is that the rules for me as the human do not apply to the computer.  Of course, it never makes mistake.  While my troops set off around the long way because I have not spotted a single spy 'blocking' my army's route, the computer's troops move exactly correctly and rapidly.

Yet, how come if I have a small, poor territory I can only raise a few weak troops whereas my computer opponent with the same land and lack of cash can conjure up huge, well equipped armies?  If you push back an opponent and seize his resources, surely he should become poorer, but no, these rules do not apply.  It is far harder and requires far more troops for you to defeat an opponent than it does for them to do the same to you.  I do not expect an advantage, I just expect equal treatment.  You will find that the morale and skill of an opponent especially in the early stages is far higher than anything you might achieve through experience or research.  One commentator to 'The Guardian' noted that even after many game years, his Spartan force simply fled when opponents appeared, totally anachronistic to what we know about the Spartans when faced even with overwhelming odds.

As in previous games, you find that rebels in one of your territories suddenly appear with a large army with troops that go way beyond the level that can be recruited at that time or in that region and with experience far higher than your most experienced armies, making it almost impossible to defeat them.  This has been a problem across the Total War games, but seems to have returned to the situation of the original 'Medieval Total War'.  Rebellions are common as you can do little to please the population.  Squalor from enlarged settlements is the main cause of dissent, so you have a choice of not to develop the cities or face unrest.  There are a few cultural buildings to alleviate the unhappiness, but confined to the capital of a province meaning unhappiness can develop elsewhere.  You can run your taxes at the lowest level possible (in this game unlike previous ones, you cannot exempt territories from tax) and people are still unhappy; neo-liberal attitudes persist here as in many city-building/strategy games.

One improvement is that your agents such as spies and dignitaries are not slaughtered almost immediately as they are recruited.  In preceding Total War games this happened constantly making it that there was really no point in paying for such people as there would be a high-level assassin waiting to eliminate them the moment they stepped outside the town.  Thus, you could never get any increase in skill.  This was at its worst in 'Medieval II Total War' in which recruiting merchants was an utter waste of time, but still persisted as recently as 'Total War: Shogun 2' made worse because newly-recruited agents appear outside rather than within the city, making them prone to attack before they even could move.

A problem which does endure in Rome II as with all its predecessors is the fact that whilst your opponents have a 'zone of control' for each army, which you cannot march through without triggering an attack, you do not have this in return.  Thus, opponents can simply walk past you even if you are in a narrow valley.  This is one flaw which if corrected would make a lot of play against the computer far less imbalanced.  One advantage of Rome II, is that a city can raise a decent garrison force, including of ships if it is a port.  Thus, if your opponent slips passed the army guarding the road to the city, they cannot simply just walk in and claim it for themselves.

Co-ordination between different armies is far harder for the human player than the computer.  You find it difficult to move two armies close enough so that when the battle comes they can support each other, the computer never has such a challenge.  The reason why I abandoned playing tonight is that I faced a combined attack from an army on land and another invading from the sea at night in a thunderstorm.  Such a combined attack would be challenging even today with modern technology, satellites, etc., in 260 BCE it would be impossible to co-ordinate let alone in a way that allows the armies to sweep right into a city.

The invisible army problem is far worse in 'Rome II' than any of the preceding games in the series.  From 'Rome Total War' onwards it was quite common when moving around the strategic map to suddenly find an army appearing right by one of your settlements or you running into in a valley without seeing it until the last moment.  I can accept you can be surprised and ambushed, but I cannot accept your spies and armies would not notice if a few thousand men was marching towards them, especially in their own lands where they would have agents and a largely loyal population to inform you.  This problem became far worse in 'Shogun 2'.  You could march back and forth across a forest but it was able to conceal many hundreds of men.  Of course your computer opponent always knows precisely where your army is an marches directly to attack you now matter where you might try to hide.

I can accept that in forest or even particular grasslands, that some units can conceal themselves, particularly if they have special skills.  However, in 'Rome II' you witness entire armies that you have begun firing at suddenly disappear, even on wide open plains or in deserts.  In reality you would hear their marching and their clanking weapons and armour, let alone the amount of dust an army typically throws up, even if you could not see the troops themselves.  Again, of course, they can see you as clearly as you would expect in such terrain.  However, I have had tens of units suddenly appear and disappear within a few metres of my troops.  Once they disappear your troops stop firing at them and it is impossible to gauge how many troops there are or who you are fighting.  This is exacerbated by the fact that fleeing troops no longer appear on the radar map.  The invisible forces make battles incredibly difficult even if you use scouts on horseback to try to find them.  Why this ability has been introduced, I do not know.  Even more than the imbalance in morale and the laser-guided artillery, the invisible army factor makes it very hard to fight any battles and stand a chance of winning.

Attacking cities is much harder.  Since you have been able to do city assaults in these games, they have often been fixed towers which fire out missiles.  These can be challenging to take and can wreak a lot of damage on your attackers.  In 'Rome II' such towers are limited to provincial capitals but their speed of fire has been ramped up greatly and you will lose unit after unit trying even to get close to the towers to knock them out of action.  With fewer artillery weapons available than in the medieval games and needing you to research to pretty high levels, this makes attacks on cities far harder.  Defending the provincial capitals is easier, but defending the bulk of towns for which you cannot build walls is very difficult.  In previous games you could build up the garrisons of towns and naturally would do this in contested areas.  In 'Rome II' you can build only a limited number of armies and as you generally need three to be invading others' territory you cannot leave too many behind.  As your empire grows they move too slowly to be able to march to cover towns.  Each town has a garrison generated by its size and the specific buildings it has, but these are generally poor quality troops and certainly are no match for any rebel army that appears with its high level forces; indeed some slave revolt armies are better equipped. 

I wish that The Creative Assembly would look at the basics of their games.  With greater balance between the human and the computer players their games would be far better.  Instead, they keep wheeling out the same flawed assumptions that were prevalent as far back as 'Medieval Total War' and have not been addressed in all the rush for better graphics and more downloadable content to sell.

P.P. 24/05/2015
Talking of downloadable content I was interested to play 'The Wrath Of Sparta' set in the 5th century BCE allowing you to play one of four Greek factions.  It seemed to be a challenge because each of them has fragmented territories spread across modern day Greece, its islands and what is now western Turkey.  However, it is a useless expansion.  As has happened in the past with 'Total War' games, the developers have created invincible forces.  In the past they did this with the Mongols and the Byzantine Cataphracts in 'Medieval II Total War'.  Now it is the Spartan hoplites.  You can have a thousand men attacking a single unit, throwing hundreds of javelins and thrusting at them on all sides (Greek troops were always vulnerable on their right hand side where they held the spear) and yet you will not inflict a single casualty on them.  With the fragmented territory you will simply run back and forth trying to hold individual cities.  The requirement of 'Rome II' for generals in order to have armies and the pathetic garrison armies means a small naval fleet can capture any old town it fancies.

As usual, play is imbalanced against the human player.  Fleets converge perfectly over hundreds of miles magically.  I played as Athens which is supposed to have the strongest navies, but with my enemies knowing precisely where my ships were and co-ordinating to trap and destroy them, they were eliminated in the first few turns of the game.  This download game has no skill element at all.  It is very easy even on the Easy setting to have lost within a few turns of beginning.  There is however an additional bitter twist.  You cannot go against your opponents' capitals, despite the fact that they lie close to your starting point.  You receive constant warnings against doing this and severe penalties if you take one.  Thus, this game is simply a process in humiliation.  You have one hand tied behind your back as you dodge around the capital cities and an array of fleets and armies turn up to crush you wherever they fancy no matter how skilled your defence.  That is even leaving out the usual unrest due to food shortage and squalor.  I do not really understand the motive of making such a hard game.  They would get the money if it was dead easy and in fact are liable to damage future sales through piling up the imbalance game play and the anti-historical approach.  If Sparta had been that strong in reality, we would not have Greece but Sparta.

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