There aren't many games which fans demand remakes of. Unless of course you have a blonde, spiky hair style, grasp a buster sword, and really hate this dude with serious mother issues. Outside of the cries for a HD reimaging of Aeris' date with the pointy end of a sword, there aren't many calls for remakes that go answered: unless of course you're Creative Assembly.
Standing as the RTT studios' second fan favourite sequel, Total War: Rome II marks a return to the senate, Caesar, and the imperium. Legionnaires are back, as is merciless expansion, and all is toasted in the name of glorious Roman conquest.
Back in the good old days of the Total War series, there was one intrinsic truth that rang out across the varied generations: the enemy is scared of water. So reticent was the AI to take to a ship, you could build entire games around the notion of being Pop Eye the Sailor Man.
So if you were an island race, or simply owned one like an antique Richard Branson, you could be safe in the knowledge that nobody would bother your oceanic citadel for fear of being splashed. This edict was something I took into Rome II as an ultimate strategy. My legionnaires had their sea legs, but I'd be damned if anyone else other Davey Jones did; and it must be said that squid men weren't really a concern at this point.
All units can take to the water like residents of Amity Island in Jaws. So rather than waiting for the tiresome process of building a number of seafaring cogs, my men took to the waves like dogs chasing after a Carthaginian ball: next step, North Africa.
When I landed, declared war, and prepared to take the enemies' capital city, all was calm. I met little resistance, and laid siege successfully. I now owned Carthage. As pleased as Joaquin Phoenix, sans beard, I ended the turn. As is the habit of any Total War game, the movements of adversaries played out, and slowly but surely, my North African friends swam merrily up the Mediterranean, and took Rome and Neapolis. In a classic case of the age old "switcharoo" the Italians became rulers of North Africa, and the North Africans became purveyors of all things Latin. Turns out the AI has finally learnt to swim.
Creative Assembly's latest strategy adventure is a complete departure from previous instalments. Like Empire before it, the tried-and-tested Total War formula is overhauled, updating the UI, the management systems, and adding in a plethora of refinements and revisions to boot.
The upshot is a tighter, richer, and more complex game of politicking and warmongering. Each side of the RTT's coin, city building and military, is advanced that step further, making the whole experience feel a little more wholesome, and easier to manipulate.
One of the biggest mutations of the UI is that of regions. Rather than manually visiting each town or city, slaving over build lists, and recruiting units, now each settlement can be accessed in unison through the same menu. This means ordering men en-masse or constructing a new port involves less globetrotting, and also allows you to institute region-wide edicts, bestowing certain bonuses across a number of geographically similar locales.
The most interesting facets of Rome II come from these simple steps, taken to reduce any awkwardness, and ingratiate players into the feel of their empire. If anything, this latest trek into the empire plays more like Civilization, and marries the more threadbare aspects of Total War's campaign map, with its all-encompassing military skirmishes.
And the series' iconic battles are back, packed with as much gladiatorial brutally, and Roman nous as the developers can muster. There's a keener attention to detail than before, with better tactics, and special abilities available. Generals are no longer squishy, pointless liabilities, but inspire troops against innumerable forces of barbarians.
It may feel like "same old, same old" but the blood curdling match-ups between armies are descriptive journals for Creative Assembly's progress over the years. The graphics are impressive, the effects dazzling, and the outcome, win or lose, always satisfying.
Following on from Shogun II, generals also take center stage, with more RPG upgrades available, and a greater degree of creating professional armies than ever before. Traditions form stat boosts, whilst the leaders themselves become characters in a larger world, retiring to the senate, and advancing in the side-distractions of politics making their countless victories, or defeats, count for something within your own game's biography.
But for every step forward Creative Assembly have taken (and Rome II is nothing but a series of forward trots) the performance of this sequel manages to peg the software to the ground, and beat it to within an inch of its life. While my PC, admittedly growing more "modest" as we inch closer to the uniformed next-gen, could handle Shogun II on the highest settings, this latest instalment runs like toxic gas cascading over my motherboard. The game splutters, chugs, screeches, and crashes. And when the software does actually spark into life, you have to contend with the loading times.
Taking a turn within Rome II may be the developers idea of indeed passing a few years and simulating the whole thing in real time. As the engine crunches numbers and plays out the AI's moves, it's like watching a 1980s electronic chessboard struggle with a tricky manoeuvre whilst running low on Duracell. Great works of fiction could be written in the time it takes to play out a "quick turn".
All of this grinds the progress of Rome II to a complete and utter halt. Quite literally. For every step forward, and there are many, the performance of the game almost dares you to try and enjoy them peacefully. This is the most complete, full, and complex Total War entry thus far, and yet one that is almost impossible to enjoy at present.
So the conclusion is divided. For the updates, refinements, and advancements, Rome II is an excellent addition to the series canon - but for the general poor state of the software, it's one hard to recommend at this point. Patches will come thick and fast (the first one is out today), but as far as launches go, this is a spectacularly bad start by the developers. End turn a few times, and hopefully Creative Assembly can turn it around before long.
Adam Tingle / Adam Tingle is a columnist and general man-about-town for MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and FPSGuru.com. He enjoys toilet humor, EverQuest-themed nostalgia, and pointing out he's British: bother him at @adamtingle