23 October 2014

PC Game Review: Roman Civil Wars

The die is cast: HPS brings more ancient warfare with this latest entrant in its series as John Thompson serves Julius Caesar or rewrites history.

Published on 10 JAN 2012 2:59pm by John Thompson
  1. Paul Bruffell
  2. HPS Simulations
  3. roman empire, ground combat, turn-based, tactical, europe

HPS Simulations' newest entrant into its Ancient Warfare Series is Paul Bruffell's Roman Civil Wars, which allows the player to take the legions of Julius Caesar or Pompey the Great and either affirm or rewrite history. Will you lead a legion into the heart of the Republic or defend her against all comers? It's your choice.

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A Bit of History

It's 53 BC. The premier statesman, writer, general, visionary, and politician of his time, Gaius Julius Caesar, has completed his conquest of Gaul; the glorious Roman Republic now stretches into Britain and across the Rhine. Unbeknownst to the citizenry, the Republic has reached its zenith.

In an effort to consolidate power, Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus have formed the First Triumvirate, an effort to slowly but inexorably transfer the power base from the people and the Senate to a fewer and fewer number of individuals. For a few years, that number held at the three of the triumvirate but all Romans knew that, one day, the balance would be upset as one of these men made the grab for ultimate power that would ultimately turn the Republic into an empire.

Crassus removed himself from the equation when he died in Syria at the Battle of Carrhae, leaving the two greatest generals of their time Pompey the Great and Caesar, victor of Gaul one-time friends (Caesar was Pompey's former father-in-law) and compatriots, to vie to take ultimate power in the greatest civilization the world had ever known.

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Caesar, away from Rome and fearing (rightly) a conspiracy against him should he return from his victories in Gaul, instead chose to do the unthinkable - cross the Rubicon with his legion, muttering the unforgettable line "The die is cast," thus declaring himself outlaw and traitor in his all-or nothing bid to attain total and complete power.

These scenarios, as well as scenarios from Caesar's campaign in Gaul and Crassus' disaster in Syria, make up the bulk of HPS' new effort.

 

The Learning Curve

Roman Civil Wars, like its other predecessors in HPS' Ancient Warfare series, takes armchair generals into a world of tactics based on the cohort as the base unit. Players can either take on single battles, such as the showdown between Caesar and Pompey at Pharsalus or a number of battles pieced together into a campaign such as Caesar's battles against the last remaining republican loyalists in Spain.

Whether players play a single battle or a linked campaign, if they are new to this series, be prepared for a steep learning curve made all the more difficult by a non-existent tutorial, poorly done supplemental help guides, and a user interface so byzantine that it would make the minotaur of Knossos drop a horn in envy.

This game is complex enough to need an easy-to-use interface and strong tutorial system to break new players into its nuances gently. Sadly, those new to the system will probably feel unassisted by any of the guides provided with the game or by a purpose-built in-game tutorial; rather, we are left to leap into a "Getting Started" scenario that describes a few of the things they might see or click on as a player, but leaves out the all-important reasoning about why they would want to do so.

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The best tutorials walk players through a turn or two, telling them what they might see and why they have seen them, and then help them pick from a variety of appropriate responses but Roman Civil Wars adopts more of a "tough love" theory, forcing players to figure out what is going on, and why, without really explaining any of it.

For example, the "Getting Started" PDF tells the player how to use the "Group Command" check-box to issue orders to all the units in a group, but never explains how to use the menu button to highlight all the units in that group so they know which ones are actually receiving the order, nor does it explain the benefits of doing so beyond the implied fewer clicks. By now most players have become very adept at tabbing out of a game to review an item in a manual, and they will find themselves doing this constantly as they begin to digest the game's rules.

This lack of attention to the needs of players new to the series shows in other ways as well. The "Getting Started" PDF guide tells them to load the Getting Started scenario but awkwardly uses screenshots showing a different scenario. It tells players to pick between two sides, Caesarean or Republican - but only Republican and German are available in the dialog box; while this doesn't really affect how players will learn the game, it shows a lack of thorough polish; incorrect screenshots should never make it into the final version of a manual if it has been proofed correctly.

It's a tough slog, but players will become accustomed to the interface eventually, only if they stick with it. But even once players learn to find their way around, they may come to resent the incessant clicking needed to issue orders in even the medium-sized scenarios. Playing through the introductory scenario a few times until they have earned a win will in all likelihood get them familiar enough with the interface to march on to the bigger scenarios and the campaign, learning a little more each time.

 

Ode to VGA

Roman Civil Wars uses the now very-familiar graphics engine that debuted with Talonsoft's tactical offerings in the late 1990s. It uses a pair of zoomed out, top-down views as well as what it calls its 3D View an isometric viewpoint that shows hexes, terrain, elevation, and individual units rendered as two-dimensional sprites. This system worked well enough 15 years ago, especially for entries like Talonsoft's East Front, where it was easy to tell a T-34 from a BT-5, but it is now in dire need of updating.

Looking at a screen full of units in the 3D view shows a jumbled mess of sprites that reveals little of tactical value; in fact, its such a mess that I quickly learned that the top-down zoomed in 2D view was a far better method for grasping the tactical situation at hand. Gamers who love tabletop miniatures may try and stick with the isometric view; their eyes may be trained better than mine to discern facing, formation and the like. Fans of pushing cardboard chits around a board (like myself) will probably favor the top-down view; units are easier to pick out in this view based on the color of the chit as well as its NATO symbology - the sprites are just much harder to tell apart.

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The games sound is what one would expect from a small development studio; it does not shine, nor does it offend the expected clashing of spears on shields, stomp of sandaled feet as a cohort of triarii moves into line, horns blowing, and screams of pain from the wounded once battle is joined are all well done and not overused. There are no voiceovers that give us briefings on scenarios or the like, sadly; hearing Caesar or Pompey or Crassus give players a briefing before taking to the field would have been a treat if done well.

The good news for HPS is that wargamers are perhaps the most forgiving lot in all of gaming in terms of graphics and sound  needs; historical fidelity and a good user interface go a long way with a grognard, and while the user interface part of the equation is not the games strong point (see above), historical fidelity is where Roman Civil Wars shines.

 

Across the Rubicon

When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in Northern Italy, thus making "Crossing the Rubicon" forever a metaphor for passing a point of no return, he set in motion the inexorable metamorphosis of Rome from republic to empire. After routing Pompeys larger forces with his smaller but more veteran troops over a campaign lasting years that only ended once Pompey was assassinated in Egypt and his sons were defeated in Spain, Caesar ruled Rome for only a little more than year before being assassinated himself on the Ides of March.

This fascinating historical period as Roman fought Roman across the length and breadth of the Mediterranean has received relatively little in the way of electronic wargame attention (a notable exception is the Carrhae scenario in The Creative Assemblys excellent Rome: Total War), and HPS should be complimented for not only bringing this era to players machines with both this title as well as previous entries in the series.

Orders of Battle for individual scenarios have been researched meticulously; as players start each scenario and ponder set up for their equites (cavalry), velites (light infantry, skirmishers armed with javelins), and their heavy infantry of hastati, principes and triarii, players will experience a palpable feeling of knowing they are about to enter a battlefield that thousands of years before was one of the places that decided the fate of Western civilization.

There are enough scenarios, as well as the Spanish campaign, to keep gamers busy for quite some time. The AI is an able enough opponent to get players feet wet but PBEM will, as always, result in far more challenge; nevertheless, the AI does a good job at challenging the flanks, especially if it has cavalry at its disposal, and is quick to surround or overrun units when it can. At times, its eagerness to pick off a seemingly isolated unit can lead it to overextend a counterattack, but many human players (including this writer) are just as guilty at leaping into that trap.

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Once players have exhausted their options in the scenarios or campaign provided with the game, the included scenario editor ensures that they can either stay busy designing their own scenarios or play the many scenarios that will surely become available via download.

 

To Sum it Up

Roman Civil Wars is, in its truest sense, a niche game. Its subject matter will only appeal to a certain segment of the gaming community, and its overly complicated and non-intuitive interface, lack of a cohesive, well-executed tutorial and very dated graphics will further trim the list down of those who will be interested in the product.

But for those not intimidated or let down by the games shortcomings, Roman Civil Wars  produces as authentic a look at the period of the late Republic as players can find, a fascinating century marred by internal strife, expansion, and some of the most intriguing leaders in the history of Rome.

For those willing to cross the mental Rubicon presented by the issues above and embrace the game's historical fidelity and unique subject matter, history awaits.


Review written by: John Thompson, Staff Writer