Before Julius Caesar became famous for being assassinated on the Ides of March, he was one of the greatest generals in Roman history, subjugating numerous lands - including Gaul - extending the reach of the Roman Empire by force, and keeping it extended. Known as one of the great captains of history, Caesar began a civil war against Pompey the Great to decide overall control over Rome, which ended with Caesar as the victor in 48 BC at Pharsalus. Known for being bold and decisive, Caesar was sometimes reckless and occasionally forgetful and overambitious. His assassination in 44 BC by political enemies spawned a new, more despotic era in the Roman Republic. Great Battles of Caesar, the third in the Great Battles series from Erudite Software and Interactive Magic, attempts to recapture the early battles that Caesar (and other Roman legions) fought in the early first century BC, as well as recreate the Roman Civil War from Caesar's point of view. Like the previous Great Battles games, the representation of the individual battles of history are fabulous, while the campaign portion of the game falls flat.
The heart of Great Battles of Caesar is of course the battles themselves. Nine are included, seven of which actually have something to do with Caesar (two, Vercellae and Chaeronea, cover two Roman battles fought before Caesar's time in the first century BC). Some of the battles have variants or additional conditions that make them a little more interesting. All of the battles are viewed from a two-thirds angle bird's-eye view of the battlefield, each hex representing about 60-70 yards lengthwise. Terrain features such as rivers, forests, plains, hills, plateaus, snow, and desert regions are all represented graphically on the map. The units themselves are represented graphically by colorful icons, showing the strength of that particular unit.
Like the previous Great Battles titles, Caesar uses a phased system of play. Each leader on the battlefield gets to move his troops in a particular order during the turn; this order is somewhat based on that leader's initiative and on some random elements (Caesar gets to use "Elite Initiative" three times during a battle, which means he can automatically go first in that turn). Each leader typically has a number of units under his command (represented by waving banners) that he can move individually or with a group command when possible. Attacks (either ranged or hand-to-hand combat) can also be attempted individually or by group command. Since most leaders have somewhat low initiative, they can only individually control two units in a phase, which places emphasis on the group commands. A leader may only have three phases in any one turn. Some leaders aren't in charge of anything but are high in initiative and just seem to "hang around" - they are very useful for rallying troops and restoring cohesion behind the lines (see below).
Combat itself is not based on casualty numbers but rather unit cohesion; the more cohesive the unit, the better it can do in battle. When a unit is attacked repeatedly, it loses cohesiveness - and hence, effectiveness - on the battlefield. After a number of attacks, the unit will break down, rout, and attempt to move off the battlefield unless rallied by a leader. Just what the breaking point is depends on the troop quality (TQ) of that unit - the higher, the better the unit. Leaders may attempt to restore cohesion of a particular unit once per phase. If a unit reaches the end of the map or a leader attempts to rally it unsuccessfully, the unit is considered "routed" and, for all intents and purposes, destroyed. Each side of every battle has a particular withdrawal level based on the rout points of the units, and once this level is reached, that side loses.
So basically a battle is an attempt to rout the bulk of your opponent's army before he does the same to you. Troops march across the field and engage during the combat phases in rather gory yet unique stick-animation-style battles that leave numerous bloodied human and animal corpses in their wake. An unexpected side effect of this entertainment (if it can be called that) is even during the medium-sized battles the game slows to a crawl. The animations, as they are, are just too much. Turn off the boring, repetitious music and the movement animations (but keep the battle animations on, so you at least have an inkling of what is going on, despite the slowness), and the game quickens to a respectable speed.
At this point, one could be pretty happy with the game, although the choices may seem a bit limited. The artificial intelligence (AI) is not bad - it makes you fight to win and will almost always take advantage of any foolish mistake you may happen to make. The AI adopts a particular strategy based on the battle, so it may try something different each time. Learn to have a reserve, especially where the flanks are thin, and attack where you are the strongest. There are basically two ways to win: Roll one or both of the AI's flanks (the AI is not nearly as good at protecting its own flanks as it is at attacking yours) or bludgeon the AI to death. In the bigger battles you'll almost be forced to use the group commands since moving units individually will be impractical. For the most part, the group attack command works well but not great - unit groups tend to get split up and attack stupidly with unfavorable odds.
Now we come to the campaign. In the previous two Great Battles, you had to fight the AI armies while maintaining troops in the previously conquered lands in order to subjugate them. The battles were always the same, and there was little to no replayability. Great Battles of Caesar is only slightly different - there is no subjugation, but you have to defeat the four Senatorial armies spread throughout the Mediterranean, while preventing Pompey the Great from occupying Rome for any length of time. This is extremely dissatisfying, to say the least. The campaign mode is nothing more than a way to play the battles in a somewhat different order each time, and adds nothing.
Perhaps the best feature is the multiplayer game - Great Battles of Caesar, like the previous games in the series, allows you to play over a LAN or the Internet, where a host assigns a number of leaders to each player. You are forced to work together with your leaders in order to form a battle plan, while the randomness of the phases makes trying to stick with those plans extremely interesting.
Great Battles of Caesar for the most part has stuck to its guns, both good and bad, with basically the same engine that began the series. The 106-page manual is more than adequate, complete with unit descriptions, a tutorial, background, and numerous tables and charts. The battles are good, the history is detailed, the units are historically accurate, and the fun factor is there. Unfortunately it is also mind-numbingly slow (some of the battles are gigantic), has no scenario editor, little single-player replayability, and a terrible campaign. With a little more attention to these areas, the next games in the Great Battle series could be truly great.