Fans of epic strategy games will know there is never a theater of war that is too big, a scale to large, or too many troop types. Developed by The Creative Assembly and ported to the Mac by Feral Interactive, Rome: Total War's firehose of tactical information may be off-putting to gamers new to the genre, but fans of strategy games will appreciate Total War's cavernous depths and expansive territories.
Rome: Total War originally came out for the PC in 2004. It garnered a fair share of praise and even snagged several "Strategy Game of the Year" awards. Though the game is almost six years old, Mac gamers can finally enjoy this Roman gem, thanks to Feral. The Gold Edition includes both Rome: Total War and Rome: Total War Barbarian Invasion.
Unlike conventional real-time strategy games, the game isn't broken down into missions where you must build up an army and conquer point A or point B. Instead, you're thrown into a sea of tactical information and a huge campaign that will take days to complete. You play as one of three Roman families (or as the barbarians in the expansion pack) tasked with furthering your family's power by conquering lands, forging alliances, and becoming the envy of civilized society. Eventually, you'll have the backing of the Senate or the masses to march on Rome itself and take over the empire. Thankfully, a well-thought out tutorial and handy in-game guide will give you plenty of advice and walk you through the more complex elements of the game so that one day you may become Caesar.
Rome: Total War is a rare hybrid of turn-based and real-time strategy that actually gives each genre its proper due. On the larger theater map, you'll move your troops, order construction of buildings, recruitment of agents and troops, negotiate alliances, and manage your settlements. When your armies engage in battle, the game changes into a real time strategy game. If you haven't been ambushed, you'll be able to deploy your troops and then move them in real time against your foes.
The larger world map is full of naval ships, roads, terrain, army icons, and settlements. It's here you'll make your larger strategic moves each turn, and it's also hear you'll get your faction's reports on currency, recruitment, construction, family births and deaths, which cities are rioting, and other worldly events. They stack on the left side of the screen at the end of each turn, and in the later rounds you'll pretty much ignore every one except maybe rioting notifications and the notice that someone in your family has come of age. You can see how much money each settlement is bringing in, how well your city is growing, and how loyal your city is due to handy icons on each settlement; what buildings you build, what tax rate you set, and how many troops you camp there will affect these stats. More troops will quiet a riot while buildings like sewers and public baths will make the people healthier. Arenas will grant entertainment bonuses to your cities, making them happier.
On the battlefield, Rome: Total War becomes a pretty run-of-the-mill real-time strategy game. You can zoom in to see your troops up close or zoom out for a larger view. The camera controls are a bit wonky--you can rotate the camera by putting your mouse on the edge of the screen, follow units on the map, or use the mini-map to jump to different points on the battlefield--but I still wanted to scale the view larger so I could see everything during especially epic battles. While zooming in will let you see how your troops are doing, up close you'll see how dated Rome's graphics are.
That said, battle commanders can't ask for much better controls of their units. You can set their troop formation, enable special abilities, order attacks and withdrawals. You'll have less control over your soldiers the more their morale has been hurt and if they're stuck in combat, its hard to get them out. At first I was frustrated when my pikemen were stuck in combat, but then I realized it's a tad unrealistic to have them just run away from a hundred soldiers they're currently engaging in hand to hand combat.
You can choose to autoresolve any battle (and naval battles are sadly always autoresolved), and over the long span of your campaign, you'll want to autoresolve most battles that you're clearly favored in. Still, you'll miss seeing your cavalry run over enemy archers and the joy of taking out the enemy general.
One thing Rome: Total War really gets right is the sense of scale. More than any game I've ever played, you really feel like you're building an empire brick by brick. Not every part of it is glamorous, of course (dealing with rioting peasants and moving your troops around can get tedious), but the game deserves credit for being a strikingly immersive strategy game. You'll spend hours raising troops and waging war to try to knock off an upstart faction of barbarians and when you finally do, you'll feel a real sense of accomplishment. Then you'll enslave their population--because hey, you can.
The most important units in the game are your family members. You'll be asked periodically if you will adopt a promising soldier into your family or approve a marriage to one of your family's women. You'd be a fool not to considering how scarce a resource they are. You can't "create" new characters, but as old ones die new ones will come of age to replace them. I had roughly a dozen family members stationed throughout my empire. On the battlefield, they are always heavy cavalry and the most critical (and often strongest) units on the field.
But instead of having them lead my troops into battle, I often had to ferry them to settlements in crisis. You can only construct new buildings, recruit new soldiers, or repair/retrain your buildings/troops when there is a governor present in your settlement. Some family characters are exceptional gifted at placating the people, so if your town is on the verge of rioting, a calm head can do wonders to your population.
Still, the micromanaging can get frustrating. Until certain settlements populations' expand, you can't construct any new buildings. This means you'll have to shuffle your governor to a new population center after he's built up the settlement. When you've stretched your empire from Rome to Britain, moving your family members (who need several units of escort for fear that they'll get ambushed along the way) can be a real pain-often taking several turns.
The good news and bad news: in Rome: Total War, a few turns can take hours in the game. After six hours of gameplay, I had dozens of cities to manage (even with the automanage feature turned on) and was fighting wars in Spain, Russia, and Northern Africa.
On my 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro, the game ran well even during particularly epic RTS battles. Feral deserves credit for porting a terrific, if dated, strategy game. For those who aren't satisfied with the intense single player campaign, the Mac version has the included Barbarian Invasion expansion pack which allows you to play as the barbarian and nomadic hordes on a quest to conquer Rome. You can also go online and compete against other generals through Gameranger's service.
Macworld's buying advice
Players may balk at the idea of buying a 2004 strategy game and expecting it to compete with what they've been playing with for the last few years. The truth is, Mac players rarely enjoy a strategy game as deep or as fun as Rome: Total War. The graphics, time investment, and lack of a true naval RTS component are minor scratches on the surface of a deep and beautifully built game. The Roman Empire hasn't aged well, but Rome: Total War has.
This story, "Rome: Total War Gold Edition" was originally published by Macworld.