Gaming

Warfare game Imperator: Rome needs more polish and depth

In Imperator: Rome, players control the destiny of their chosen nation within a time period dating roughly from Rome's emergence as a republic around 500BC to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire around AD480.
In Imperator: Rome, players control the destiny of their chosen nation within a time period dating roughly from Rome's emergence as a republic around 500BC to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire around AD480.PHOTO: PARADOX INTERACTIVE

The experience of playing a grand strategy game from Swedish developer Paradox Interactive for the first time is a distinctive one.

You pick a country, civilisation or state of some kind and dive straight into a huge real-time world map where, at first, nothing much seems to be going on.

But that is only because you have no idea how to make things happen with the 20 to 30 mysterious icons that pepper the game's interface, as Paradox provides little to no explanation of what they are.

You spend the next five to 10 hours just figuring out what you can do with your controlled nation, from diplomacy to trade to war.

Only then, if you have managed to persevere, does the game start to yield something that resembles fun.

Paradox's latest game, Imperator: Rome, is no different in this respect, but ends up a victim of the success of its older siblings, Europa Universalis IV (EU4) and Crusader Kings II (CK2).

As its name suggests, Imperator is set in the classical era, roughly dating from Rome's emergence as a republic around 500BC to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire around AD480.

  • FOR

    • Replayability value high, with hundreds of nations to choose from

    • Excellent warfare mechanics

    • Detailed map

  • AGAINST

    • Steep learning curve

    • Not much to do apart from waging war, although this could change

  • SPECS

    PRICE: From $34 (PC, version tested; macOS)

    GENRE: Grand strategy

  • RATING

    7.5/10

Players control the destiny of their chosen nation within that span. The game lets you pick from hundreds, including Celtic tribes in Britain and larger empires such as Carthage and Egypt. But well aware of Paradox's steep learning curve, I opted for Rome first.

While there is an attempt at a tutorial in Imperator, all it does is set micro-goals such as "conquer this neighbour". I was left to figure out most of the numerous in-game mechanics on my own.

Fortunately, the game blends together some familiar elements from EU4 and CK2.

Diplomacy and building your nation's infrastructure are broadly similar to those in EU4, while the personality-based political system from CK2 makes an appearance.

With Rome as backdrop, it meant I had to put every decision I wanted to make to a vote by the Senate.

Factions vie for power and influence within the Senate and I had to bear the balance of power in mind whenever I chose to appoint a character to a high political position.

But in a nod to the Roman Empire's relentless expansion in the history books, these are ultimately sideshows to Imperator's main business of making war. Combat is a significant upgrade from what previously amounted to slamming tiny unit icons labelled with numbers against one another.

Terrain also plays a significant role now. The beautifully detailed Alps mountain range is not only for show - it also takes longer for armies to traverse this landscape as they have to navigate narrow passes.

There are also different unit types, from infantry and cavalry to the more unorthodox camel and elephant units.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could adjust even the tactics of my armies, with the unit make-up determining a particular tactic's effectiveness.

This adds a layer of scouting a potential enemy's tactics that I had not seen in a Paradox grand strategy game before.

However, Imperator's strength is also its weakness, as the focus on warfare can make gameplay feel one-dimensional, without features such as the colonisation mechanics of EU4 or the character drama of CK2 to offer some contrast.

There is also far less depth to playing as a tribal nation than as Rome, which leads me to wonder if, in keeping with another distinctively Paradox tradition, a paid expansion that fleshes the game out more will be released down the road.

Paradox's business model revolves around a steady stream of paid expansions that incrementally improve upon the base game of their titles.

EU4 and CK2 have each had about 15 paid expansions, with more to come, and are now practically different games from what they were at launch.

Imperator will likely go down the same route, but, for now, it compares less favourably with its more polished predecessors.

Patience is advised while gamers wait to see what new directions Paradox intends to take with the game. After all, Rome was not built in a day.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2019, with the headline 'Warfare game Imperator: Rome needs more polish and depth'. Print Edition | Subscribe