There's no denying that real-time strategy games seem to do it for a lot of people. There's also little doubting that one of the greatest empires in history is of general interest. On paper, the two make for a great combination; thus, it's no coincidence that there are a bunch of games already out there that cover the ground well enough.
So to find out what the History Channel license is going to bring to the party, we spent some time with the game's development director, Iain McNeil, and put a few questions to him.
GameSpot UK: Where does the emphasis lie in this game, the action or the strategy?
Iain McNeil: The History Channel: Great Battles of Rome is all about the battles, so it's a real blend of action and strategy. Before a battle starts, you have the chance to create a battle plan, which is where the strategy comes in, and your men will carry out this plan in battle. Some players may choose to wing it and skip this section and jump straight into the battles. Once in the battles, it's fast-paced action all the way. In the larger battles, there are thousands of men giving the game a truly epic feel, which has not been seen on consoles before. In addition, you've got 30 great movies, which really bring the Roman world to life. When you play multiplayer over the PSP's Wi-Fi connection, you're in for a fast-paced and exciting game!
GSUK: Can you tell us about the different armies you can play as?
IM: There are three campaigns in the game. The primary campaign is about the rise of Rome, from its birth to the assassination of Caesar and the formation of the Empire. You get to control a small band of peasants and craft them into an elite fighting force. You'll be able to recruit legionaries, praetorians, war elephants, auxiliary archers, and cavalry--all the troops available to the real Roman army. Once you've completed the Roman campaign, two bonus campaigns are unlocked. The first is the Celtic campaign, which puts you as the opposing force to Rome in many situations. This is a much sadder story, telling the tale of the fall of this once great race. You fight a defensive war against Rome and the Germanic tribes, steadily being pushed back from France into Britain until only the mountainous regions are under your control. As the Celts, you can recruit tribal warriors, noble cavalry, and the feared, naked fanatics. The third campaign is the Cult of Mithras--a mythical addition that bolts on to the end of the Roman campaign. This sees you take the war onto the mystical plains of Elysium, meeting many strange and wonderful units.
GSUK: How are the battles resolved?
IM: Your men are organised into squads, and we think of each squad in the same way you would a character in a role-playing game. Each has attack, defence, armour, morale, and more (around 100 stats per unit). These stats are used by the game model to calculate casualties inflicted and received from combat and shooting, then what effects these might have on the squad's willingness to fight. To win a head-to-head fight, you must break the enemy army's morale, even if that means actually taking more casualties than received. In the campaign, each scenario has its own victory conditions so you may find yourself outnumbered and trying to cling on until reinforcements arrive or tasked with defeating the enemy before sunset can mask their withdrawal.
GSUK: How long has the game been in development?
IM: We first started work on the game back in 2005. We prototyped everything on the PC first, even the user interface. And then when we were happy with the gameplay, we started the console development, which began mid-2006.
GSUK: How important is the History Channel license?
IM: The History Channel license has been important for two principal reasons. Firstly, they have thousands of hours of high-quality footage, which we were able to search through and use to create the movies you see in the game. These really add to the atmosphere when combined with the superb music and voice-over, allowing the player to become fully immersed in the period. Secondly, having a well-known license like the History Channel brings the game to the attention of people who might otherwise have missed it. It has also allowed us to do a lot of TV advertising, which has not been possible in the past. The History Channel has been really supportive and it has been great to work with them.
GSUK: What is the long-term strategy for the franchise?
IM: We can't say too much about that at this stage, but with the success of the initial game, we are certainly looking at ways to extend the relationship. You can expect to hear more about this in the coming months.
GSUK: Who would you consider as the competition for this game?
IM: This is a tough question. On the PC, there are obvious competitors, though they have a very different gameplay feel, (for example, Commander & Conquer, Total War, and so on). On consoles, there is very little competition to the style of gameplay. The game is a blend of role-playing and strategy game but on a scale not seen before.
GSUK: What are the challenges in putting together a strategy game for consoles?
IM: The main technical challenge was performance. As mentioned above, we wanted really epic battles with thousands of men, and this is something that pushed the console to its limits. In addition, we had to design a gameplay style and user interface that allowed people to play a real-time strategy style of game without a mouse. This was probably the toughest challenge and required designing the game from the ground up to work around the limitations of a gamepad. In addition, we allow the player to plan their strategy before the battle starts, meaning they have fewer things they need to try to control once the real-time battle kicks in. We spent a large portion of the time making the controls as intuitive as possible and think they turned out pretty well.
GSUK: Thanks for your time.