Four Years After Launch, 'Rome 2' Might Finally Become a Great Game

Creative Assembly return to their epic—and epically flawed—blockbuster with an ambitious patch and a major expansion.
November 8, 2017, 8:32pm
Screenshots courtesy of Sega

Ages ago, when I was discussing the profoundly disappointing Total War: Rome 2 with some colleagues on Three Moves Ahead, I argued that Creative Assembly’s swollen, ramshackle epic was bad in ways that were fundamentally unfixable. “You can’t patch-in design,” I said on that late 2013 podcast / support group therapy session.

Four years later, with the announcement of a major new DLC expansion for Rome 2 and some massive revisions to the core game design, Creative Assembly are still working on proving me wrong by lavishing Rome 2 with enough post-release support to make it Good, Actually.

Today, Creative Assembly announced both a new expansion for Rome 2, Empire Divided, as well as some far-reaching changes to the basic design of the base game’s systems via the “Power & Politics Update.” Together they’re adding a sizeable new campaign to Rome 2 as well as yet another reason to revisit their almost hemisphere-spanning ode to the Roman Empire. And God help me I’m going to have to get back on this bullshit.

Empire Divided comes out on November 30th, and sounds a bit like Total War: Attila. Once again, we are looking at the Late Empire, when a combination of imperial rivals, migratory pressure from northern and eastern Europe, and internal political dissent is causing the entire imperial apparatus to twist and buckle. But Attila takes place in 395 CE, when Rome’s catastrophic collapse is almost unavoidable, whereas Empire Divided occurs a century earlier, when Rome still has a few cards left to play and talented political leaders who still see in the Empire something worth saving.

Empire Divided sounds like it’s trying to imbue its campaign map with a little more strategic life, so that it’s not just a vast empty space that armies have to traverse like the original map was in Rome II. “Banditry” crops up in areas with weak infrastructure and security forces, providing a drag on things like income and food supply, which can both trigger famines as well as trigger special events. Plague outbreaks are spread by things like trade and army movement, which is not exactly a novel mechanic for Empire Divided, but I’d welcome an effort to do more with ancient epidemics than portray them as a momentary blot on income and population levels.

It’s also taking some pages from the Attila and Total Warhammer playbooks, as it creates “Heroic Factions” whose strategic play is intertwined with a narrative element, complete with hero units, special technologies that provide bonuses in the direction of what your faction or leader was famous for, and special missions that will showcase key moments or dynamics that set your characters on their historical trajectory.

All of which I like! But this is also like the third or fourth time I will have come back to Rome 2, and every time the sheer unfocused scale of the game ends up sabotaging whatever new ambitions or approaches are driving it. Mind you, I think I’m an oddity on this score: a lot of people loved Rome 2 in part because of that scale. It was the Roman historian Livy as a video game, where from a humble regional power—with sway over a single valley or plain—your context and ambitions slowly acquired a global scale. Like Livy’s works, it could also be a giant slog whose grasp on that wider world was shaky at best.

But Creative Assembly is taking another stab at things with its “Power & Politics” patch. According to their notes on the upcoming patch, which is already in public beta, “Power & Politics” has three main goals:

  • To allow the player to exercise direct impact on their campaign through the political system.
  • To allow for well-defined civil wars through the new loyalty statistic and party areas of influence.
  • To add variety in gameplay for different factions and/or government types.

What this all amounts to is a new way to approximate domestic politics, something Rome 2 and the series in general has struggled to accomplish. The big idea with “Power & Politics” seems to be that each faction will now have parties within it, and those parties will be more or less loyal to the faction leader depending on that leader’s actions and choices. If a party gets angry enough, it and its loyalists will revolt and your faction plunges into a civil war.

The catch is that as parties wax or wane in influence, the territory it controls within your faction’s empire expands and contracts. It sounds a little bit like the Estates system from EUIV, but instead of letting the player assign territories to political groups, the parties in Rome 2 will just gain control of your provinces depending on their power. When all hell breaks loose, those provinces will form the backbone of their revolt.

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There’s a lot more to it than that, but all the changes seem to orbit this idea of there being a domestic undertow that jeopardizes the rather plodding expansion of Rome 2’s factions. It all adds up to a serious effort to breathe some new life into one of Creative Assembly’s most wildly popular and wildly troubled games.

Will it finally convert me to Rome 2’s cause? I have my doubts. The massive Emperor’s Edition didn’t really address my fundamental problem of finding the scale and pace of Rome 2 to be inescapably boring. A patch adding mutinous complications to that epic campaign seems like it would slow things down in equal measure to making them more strategically interesting.

On the other hand, Creative Assembly went on a roll after Rome 2, learning a lot of key lessons from the game’s mistakes as well as showing that it was willing to get ambitious and daring with post-release support.

Nevertheless, it’s Total War and it’s Rome 2. I can’t help but have high hopes. They’ll probably be disappointed. I’ll probably be a snarky asshole about the entire thing.

I still don’t think you can just patch-in a well-designed game on top of such compromised foundations, but I love that Creative Assembly keep trying, and that I still have reason to say, “But maybe this time.”