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Total War Rome 2 interview: decadence returns

Total War: Rome 2 takes the series back to a time of splendour, corruption and betrayal. VG247's Dave Cook speaks with The Creative Assembly to find out more.

Launching in 2013, Total War: Rome 2 is going to be another massive entry into the iconic strategy series. More units on screen, better visuals, scalable specs and a broader range of moral choices all blend to make for one ambitious outing.

We spoke with The Creative Assembly's studio communications manager Al Bickham to find out why the team is going back to Rome, and what it hopes to achieve now that it couldn't before.

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VG247: Why go back to Rome, why not move on to somewhere else?

Al Bickham: Well, there's two real reasons. First, every time we release a Total War game, or a piece of DLC, people have always gone, 'That's great...where's Rome 2?' So it's the game that the player base really wants,

Second, I think that's partly to do with – not just the popularity and cult status of the original Total War: Rome is still enormously popular, and even we have fond memories of it, but of course the series has moved on quite a lot since then.

”We’ve got the budget, we’ve got 100-plus team members now, so the studio is geared up to do this. It’s time to roll out the Rome map again and tackle this.”

We've developed new systems, the campaign map, a few new engines, and its iterative. There are also changes to how diplomacy works, to the way the AI moves across the campaign map, and obviously we've had some major graphical overhauls since then.

So it's time to re-address it because a lot of people want it, and yeah, now is the right time. Shogun 2 was a big focus for us, and coming out of Empire – which was a huge, sprawling, massive geographical area – we reeled in our focus for Shogun 2.

It was still a large, single concept with basically a single unit roster as well. That gave us the opportunity to really focus and polish back-end systems, and stuff under the hood. So now we've got all of those things to a really, really good place.

So you'd say that the studio has grown to the challenge essentially?

We've got the budget, we've got 100-plus team members now, so the studio is geared up to do this. It's time to roll out the Rome map again and tackle this. Plus, it's a fantastic era, we've got a lot of staff who research the period, and we've got a lot of new, enthusiastic staff as well.

Everybody's got their heads in books at the moment, so everybody's just digging away at the subject, they're really up on the history, and there's a lot of media around at the moment that touches on the era.

We've got HBO series, films like Gladiator and even I..Claudius you know? [laughs]. I've got the box set of that but I haven't started watching it yet, but I'm really looking forward to it. It's such a popular period right now, I mean it's iconic.

When you think of it you see the red and gold motifs and more. Everybody riffs on that these days, everybody knows it from school, and very large part of the population knows about Roman history, and has that view on what makes it endearing.

It's identifiable isn't it?

Exactly yeah, and that's why we're going back to that setting today. It's honestly very exciting.

What's refreshing to see is that many of the old team who members who worked on the original Rome are still around today, and I think it's always good value when you bring in new people, to get that spread of experience. What core values from the original do you absolutely have to keep?

The thing is, that Rome originally – I don't think they were limited by technology or ambition at the time – because at the time it was a massive technical achievement. It had 3D units, and it really utilised technology at the time to push boundaries.

I don't think there was any sense of being limited at the time, but looking back now, there's so much more that we can do now. There are so many systems that were simple then, but that are so intricate now.

I guess they have to be more intricate now, because the expectations of gamers have changed a lot since then.

Absolutely yeah, and the way we make games has changed. The tools and systems have changed, as well as the engine we used. So where we are now, we're seeing a lot of opportunity to make some really interesting changes.

So , all of those systems I was talking about earlier – there are interesting ways we are advancing those engines to try new things in Rome 2. Back in the original we are doing now what we did then. I think an example is that we had a nice dilemma system for Shogun 2.

”The aim is to bring a sense of heritage to the game. We’re not typically a story-telling series in the traditional sense.”

You may remember that on the campaign map there was a little console that said, 'Oh, the Shogun must conquer this territory by a certain date, and if you do that, then you get six turns of really happy units', or something like that. Sometimes there are also downsides to those choices and actions.

It was never really a 'black or white' choice.

No, exactly, there was never a concrete benefit or downside to those choices. So with Rome 2, what we're doing is weaving in all of those archetypal global plot lines into the dilemma system. There are themes from history, such as the machinations of the Senate, all that cool Roman stuff that – as I said earlier – we consume in the media we watch or read.

So it's not just single, unique events that come along and you get a choice of this, or a choice of that. Now, dilemmas still ask you to make a decision, but depending on the choices you make, and the way you play the game, you will trigger consequential dilemmas along the line.

The aim is to bring a sense of heritage to the game. We're not typically a story-telling series in the traditional sense.

So these choices don't mould the story arc as players progress as such, they are just short-form events that inflict status changes on the world, armies and so on?

Well, I think the thing with any Total War game is that the stories are already there due to history. But these choices will impact on your troop's disposition at any one point in the game, like there was a situation in Fall of the Samurai where I had only one weak point to my plan of attack.

There wan an entire area of Tokyo that I captured, and I was really active up to Kyoto, but there was still one weak point where an army could roll in and have free reign to sneak behind my front lines. I had three entry points actually, and enemy armies took advantage of two of them.

The AI walked a colossal 20-stack army right into my back lines – you know – massive cavalry, just with minimal effort.

Just strolled in through the back door.

Yeah and I was just like 'Woah!...OK...' But I had just captured the railway in the territory that he was marching through, so I got a couple of my agents on a train and I got them to check out the army and wait for them.

”In Rome 2 everyone will have something – that ’300′-style battle – like a player will be overwhelmed but somehow they overcame it. Everyone’s got a story like that from playing Total War games.”

One agent harassed the army – which is a morale killer – and it reduced the amount of troops in the army. So one of my agents did that, and the other used a skill that split that army in two and then half of them joined my side.

So just like that, this massive army became two, slightly damaged stacks of ten – one of which now belonged to me. So I turned what could have been a horrific situation into complete victory, and I suddenly had a third army. It was slightly damaged, but I had a stack of ten units, just because I used those agents well.

Sorry, I kind of went off topic there, but this is what I mean. It's all about these emergent stories, and the Rome 2 dilemma system is just going to add to that. It's these situations that you'll just riff off.

What's interesting there is that it was your story, no one else will have encountered that scenario quite like you did. That is a rare, and difficult thing for games to provide.

Yeah completely, and in Rome 2 everyone will have something – that '300'-style battle – like a player will be overwhelmed but somehow they overcame it. Everyone's got a story like that from playing Total War games.

But I have to ask, the reason some people might not have those stories is because their PC rig was s**t, and they simply couldn't run your games. The studio has stated that Rome 2 is scalable for any system, how did you achieve that?

So in technical terms, we're aiming at the high-end, we want to grab every gigaflop, or megaflop or whatever that your graphics card produces. We will utilise that to make it look as absolutely incredible as possible. If you don't have a powerful system like that, it's OK, we understand.

”Most people have a PC in the house now – be it a gaming rig, or a PC that the whole family uses, so yeah we want to cater to them all.”

People play games on PC a lot. There's a lot of unified architecture - CPU/GPU integration – out there in the wild, a lot of which are in very capable gaming PCs or laptops. We're beyond the days of old laptops that became super hot thanks to combined CPU/GPUs and we're kind of beyond that now.

There are now a lot people out there with game-capable laptops now, so we've got to support those players. Then there are people who have an 'off the production line' PC that they just picked up at a decent price.

We want those guys to play Rome 2 as well, so our aim with the minimum spec is to really help players to enjoy it. I think that's achievable and there's a number of ways we can do it by using completely different assets depending on what spec you're running.

So it's not a case of dumbing down the visuals, but swapping them out for completely different textures, models and such?

Yeah, it's creating stuff that's bespoke for a certain system.

That is a lot of work.

It is a lot of work yeah, but that's the aim.

It makes sense though because more and more people play games, so why wouldn't a studio want to capitalise on that expanded market?

Absolutely yeah, and we want the game to be accessible to anyone who wants to play it. Most people have a PC in the house now – be it a gaming rig, or a PC that the whole family uses, so yeah we want to cater to them all.

Rome 2 is a shared experience as well though, as you have multiplayer. Are you ready to talk about that yet?

Not yet no, but all I'll say is that we have some very big plans.

You have released many games with phenomenal success. Are there any more time periods you'd like to visit?

Yeah absolutely. The perfect ingredients are – if you have like the recipe for every Total War game so far – there's a number of things you need. The top one is probably a geographical area and a period where you've got a number of warring factions reasonably close to each other.

You also need factions where it's not quite clear which one will emerge the victor. I mean, history already tells us who wins, but you need that excitement. What I would say is that there are lots of unusual places we can go. We have a stack of ideas about what we can do.

It's clear that this isn't a small project, so when making each game, do you always look ahead to the next one? I imagine you must make tech for one game that you think may work well in the next, as in you are always building to bigger and better things.

We're always building on the tech that we use, and the engine has evolved over many iterations – it went through a wholesale change in Empire. We've honed and improved that, but with Rome 2 we've got a new lighting engine, scene-lit particles, so if you've got a fire burning, you'll be able to see the light reflecting of the particles.

It creates this brilliant atmosphere. We've shown the city of Carthage already, which is the final act of the third Punic War. This is Rome after a hundred years of on and off conflict, after the shame of Hannibal crossing the alps and actually entering Rome with his forces.

After that embarrassment for Rome, it impacted on its proud people, so this is their retaliation. They wanted to destroy Carthage – not capture – but annihilate it. The thing is, that was a very wise thing to do, because it was a gigantic city, it was a trade hub.

There was a lot of back-stabbing when it came to Carthage, to reduce them to an untenable position so they had to go to war. The Romans scouts came along and put a report together – because after several engagements, Rome had placed an embargo on Carthage not to build a war fleet.

”We’re always building on the tech that we use, and the engine has evolved over many iterations – it went through a wholesale change in Empire. We’ve honed and improved that.”

What did the report say?

The report said, 'they've got a tremendous war fleet', and history points to the fact that Carthage wasn't doing that, which is now sketchy because Rome destroyed Carthage. I mean today you can see the base line of the city walls – it's all that remains – because Rome crushed all 36 kilometres of war.

It was a colossal city, so the Romans said, 'we know you're building a war fleet, so if you want to avoid war with us, first you have to send us your hundred most prominent diplomats, and they're going to live in Rome.'

Carthage then said, 'woah, hold on. We've lost our diplomatic core, and the aristocracy'. They couldn't afford a war with Rome, so they handed them over, but then demanded 500 suits of armour and thousands of weapons. Now Carthage is going, 'they're dismantling our army'.

The final condition Rome gave was, 'you know what? You should move your city 20 miles away. Follow Rome's example by building a new city built on agriculture and artistry'. Carthage said, 'then we have to go to war', and so they did.

I'll leave it at that, because you'll see what happens in the game once you play it.

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