The problem any new game has to face is comparison with what's gone before. In the wake of Spellforce, also issued through JoWood Productions, and which immensely successfully combined strategy with role-playing, any strategy game has a tough act to follow - if you're into something more than mobilising your hordes for maximum effect. Against Rome is a functional game, along the lines of Age of Empires, but without some of the finer aspects of world building. I have playtested the campaign and a basic scenario to get a taste of both these sides of the game.
The premise of Against Rome is indigenous tribes of Europe and Britain battling against the organised incursion of Roman legions. The graphics are good for each tribe and the overall look of the individual settlements has nice detail. I quite like the detail in the structure animations - not least the blood and bones that spray out of the pig farm when it's in use! The tutorial teaches you how to create settlements with your initial units and the basics of combat, but when I went into the campaign, I was disappointed that - in the first four levels I've played so far - the settlements you inhabit are already built and you start off with quite large armies. I'm a fan of games that involve the building of settlements and cities, so find the concept of simply directing your armies against enemies, with little thought as to how best to organise your civilians, a bit boring. However, I know a lot of gamers prefer the combat side of strategy games, so maybe Against Rome is best for them. I'm one of those players who likes to have peasants running around gathering wood and so on, and I take pleasure in the strategy of how best to build a settlement quickly, but in this game, you simply create buildings that produce resources, rather than gather the resources themselves. Some players will find this preferable, no doubt. One of the things that annoys me about some strategy games is when resources run out - this doesn't happen in Against Rome.
I don't know if it's a bug in the game, but at the campaign level I'm at, I can't actually finish the scenario. I've killed all the Romans, and achieved my additional goal through that, but can't for the life of me find the place where I can leave the map. 'Flee behind the Bulwark of the Kings,' I'm told. Yes... but where is it? It's supposed to be the remains of an ancient fortress, and there are a few lines of stones that could have been walls at the top of one of the hills - the only area in the map where I can't move any units. Strange... The rest of the map is entirely uncovered, and I've been everywhere but... Some clues would be useful.
The fact that the game looks really good is a plus, although I found the voiceover at the beginning of each campaign scenario a bit grating, not least that it pronounced Celts as Selts! Please! You only say Seltic when referring to the Scottish football team, Celtic Rangers.
If you opt for the 'endless game', it's a different story regarding start off goodies. In this mode, you have to build your settlement from scratch and I much preferred it. You start off as one particular tribe - say Selts, sorry Celts! - while at the same time other tribes attempt to establish settlements in the same area. Meanwhile, in another part of the landscape, the Roman legions march systematically to create a pretty tough force for you to take on. You can build up your leader by cantering round the map with your armies, taking out all the other settlements, so that you reach a level where it's feasible to take on the might of Rome. As the game progresses, the opponents get stronger, and it's a good idea to squash new settlements before they get a firm hold, otherwise you'll lose a lot of units. It takes a while for your settlement to produce enough equipment to arm new units, so conservation and caution ain't a bad idea. Sometimes, rogue marauders make an appearance, and I did the sneaky thing of rushing out to help other tribes fight them off - by which time they'd been pretty much decimated - then after, quite unsportingly, finishing off the beleaguered tribe's leader, I left them to build up again, so I could go for them at a later time. This meant my leader could gain more 'glory points' that enabled me to build better buildings and improve his personal skills. When you've wiped out a tribe, others will arrive to take their place, which is why the game is 'endless'. You can play it until you've mashed everyone, allowing newcomers to build themselves up a bit, before descending upon them as a rapacious horde. Ah, the small pleasures of life! Hee hee...
You leader gains 'glory points' (gory points?) through winning battles. As these mount up, you can acquire various improvements for him, such as increasing his personal characteristics, beefing up his military options and getting new structures to build in your settlement.
Another nice touch is the magic-user units. Each tribe has some kind of priest you can create, and in order to amass magic points for them, you can sacrifice your trusting civilians at a structure called the Place of Sacrifice. 'Heathen magic' is something in which the Romans are distinctly lacking, so these units offer an advantage over their brute force.
As a strategy game, Against Rome doesn't offer an awful lot that's new, but it's nice to look at, and does most of the things you demand from a game of its type. Let's face it, most of us just want to have fun with a new game that provides the things we like. If you're into straight strategy, with no hints of role-playing, then this game will be for you. In some ways, it's basic, lacking the complexity of some other strategy titles, but it holds its own. There are far worse things to spend your money on.