Even five years and several significant expansions and patches later, Total War: Rome 2 remains a game without a sweet spot. In the brief moment when the stars align and its systems manage to work together, it is historical strategy gaming at its most epic. Then the moment passes and the systems begin to break apart like a frozen river in springtime, the disparate pieces moving away from each other as they are born along by the current of the game.
Whenever I come back to it, I hope it will be different. That a new patch, a new expansion, will manage to transform that magical moment into an entire game. That's why I had to try out Rome 2: Rise of the Republic, the latest expansion to Creative Assembly's massively successful, and massively flawed, 2014 strategy opus. Early on, I found that moment. I tried to hold onto it. Within ten turns, it was gone, and the game felt like it was falling apart around me once more.
What a moment, though. It arrived in the opening stages of my game as the fledgling Roman republic in the cut-down map of Italy, Sicily, and Tunisia that forms the stage for this DLC campaign. As with any story of early Rome, my immediate rival was the hated city of Veii to the north: Rome's earliest and most intransigent opponent to primacy on the Italian peninsula. The Liston to Rome's Ali, the Cavaliers to its Warriors, the St. Paul to its Minneapolis.
We were too evenly matched for me to deliver the knockout blow. After winning a series of hard-fought battles outside Veii, I hired a few regiments of mercenaries to bolster my numbers and set up for the siege of Veii itself. This was a mistake because between the wounded field army I'd trapped in the city, and the city's huge garrison, I was actually outnumbered by the troops inside the city walls. They immediately sallied to try and break my siege.
I had one of the most delightfully hodge-podge armies I've ever had to command in Rome 2. Slingers and javelinmen were the backbone of my force, and the army itself had specialized in skirmish tactics, making them even deadlier. But my infantry arm was comprised of just about every archaic combat unit you could imagine: mercenary hoplites from Greece itself alongside some axe-wielding Etruscans, swordsmen from the hills, and a bunch of half-trained Roman spearmen whose tactics aped the Greeks', but whose armor and training were visibly pitiful compared to the real thing. Finally, I had my general's cavalry unit and a band of horsemen from Thessaly. Against this, Veii fielded two armies comprising almost endless numbers of medium-quality spearmen, slingers, and an elite hoplite bodyguard.
My strategy was to smash the smaller enemy army at the start of the battle, before it could join with the massive reinforcements arriving from the city. Then I'd use my skirmishers to bleed the enemy formation, and lure as many of their troops as possible into futile pursuits. Then I'd try to use my own infantry to pick them off piecemeal.
It damn near worked. My troops caught the first enemy army on the move and routed it just as their reinforcements pulled up. With only a moment to re-form, I swarmed the enemy formation with skirmishers while trying to reform my infantry into some kind of line.
But I ran out of time. Before my troops could get in their places, they were hammered by Veii's fresh troops. Now the battle was a complete mess, the battle lines looking more like a pair of snakes both eating their own tails. My cavalry ruthlessly hunted down all the slingers and skirmishers that Veii had, routing them from the field, but the main fight was a lost cause. My army began to buckle as my Romans fled, abandoning their mercenary allies. Soon everyone was fleeing back up the hill, where the shaken mercs began to rally their few survivors. I had a ragged line of depleted infantry from all over Greece, Sicily, and Italy, facing the advancing line of spearmen from Veii.
But my skirmishers, their own missions completed, were finally returning from the edges of the map where their hit-and-run battles had deposited them. As Veii's troops closed in for the kill, they started getting raked by spears and stones. With no ranged units to keep my skirmishers at a distance, my slingers and javelinmen had closed to a lethally effective distance. With every step, enemy spearmen were falling like stalks of wheat. They started to waver.
That's when my infantry and cavalry charged, outnumbered probably 3 to 1. The shock of it shattered the enemy's will. Their general was left abandoned as his army melted around him, fighting to the death as my spearmen and axemen closed from all sides, chopping down his bodyguard. Against all the odds, Rome had conquered. Veii was finally subjugated. It was one of of most dramatic Total War battles I've ever fought, and exactly the kind of thing I am always hoping for from Rome 2. My hopes soared.
Then it started to go wrong. Like most Total War games, Rise of the Republic unfolds in a series of dogpiles. No sooner have you put one war to rest than another enemy has declared on you, and then a few turns later someone you've never met is doing the same. They probably won't consider making peace until you've effectively conquered them, by which point of a peace treaty is almost moot.
Two turns after Veii fell, the Volsci to the south declared war on me. They didn't seem like much of a problem: Their armies were second-rate and my veteran legion and commander made short work of them. With three turns of their war declaration, their field army had been destroyed and the road to their capital was open. But then their emissary showed up, and quickly proved to be the most dangerous and implacable enemy I've ever faced in a Total War game.
In Rome 2, emissaries are a kind of agent. Agents are basically espionage and support units that can provide bonuses to friendly targets or inflict various forms of harm on enemy targets (think sabotage and assassinations). The emissary—this emissary in particular, Menodorus Domitianus, this fucking guy I swear to God—started bribing units of my army into deserting. At a rate of one unit every turn.
As a mechanic it's kind of cool! My army couldn't reinforce because it was in enemy territory, so I had to start recruiting mercenaries to plug the gaps, at three times the upkeep costs. But here's the thing: Every successful action by this emissary made him gain experience, improving his stats and making him even better at luring away my soldiers. Meanwhile, I had exactly one agent, a mediocre fighter who had gotten wounded early in the campaign and hadn't gained many levels. All I could do was send him to attack the emissary… who effortlessly avoided the attacks thank to his vastly better stats.
Then, after a few attempts on his life, the emissary simply bribed away my fighter. Now I had literally no counter. I could recruit more agents, but they'd all start at Level 1 and they'd probably fail in the same way my original fighter did. In other words, I was pretty much stuck with this guy, with no way to counter him short of exterminating his entire faction.
The war turned into a slog as my armies shrank and were filled-out by expensive mercenaries. It wasn't much of a problem: The enemy had no armies with which to resist, so it was matter of marching around the Italian peninsula and hitting "end turn". But now I was starting to get warnings that I was at risk of a civil war.
Rise of the Republic adds a light Crusader Kings 2-style factional politics manager to the strategic level. Parts of this system have been introduced so gradually that it's hard to remember exactly what factional politics were like in the original game. But with Rise of the Republic, Rome 2 now has a screen where you can have members of your dynasty scheme and flatter their way into their opposition's good graces, and co-opt promising rivals. This system seems to be part of the other campaigns as well via the Ancestral Update.
Which is all fine, but none of it seems to matter quite as much as the big button that says "secure loyalty" which lets you pay money to forestall civil war. If you forget to press this button, your faction might break into two competing sides and you have to reconquer a bunch of your old territory and kill off a bunch of your best armies and generals. So you should probably set aside the money, and then press the button.
But you'll forget to press it anyway, because in the end it affects a "Chance of Civil War" percentage that you only see if you go looking for it, and because the factional politics all feel like they belong to a dull minigame that's completely divorced from the main strategy game. Maybe, too, you forget because you want bad things to happen so that you might once again face a battle with something real at stake. It's a way to escape the monotony that swiftly overtakes Rome 2, even in Rise of the Republic.
It's a game that plays more like a checklist. There is always more optimization, but it will be so incremental as to be almost invisible. Governance is a series of hair-splitting choices between different forms of income, and minute bonuses affecting them. Your armies will continue to expand and improve, but now that you mention it, why are so many of your troops just different flavors of spearmen? And once you have made it through the perilous opening stages of the campaign, do you even need to fight the battles personally anymore, since you're generally steamrolling one minor power after another? Did Caesar feel like he was just coloring-in a map, too? Don't think about that for too long, because you have to make sure all of your agents are performing missions, just so they'll have sufficient XP to deal with any enemy agents who show up, like that demon Domitianus who almost derailed my game.
On some level, I want Rome 2 to become a great game, and not merely a very big one. Those moments where it all comes together are partly effective because the game sells them very well… but I also want to be sold on them. There is still a part of me that gets giddy as I look at the size of these maps, the array of factions, and formations of ancient military units and think that maybe now—with this DLC, on this patch— it's the Rome game I always wanted. A game that one could happily play forever, instead of being a game that just feels like forever.