In 61 BC, Julius Caesar levied Legio X Equestris, a legion of several thousand fighting men who fought with distinction in his campaign against Gaul. They were disbanded in 45 BC, shortly before Caesar's assassination. In the ensuing civil war, the 10th Legion was raised again and fought for Lepidus, Marc Antony, and finally Emperor Augustus.
Over that 20-year period, thousands of men died or retired as veterans with lands they had helped conquer in Gaul. Equestris' individual legionaries are not remembered by history. But as a unit, Legio X Equestris were instrumental in Caesar's conquest of Gaul. Creative Assembly wants to give every army in Rome II: Total War a similar legacy, to make them more than masses of faceless troops.
And here history and gameplay merge in a really exciting way: as an army accrues victories, it will also accrue traditions, transforming a generally skilled army into a highly specialized one.
Every upgrade system in Rome II—from the revamped military and civic tech trees down to the abilities of generals, agents and armies—encourages specialization. On the macro level, military and civic developments are now divided into three subcategories (management, tactics and siege for military, economy, philosophy, and construction for civic) you can hop between at will. Teching for naval superiority or a strong farming economy, for example, is much more direct than it was in Shogun II: Total War.
But army traditions are what have me most excited for Rome II, and not just because the historical basis behind them is really cool. Traditions have the potential to completely change how battles play out by the end of a 20 (or 30, or 40, or...) hour-long Rome II campaign, because traditions outlive the poor legionaries who die earning them.
As you might expect from Creative Assembly, Studio Communications Manager Al Bickham explained the army tradition system with a historical comparison. "Think about the 101st Airborne," Bickham said at a recent preview event for Rome II. Remember Band of Brothers? He's talking about those guys: "They're all about their small unit tactics and being in enemy territory and working, effectively, guerrilla warfare. That's what they do. They do that really well. They've done that for the last 100 years, right? That's what is all about."
In Rome II, traditions extend the upgrade system used for commanding officers to whole armies. But that system has been reworked, too. Instead of progressing a general through a tech tree as he levels up, you now assign one skill at every level (with a cap at level 10). Previously acquired skills can also be leveled up in place of acquiring new ones. If you mainly use your generals to rally and inspire troops, focusing on those abilities will make them horse-mounted masters of morale.
In Shogun II, you could specialize generals by choosing a path through the tech tree, but you'd probably be wasting a few points along the way. Rome II simplifies choosing the abilities and buffs commanders bring to the battlefield. The same system also applies to Rome II's agents.
And where armies previously just grew stronger and gained morale with experience, they'll now gain their own set of specializations in the form of traditions for siegecraft, cavalry, and infantry types. Bickham detailed an example:
"I've spent six of my possible 10 points as an army's been leveling up in siegecraft and heavy infantry. Those guys are going to be city smashers, you know? They're going to be really good shots and very damaging with their onagers and ballistas and scorpions and stuff. I'll have those on my front line doing my city bashing for me."
Rome II tracks the history of each army, listing wins and losses and years in service. Armies can be renamed, and whatever symbol you set as their standard will appear on the legionary character models. And if that army is slaughtered to the last man, the traditions they bled for aren't lost.
"Say you have the 13th Legion," Bickham said, referencing a legion he took into battle at the Rezzed game conference last month. "The 13th Legion cops it. They all die. You can go back to one of your cities, you can recruit a new general, you can give him the banner of the 13th Legion, and you can recruit a new army along with that new general under the banner of the 13th Legion. Get all those traditions back. The whole idea is it's a symbol of the traditions of a fighting unit...The standard, what that army represents, is always there."
By endgame, using the right army in the right battle will be key, as even green troops can strut onto the field with 10 traditions backing them up. Bickham's city smashers, for example, could be torn apart by a heavily trained legion of cavalry. But losing an army of seasoned troops shouldn't spell disaster, either.
"It's no longer about--putting it in the context of previous games, armies were stacks of troops, and you just kind of mashed troops together, and you'd add more, and you'd build the stack," Bickham said. "I think by the end of the game you'll have some incredibly experienced guys you'll be really attached to because you've crafted them over time. They're like macro RPG characters made of thousands of men."
Because fighting AI just isn't the same as taking a sword to the face of a good friend, you know? Empire: Total War has opened its multiplayer campaign beta to testers again after a long three years—here's your chance to get back in on the action.
The multiplayer campaign was first added almost a year after release, way back in December 2009, though the doors have been barred for quite some time. A new page recently sprung up on the Empire: Total War website, though, once again welcoming beta registrants.
"Shortly after Empire: Total War was released, we added in an unsupported multiplayer campaign beta," says the sign-up page. "Not everyone was able to get hold of a key for this and the application process was eventually discontinued. In response to fan requests we are, for a limited time, offering the opportunity to apply for a key once more."
So head on over and drop your email address in the box. You'll be told that the team will "be in touch," but there's no word of when. If you receive your invite, let me know what the hell's going on in there—I want to know all about the three-year party that's been raging within Total War.
Last week, Ironclad Games’ director and co-owner Blair Fraser called the RTS genre “a dying market.” The genre convention of base building is “done,” Fraser says, and while a handful of games like Company of Heroes “may be profitable,” it’s his belief that RTSes are “very niche.”
Hearing these comments from a strategy studio we respect sparked our own discussion: what’s the state of real-time strategy? In this Face Off debate, T.J. and Evan talk about the health of the genre, and debate whether its popularity has waned to never return, or if it’s actually seeing a resurgence.
Jump over to the next page for more opinions from the PC Gamer community, and make your own arguments in the comments. Debate team captains: construct additional arguments.
Evan: Let’s be clear: this isn’t something that I or we are rooting for. We love RTSes. Command & Conquer was one of my formative games. But the decline of real-time strategy as a popular experience is indisputable. RTS has shrank from the smorgasbord of experiences it offered in the ‘90s and early ‘00s—the era of Warcraft, Age of Empires, Ground Control, Homeworld, and Total Annihilation. I don’t think there’s any hope for a comeback.
TJ: Oh ye of little faith. Well, I’m sure you expected I’d play the eSports card. So... bam! There it is, on the table. All of the most popular eSports are either traditional RTSes, or spins on traditional RTSes. Competitive strategy gaming is drawing millions of viewers in hundreds of countries. How can you say a genre that’s driving that kind of revolution is dying? It looks vibrant and energetic from where I’m sitting.
Evan: The eSports “revolution” you’re describing can be attributed to the increased access to fast, high-quality internet video. eSports is in a better state than it was in the age of DSL and dial-up, sure, but StarCraft is the only conventional RTS with any success as an eSport.
TJ: So far. We’re only two and a half years in. That’s like saying sports were dead back when all they had was Throw the Rock Through the Hoop.
Evan: I’m glad to see eSports doing as well as it is. But really, this is about what we play and pay for, not about what we spectate. It’s about how few games are being made in a genre we used to count as a pillar of PC gaming. Most RTS studios are either closing or scrambling to change their core competency. Relic released a shooter in 2011. Petroglyph laid off 19 people in December and saw its game, End of Nations, brought in-house by its publisher. Sins of a Dark Age, which was initially pitched as an RTS-meets-MOBA, just ditched a “Commander Mode” RTS component that seemed promising. And Gas Powered Games, after declaring that it’d stop adding new content to Age of Empires Online, and after laying off most of its employees, is clinging to a Kickstarter campaign that seems doomed.
I don’t want to see any of these studios shuttered. We need independent, creative groups like Gas Powered in the industry. But this is simply not a healthy genre. Real-time strategy doesn’t have enough fans to support it.
TJ: I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I would be really, genuinely surprised if there were actually fewer total people playing RTS than in the days of WarCraft III. Gaming, and even PC gaming specifically, have only gained traction since then. Huge traction. I think the fans are definitely there. If anything is dying, it’s the idea that RTSes should be given the same treatment, as shooters or action games, whose audiences have grown faster.
If anything, not enough devs have caught on to how you make and market an RTS in the modern market. You don’t spend Call of Duty money on an these things. And that’s hardly a stubborn enough problem that it would leave us without “any hope for a comeback.”
Evan: Not enough devs have “caught on” because it’s such a challenge for an RTS to make the money of a modern budget back. Again, look at Age of Empires Online. Its parent games were beloved and immensely popular. It reinvented itself as a free game. Gas Powered abandoned it just eight months after release. Very few people are playing it.
Should base-building be retired as a game mechanic? Will Kickstarter allow more studios to market RTS games directly to the people that want them?
TJ: I pin the failure of AOEO on a weak launch. There just wasn’t enough content—and only two factions? Really? If it had launched as the fleshed-out experience it became, I think it would have had a lot more success. Once the gaming masses have decided your game is lackluster, there’s not a lot you can do to bring them back.
Evan: I don’t know... if a free Age of Empires can’t make it, what chance do lesser-knowns like End of Nations have of surviving? I expect a similar fate for the next Command & Conquer, which will also be free to play. Face it: all the recent experiments with RTS have failed.
TJ: So did all the experimentations with human flight for hundreds of years. And they’ve only failed if your definition is pretty narrow.
Evan: This isn’t science—it’s business, and consumers continue to leave the genre. I think a lot of those people are flocking to a genre that was originally a spin-off of Warcraft III. Dota 2 and League of Legends are more popular and successful than StarCraft because designers realized that most people are intimidated by base building and managing a whole army.
TJ: Most people don’t play PC games (in the core audience sense) in the first place. What I’m saying is that RTS is a niche, but it’s no smaller of a niche, in terms of number of players, than it was in the glory days when it represented a higher percentage, because there just weren’t as many gamers. And if you want to talk about consumers expressing themselves, look no further than the 2.2-million-dollar Planetary Annihilation Kickstarter. That’s about as RTS as RTS gets, and it shows that there’s still plenty of vitality in the space beyond the traditional model of publishers bent on spending more than they can make back on these types of games.
Evan: Planetary Annihilation looks terrific! Like any rational human, I’m looking forward to weaponizing asteroids. But Planetary’s “success” is still just 44,000 people. Compare that to another recent spiritual successor made by another small studio—MechWarrior Online, which made 5 million dollars through its pre-order program. Mech games aren’t exactly mainstream—publishers have been afraid to back them for a decade.
Calling RTS a niche is accurate, I guess. But compared to the “glory days,” as you’ve labeled them, I think the genre as it exists now is a clump of lifeboats that’ve escaped from the capsized Titanic.
TJ: You’re comparing apples to robots here. Pre-orders and Kickstarter aren’t necessarily the same thing. I’m not arguing that RTS is as lucrative a genre as, say, shooters or action games. But there are plenty of people on those lifeboats to start a thriving island society. Which is arguably what PC gaming is: a series of thriving, passionate communities.
Evan: Perhaps that island society of yours can gather enough resources to build a second base, tech up, then construct air units. I hope they won’t have to resort to cannibalism.
For more opinions on PC gaming, follow Evan, T.J., and PC Gamer on Twitter. On the next page: more opinions from the community.
Here’s what folks on Twitter wrote back when we asked the following:
@pcgamer no way its dead. It's the best genre by far and the crowning area of pc dominance.— Hilander (@Canisrah) February 4, 2013
@pcgamer We may never see another Age of Empires, but we have Planetary Annihilation, CoH, DoW, SC, and MOBAs. Gimme Homeworld 3!— Josh B (@Branstetter87) February 4, 2013
@pcgamer not dead, but shrinking. By listening too intently to the hardcore crowd, fun simplicity has become overwhelming complexity.— Ryan Aleson (@TacticalGenius) February 5, 2013
@pcgamer RTS genre is alive more than in past, just look at Planetary Annihilation – one of the most funded games on Kickstarter!— Adam Wayland (@AdamWayland86) February 6, 2013
@pcgamer It is a genre in decline in terms of IPs and also game scale. Dying not necessarily but more like small and established.— Alexander Lai(@Lex_Lai) February 4, 2013
@pcgamer It's dying because of the repetitive formulas that every new game has. It's like the state of MMOs, no MMORPG can compete with WoW.— Jesús Jiménez-Lara (@MrVariaZ) February 4, 2013
@pcgamer RTS is not a dying market. It is, was and always will be a niche market. Some people them but most people hate them— Chris Thieblot (@christhieblot) February 5, 2013
@pcgamer Single player games are dying, RTSes are dying, adventure games are dying... nobody tell Valve, Uber, or Telltale!— Jacob Dieffenbach (@dieffenbachj) February 4, 2013
@pcgamer Traditional RTS games translate poorly to consoles, and few devs making PC exclusives outside major franchises.— Eric Watson (@RogueWatson) February 5, 2013
@pcgamer I love my rts games. There the first games I ever played and I don't plan on stopping any time soon.— Scott Ratter (@napatakking) February 5, 2013