The History Channel: Great Battles of Rome Review

Recycled edutainment and terrible production values make this RTS survey of Roman history stale and simple.

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Slitherine Software is getting a lot of mileage out of Legion. It's now been five years since the British developer launched this real-time strategy game, yet the company continues to recycle its engine to retell the story of how the Roman Empire conquered the world. This time around, the game is a derivative little number from Black Bean Games called The History Channel: Great Battles of the Roman Empire. The theme, such as it is, is a tactical real-time strategy survey course of battles with the Carthaginians, Greeks, Persians, and loads of pesky barbarians. Although the content adeptly highlights the struggles of the veni, vidi, vici boys through nearly a thousand years of history, the advanced age of the engine and the stale, simplistic battles make this game feel as fresh as Caesar's toga after he was finished with the Gauls.

Most people are unaware that the Romans conquered Europe by fielding an army of clones.

Lack of depth is the biggest problem. The Roman campaign is a shallow collection of battles rounded up by historical period and introduced by video-clip cutscenes presumably borrowed from History Channel documentaries. You steadily work your way through virtually all of Roman history, moving from the early years when Rome needed to subdue the Italian peninsula, to the wars against regional powers that characterize the glory days of the Republic and the Empire. However, battles generally seem to be approximations of what actually happened, which means that many engagements are presented without dates or much in the way of historical background. Every now and then you take on a battle rooted in history, such as the betrayal and murder of Coriolanus, but you wage a ton of generic assaults against the Latins, Etruscans, Volsci, Greeks, Gauls, Persians, and the like.

When you finish the Roman scenarios, a second campaign is unlocked in which you guide the Celts, but by that point the anonymous nature of most of the battles will have likely worn you out. Even if you ignore the lack of dates and real context, look-alike enemy troops drawn from only a few basic archetypes such as skirmishers and cavalry make most of the engagements appear exactly the same. Are you fighting the Samnites or the Hernici? Who knows, and better yet, who cares?

Battles themselves are so simplistic and vary so little that it doesn't really matter who you're fighting. This is a basic tactical RTS, where you simply hop from one battle to the other, arranging troops and issuing most commands before entering the fray. Scraps are mainly prearranged, in that most orders are set prior to entering the battlefield. Units can be bossed around after the fighting starts, although this is limited by the need to replenish the order-point bar of your in-game general each time you direct a unit. At any rate, the lack of command options both during the deployment phase and during the action makes the whole order thing sort of a moot point. Battles all play out roughly the same, given that there is only so much you can do when your tactical options are limited to a handful of variations on holding, rushing, as well as holding for a bit and then rushing. Strategizing is also a waste of time during many battles because you can often simply charge enemy lines mindlessly and still wind up shouting "Roma victa!" at the end of the day. At least most of the engagements fly by. You can wrap up an average battle in a couple of minutes (a pace that makes the one-on-one LAN multiplayer mode of play something of a joke), so at least you're not sitting around waiting very long for outcomes.

Army management between battles is at least a little more involved. Although there is no resource management or any need to construct buildings, you do earn denari after successful battles and use this cash to purchase new units needed to bolster your army. Buying smartly is a must because the scenarios get progressively tougher (albeit in a pretty leisurely fashion) as you move through the campaign, which requires you to field a strong selection of soldiers. Troops also gain experience during battles and can be trained in various skills as they increase in level. So you can trick out militia with the swordsman ability to buff attacks, give skirmishers the junior NCO attribute to boost morale during battles, and enhance generals with the leadership option that lets them issue more orders during the fray. There is a good selection of these abilities on offer across all of the different unit types, which gives the game something of an RPG feel. However, units share many of these characteristics, so it's not as if there's a laundry list of enhancements from which to choose. Also, these options are generally passive stat boosts that work behind the scenes to aid attacking and defending, which means that you don't have to actually choose to employ them. Consequently, these skills don't have any readily discernible effect on how things play out once the swords start crashing and the javelins are launched skyward.

Despite the History Channel logo and some professional cutscenes, you're not going to learn anything here.

Very little about the battles here is obvious, actually, due to visuals that are a decade out of step with the times. Units of each specific type all look the same and just smash together when they fight. Character models seem hacked together, with few fine details and jagged limbs that you could cut yourself on. The animation is so archaic that horses swivel in place when you redirect cavalry. Likewise, the minimap is an ugly mash-up of great big dots oddly reminiscent of the Commodore 64. Audio is pretty much missing-in-action with the exception of the brash, brassy musical score that also seems like something borrowed from a History Channel documentary. It's just too bad that nobody swiped any of the atmospheric sound effects from those cheesy reenactments that fill up so much time in the average production on the cable channel. There isn't much to be heard during battles at all except for irritating, repetitive bangs and shouts.

If you want to learn about the real great battles of Rome, turn on the History Channel or, better yet, crack open a book. This sure isn't edutainment at its finest.

The Good
Semi-interesting, RPG-light army promotions
The Bad
Shallow strategic options
Generic battles against mostly generic enemy troops
Provides no sense of history or any serious context for these "great battles"
Abysmal graphics and sound
3.5
Bad
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The History Channel: Great Battles of Rome

  • PC
  • PlayStation 2
  • PSP
Great Battles of Rome offers over 100 battles available for play including the Punic and Samnite Wars, and Julius Caesar's conquest of Britain.
ESRB
Teen
All Platforms
Blood, Violence