Great Battles of Rome PS2

As an academic subject, History never struck me as being massively popular. This is probably just because the kids in my secondary school were mostly ignorant little shits, but still, you can’t help but think it’s a pretty bold move to make a video game that attempts to give you history lessons as you go. Well, it is when you consider that the game isn’t aimed at six year-olds, at least.

Great Battles of Rome was made with co-operation from The History Channel. At least, I assume it has – their logo is plastered all over the intro sequence and main menu. Now, this is the bit of the preview where I already start to lose a couple of you – “But surely,” you ask, “an educational game with involvement from a respected documentary-focused TV channel is bound to end up being pretty boring as a video game, even if it fulfils the objective of being educational? Surely?”

Well, um, yeah. You’re basically right.

Great Battles of Rome is, so far, almost entirely what you’d expect. A top-down strategy game with lots of samey missions, punctuated by bits of video telling you about the expansion of the Roman Empire. No punches are pulled here, folks – you’ll be treated to lots of live-action footage of men running around anxiously or lying on the floor covered in blood, and the voice-over guy isn’t even afraid to use the word ‘rape’ now and again. Thank goodness the game is educational and will therefore probably avoid a BBFC certificate, eh readers?

Sadly, the game itself isn’t anywhere near as exciting. You go through the procedure of preparing your men before each battle (hiring and firing different squads, upgrading them and healing them as necessary), then going on to the mission itself. While this sort of thing is fairly standard in strategy games, and usually works, there’s one slight problem with it here – you’re expected to prepare your army before even knowing anything about the mission you’re going into, which sort of turns the preparation phase into meaningless guesswork. You heal your men and upgrade them, but how are you to know which kinds of squads you should recruit? Surely they each have different implications when it comes to forming your strategy? Well, actually, the various types of terrain and enemy formations you come up against rarely seem to make any kind of difference. The intro to each battle tells you that you can make use of things like trees and such by hiding infantry in them, but as soon as the battle begins, all your men launch themselves at the enemy and give their position away. Is there a way to prevent them doing this? Probably, but the game isn’t telling me how to do it.

Actually, it doesn’t tell you much else, either. It wasn’t until three missions in that I realised I could take manual control of the squads on the battlefield, but this didn’t really help much because they’re so bloody awkward to control. Each squad insists on rigidly maintaining its formation as you try to move it around, meaning that instead of the squad members individually turning on the spot and running, as real people would, they sort of slowly pivot on a certain point, staying in formation all the way, and taking about two or three seconds to execute a 180 degree turn because almost everyone in the squad has just had to unnecessarily run a semi-circle. As a result of all this, almost every mission feels like you’re just sloppily guiding shapes around a field, making them collide and seeing which ones disappear first. It’s not much fun, and there doesn’t seem to be much strategy involved either.

Don’t get me wrong – the game could still turn out to be half-decent, but there’s a lot of balancing and polishing to be done yet. There might be a great game in there already – but the player needs to be told about it, rather than being left to figure it out.