'Rome Remastered' Tries to Turn Back the Clock to a Series High Point

'Rome: Total War' created the blueprint for the rest of the franchise, but the very thing that makes it a classic makes a remaster hard.
April 28, 2021, 1:00pm
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Rome: Total War created the modern Creative Assembly empire. Shogun and Medieval might have come first, but very little of their designs remain except for the overall conceit of a turn-based strategic layer leading to real-time 3D battles. Rome is where Total War started to become a defining PC gaming franchise, and not just within the strategy genre, but as a showpiece for the hobby in addition to being a treat for history nerds. Its fully 3D battles and bright Technicolor treatment of the Roman Republic were breathtaking at the time, and have long made RTW a nostalgic favorite, obsolete but never replaced thanks to the lackluster reception for Rome 2.

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Nostalgia and obsolescence are joined at the hip when it comes to Rome, and that poses the big challenge for port-specialist Feral Interactive's new version, Total War: Rome Remastered. Because while Rome might be the foundation for all subsequent Total War games, we've had several generations of those games since the original's 2004 release. A lot has been built on those foundations, and while there have been hits and definite misses in the history of the franchise, generally the games have improved a lot since Rome. So how can Rome Remastered balance people's love for the original game against the undeniable reality that its a much simpler game than its modern descendants, and with some real odd decisions and flaws that have been ironed-out of the system in the intervening years?

When I spoke to Creative Assembly's Kevin McDowell, art director on the original game, on Three Moves Ahead, he mentioned that one of the quirks of Rome was that unit animations controlled movement and combat rather than the other way around. It made Rome a trickier game to rebalance in its own day, because small tweaks to unit behavior had to be executed through animations rather than on a stat sheet, but it also gave Rome a distinctive feel, and keeping things like that has been a priority for the team doing Rome Remastered.

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"So if I'm correct, I think they were animated at 24, or 26 frames all hand animated with keyframes," said Feral production head Tom Massey in the same interview with Smith. "We've kept that. And we've been very aware that game status is in some way controlled by the animation state. We have sought to improve animations where possible. But: we've always been mindful of the fact that the thing that gives combat in Rome: Total War its kind of identity is the weight of the units. And that is very much led by the animations, as you've mentioned. And we haven't wanted to get away from that. There's that kind of visceral feeling where two formations clash with one another. And you see various different bodies go flying, in maybe a slightly exaggerated way! But that is everybody's memory of Rome. And so we've kind of been very careful to ensure that any edits that we make or any modernization that we do to the game, we've kept that feeling. And that has been partly linked to keeping the original engine, and also respecting the original source of the animations when we are adding either additional animations or polishing the existing ones."

Even with this kind of careful process, though, there is a need to make a lot of judgment calls about what's essential to the original experience versus what needs some updating or a reconsideration from that "quality of life" perspective. For instance, while the original camera controls are still accessible in Rome Remastered (and indeed, most of the "original" elements of Rome remain in Remastered as optional toggles), it's a feature that Smith suspects will be clunky and alien to people who have kept current with Total War.

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"You can't gimbal the camera at all," head of production Edwin Smith said. "So basically, you could just pan left, right, up and down, and it would zoom on a fixed axis. So in the new one, you can hold down your middle mouse button and be able to gimbal and look around. Also just related to the cameras, just all of the controls! Select a bunch of units, and then you want to tell them to be in exactly the same formation, but move them over there. There's shortcut keys, you can just hold down Alt and drag, and they'll go there. None of those kind of shortcuts all existed in the original Rome! The genesis of them, the seeds of those ideas were there, but they weren't anywhere near was fully formed. So there's a lot of things where you want to try and do something, you're like, 'Oh, I can't quite do that.' You've got to do it in stages."

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A bit trickier might be some of the parts of Rome that were definitely fussy or frustrating, but ended up driving major dynamics of the game. For instance, "squalor" or "population" penalties are a staple of the Total War series at this point, where larger settlements start driving unrest that has to be compensated with creature comforts, a heavier garrison presence, or both. Different games have taken different approaches to this way of representing both the inequality of infrastructural challenges of urbanization and industrialization, but it's a staple of the series. In Rome, however, squalor effectively never stopped being an issue. No matter what you did, your cities would eventually become seething hotbeds of resentment and filth. Is that a mistake? Perhaps it was, but it was also one of the major checks against players' ability to snowball to victory through sheer size and scale. You can play with the old rules, but Rome Remastered also includes an optional revision to the squalor system that imposes a ceiling on just how Judge Dredd the world could become.

There are some changes to the Total War series that have become one part "quality of life" and one part "game balance." For instance, in most Total War games since Empire, units automatically replenish casualties. They replenish faster depending on factors like local infrastructure, time of year, and their stance, but the main point is you don't have to rebuild your shattered armies yourself. Not so in Rome, where you could merge depleted units to condense the scraps of an army into a small core of full strength units, but if you wanted to re-build your army just as it was, you had to march back to a friendly city and retrain your troops.

"It's a very different way to doing it compared to the newer games," Smith said. "I kind of find that I enjoy going back to playing that kind of strategy game, because if you don't have auto-replenishment, you then need to think about supply lines, retraining your troops. So a definite different spin on it."

It's a smart and nuanced approach to a true remaster, as opposed to the near-complete remakes that are often the norm in games. Most of the updates and improvements made here seem like smart ones, improving usability while preserving the game's identity. Now it remains to be seen whether first-time players or returning fans find that identity to remain compelling in 2021, when Rome plays, for better and for worse, like a prototype of what Total War has become since then.