My favourite exam question at university –
Stop making funny faces.
My favourite exam question at university came in my third year, on a module about the War of the Spanish Succession. I can’t remember the precise wording, but it went something like this: ‘Was the campaign of 1704 the most challenging of the Duke of Marlborough’s career?’
For the next hour I madly scribbled about how the 1708 campaign was harder, about the battle of Oudenarde and the siege of Lille and the logistical issues raised by the Elector of Hanover’s sluggishness in deploying his troops, then onto 1704 and the difficulties of the march to the Danube, Marlborough’s own manoeuvres at the battle of Blenheim and the various challenges set by terrain, by strategic imperatives, by political wranglings in London, Paris and Vienna. It was one of those questions that sets a spark in your head, that doesn’t have you thinking about marks or grades or what you’re actually going to do with this arts degree afterwards.
Perhaps one of the reasons behind my excitement was the fact that seven years earlier I’d bought Rome: Total War.
I had an interest in battles and war stories before thanks to fantasy tales and epic films (looking at you, Lord of the Rings), but it was the Creative Assembly’s masterpiece that really got me into military history. I could talk your ear off about Thermopylae and Cannae, Hastings and Agincourt, Naseby, Waterloo and D-Day largely because a 14-year-old me spent hours and days and weeks smashing legions, phalanxes and barbarian hordes into each other on a computer screen to see what would happen. It may well be one of the reasons I love classical culture as well, a reason why I love history in general. It might be a trite phrase, but Rome is one of the games that made me.
As such, I’m going to have to indulge a few war stories of my own before getting to some sort of point, so bear with me. There was my mighty Julii army of Rome crushing Gauls, Spaniards and Britons in the cold wilds of western Europe. There was the vengeance of my German empire, carrying the culture of Woden and the pagan gods into the heart of Latium and to the gates of the Eternal City itself. There was Kiya Scarface, my greatest general, an Egyptian warlord who took so many wounds, but never fell from his chariot in all his battles with the Seleucids. Now, this very day, the Romans have offered battle to my Greek phalanxes, terrified of the resurgent Hellenes taking up Alexander the Great’s legacy. Tomorrow I go to war (once I get back from work at least).
Too many stories, battles and histories, spreading into other games: my Spaniards of Medieval 2: Total War, crusading across Libya; my Swedes of Empire: Total War, establishing colonies in Brazil and India; my Shimazu of Shogun: Total War, the dynasty dying with only one province left to conquer. So: what stories will I make in Rome 2?
The official announcement of this long-awaited sequel has got me budgeting for a new PC already. There’s no footage out yet and only a smattering of impressive but regrettably static screenshots are in circulation, but those lucky enough to have been to the early press previews have come out with promising news: massive scope, war like we’ve never seen it on a screen, the land and sea game united in amphibious assaults, ridiculous visual quality. I’m not normally one to board the hype train and if I do I normally go standard class and hide in the corner hoping nobody notices how excited I am, but for Rome 2 I’ve gone and bought the whole of the First Class carriage, invited the Vestal Virgins and the cult of Dionysus and we’re all getting absolutely muntered on bottles of giddy and double shots of expectation. You should come along, Caligula’s just gatecrashed and pre-ordered a copy for his horse, it’s f*****g mental.
Joking aside, though, I’ve started to wonder exactly why I’m excited. The obvious answer is that I expect it will be a very good game, certainly in the sense that it will score highly in reviews. I’m always interested in new Total War games, what with the series being one of the few strategy stalwarts I know and love (Starcraft? What’s Starcraft?). Then there’s my love of history, reciprocating the stimuli provided by the first Rome to stoke me up for the second.
All in all, however, the one feeling that keeps bubbling up whenever I look at those new screenshots of the Roman assault on Carthage, the one feeling that makes me want to buy it, is nostalgia. I’m not looking at it in an objective manner at all. Instead of seeing new possibilities, old stories are getting a fresh screening in my memory. On reflection, I’m not excited for Rome 2 itself, but rather the possibility that it could be 2004 all over again.
It can’t be, of course, in much the same way that Skyrim couldn’t be Morrowind and The Old Republic couldn’t be an online Knights of the Old Republic 2. That said, my spirits aren’t dampened by this realisation, or my anticipation scuppered. Instead, I’m strangely pleased. If this was a sequel that carried on a previous game’s narrative, or was merely part of a long chain of annual releases with little development year-on-year, I might be excited for my own sake, but not for that of new players. With Rome 2, I think the situations are reversed: I won’t enjoy it as much as I still enjoy the first game, even today – but I’m so excited to think that, after another decade has passed, some random blogger might write down how Rome 2 opened up for them a whole love of history, of culture, and of seeing who would win in a fight between a Roman legion and a herd of angry elephants.