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With a couple of days to try it gratis, I’ve jumped into Imperator: Rome. Because I can.

My very first impression is that it really does look like a sequel to Europa Universalis: Rome. This is to contrast with alternative impressions such as “Crusader Kings II ported to Rome” or “Europa Universalis IV ported to Rome.” This actually surprises me, because I fully expected one of the latter two. EU: Rome seemed created, in part, to be a stepping stone between the original Crusader Kings and the sequel, which launched* the second version of the Clausewitz Engine. Likewise, the timing of Imperator: Rome suggests it could be a stepping stone to Crusader Kings III. Although I’ve made peace with the original EU: Rome, it still has the feel of an ugly stepsister to Paradox’s flagship games. Despite initial impressions, time spent playing allays that first impression of a EU: Rome with a graphical facelift.

My second first impression came from noticing that the Consuls have five-year (lustrum!) terms in office instead of one. Recall that my latest interest in all-things-Rome was sparked by the Senatorial politics of the Roman Republic. Part of me just wants a bug-free, feature complete version of Pax Romana. Such an obvious historical misstep makes me wonder if I’m going to get just another Rome: Total War faction management rather than the politics of ancient Rome. My concern, here too, abated with time and reason. Apparently, the thinking behind five year turns was to make the game more manageable and I suppose that makes some sense. In a game that lasts centuries, holding an election every year means you, the player, would be spending all your time on elections AND changing primary characters incessantly. Five-year elections provides a stability and continuity to the government that like would emerge from a realistic model of politics. If Harris’ works were reliable, I’d expect political alliances to mean that consul succession was considerably less dramatic than it otherwise might seem to be.

Having made peace with the election cycle, what do I make of the political portion of the game? Three hours isn’t enough to tell. So far, the simulation seems deeper than anything post-Pax Romana. The two biggest items I’m looking for is the impact that one’s resume has on future game impacts (i.e. the cursus honorum) and meaningful interplay between the political factions. There certainly seem to be plenty of political options on the table and I’m a long way from understanding their impact. Can the player create and manage alliances among AI-controlled characters? Potentially, this could be an area ripe for expansion by user-created mods, although I don’t see anything created yet.

So enough of what I didn’t see. What did I see?

latin1

Plenty of allies means light work.

Imperator: Rome starts you out with a well-constructed tutorial. There are a series of goals which propel you forward in a logical manner and also earn you special bonus for completion. The tutorial explains that doing your missions in the order presented helps acclimatize you to the game’s features. But although I liked the structure, I found it surprisingly difficult. One expects the tutorial to be idiot-proof. In this case, it starts you off by asking you to beef-up your army and navy, but when I did so the expense overwhelmed my economy. I made it through the first few goals but I felt I’d dug myself into a hole from which I’d never get back out of.

Time to start again.

I started over at the top of the grand campaign, this time without the tutorial turned on. Like in the tutorial, you begin just after the close of the Second (Great) Samnite War. Like Crusader Kings, you do not have event-branching that tries to follow a historical path. To substitute, there is a more complex mission structure whereby you establish longer-range goals and then incrementally move toward them. However, as I began my efforts to unify Italy, the Etruscans asked for an alliance and then proceeded to to beat on the Umbri.

The obvious comparison, here, is with Field of Glory: Empires, which starts at roughly the same time. They have the same “course of Empire” focus and therefore will offer a similar feel. Given the “tactical battles” feature of FoG:E it is perhaps counter-intuitive but it is Imperator: Rome that feels more like it is correctly getting into details of the battles. I’d go so far as to say that the balance between the timescales seems to have finally been correctly struck – the fight between two field armies now takes a matter of days to resolve, not weeks or months.

Outside of the the war-cycle, I’m a little less clear on what I am doing and three hours wasn’t enough to appreciate the big picture. In the great Latin War, my capture of “Interamnia” (see screenshot) put me in a good position to profit from the peace treaty. Rome was granted control over a chunk of Sabinum. Immediately, I got a warning that my new province was short of food. It also doesn’t have much in the way of people, or buildings, or anything else. So despite the complaints about lack of food, that doesn’t seem like its going to be a problem. Nevertheless, that suggests that my goal should be to develop commerce in that new province. Developing commerce was not part of the tutorial. Time, I suppose for some good old trial and error. And to do that, I’m going to need more than a few days of free trial, aren’t I?

It would appear that Paradox’s marketing move worked its intended magic upon me. A few days of free trial got me interested enough to spring for the paid game, and the simultaneously-discounted price meant that I couldn’t dither – I had to buy before the price went back up. So I did. The same move didn’t work for Half-Life. As much as I was steadily making it through the Black Mesa facility, I’m not tempted to drop $10 to keep playing, much less purchase the Half-Life 1/2 bundle package. Ah well. You win some, you lose some.

*Well, not really. The first game on that engine was Sengoku, a sort of Crusader Kings in Japan. Many saw Sengoku, also, as a trial run for CK2. Gameplay-wise, it seems to be overtaken by Crusader Kings II and period-wise by EU4. I’ve never played it, myself.