In the heat of battle, the fear you inflict on enemies and the loyalty you inspire in allies will play a "massive role" in The Creative Assembly's upcoming strategy game Total War: Rome 2.
Speaking with Polygon during an event in San Francisco, studio communications manager Al Bickham explained how the game's system would work. Many a great battle has been won or lost on the basis of morale, and players will need to tap into that notion to be successful. A group of soldiers will not mechanically fight to the death, but flee to see another day. During our time with the demo, we came to know the sour taste of defeat as a result of that fear.
"Generally speaking, if a unit of 200 men lost 10 or 15 percent of its number, those guys are going to get scared and run away," Bickham said. "It's quite a good tactic on the battlefield to aim for morale breakage, rather than simply killing everybody. Individual fights are over quicker, and then you can reform your forces and be more effective because you've got greater local superiority. You've got more forces against the next unit that you fight. Morale is absolutely key to battles."
Morale can be manipulated in many different ways. Cavalry units, for example, have a special move that acts as a temporary morale modifier. Their hits hurt because they're "tearing through screaming, bellowing and blowing the horns," Bickham said.
"A war elephant ... is much more terrifying than a man in a loin cloth with a stick."
"If you want your army to hold fast, you keep it in formation," Bickham said. "If a unit has its flanks exposed, it doesn't like that. It's naturally going to be more worried. If you, like the Romans did, line your troops up in nice big blocks like that, their morale is going to be much more solid."
Even the kind of unit matters — and in some cases, it's more obvious than others.
"A war elephant charging toward you is much more terrifying than a man in a loin cloth with a stick," Bickham said.
If players want to lend their troops emotional strength, it's a good idea to take a general into battle. Generals come with a natural radius of morale boosting, and their presence can help steady a shaky troop's hand.
"If he's just behind the troops, going ‘Onwards boys!' [he's boosting morale] and they're all within his radius," Bickham said. "They'll all gain a morale boost of some kind — a greater or lower level depending on the general's stats."
Like any RPG character, generals will level up; players can then shape them as they like. Some stats will improve their fighting skills or defense, while others increase their ability to encourage their soldiers. Finding the right balance for your playstyle will be a key part of battle, Bickham said.
Boosting morale isn't the only thing players need be aware of. Their relationships with allies will be clearer than ever before thanks to the game's diplomacy system, Bickham said. It's a key part of tracking an ally's loyalty and their overall opinion of you. Using the game's diplomacy interface, players will be able to quickly check the relations panel to view their past actions. This accounts for all battles fought, factions spoken to and much more — all things the AI will judge your relationship based on. If a player has attacked a faction the AI is rallied against, it will like you. If you've traded with the AI's friends, it will like you. Those situations all work in the reverse as well.
"[The AI] is doing something for a reason," Bickham said. "And we haven't always shown the player those reasons. Now you can see why. It's like, ‘you're getting too big, I'm worried about you.' There's a reason why it's broken its trade agreement and attacked you. It gives you a good level of transparency about how the AI feels about you."
For more on Total War: Rome 2, check out our interviews on the game's political system and the challenges political conflict posed.