Feral Interactive, experts at porting gaming experiences to Apple hardware, have attempted to transplant the UI heavy, dense battle simulations and turn-based diplomacy of Rome: Total War to iOS devices. Is this a war worth fighting on your portable device?
Please note: While Rome: Total War on iOS was originally released in 2016, this review is a chance to look back now that the game has received some updates – including support for the latest iPad Pro and iPhone X/XS/XR/XS Max displays.
The original PC version of Rome: Total War landed on Windows in 2004. In context, it seems strange to review a game that first released fifteen years ago, but there’s a reason Rome is considered a high watermark for the series.
Taking place at the tail-end of the Roman Republic and spilling into the early Roman Empire, Rome: Total War places players at the head of the Julii, Brutii, or Scipii factions (with more to unlock as the campaign progresses). Aiming to become the Emperor, your policies on diplomacy, gladiatorial combat, and even population control are all established during turn-based phases.
These decisions leave a lasting impression on your faction’s infrastructure, improving things like a city's defence or productivity in easily discernible ways. You’ll also need to balance the needs and happiness of your people – if they rebel, you could lose a city that was producing the bulk of your food, for example.
This leads to a dynamic tug of war between rapid expansion and claiming new cities, or a “what we have, we hold” mentality. It always feels rewarding to claim a new city following a siege or battle, but it can feel just as satisfying to quell an uprising through smart diplomacy.
Having your family tree manage your settlements and armies is a risk worth taking, too. They inherit some traits from their parents, while some can be supplemented with things such as a city’s education system. It can lead to fascinating scenarios where your dullard second-cousin becomes a tactical prodigy after spending a few years studying, and helps turn the tide of war in your favor.
As with the Total War franchise as a whole, when armies meet, it feels suitably epic, and as is tradition this includes a shift to a real-time combat setup. Other factions will meet your troops on the battlefield, and while units all conform to the Total War quartet of infantry, archers, artillery and cavalry, the Roman setting offers new tactical muscles to be flexed in the right opportunity.
Setting your infantry in the traditional Phalanx formation, for example, will make their movement slower, but will offer much more protection – particularly against attacks from archers. These are all extra flavorings to the tactical main course, but can mean the difference between your legion being decimated and a narrow, hard-fought victory. Every defeat is a learning experience, both in terms of your own skill at the game, and in a broader and more academically. History buffs will find a lot to love here.
While efforts have been made to simplify the game’s fifteen year old UI to mobile devices, the results are mixed – and not necessarily due to the game itself. Using the iPhone X or similar is a testing experience because the device’s smaller display makes it difficult at times to discern where one unit ends and another begins. Between battles, things work well enough, but the iPad (or similarly sized tablet) feels like the best way to play. The tactile way you can position units using touch commands feels strangely futuristic, and one would imagine that back in 2004 the developers likely didn’t have this in mind. The bigger screen definitely makes the game a much more enjoyable experience, both in and out of combat.
Playing on the latest iteration of the iPad Pro, the game is crisp – almost to a fault. As you’d expect, the game shows its age, with some blurry textures. While the amount of soldiers on screen during battles feels suitably epic, the character models lack the detail you’d expect from a modern title.
However, all of this does little to dissuade me from recommending Rome: Total War. Think of it as an entire strategy title that you can play wherever you are, with some very minor concessions, and you can easily understand the appeal. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to conquering Rome with my idiot family.