Imperator: Rome is a true milestone for Paradox-type grand strategy on almost every quantifiable level, but struggles to provide those special unpredictable and emergent moments the series has become renowned for almost since its inception.
The Grand-Strategy genre is predominantly owned by Paradox Development Studio, and what makes their particular approach to strategy grand is the complexity and control on offer. In terms of operating systems and hardware comparisons - Clash of Clans is a Mac, Civilization is a Windows PC and Imperator: Rome is Linux.
It’s difficult to judge Imperator: Rome as its own entity when it is part of the unofficial Paradox grand strategy franchise. The studio have built on each preceding game with knowledge, experience and community feedback.
A playthrough will start in 304 BC. You pick a nation or tribe from a map that spans Europe and Central Asia. Events are set a decade after the death of Alexander the Great, allowing for the fracturing and collapse of his conquests as a historical prelude.
The primary goal is to conquer all lands in sight, a strategic colouring book if you will. Although diplomacy can be a path to expansion, war is the dominant methodology.
However, this is not an RTS like the Total War series, where you have direct sway and control over individual and specific events on any given battlefield. Whoever has the largest number wins, notwithstanding various modifiers to the effectiveness of troops. It truly comes down to being a numbers game. I never had a Battle of Thermopylae scenario with feats of individual mythic levels of bravery and skill.
There is a detailed explanation of how all combat modifiers come into play with a slight rock-paper-scissor system through stances, but in my experience, the highest number seemed to always win. The grand strategy aspect of gameplay happens long before those numbers meet on a battlefield.
There are nine main numeric factors demanding player attention - treasury, manpower, stability, tyranny, military, civic, oratory and religious power, with the addition of an aggressive expansion element to cap things off.
The influence of your treasury should be self-explanatory and you get to increase this via taxes and commerce, with the odd special event thrown into the mix. Gold is necessary for almost everything regarding the production of armies and buildings.
Manpower reflects how many men, tribal or otherwise, have taken up residence in your kingdom and is limited by area size, while the Stability metric loosely sums up the overall morale of your underlings. Naturally, more stability means fewer headaches in almost every regard.
A players Tyranny rating is a representation of how terrified the populace is of your rule and actions. It will go up considerably if you have a fondness for assassinations or executions.
Military and Civic power allow for the adoption of various Military Traditions and Technological Inventions respectively. In a similar vein, Oratory Power serves to reinforce diplomacy and its Religious counterpart will help enlist the aid of divine beings, or at least provide an equivalent effect on your domain. These increase slightly each month depending on a number of in-game factors relevant for each field.
Aggressive Expansion shows how scared neighbours are of very your presence and impacts how they respond towards you and other nations which may be the player's allies or enemies.
It needs to be stressed that Imperator: Rome is not a pick-up-and-play kind of affair, like classic Sega platformers and beat 'em ups, nor does it contain the handholding tutorial of a late Square Enix RPG.
This statement may sound absurd to long-time fans of Paradox grand strategy, but it is a fair disclaimer for those uninitiated in the fine art of virtual empire-building. As a point of further illustration, our review copy came with a basic eighteen-page guide.
Imperator: Rome is a true hobby game. It requires a time investment to understand and master. This is not like Super Smash Bros. Melee where the community organically made the metagame complex. Think more along the lines of Dota 2 or League of Legends where the complexity was encoded into the essence of the game.
The overall package is marvellously put together. The menus, that you will be looking at all the time, are clear, practical, concise and with an inoffensive font. It does still suffer from key actions being hidden in submenus, but the hover tips are better in explaining them when compared to other games of the same family.
The map is the best Paradox have made yet. There are plenty of overlays and the terrain view is worth a look if just for the effort that went into sheer geographical fidelity. Still, the muted pastel tone colurs of the political overlay are likely to become your default.
The level of detail isn't just limited to aesthetics either, as regions and provinces are now more detailed than ever before. The number of provinces, or cities in Imperator: Rome's case, is a new high for Paradox. The previous highest number of areas for Sicily, for example, was 9 in Hearts of Iron 4, and Imperator: Rome boasts a staggering 23, along with 4 impassable mountain range segments.
The sheer micromanagement potential for tweaking and experimenting can be quite daunting, but it isn't a must. The mantra isn't git gud, but rather learn more.
Imperator: Rome doesn't come packed with a streamlined campaign or mission structure enforcing a coherent pre-defined narrative for its duration. We aren't looking at an Assasin's Creed sort of experience reminiscent of an Ancient-era sightseeing tour bloated with historical celebrity cameos. Every playthrough generates player-driven stories, and the freedom in the way it delivers its narrative is what makes Imperator: Rome immersive.
You may find yourself forming love/hate relationships or downright symbiotic ones with certain factions and rulers based on the experiences your individual sessions provide you with.
At its core, Imperator: Rome aims to be simplistic wherever it can, because the complexity of its systems and individual mechanics is enough for a player to wrestle with. The UI reflects this with an obvious neglect of form in favour of functionality. One would be forgiven for mistaking it for an HD version of a DOS strategy game while enduring a bombardment of facts and figures.
The charm lies in what your imagination can conjure up based on that data, so if you are expecting any sort of visual handholding for lack of a better term, this is definitely the wrong part of town.
There is no such thing as a quick thirty minutes of Imperator: Rome either. If you can't dedicate a weekend to an individual session, then don't bother at all.
The music is of the highest quality. Classically influenced it walks the tightrope of non-repetitive and unintrusive. It just flows gracefully in the background.
The relationship between gameplay and background music is like going to a fine restaurant. It seeks to subtly enhance the meal whilst not being a dominant feature. As it should be, since any distraction from carefully laid out stratagems would be detrimental to the core design.
Similar to the way EA has a stranglehold on most sports games, only making incremental changes and increasing the number in the title, so does Paradox with the dominant strain of current grand strategy titles. It all blends together into a steadily evolving amorphous mass after a while, with the odd Europa Universalis IV shaped bulge of brilliance.
Their particular brand of grand strategy has reached a point where the underlying formula is hard to ignore, and not much of anything could be called unique or a distinct contribution to the genre. I never had a true memorable moment with Imperator: Rome, and felt even less of a sense of ownership over the game in progress or unfolding events.
Planting a numerical stamp of verdict onto Imperator: Rome is a difficult task, and regardless of the final score, your mileage with the latest entry to the Paradox brand of grand strategy can vary greatly, depending on your individual ratio of fondness vs. saturation with these titles.
Personal commitment to squeezing every bit of complexity out of its systems will have a decisive impact on your experience as well. While Imperator: Rome isn't quite as barebones as Stellaris felt on release, it still seems that my best course of action is to let it settle for about a year, and return when it has been through a few rounds of DLC and updates.
Overall, my time with Imperator: Rome felt somewhat dry and uninspiring. While it is a very well put together journey, polished to near perfection and presented with an undeniable virtuosity, it lacks that elusive something special I've almost come to expect from a Paradox grand strategy.
The very competence in execution on display is what makes that lack of substance even more glaring. It outshines Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings on every level that could be called technical, visual, mechanical, to a point where these aspects themselves start to feel superficial, but fails to provide for those memorable and unpredictable emergent moments the genre is renowned for.
A strong 7/10 for Imperator: Rome. Radiant in almost every respect, but not quite at its core.