History holds more than its fair share of lessons, each wrapped within a story that would be ripe for an HBO TV series. And perhaps the rise and fall of Rome represents one of the most enticing books of all, filled with tales of deceit, treachery and underhanded doings. Take the Battle of Teutoburg, for example - a level in Rome II that Creative Assembly wanted to present to us this past week.
During the Romans’ attempt to advance and tighten its grip across Northern Europe, it suffered a major defeat in the Germanic Teutoburg Forest - an ambush orchestrated by Cheruscan-born Roman military commander Arminius. With its narrow winding paths, high rises and dense foliage, the three Roman legions that were led through the forest didn’t stand a chance against an army of tribesmen.
Depending on how you handle your chosen faction, you might yet end up in an ambush situation in Teutoburg Forest, but it might be under different circumstances altogether from the story often told in history books. Lead Campaign Designer Janos Gaspar told me about the challenges this setup presented.
“Working on the campaign had its challenges, it was rather difficult,” he said. “This is because we are working with a sandbox style game. This isn’t an RPG, there’s no fixed path that we want players to take. But we were able to move ahead with the Random Events System that we introduced in Shogun 2, and allow for an underlying narrative to run through a player’s game this way.”
On top of this, the studio has introduced characters that might pose diplomacy challenges for the player to overcome inbetween battles. Gaspar uses the example of “a troublesome senator back at Rome” that may have an effect on your plans in a positive or negative way, on a local or global scale. You can ignore them as they carry on being a nuisance, or you can bribe them... or attempt to kill them... but there will be consequences for succeeding or failing at any of these actions.
“It’s all about plausibility really. We do a lot of reading, and consulting with various historians. And certainly, we get a lot of interesting feedback from that. One such thing we learned is that, there’s no certainty about a lot of what happened. Much of this is hinged on some very sketchy evidence, and guesswork based on archaeology.
“How did the Roman Legion organise itself? We know that they fought in these groups of five, and tended to rotate troops in and out of combat... but exactly how was that was done? Nobody’s certain. So there’s a lot of things we can play with there in terms of how that occurs. I think we’ve got something quite close to the reality of it, but at same time it’s fun. Having fun is the important thing for us. History just informs that fun.”
But isn’t an emphasis on drama and story a departure from previous games in the series? “Not at all,” says Gaspar. “I think players have always had an attachment to their characters. People read their own personalities into them. In Shogun 2, you might have Daimyo and his son campaigning together, and then the father dies. The son, in your mind creating this little narrative, goes off and takes revenge on the unit that destroyed his father. That capacity for storytelling’s always been there. We’re just trying to hop it along a bit.”
Gaspar said that it was no coincidence that the factions themselves felt like bona fide characters in and of themselves. “It was vital to establish the factions as characters. We’re dealing with quite a broad period of history - individuals come and go. People will die and move on. So it’s important for the player to identify with their faction as the ongoing character, to have a feel for its specialities.”
Obviously, such characteristics are most prominent in battle, with each faction having a number of strengths and weaknesses. And in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, the Romans find out that their military strategies do not work in enclosed spaces with high-rise terrain surrounding them. Their strengths lie in wide, open areas.
In this stage however, the Romans are getting their butts handed to them. Boulders are being rolled down the hills that cup the three legions - all on fire - squishing them to a pulp as the player’s screen is drowned in screams and panicked orders. As your army progresses to survive the ambush, waves of tribal barbarians charge from the trees on multiple sides, while a pack of archers fire at you from atop a nearby hill.
On paper, the Romans are much more powerful than these tribesmen. But, with the terrain and tactical advantage, the Legions are absolutely on the back foot. Ferguson tells me how the different kinds of terrain and vertices help in making a more dynamic battle experience.
“Previously, our line of sight system was more of a spotting mechanic, purely based on the proximity of your troops. It was a case of distance, and the type of ground your units stood on. That was fine for the time, it did what it needed to do. But now we have a situation where we can carry out processing on the GPU, and that gives us a lot more power in terms of what we can produce, and the kinds of effects we can create.”
It’s certainly shaping up to be a worthy successor to the decade-old Total War: Rome. And Creative Assembly’s franchise is now one of SEGA’s most treasured IPs going forward. I asked Ferguson whether this speaks to Total War’s creative quality, a rise in popularity for the RTS genre, or both.
“It’s probably down to a lot of different things. Obviously, there’s the growth of the PC as a platform, and the fact that interest strategy games are expanding. The genre is now being played by very casual players, in terms of things like Farmville. Strategy is now no longer something that’s purely there for the hardcore player.
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