Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Rome: Total War Demo

I took at a look at the Rome: Total War demo yesterday, and while it's everything it should be, it was still less than I expected. In spite of the stellar graphics and the intuitive interface, as I played I was not disinterested but somehow unmoved. This says less about the game than it does about my perspective on RTS games.

I've written this before, but the RTS genre has evolved into spreadsheets represented by graphics. There is a relationship between the large numbers of units shown on the screen and an impersonal, remote feeling that pervades most of the canon. In a word, the genre is dispassionate.

That's not true of all RTS games. The two that stand out most vividly as exceptions are Startopia and Tropico. Startopia was a wildly divergent game--real-time strategy, but overflowing with personality. The space-station setting was packed with comedy and featured an entire level--the biosphere--that was a game in itself. It sold poorly and was the last game PC game Mucky Foot developed before they disbanded. That's me--I've really got my pulse on the market. My stamp of approval was the death rattle.

Tropico, to me, represents what might be the high-water mark of the real-time strategy genre. It does so by being extraordinarily personal. As the leader of a banana republic, you must monitor citizen unrest--at the citizen level. Click on anyone in your country and you can see his needs, his moods, his dissatisfactions. The number of responses available to any crisis are as varied as they are remarkable--you can provide more services, reduce taxes, bribe, even imprison the leaders of opposing factions, with the consequence that you might well ferment a revolution. In short, there is a cost for every opportunity. That's how well-balanced games work.

As I played Tropico, I never felt remote from what was happening. I was never above the action. I was inside the action, and that makes all the difference in the world to me. I respect Phil Steinmeyer so highly for this brilliant game that when Railroad Tycoon 3 came out last fall, something very curious happened. When I realized after about fifteen hours of play that this game lacked the deeply personal nature of Tropico, and was more like 'other' RTS games, I could not bring myself to write the criticism.

If you're wondering how often that's happened to me, the answer is never. I did not offer false praise, for my initial impressions were very positive, but I somehow could not force myself to say that after further play, the game was beautiful but distant.

That is remarkably similar to how I felt about Rome: Total War. Remarkably beautiful, yet distant. I'll still buy the game, and I'm (paradoxically) still looking forward to it, but I expect less than I did before.

Site Meter