Released in 2004, Rome: Total War was the real breakout hit for the series – well over a decade later it is still the best. Walk into any university lecture on the Roman Republic, say “Total War Rome: II is better than the original” and a fight may break out. With an extensive remaster announced for the 29th of April, it’s time for me to make my case for its place as the greatest entry to the series, even without the remaster.
The 4K graphics and complete remodelling of units look absolutely incredible but it’s the core gameplay that makes it so exceptional. Specifically, the main campaign will be the focus here, though the Barbarian Invasion expansion is similarly excellent.
I’ll declare my potential biases right away, Rome was my first strategy game and the entry that I have the most hours in by far. However, I have probably an average of 50 hours in all of the mainline 3D Total War games except Three Kingdoms (I’ll get there). With that in mind, I feel fairly qualified to make some points as to why Rome is the best. My love for the whole series means this article will be all about praising my favourite, not putting your favourite game down (mostly).
A Worthy Foe
Any strategy game fan will tell you that late-game blobbing is a huge issue. Players often finish campaigns early once they reach the point at which no AI stands a chance of beating them. Else they simply have to grind their way through easy fights. What makes things complicated is that the obvious fix runs counter to the idea of balance. Balancing the various factions on the campaign map generally means that the same AI won’t pull miles ahead with a single faction the same way a human player might. Games like Europa Universalis 4 avoid this through cheats given to nations chosen either randomly or based on history. Still, cheats feel a little cheap.
The solution in Rome: Total War is the best I’ve ever seen, in this franchise or any strategy game. Rome itself is divided into four factions: the SPQR, the Julii, Brutii and Scipii. This means that all three Roman factions have secure flanks due to three hardcoded allies and can collectively conquer in all directions at once. This makes sense from a historical perspective. Many historians see the competition for glory between Rome’s leading families as key to its unprecedented conquests. It also means that every other faction has a challenging late-game enemy.
Factions near Rome can 1v1 a single family for a while. But if you last long enough you will probably find the other two houses and eventually the SPQR (representing the city of Rome itself) drawn against you. Further away, in the east, many factions vie for power. Whoever comes out on top will have three powerful Roman factions and a well-defended city of Rome awaiting them. There is nothing more disappointing than expecting a Roman behemoth in Total War: Rome II and discovering they were wiped out by the Etruscans before you even crossed the English Channel. Sure, the player can cheese it by rushing Italy right away but at least this never happens due to a random AI.
The Roman Civil War
So do the Romans simply have it easy? Yes and no. The Roman faction’s early game is relatively straightforward with greater structure than most factions. All three playable Roman factions are given senate missions which makes them perfect for a first campaign. It’s only once the senate turns against you that things get really exciting. Y’know those two huge allies that have been conquering side by side with you? Well, they’re both at war with you now.
Prepare to cross the Rubicon, it’s time for the Roman civil war. For my money, the inevitable fight for control of Rome is the best experience in the Total War series. Firstly, it evolves naturally. The game’s systems show that, like Caesar, you are far more popular with the people than the senate and your populist ways are putting you at odds with your one-time allies.
Your popularity with each group is clearly explained at all times and so it never feels unfair or simply tacked on to mix things up. You see the size of your rivals grow over time rather than simply popping up at a set size. It also doesn’t pause everything else. Again like Caesar, your leader may indeed end up wasting time off in Egypt whilst war rages at home. The Pharoah won’t simply wait for Rome to sort itself out.
Of all the historical titles, the factions of Rome are by far the most clearly differentiated. Two main factors cause this. Firstly, there aren’t too many of them. Each faction genuinely plays in its own unique way. The factions can be grouped together (Eastern, Greek, Roman, Barbarian); however, they’re never quite the same style within these groups. Between different groups, the differences are vast because the game has focused on a few key factions. Groups that didn’t make the cut are left as rebel factions. This lets the most interesting factions shine every game and get their due focus.
Secondly, the game isn’t doggedly historically accurate. I have my own theory as to why the 2010s were dominated by a fad of people deciding realism and historical accuracy made for the most fun games, but it’s safe to say Rome wasn’t too bothered in 2004. The Egyptian elites should really be fairly similar to the Greeks but Rome: Total War says “no way” to that and dresses them up like they’re from the Middle Kingdom.
Factions have Personality
The commitment to stereotype carries over to unit choices. Still, Rome‘s inaccuracy doesn’t quite match Medieval: Total War II‘s comedic accents which are still the funniest part of the whole series. The Britons use scythed chariots and so are entirely unlike even to the Gauls in practice. The cavalry based factions aren’t just cavalry focused here, they borderline cannot do anything else.
This forces the player to really think about entirely different strategies for new campaigns. The upcoming remaster boasts 16 new factions. But let’s be honest – as excited as I am about the new game these factions aren’t new at all. All 16 were already in the base game, they were just a bit awkward to unlock. It’s this variety that inches Rome past the otherwise very similar Medieval: II.
Trying to overcome the Romans on the highest difficulty is a true challenge because their legions will simply chew up anything you send at them in a fair fight. If you trust the ancient accounts, that’s pretty well how it was.
Everybody knows the late Roman republic was dominated by some all-time powerful personalities. It is my academic opinion that this is overstated in the historical accounts by wealthy writers who wanted to play down the structural issues at the heart of the economic structure that maintained their personal power. However, I’m aware this wouldn’t make for such a fun game. Instead, the game naturally creates some tremendous characters Plutarch would have a field day with.
Rather than letting you mould all the stats yourself, Rome semi-randomly progresses the personality, retainers and skills of your leaders. How you use your commander greatly affects their ability; you cannot just spec into a skill the commander hasn’t actually used. If you dip your toes into the role-playing aspect a little, you will be sure to have a favourite commander. They may also end up with an idiot brother-in-law that you yell at like they’re in the room.
Being an older game, modern PCs run the game like a dream. Even the iPad runs it nowadays. It’s not like the old days when my dad’s laptop gave all my troops pointy feet. The lower faction count means the turns go faster than any of the competition. Similarly, fights don’t drag out too long, morale is a huge factor here and hitting fast and hard can break enemies quickly. This means that, in Rome, tactics based on one well-timed manoeuvre are at the best they’ve ever been in the Total War series.
This goes the other way of course. A total rout of your troops is never too far away. Roman morale is high enough that you should be OK. For most other factions, you really have to babysit weaker units. When cavalry factions need someone to push their siege works, this becomes a big part of their strategy. The fast pace keeps the game fresh and means you are a little less tempted to auto-resolve every encounter to save time. It also makes upsets a little more common to keep things interesting.
This debate is pretty well-rehearsed in the Total War community. There are two ways that these games treat their armies. Depending on who you ask, one of them is completely wrong and stupid. I won’t pretend to bring any great nuance here. The system from Total War: Rome II onwards until Three Kingdoms is completely wrong and stupid. This system focuses on building an identity for your armies by forcing them to largely stick together. Meanwhile, the garrisons are left set to defaults based on buildings. In Rome and similar entries, you need to make risk-reward decisions. How many troops should you leave as a garrison? How many can march onwards as you greedily conquer further out?
When someone attacks your land whilst all your armies are away the best kind of battles are fought. Maybe you left a light garrison in Athens, a few veteran units are recovering in the next town over, some green cavalry recruits are heading to the front from Italy. All of a sudden an attack on Greece means you have to pull together a brand new army. Sure you’ve not built this army’s glory all game, but that’s what makes it fun.
These battles really feel like the last stand. The common captain in charge might even be honoured with adoption into your noble family. He’s sure to become a favourite because you remember the time he and a mish-mash of reserves saved Greece.
Is Rome: Total War the best game in the series to you?
Comment if you agree or disagree. I know Warhammer II, Medieval II and Three Kingdoms have pretty committed fans. I’m interested to hear why people find those better than Rome. I know some people even think Rome II is better…