Rome: Total War

Rome: Total War is a glorious game. The third instalment in the Total War series builds on the game mechanics of its predecessors, adding both more tactical and strategic depth and throwing in fully 3D graphics for good measure.

If you've never played a Total War game before, the basic premise features a turn-based campaign where you make strategic decisions and create and marshall your armies to clash with the enemy. Rome takes this basic system to new heights. Gameplay at the strategic level almost rivals Civilisation. You start off by choosing one of three Roman factions and must expand your territory by capturing towns (which in turn control a whole region). Towns power your economy, which in turn drives your ability to construct armies. Just like in Civ, the structures you build have different benefits: the construction of military units, generation of income, or bestowing public order benefits the populace, for example. And like Civ, you have to battle forces like overcrowding, unrest and plagues to keep your regions under control.

To exercise close control of a city, you need a governor on site. Your governors are generals and are all members of your family (by birth, marriage or adoption). They start with different abilities, which affect their skill at key tasks like managing a city or commanding an army. They can improve their traits through experience and through attracting hangers-on who bestow bonuses to individual traits. A general who wins battles, for example, will increase his command points.

But Rome wasn't built by micro-management alone. As a faction leader you must keep expanding your territory while also keeping the Roman Senate happy by undertaking missions for them. Senate missions can be profitable - you'll often be rewarded with money or units - but can also deflect you from your chosen area of expansion. The known world is populated by various factions. Some, like the other two Roman factions will be allies (at least at first) while others can be persuaded by your diplomats to become allies. But others must be brought to heel and that means battle. Rome's real-time battle engine now features 3D units instead of the old 2D sprites and the result can be spectacular, especially when there are thousands of troops on screen at one time.

You command formations of troops rather than individuals, and success comes down to controlling these formations and using them against the enemy in the correct way. Thus, you'll want to avoid attacking uphill or facing an attacker who is charging downhill at you. You'll need to flank the enemy infantry with your cavalry, while guarding your own infantry from a similar attack by using spearmen to fend off enemy cavalry. Keeping your troops alive is also important as they gain experience - 20 experienced survivors can be worth more to you than 40 green troops of the same type. The real-time battles are fascinating and fun.

Once you've finished the Imperial campaign (which will take a while), you unlock the other many playable factions giving you great replay value. Plus you get historical battles, custom battles and multiplayer. There have been some issues with multiplayer but the 1.1 patch has fixed many of these and further patches are on the way. Despite this potential for multiplayer niggles, Rome remains a great game and my personal favourite of 2004.

Visuals: Great use of the 3D animated sprites, compared to its predecessor Audio: Battle sounds are eerily realistic and immersive Gameplay: Excellent replay value. Multiplayer is a must between friends Score: Four out of five stars Publisher: Activision Developer: Creative Assembly URL: www.totalwar.com