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Review: Total War: ROME II – Empire Divided (Steam)

Introduction

After so much Warhammer lately, Creative Assembly agreed for us to take a well deserved detour through history once again. A new DLC pack for a game that was released nearly five years ago! Who would have thought about that? It was still a most pleasant surprise since Total War: ROME II – Empire Divided shall elaborate a historic period that’s rarely featured in games or movies. An Imperial Crisis that almost shattered the Roman Empire, by two hundred years earlier than its inevitable fall in the West from 476 AD. Expect lots of historical dates and personalities in this review since I feel like a fish within an ocean, when talking about history. One of my favorite topics and I owe Creative Assembly quite a lot, for their own contribution in making it more fascinating and digestible for me, in my younger years of studying. Video games taught me so much, that it’s hard to imagine a reality in which I’d replace them altogether  with books. It might be a decent alternative but it would be devastating at the same time.

I have very fond memories with 2004’s Rome: Total War and its expansion packs/modifications. Those were simpler times indeed, yet I must have reached several thousand hours in that excellent strategy game during a period in which I wouldn’t even joke of owning a Steam account. When I first attempted to run Total War: ROME II in 2014, it played more like a slideshow to me and it wasn’t just the game’s fault. True, at launch it was a technical mess and it took nearly one year for the developer to get their project on its proverbial feet, yet I didn’t have the necessary hardware either. ROME II was a sight to behold but also very pretentious when it came to CPUs or GPUs. So I stuck to Rome: TW and its best total overhaul modification, Europa Barbarorum for a few more years. Why am I telling you this? It’s important to understand and appreciate every humble step along the way, in both playing and discovering the grand strategy hybrid that the Total War series became over the course of 18 years since Shogun: Total War has been launched.

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Story 

Total War: ROME II – Empire Divided is going to focus on the historical Crisis of the Third Century. Just like in the previous titles from the Total War series, the starting positions and factions are all very accurate, but it is by player choice and skill that the outcome of the campaign(s) shall be decided upon. All simulated factions start in 270 AD and the end turn format is revolving around 12 turns per year with no visible limitation. The decision to simulate each month instead of the 3-months-season from the base game of ROME II, can be explained when  examining the very phenomenon that the Crisis of the Third Century was in history. The still mighty Roman Empire, not yet divided into a Western or Eastern part, had still split in four sections that were just as rapidly reunited by one of the most fascinating (and often overlooked) personalities to rule over the Empire.

It is truly a shame that Emperor Aurelian had managed to save his throne but ultimately lost his life before the 5th year of his reign. I like comparing him as a Western Roman counterpart to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I which was also more than just interested to sit idly by while his empire crumbles before descending into chaos. Both Aurelian and Justinian were capable commanders and ambitious enough to dream about a full restoration of the Roman Empire. The latter never succeeded, sadly. Yet when considering the period since Octavian destroyed the Republic to Rome’s inevitable fall, there were more than 100 Roman Emperors and pretenders/usurpers, you can count the leaders worthy of their imperial title on the fingers of a single hand. Aurelian is among them.

I wanted to start with Aurelian since out of the 4 Roman factions present in Total War: ROME II – Empire Divided, playing as the true Emperor whose legit claim had to be pressed by military action, you’re going to have the biggest challenge with Aurelian’s faction. Apart from the Roman Pretenders (unplayable, yet simulating the treasonous Roman Senate who chose Quintillus as Emperor), both the Gallic Roman Empire and the Palmyrene Empire are selectable by the players and quite enjoyable campaigns in their own right. But those two are only seeking full independence from Rome and thus, should be treated as traitors as well, if you’re playing as Aurelian’s Empire. A similarity can still be drawn between Illyricum (starting capital province for Aurelian and his most likely birth place), Palmyra and Gallia.

All three Roman “emperors” within these provinces, were chosen to rule by the legions under their command. Since by the late antiquity, the Roman Senate became more of a joke than anything consequential, the true kingmakers and holders of the ultimate legitimacy were decided and selected from a military background more often than not. Also murdered by the military just as frequently. Sometimes by their own bodyguards from the Praetorian Guard. A vicious cycle of power which degenerates into tyranny, yet I’m still a fan of what the Roman Empire represented. You mustn’t judge ideals, laws and cultural impact just from the perspective of the few rotten individuals which held power at its highest levels.

Lucius Aurelianus was an aging general of modest origins but with great oratorical skills. He was assassinated regardless of his popularity or the fact that he saved the Roman Empire from an early collapse. Gaius Tetricus I came from  the minor nobility and had a bureaucratic background. He despised his “crowning” as emperor of Gallic Rome by a few treasonous legions and realized that he has no choice but to accept his new role. He may have wished for the Roman Republic’s revival, yet he surrendered to Aurelian after a crushing defeat and was eventually spared from execution, surprisingly resuming his political life afterwards. Certainly not many men would have managed such a feat in that day and age. Queen Septimia Zenobia of the Palmyrene Kingdom (and short-lived empire) was a dowager empress which ruled as regent in her son’s name.

While certainly just as ambitious as Aurelian and Tetricus, she lacked the military skill and was defeated by the former rather swiftly. Her fate remains unknown but she’s still regarded as a national hero in Syria to this day. The reason why I wanted to elaborate on the lives of the most important faction leaders in Total War: ROME II – Empire Divided, is because the DLC pack introduces an overhauled political system when compared to the base game and also quest chains for such notable leaders. RPG elements which mirror the gameplay mechanics used in Total War: WARHAMMER and its sequels. I really is a better alternative to simply setting factional objectives that are oblivious of the executive power. The Crisis of the Third Century was marked by the leaders which solved this seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

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Graphics

Again, the debate about the graphics engine’s name yields multiple results. It really matters less than the fact that it was built by Creative Assembly from the ground up and they have a long tradition of optimizing and improving each new iteration of it. Yes, I am fully aware of the disastrous launch of Total War: ROME II from 2013. Back then, I didn’t have a PC capable of running it even on its lowest details and 30 frames per second, so I didn’t really care. As far as 2018 and Empire Divided are concerned, you have no reason to regard the current state of ROME II as being anywhere close to its past technical difficulties. Same as with TES V: Skyrim, it took more patches than I can count plus support from the modding community. But now the end result is a game that can be truly enjoyed by a large segment of players. And PC hardware itself has evolved and became more affordable in most cases.

Audio

New voice acting is the first thing that comes to mind when discussing Empire Divided’s audio assets. I really couldn’t tell if the soundtrack has been expanded and most likely, the other sound effects have been around since the base game. Not that I can complain though. I liked what I was listening and strategy games in general, are requiring more attention from what you’re seeing than hearing. Everything was pleasant enough and it never interfered with the battles or the tactics they rely upon.

Gameplay

As you can imagine, Total War: ROME II – Empire Divided has many more factions than just the ones belonging to the Latin culture group. I did fiddle with nearly all cultures and types of warfare used in their case. Germanic/Celtic tribes, Persian successors or Nomadic horse archers, the players can certainly try to re-enact or forge their own vision of the Imperial Crisis that has shook the Roman world. I had a lot of fun playing with the Sassanid Empire and their Shahanshah (“King of Kings” in Persian), Hormizd I. Reclaiming lost provinces and resurrecting the Persian Empire has never been easier, with so many petty Roman pretenders around. It almost rivals the absurdity of the “War of the Five Kings”, if only it had a historical correspondent. And if elephants stomping infantry don’t strike your fancy, you can try an entirely different strategy by playing with the Gothic Confederacy under King (“Reiks”) Cannabaudes. Employing a more guerrilla-like tactical approach to the weakened Roman legions that are more busy with in-fighting than preventing barbaric incursions and raids. Or you may like the ultimate type of micromanagement in ROME II, and go for a full stack of horse archers and lancers provided by the Alani tribes which are ready to depart Scythia in search of regions with more fertile plains and settlements to sack or raze to the ground. As always, you are free to experiment with these factions and their unit rosters while reaching their historical achievements or by going far beyond that.

No reason to stick to conventions when playing grand strategy. I’ve always enjoyed historical “what ifs” and alternative scenarios to the outcomes of various wars and crucial events that have shaped humanity and continue to do so. Now it’s time to write about the new features introduced by this DLC pack. Apart from a better representation of the political intrigues and systems used by the various cultures, you can now reform the government type and depending on the faction of choice, you can opt for Tribal Confederacy, League, Republic, Kingdom or Empire. Each reform has its own prerequisites which don’t limit themselves to a monetary cost. Expect unrest and potential civil wars from the political parties that may not like changes (or you) at all, once their rights and powers have been curbed exponentially. If political uncertainty isn’t enough of a challenge for you, know that the 3rd Century AD (“Anno Domini”) was also marked by social and religious changes within the shifting terrain of cultural melting pots, as most Roman settlements were becoming increasingly tolerant of the various cults.

Mithraism, Manichaeism and Christianity could no longer be ignored or outright banned and so the persecution of the cultists stopped gradually. In the Latin world of this particular century, the pagan Roman Pantheon (set of gods) was already losing influence in favor of the Imperial Cult of worshiping the Roman Emperors themselves. Aurelian was a firm believer of Sol Invictus (the unconquered Sun) and the  golden mask he’s being portrayed with in most Empire Divided screenshots and artwork, is historically accurate. So no, he’s not Balthasar Gelt’s long lost brother! Catering to cults and even offering them a sizable portion of a city’s building slots may provide some nice in-game bonuses but also keep an eye on the growing religious unrest. Why can’t change ever be embraced by peaceful means? I guess that’s human nature at its “finest”.

No reform can be implemented unless some skulls  are getting cracked. Banditry is the third new element in Total War: ROME II – Empire Divided. Barbarians aren’t the only ones looking for an easy target to loot. Bandits, rural brigands and urban thieves are all taking advantage of the growing instability. As the guiding hand of your faction of choice, you must eradicate as many levels of banditry as you can, lest you shall quickly have depleted coffers. And an army that’s not getting payed, is worse than a starving one. Mercenaries may depart first, but don’t expect your own recruits to stick for very long after their wages have stopped being delivered. No one’s dying with empty stomachs and pockets, no matter how many crowns you wear.

 

Verdict

If I could summarize Empire Divided in just two words I’d call it a “worthy challenge”. It may not get anywhere near the digital punishment dished out by the Divide et Impera overhaul modification for ROME II, but honestly, you want to struggle even with an early battle against rebels? Total War: ROME II – Empire Divided has pretty much came out of nowhere since it wasn’t expected or announced until close to its release. But it delivered upon its promises and it offers a new slice of history that really deserved attention and a proper video game portrayal. It has received that and more! If you are a fan of history and strategy games, you don’t need any further “encouragement” from me. Pick up the DLC and enjoy the difficulty of restoring or destroying the Roman Empire once and for all!

 All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.

 

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