The Total War series has always lacked humanity. Sure, it had giant fleets of historically accurate red dots clashing with massive armadas of historically accurate blue dots, and historically accurate shields and weapons and horses and boats and trebuchets and cannons - but it never had humanity. You’d zoom down on a squad and see 30 near-identical hoplites standing in rows, each basically amounting to one life point of a 30 life point hoplite unit. It was breathtaking, and huge, and amazing, and grand, but it didn’t have a heart. Total War: Rome 2, which is still over a year from being anywhere close to release, looks to solve this issue by injecting some micro into a series that has, by and large, always been addicted to macro, in order to focus on the one as much as it does the many.
Units are gifted a soul from a divine intervention known as the “Unit Camera,” a mechanic that far exceeds its rather bland name. At its core, it’s actually not all that different from the ability to zoom in on soldiers (something that was available in other Total War games as well), but what we found when we zoomed in was much, much more unique. From up close, we began to see what Creative Assembly’s goals were with the game, and how it planned on evolving Total War past the predictable additions like new gameplay mechanics and units.
As a gargantuan Roman fleet approached Carthage from the sea, the developers zoomed in on the boat in front and caught a candid conversation with the leader of the attack force, talking strategy with his second-in-command. “Kill everything,” he muttered, and the man to his side walked away. It looked like a pre-rendered video, but within moments, we were zoomed back to the series’ typical top-down view, watching the boats approach the coast from on high.
The boats eventually reached land, and the units began to disembark. Mixing naval and ground battles is a new element in Total War: Rome 2, and one the developers explained would allow for much more complicated attacks. First, though, the soldiers needed to take the gate, which meant a long crawl up the beach towards the wall. This would've been an anticlimactic journey in any other strategy game, right-clicking a path for the units to trudge through, but thanks to Unit Camera, it was a scene evoking Saving Private Ryan mixed with Gladiator. We were right there with the soldiers as they charged up the beach, dodging arrows and artillery strikes from the city's defenses. Each blast caused the camera to shake as they ran towards the siege tower, slowly making their way towards the wall.
This tower, too, could be zoomed into. Inside, a brave man gave a speech to other brave men, ready to leap out of a giant cardboard box onto a wall covered in more brave men. They all looked slightly different as he waved his sword in the air, rallying them with his words and promises of courage. Suddenly we forgot we were watching a Total War game – it was Gears of War, Call of Duty, or some other military action franchise that puts an emphasis on big speeches from big men brandishing weapons. “Glory for Rome!” he screamed, and the door opened, pouring soldiers out onto eager blades waiting on the wall.
Again we zoomed out, watching units attack from every side in typical Total War fashion. The siege tower was joined by several others trying to deposit bodies onto the wall to fight. It was as grand in scale as any other Total War game, conveying the sense of absolutely massive battles that favor large-scale decisions over micromanagement.
Though we didn’t see it, we were also told that it’s going to have the biggest campaign of any Total War game, with a much larger map than the last game, extending further east to allow for more territories to be conquered. It would also bring more of Rome to life, further completing the Roman experience with slavery, circuses, gladiators, religion, and everything else we associate with the legendary empire.
This emphasis on scale was demonstrated once the Roman soldiers took the wall and began storming the city. Inside we were given a look at the Tactical Camera, which amounted to a Google Maps overhead view of the city. This is the yang to the Unit Camera’s yin, showing exactly how far removed we could be from the dying men in our forces. It was absolutely massive – much larger than anything we’d seen in previous Total War games – complete with multiple capture points and an absurdly detailed city. It looked great on the macro and the micro scale, as we again switched to the Unit Camera to see the city from the ground floor. Suddenly, it looked like Assassin’s Creed, with detailed streets that conveyed a sense of scale that a distant overhead view simply can’t establish.
It also made things that would look stunning from the sky look even more remarkable and frightening. Towers crumbling as siege attacks rained down on the city would simply be neat from above. On the ground, it’s cinematic, and watching the individual soldiers reacting to the world falling apart was nothing short of extraordinary. The demo ended when another soldier rallied his squad, only to be greeted by a horde of rampaging elephants stampeding through the streets. From the sky, this would've been a tactical war game; on the ground, it was a horror movie.
Total War: Rome 2 takes place during a time where individuals could make history, so it makes sense that the game would focus in on just that – the individuals. There are still tons of new mechanics that focus on the large-scale battles, including persistent squads that level up, but by putting a face on the war with Unit Camera and bringing us down to the human level, Creative Assembly has gifted its sequel humanity, and we can’t wait to see more.