Im­per­a­tor: Rome

I came, I saw, I made a great big mess

PC GAMER (US) - - CONTENTS - Tom Hat­field

When I sat down in front of Para­dox’s new grand strat­egy game I had one big ques­tion: What is Im­per­a­tor: Rome ex­actly? Is it Cru­sader Kings in to­gas? Is it a Ro­man Europa Uni­ver­salis? Is it, as the fans will no doubt ask, Vicky 3? The an­swer is none and all of these things. “You have the pop­u­la­tion me­chan­ics that are sim­i­lar to games like Stel­laris or Vic­to­ria, the war­fare and diplo­macy which is sim­i­lar to EuropaUniver­salis and the char­ac­ters that are closer to Cru­sader Kings,” ex­plains Jo­han An­der­s­son, the cre­ative di­rec­tor on Im­per­a­tor and a Para­dox vet­eran of over 20 years. He knows what he’s talk­ing about, be­cause he’s worked on ev­ery sin­gle one of those games. In fact when I ask him which Para­dox games he’s worked on, the list goes on for sev­eral min­utes. “I didn’t do su­per much on Stel­laris, but ev­ery­thing else,” An­der­s­son says. Im­per­a­tor is the cul­mi­na­tion of all this ex­pe­ri­ence.

The first thing I no­tice upon sit­ting down is that the UI is dom­i­nated by a deeply Hel­lenic white mar­ble and a gen­er­ally bright and vi­brant color pal­ette. “It’s a very hope­ful aes­thetic” ex­plains lead artist Joacim Carl­berg. “Which con­trasts to our pre­vi­ous games, at least Cru­saderKings, which does take place in the Dark Ages af­ter all.” There’s also a ter­rific zoom op­tion that au­to­mat­i­cally fades out from a de­tailed ter­rain map to a flat po­lit­i­cal one as you zoom out.

Things are gen­er­ally more ac­ces­si­ble than pre­vi­ous Para­dox games as well, with fewer op­tions buried mul­ti­ple menus deep. One of the nicest touches is the diplo­macy screen where, in­stead of pick­ing coun­tries from a list, you sim­ply open the diplo­macy tab and then click on the coun­try on the main map. It’s still not easy to un­der­stand, the sheer amount of in­for­ma­tion the game is throw­ing out makes that dif­fi­cult, but it is bet­ter.

The sec­ond thing that strikes me is the Se­nate. Yes, we’re in the era of Repub­li­can Rome, not Im­pe­rial Rome—in fact, the game starts in the early days of the Re­pub­lic, and ends be­fore the his­toric tran­si­tion to Em­pire. “The Repub­li­can era is ac­tu­ally also when Rome is in its pri­mary ex­pan­sion phase,” ex­plains Hen­rik Lohman­der, game de­signer. “When it comes to en­com­pass the whole Mediter­ranean and the Re­pub­lic deals with the grow­ing pains that come from that, and that’s how they even­tu­ally end up be­ing the Em­pire. Bet­ter to end there per­haps than do the Em­pire badly.” Play­ers will still be able to tran­si­tion to Em­pire early, if they so wish.

But I’m get­ting ahead of my­self. Right now Rome is a re­pub­lic, and that means the Se­nate votes on ev­ery­thing I do. The pool of sen­a­tors is drawn from sev­eral fac­tions, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary, mer­chants, and re­li­gious types, all of which have dif­fer­ent likes and dis­likes (the mer­chants for ex­am­ple, don’t want to go to war with any­one you are trad­ing with). The num­bers of sen­a­tors from each fac­tion change as they gain pop­u­lar­ity, and if a fac­tion is happy they pro­vide a stat bonus to the Re­pub­lic.

In ad­di­tion to this more ab­stract sys­tem there are also named char­ac­ters, each be­longs to a fac­tion, and they do jobs like gov­er­nors, ad­vi­sors, and gen­er­als. They also have traits and per­son­al­i­ties (Bru­tus is crafty, of course) and some lovely mem­o­rable por­traits. Here is where things start go­ing wrong for me, be­cause I pick the best gen­eral I can find and stick him in charge of my only army. His name is Mar­ius Quin­tus, and he’s a pop­ulist.

Si vis pacem, para bel­lum

Like any good Ro­man, I im­me­di­ately de­clare war on my near­est neigh­bor, the Sam­nites. War is sim­pler in an­cient times. There isn’t re­ally such a thing as a ‘De Jure

Things are gen­er­ally more ac­ces­si­ble than pre­vi­ous Para­dox games

King­dom’, his­toric bor­ders don’t ex­ist yet, so what­ever you can hold you can keep. I still need to fab­ri­cate a claim to start wars (this is the era when ca­sus belli first came to be used, af­ter all), but they’re mostly a pre­text, and it’s per­fectly okay to take more land than I ini­tially de­manded. “Ev­ery strat­egy game is about cre­at­ing an em­pire,” says An­der­s­son. “This is a pe­riod when that ac­tu­ally hap­pened.”

The Sam­nites turn out to have a bunch of al­lies who back them up, so I call in my friends, and then our friends call in friends, and soon the en­tirety of Italy is on fire as 20 dif­fer­ent tiny patch­work king­doms start fight­ing over my land grab. The bat­tles play out sim­i­larly to Cru­sader KingsII, which is use­ful as it means I know what I’m do­ing. Quin­tus dis­tin­guishes him­self with many vic­to­ries, which is where the prob­lems start.

You see, Quin­tus’s army is now more loyal to him than they are to Rome. Since this is my en­tire army, if Quin­tus de­cides that maybe he should be in charge in­stead of me, there’s re­ally noth­ing I can do to stop him. It’s ap­pro­pri­ate to the era, but it’s also an ele­gant so­lu­tion to the age-old strat­egy game prob­lem of not want­ing play­ers to stick all their units in one gi­gan­tic army. Un­for­tu­nately, I didn’t know about it when I started and now there’s an omi­nous icon say­ing ‘Count­down to Civil War’ in the corner of the screen.

Dis­as­ter is thank­fully averted, al­though not be­cause of me. In­stead, Quin­tus’s pop­u­lar­ity gets him elected to head of the Se­nate. This pla­cates him and ends the civil war count­down. Thank­fully, un­like Cru­saderKingsII, I am not play­ing as a par­tic­u­lar dy­nasty, I’ll be in charge of Rome who­ever is elected. In fact, if I wanted to change Rome to an Em­pire while still stay­ing in charge then hav­ing a pow­er­ful pop­ulist (the Nigel Farage kind, not the Jeremy Cor­byn kind) leader like Quin­tus would be ex­actly what I wanted. “They’re bad for the Re­pub­lic,” Hen­rik says, “but they might not be bad for you.”

Dur­ing this pe­riod I start to dig down into the peace­time me­chan­ics a bit more. In Im­per­a­tor each city is pop­u­lated by Ci­ti­zens who pro­duce re­search, Freemen who pro­duce man­power for the army, Tribes­men who are use­less, and Slaves who pro­duce raw ma­te­ri­als. I can pro­mote peo­ple be­tween these dif­fer­ent roles, but it takes a while, I’m as­sured there will be a less mi­cro­man­age­ment-heavy way to do it in the fi­nal game.

There is also a rel­a­tively easy-to-grasp trade sys­tem. Each prov­ince pro­duces goods, each good gives a stat buff or opens up new build­ing op­tions (eg: You need wood to build ships). If a city has a sur­plus it can send that sur­plus else­where, in­clud­ing abroad if you have a trade agree­ment. But I only have a few hours with the game, and I want to see a civil war. Per­haps I shouldn’t have thwarted Quin­tus af­ter all.

Thank­fully, con­tent de­signer Peter Ni­chol­son comes to my res­cue. We start a new game as Mace­do­nia, which un­like Rome is a monar­chy. This means I don’t have to rely on Se­nate votes but in­stead track a stat called Le­git­i­macy, which acts as a hard cap on the loy­alty of char­ac­ters and provinces (a third gov­ern­ment type, tribal, wasn’t avail­able to show). When Le­git­i­macy is high, a monarch can do what they want, but Peter is about to show me what hap­pens when it is low, us­ing con­sole com­mands to drop ruler Cas­sander’s le­git­i­macy through the floor.

Alexan­der wept

Quickly the loy­alty of Cas­sander’s sub­jects plum­mets. If I’d only had one dis­loyal prov­ince or gov­er­nor, Peter ex­plains, they might just de­fect to an­other em­pire, or de­clare in­de­pen­dence. But we don’t have just one dis­loyal prov­ince, and in­stead Mace­do­nia tears it­self in two, with one half declaring it­self un­der a pre­tender to my throne. This is not an easy fight, and un­like peace­ful power tran­si­tions, if I lose it’s a hard game over. This is Im­per­a­tor’s show­piece, it’s way to blow up a suc­cess­ful em­pire and keep the game in­ter­est­ing.

I have run out of time. I won’t get to see if Cas­sander sur­vives (I don’t rate his chances), but be­fore I go I ask Jo­han one more ques­tion: Para­dox is fa­mous for sup­port­ing games for years af­ter re­lease with DLC and patches, so I ask him if he plans to do this with Im­per­a­tor, ex­pect­ing a non­com­mit­tal an­swer. In­stead I get a blunt, “Yes.” In fact he starts reel­ing off ideas for ex­pan­sions that give depth to cer­tain cul­tures “A Greek one, Per­sian one, In­dian one.” He’s very mat­ter of fact that Rome is here to stay, this is a project Para­dox are com­mit­ting to not just now, but for years to come.

there’s an omi­nous icon say­ing ‘count­down to civil war’ in the corner

“That one, that coun­try over there. I want it.”

You’ll be able to fine-tune your gov­ern­ment.

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