When in Rome…

Title: Imperator: Rome
Platform: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Paradox Interactive
Publisher: Paradox Publishing
Price: £35/$40
Release Date: Out now
TL;DR: Sacking Rome has never felt so good… or so bureaucratic.
Family Focus?: Click here for more information

Imperator: Rome, the latest cutthroat strategy game to be added to Paradox’s pile of complex RTS games, feels like a breath of fresh air for the developer and the genre as a whole. Sure, it carries a lot of what we’ve come to expect, but it has some new and interesting ideas that, coupled with a fascinating setting and a brilliant melding of history and gameplay, makes it a game well worth trying out if you fancy yourself as a military mind born a little too late to conquer this crazy blue and green marble.

If playing Imperator Rome has taught me one thing, it’s that I am most definitely not cut out to be one such conqueror. A lot of this is down to Rome’s insistence on being a cauldron of bureaucracy, bubbling with info bars, menus, sub-menus, budget balancing, and trading routes. If you’re able to keep on top of all this then you’ll manage to carve out a tidy piece of empire to call your own, but it won’t happen right off the bat – Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that. While the UI of Imperator Rome doesn’t differ too much from what Paradox has offered before, it’s a system that’s sure to boggle the mind of new players as you get lost in a hole of trying to figure out where it is you’re trying to import wood from or figuring out which families feel like you’re not paying them enough attention.

But it’s these same twisting facets of the game that make Imperator Rome a strategic juggernaut, giving you so many different ways of leaving your mark in the game. As you’d expect, the game caters for the military route with a certain amount of razzle dazzle; with armies ranging from your run-of the-mill archers, to chariots, and even war elephants this time around. You’ll have to weigh up your aspiring army against your monthly income though, with an upfront cost for different military types also needing to be maintained with an additional monthly outgoing. It’s a neat idea, one that takes a long time getting used to, sure, but it’s a meaningful caveat that manages to limit any overnight empires while acting like a natural marker for you little slice of kingdom.

It means that as you work to slowly grow your army, you’ll have to resort to different ways of bolstering your coffers and ranks if you hope to get anywhere in the game. The goods you import to your city have a couple of benefits, one being a way of bringing in some money through tax and the other being the benefits that imported goods bring to your town. Those extra goodies are something that encapsulate the game pretty damn well, with the devil being in the detail, giving you the slightest of boosts simply for doing your research. They can make a big difference when you know what to import and even better if you can manage to find somewhere that you can trade with without having to worry about going to war with them later down the line.

Of course, war is a constant threat in the game, and it’s rarely good for business. Thankfully, a large part of Imperator Rome is forging alliances with neighbouring provinces; it’s a feature that makes surviving as a small kingdom a little bit easier and gives you a little bit of extra backup when those bastards from Icenia try taking your land. But alliances are far from binding contracts and they can be broken when you need them the most; likewise you can decide not to ride to an ally’s rescue when they’re defending a siege, using it to your advantage to lay claim to some unattended cities if you’re smart. This side of the game, the paper thin alliances and tactical backstabbing is definitely the wobbliest part, with decisions seemingly brokered by crunching the numbers to the point that it feels a little too formulaic at times, which is a bit of a shame, because it’s this Machiavellian side of Imperator Rome that really pulled me in.

Despite all these different avenues in the game that you can easily lose yourself in, the big changes for the game are saved for when you decide to march your toy soldiers to war. You can lay claim to pretty much any neighbouring city, but if you just take it by force, you’ll be seen as a bit of a bastard. Instead, Imperator has introduced a clever Casus Bellis system, which is essentially a permission slip for invading a country. There are two ways of getting the green light in the game, with the easiest being the “Fabricate a Claim,” option, which is you, I imagine, waving your arms around hysterically and shouting about how that piece of land to the north actually belongs to you. What follows is either painstaking construction as you pour your budget into an army, or a terrifying realisation that you’ve picked the wrong fight as you see allied troops showing up to defend against your claim. It’s a prelude to war that plays out in a near masterful way, giving you as much time as you need to assemble and dispatch your troops or call your alliances before officially declaring war, though the more time you take, the more time your enemy has to do the same.

It’s also worth mentioning the new take on attrition in Imperator Rome; with travelling units of your army no longer dependent on the supplies that each city they pass through has. Armies now have an independent storage which means, for example, a troop of 3000 soldiers can move from A to B without losing anyone, because its storage caters for up to 5000 soldiers. Attrition now kicks in when you’re travelling as a troop of, say, 13,000 soldiers with a storage that can only serve 10,000 soldiers. It’s another clever move that means you’ll never be able to march with a gaudy number of troops, ripping through whatever opposition you come across. Instead, you’ll have split units up to numbers that can survive the journey, using the game’s terrains and military access through cities en route to your destination to your advantage.

These aren’t huge changes for veteran players to become accustomed to, but it feels like enough to leave you with space to experiment and figure out the nooks and crannies of these new features in a pretty pleasing way. It’s not all change though, with the rules of combat being the most telling of Paradox relying on what it knows best. The tactics for combat stick with the dressed up Rock, Paper, Scissors format; you can choose from tactics like bottlenecking your opposition or enveloping them, along with a few others. Each tactic has an advantage over one alternative, while it’s weaker against another. It’s a tried and tested formula, one that’s pretty easy to understand once you get past the tactical malarkey and glance over the statistical success of each one.

It feels a bit dodgy to say that Imperator Rome is a game for everyone, because it really isn’t. There’s enough there to keep veterans of RTS at bay while you get to grips with a handful of new features, while anyone who’s coming into the genre, fresh faced and ambitious to prove yourself a tactical mastermind, will most likely be bogged down trying to make sense of the game’s labyrinthine UI before getting to grips with the actual gameplay. That doesn’t take away from the level of detail that Imperator Rome has managed to deliver, though, creating an elaborate chessboard that melds history with deep, almost painful, strategy in a wholly pleasing way once you get the hang of it.

The Good:

  • A brilliant melting pot of history and strategy
  • A nice variety of routes to pursue in the game other than military power
  • A massive map for you to play around with

The Bad:

  • The intricacies of the game are baffling
  • The politics of the game are really strong overall, but fall a little short when it comes to alliances breaking down
  • It’ll steal every second of your free time if you let it (fine, this isn’t really a bad thing)

Family Focus

PEGI: 16 ESRB: “T” for Teen

Imperator: Rome is pretty fine from an aesthetic point of view but does deal with things like slavery, genocide, sacrificing innocent people to terrifying pagan gods, and you can make up reasons for invading some random place. Basically, the game doesn’t have much in the way of positive lessons for kids.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a copy of the game provided by PR for the purpose of this review.