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Total War: Rome 2's Battle of Teutoburg Forest puts players on the losing side

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Creative Assembly has stated that Total War: Rome 2 is the biggest game in the franchise, and as it approaches completion, they've got the numbers to back them up. 500 unit types, 183 map regions, a 313% increase in budget from the first Rome: Total War (and a 50% increase from 2011's Total War: Shogun 2) — it's all very impressive, but what does it mean for the game?

In a presentation at GDC 2013, Creative Assembly showed off Rome 2 with the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, one of the game's historical stand-alone battles. This scenario puts players into a challenging situation, since Tuetoburg is notorious as a battle where Roman forces got completely destroyed by Germanic barbarians. In this virtual re-creation of that event, players are tasked with getting as many of the Roman troops out alive as possible in an ambush they're fated to lose.

Immediately leaning toward its inevitable outcome, the narrow forest map begins with Roman forces beset by flaming boulders rolled at them by the barbarians. One of the new features of Rome 2 helps rally the troops after this initial chaos: the tactical map. Players can pull the map out completely to see a full view of the battlefield, with the disposition and location of all units. Move orders can be issued from the tactical view, but players need to zoom back in to play out more complex strategies.

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest also offered a look at the many different unit types available in Rome 2. While the Roman army was made up of some of the obvious, expected types — sword-wielding warriors, spearmen, armored officers on horseback and archers — the barbarians had a wider range of unique troops. Germanic forces early in the mission were made up of weak, unarmored attackers that were easily dispersed. Later, they were joined by archers hiding in the trees and vicious attack dogs.

The most powerful troops were saved for the end. As the mission neared its desperate conclusion, the Romans were surrounded by berserkers, a tough Germanic unit type that cuts through opposing troops like paper. Creative Assembly creative director Mike Simpson used his remaining spearmen units as a wall to give his other troops a chance to get away, but they didn't hold the berserkers for long. Simpson made it out of the forest, succeeding in his mission, but his army had shrunk from hundreds at the start to a couple of dozen by the end.

Each huge skirmish is a technological feat, with a flood of troops crashing into each other and fighting. But there are some clear indications that Rome 2 still has some work left to be done. The level of animation detail for soldiers can be impressive to behold — such as when infantry duck and raise their shields above their heads to protect themselves from enemy arrows — but it can also look strange and stilted. In some of the clashes in the demo, soldiers would stand around awkwardly, not attacking or advancing even as enemy troops milled nearby. It almost seems like an uncanny valley problem; Creative Assembly has taken the visuals of the Total War series to such an impressive level of realism that even the smallest quirks stand out as incredibly jarring.

That said, it's great to see Total War branching into more and more complex historical situations. Simpson said Rome 2 will cover around 300 years of history with a more complicated faction system and larger, more varied battlefields than they've ever done previously. The game walks a precarious balance between realism and fun, but Simpson emphasized that everything in the game comes from some historical source — there's nothing they make up completely, even if they might embellish some facts.

The gameplay seems like it's falling onto the right side of that realism/fun balance. Here's hoping that the troop animations follow suit before Total War: Rome 2 is released later this year.

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