Imperator: Rome Review
Apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us? Gamers have had numerous opportunities to relive the glory days of the Italian empire.
Enter Paradox Studios. Well known for their work in the ‘grand strategy’ genre, if – like me – you’ve not played one of the studio’s previous titles, it’s strategy on an entirely different level. If Paradox made sandwiches, every single sandwich would be the Ross Geller Moist Maker. Turkey, stuffing, cranberry, ham, gravy-soaked bread... If it’s in the pantry, it’s in the sandwich. Imperator: Rome is the latest entry in a long line of empire builders from the Swedish studio, and successor to Europa Universalis: Rome. Paradox have drawn fire in the past for releasing barebones games needing years worth of DLC – both paid for and free – to truly unlock their potential. So is this the case once more with their latest release, or has the studio exceeded expectations?
First things first: the most important part of any strategy game is the map. Imperator: Rome scores top marks here. It’s a beautiful tapestry to build your empire upon, and there is a gigantic sense of scale to the world. The number of factions you can play is mind-boggling. Want to play as the Caledonian Highlanders – ancestors of the modern Scots – take over Britannia, and conquer the world? Entirely possible. The tactical elements are well developed, with your location in the world affecting weather, terrain, and resources. All of these have knock-on effects to your empire. For example, heavy jungle limits the rate at which armies can be resupplied. There are lots of opportunities to use geography intelligently, and careful troop placement creates clever flanking moves and deadly ambushes.
In terms of fighting there are twelve units in the game currently: a mix of heavy and light infantry, mounted soldiers, and elephants. The availability of each is limited by the resources available to your empire. Combat is satisfying, if a little underwhelming if you’re used to a more visceral experience. Stacks of troops clash on the world map, and you’re never directly in control of the battles. It’s a bit numbing, but then I guess this represents what war is like on a national level. The game has a few neat mechanics to stop the classic RTS Stack o’ Death, such as each province having a maximum number of soldiers it can support. Anything beyond results in continuous attrition, which can quickly whittle down numbers and morale in any large army.
I’ll be honest. I’m a lazy man. I appreciate a game which puts me in the driving seat, but doesn’t require too much heavy lifting. Imperator: Rome is not that game. There are more mechanics than the free bar at the mechanics’ annual mechanical conference. To a new player, it can be absolutely bewildering. Economy, taxation, religion, governance and policy-making on a national, provincial, and city level… There is a tutorial, but it doesn’t cover anywhere near the detail you’d need to run your empire efficiently. To their credit, Paradox has released their own set of tutorial videos designed to orientate new players. There’s also a very strong community out there creating their own content, and a personal shoutout to PartyElite. After about two hours of watching his tutorial videos, I had a rough idea of what most buttons did. I still ran about four empires into the ground over the course of my initial playthroughs.
At first, I thought this was just because I sucked, but it was probably linked to my choice of nation state. The game recommends you start a playthrough with one of the bigger empires first, such as Rome, Carthage, or one of the Greek states. If Imperator: Rome was pay to win, Rome bought the platinum pre-order package with the level skip boost and epic pants. You have an almost laughably easy start, with a huge army and access to a vast economy. This is where the cracks in the base game start to appear. It’s clear the devs have spent most of their time working on mechanics for the larger starting empires, and not much on the other nations.
There are three unique empire types: republics, monarchies, and tribes. Republics have to worry about keeping the senate happy, and gaining approval through legitimate and illegitimate actions. Monarchs have absolute power, but are constantly beset by pretenders to the throne. Tribes revolve around keeping your chieftains happy, lest they splinter your nation. Tribes are the least developed of the three, and if you play as the aforementioned Caledonians – or one of the other small nation states – the game is ridiculously hard going, even at the easiest difficulties. It’s impossible to raise the money and manpower required to take on bigger nations, and instead you have to rely on diplomacy and alliances to get anywhere. I think if I’d spent more time playing one of the larger empires, my impression of the game would probably be dramatically different had I not done some research.
The diplomacy system isn’t the best either, and most interactions have been reduced to a simple ‘click-to-win’. Neighbour doesn’t like you? Click a button and send them a gift. Boom. Relationship improved. Don’t have any money? Tough luck. It’s strangely limiting in a game where there are so many options for controlling your own nation, but hardly any for interacting with others. No doubt, future DLCs will make massive improvements, but it’s definitely one of the systems feeling pretty underbaked right now.
While some elements are simple, others are frustrating and hidden behind menu systems with more layers than an onion. There was definitely more than one occasion where I was four or five sub-menus deep feeling like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Working out why you are haemorrhaging cash should be fairly simple, but instead you end up having to go through the menus for each province with a fine tooth comb, making incremental changes rather than being able to see where the problem lies. Sure, I get that the devil is in the details with a Paradox grand strategy, but it’s like printing a book in minuscule font. Can I read it still? Sure. Will I squint so much that I will go blind? Probably.
It’s a mixed bag. The character system is fun, and leadership traits can result in random events that are both hilarious and horrifying. The map is beautiful, with enjoyable tactical combat. Elsewhere, systems feel half-finished or poorly incorporated. The UI is sub-par, and playing as any nation other than Rome – especially one of the tribes – can be more frustrating than fun.
Everything will no doubt be fleshed out massively in the coming months and years just like every other Paradox title. The devs continue to be open about their plans, with a roadmap visible on the Paradox forums. You could argue that they’ve released enough titles to not need such protracted periods to balance and improve games, but they’ve continued to support old titles, and many have evolved into people’s favourite strategy games over time.
It feels like the same rings true once again for Paradox’s latest effort.
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