Disclosure: The Steam edition of Total War: Rome REMASTERED was provided by Sega to the Otakultura! Team
Review by Rome: Total War veteran John M. M. Chan
Before battle royales, MOBAs, and first-person shooters, there were real-time strategy games; and for many gamers, Total War’s earliest titles—Shogun, Medieval, Medieval 2, and especially Rome—represented their introduction to the world of real-time strategy games. Many of the games that defined the genre were released in the late nineties, including household names StarCraft (1998), Warcraft II (1995), Age of Empires (1997), and Command & Conquer (1995). Through these games the RTS genre boomed, using only a simple formula to great success: the player collects resources to construct buildings and train soldiers to defeat opposing players in combat. They continue to be played today in various capacities, with StarCraft and Warcraft being played in professional competitions—a testament to their success and timelessness.
However, these games had population limits: including economic units like villagers and resource gatherers, a player couldn’t have more than one to two hundred units in play at any given time. For all their success and raving reviews, these games all lacked one thing a military simulator truly needed: scale.
Enter Rome: Total War.
Although Creative Assembly had previously released two RTS titles in Shogun and Medieval, Rome was their first 3D title. With 3D, it was possible to recreate the massive battles you heard about in history classes, in the way epic films like Troy or Gladiator portrayed them. Thousands of Roman legionnaires march across the sands of northern Africa to meet an equally large Carthaginian host of war elephants, horsemen, and mercenaries: and that’s just one type of battle you could have.
In Rome, battles were won and lost between armies thousands strong across unforgiving deserts, endless seas of grass, nigh unnavigable mountain passes, and treacherous forests. Wars were waged across the ancient world in the territories that surrounded the Mediterranean. The Romans called it mare nostrum: our sea. And now, fifteen years after the release of the last Rome expansion pack, Alexander—and eight years since Rome 2—Creative Assembly has revisited the installment that launched the Total War franchise into relevance among real-time strategy gamers and given it a facelift.
Total War: Rome Remastered—now following the modern Total War naming convention that began with Shogun 2—is Creative Assembly and Feral Interactive’s attempt to update Rome and bring it in line with its more modern titles. A pleasant surprise is the inclusion of Barbarian Invasion and Alexander, both expansion packs of the original Rome release.
The changes are primarily visual, with textures across the board—units, the campaign map, UI—receiving the most attention.
On the campaign map, the graphical update is modest: Although improved over the original textures, water still looks opaque, textures of farmland are flat and dull, and mountains look blocky and jagged in a bad-rendering, not good-mountainy way. These visual assets were revisited and overhauled from the ground up, being sharpened to 1080p to give the game a more modern look. The campaign map is now also bordered by a Greco-Roman mosaic to fill the rest of our wide screens.
On the battlefield, graphical changes are the most obvious as well: units have received visual updates, with a bit of variation in character face model to give units a more realistic feel. These visual assets were revisited and overhauled from the ground up, being sharpened to 1080p to give the game a more modern look. However, just like the original, when playing at High settings or lower, unit models at sufficient distances may revert to 2D instead of remaining 3D.
When ordering a cohort to move, soldiers now realistically march with some disorder; five or ten legionaries may walk ahead of the cohort momentarily, but the rest of the cohort catches up and the cohort marches in unison. Combat also flows faster, with units now more responsive to commands like modern titles. However, just like the original, when playing at High settings or lower, unit models at sufficient distances may revert to 2D instead of remaining 3D.
A holdover from the original Rome that returning players may appreciate is the score: composer Jeff van Dyck’s soundtrack returns untouched in Rome Remastered, bringing with it its powerful percussion, deep brass, and resonating strings that secured a 2005 BAFTA nomination for Original Music. Sound effects and voice lines were also reused, albeit given the remastered treatment, from the original Rome.
Do as the Romans Do
Some quality-of-life features that were present in Rome 2 were also added to Rome. For starters, the camera now has improved functionality—it can be rotated, and the zoom distance has been drastically increased to improve visibility of the map. An option to toggle between realistic, deeper colors and the original, bright colors of Rome was also added to the graphical settings menu. One of the more striking additions is the map overlay, which is a detailed top-down, two-dimensional view of the map that displays the map according to different metrics, such as wealth, public order, owner, settlement level, terrain, resources, and more.
The UI has received a graphical overhaul to improve legibility and navigability, but still retains its ancient world feel by using Tuscan columns and primarily Roman motifs in its design. It would have been a nicer touch for the UI to change depending on the faction being used, but the game revolves around Rome after all.
Another striking non-visual change is the return of the game’s cheat console, RomeShell. Originally for debugging the game, it remains in the game for players to tinker with the campaign mode. Through RomeShell, numerous extraneous “functions” can be unlocked: budget woes can be solved with a simple “add_money” command; a Spy can be given legendary traits; and units can be instantly trained to have level 3 weapons, level 3 armor, and maximum experience. RomeShell itself also received a graphical update and now uses a more legible font. It should be noted that the use of the console will disable achievements.
Tactical View from more modern titles has been brought to Rome Remastered; by scrolling out far enough or hitting Tab, the camera switches to a 2D bird’s eye view that shows the entire battlefield, with each unit being replaced by a unit icon. On the right side of the screen, a tab can be clicked to tweak various default settings, such as units running or walking by default, or having skirmish mode or guard mode automatically turned on at the beginning of the battle. These newer features add a bit more freshness to the original Rome, and are definitely a welcome sight.
The Merchant of Rome
A new Agent (and a new resources mechanic) were also introduced to the campaign: the Merchant. Like the Merchant from Medieval 2, the Merchant may be utilized to monopolize resources—which now appear on the campaign map as selectable nodes. Monopolizing resources involves sending a Merchant over by right-clicking it, giving the player sole possession of that resource and generating passive income each turn, so long as the Merchant remains on that resource node.
Unique to Rome Remastered is the Merchant’s ability to establish new trade routes between settlements; and just like the original Rome, trade will become your primary source of income. Merchants are tied to the city they are trained in, and they act as an economic channel to the city. A Merchant trained in Rome, for example, could travel all the way to Egypt, and that Merchant would act as a de facto trade route just by standing in Egypt’s territory.
The Merchant is largely a passive agent that needs no micromanaging; instead, the Merchant’s value lies in positioning. By identifying the most profitable resource node or territory for him to occupy, he will generate much passive income. As with other Agents in the game, the Merchant is also able to take out hostile Merchants by buying them out; this is done by right-clicking an opposing Merchant. He is similarly vulnerable to buyouts from opposing Merchants. The survivor in these confrontations is determined by Merchant level.
On the other hand, the resources, which vary according to location (e.g., dyes are only found in northern Africa, and textiles in Gaul) are now visible on the map and can be monopolized by a Merchant to increase the owner faction’s income from that resource.
The Rise and Fall
However, for all the modernization in textures, combat remains unimpressively the same as the 2004 Rome; instead of following suit with modern Total War titles. There are no one-on-one combat animations (arguably one of the exciting parts of combat in Total War) in Rome Remastered. Soldiers mindlessly slash and stab in the general direction of enemy soldiers, and in death, slump over in scripted animations. Moreover, naval combat does not make an appearance in this iteration of Rome. Instead, all naval encounters must be auto-resolved or withdrawn from. And speaking of auto-resolve, the feature is also plagued by inconsistencies absent in other titles’ auto-resolves: executing auto-resolve may cause the player to lose and suffer heavy losses despite the balance of power bar in the battle selection screen suggesting an overwhelming advantage of the player.
AI in the game remains clunky, retaining some of its original tendencies to leave melee-vulnerable units like archers or cavalry within reach of heavy infantry, or crashing cavalry headlong into a wall of spears, even at higher difficulties. Most of the challenge comes from the AI receiving invisible boosts to stats like armor, damage, and morale. Pathfinding in siege battles is still a possible game breaking issue—if units attempt to navigate a narrow path, they could become stuck in an endless loop of walking back and forth, losing stamina and remaining out of formation in the process. They are, of course, vulnerable to enemy attack. On the campaign map, reinforcement ranges—which determine whether or not an allied legion may be able to assist in a battle by having their units appear alongside yours—are inconsistent. Two legions may be next to each other, but if one were attacked, the other may or may not assist.
Corner camping, a popular defensive strategy that is applicable in virtually every Total War title, also finds success in Rome Remastered. Corner camping involves backing your army into a corner of the battlefield, which—given the artificial boundaries of the map—means that your flanks and your rear are unassailable, leaving the opponent no choice but to attack from the front. This creates unparalleled success when using phalanx units, of which there are plenty in Rome Remastered.
In the original Rome, a faction had to be defeated in the campaign mode in order to become a playable faction. As a treat to returning veterans and new players alike, an option in the settings can now be ticked to enable all factions for play from the beginning. Hopefully, this would tide players over until AI fixes have been implemented.
CA and Feral could only do so much to modernize Rome, as it still suffers from the hiccups that the original 2004 version did. Additionally, loading times have increased, though not as bad as Total War: Warhammer 1 and 2’s infamous loading times of several minutes. On a newer machine, it took about 40 seconds to load into a battle; on a GTX 1060 and an i5, about two to three minutes. Some infrequent crashes also occur (it happened two times in 25 hours of our gameplay), but this is fairly par for the course for Total War titles. And with this being a remaster, the game runs strictly on a 64-bit Windows 10 OS, macOS 11 Big Sur, or 64-bit Ubuntu 20.04 or later. Thankfully, the specs are quite modest, with a GTX 770 GPU minimum requirement with the enhanced graphics pack already applied.
All in all, Total War: Rome Remastered is a valiant effort by CA and Feral to modernize the franchise’s universally acclaimed 2004 entry. While it still somehow fails to deliver what more modern Total War entries are capable of delivering, this is still a remaster that does respect and reflect the original source material. At a price point of PHP 1,110/USD 23.99, the ask may be a bit steep for new players for a game that boasts mostly visual changes, with about as many gameplay-impacting changes as a modern-day DLC. But the inclusion of the Barbarian Invasion and Alexander expansions soften the blow. For veteran players who already own the original Rome, however, there is a half-off discount automatically applied, bringing its price down to USD 11.99. At this price point, it is comparable to some campaign DLCs for Rome 2, giving it great value along with its two expansion packs, which makes it a really good deal for returning vets.
Modern titles like Attila, Warhammer, and even Rome 2 remain clearly provide more gameplay value for money. While Rome Remastered is no slouch either, having to offer a more vanilla RTS experience, we’d be remiss in expecting everyone to nab a copy of the game as an immediate purchase.
Total War: Rome Remastered was tested on two machines: A laptop (GTX 1060, Intel i5-7300HQ) and a desktop (RX 5700XT, Ryzen 5 3600X).