Only one way to start.
Ave, citizens. It is me, your buddy Old Imperator Mord. It has been a long time, and I understand that some thought I was placed in a coffin of hammered gold – but the truth is I’ve just been super busy getting my new content ready for this year. That and fighting the giant wasp from the time planet Kri’zo. But that is an entirely different story and not one for such fine and gentle folk like yourself.
You didn’t come to hear me rant madly. You came to listen to me rant softly, in digital form, about the glories and downfalls of Rome. Specifically – Imperator: Rome, the newest grand strategy game out of the mouth of the tremendous skeletal platypus that is Paradox. But before we get straight into taking a closer look at the bits and baubles that make up this exciting new title, I need to get some truth out there.
The idea of digging into a new grand strategy made me super nervous, particularly one that these old bones would be exporting to eyeballs for a live viewership. You see, I am pretty handy with Crusader Kings 2 and Stellaris. I even bit the bullet and dove into the EU4 rabbit hole earlier this year. But these games took me months – sometimes years – and a considerable amount of outside help to get to a level of confident proficiency, and really? I am still learning new things. Now, don’t get me wrong, that is part of what I love about them. Always finding new info, new strategies, a slow refinement on the way to mastery. It is really my jam. (Do we still say that? Jam flavour matter in this case? Put me down for Strawberry.)
I did not relish the idea of learning (and being terrible) at a new grand strategy game in front of folks that were coming to my twitch channel to learn more details about it. But something happened on my trip to this ancient era. I beheld an eighth wonder of the world. Something to rival the shadow cast by the Colossus of Rhodes. Something to outshine the brightness of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. A tutorial.
Pride of Plutarch
You kids know me. I try to be honest and to speak with compassion and respect to the games I look at. So I say the following, not out of malice to any games bearing the mark of Paradox. Before Stellaris, their tutorials were pretty damn rough. Now maybe it was just me and the way I learn, but the main reasons I could never learn EU4 until recently, was cause I just couldn’t wrap my head around the tutorial. That, and there were so many things not explained in the tutorial that I needed to know.
The journey into space with the crew of the good ship Stellaris began to change that. I found Stellaris such an intuitive game that I barely needed the tutorial. But there were still many things I only learned by watching the official and unofficial live streams of the game. With CK2 I had to pour over (and still do) older videos of those who came before me. So, it was with nervous breath holding that I waited to see how Imperator: Rome would treat me.
And the answer is, good. It treated me damn good.
I was skeptical when I loaded up the tutorial for the game. It manifested as a decent sized checklist off to my left-hand side. The game told me I could accomplish these goals in any order, but recommending that I take it one step at a time. Bringing the cursor over the tutorial goals brought up a handy Paradox quality tooltip that told you how to accomplish this goal. And yes, like in other games by this seasoned company, you can cursor over pretty much anything and get the info you need.
Clearing the checklist didn’t take particularly long. However, by the end, I had enough knowledge of the rules to dive in. I started an Ironman game as Egypt, set the difficulty on Normal, and went for it. Much to my surprise I only had a couple of moments where I was left confused as what to do about a particular warning. But as in the tutorial, bringing up the tooltip helped get to the bottom of it.
Now, take the performance anxiety I was feeling about streaming this game on my own, and magnify it a hundredfold when some other fantastic content creators invited me to a sizeable multiplayer stream for folks who had review copies of the game. I couldn’t say no, they would have flogged me! But the tutorial gave me the skills to handle even a first time playing a tiny tribal kingdom. And I’d like to say, I held my own pretty good.
Let me be abundantly clear. This tutorial that they had laid out of Imperator: Rome is a new high for Paradox tutorials. And honestly, I’d be flabbergasted if they didn’t reuse this format in other games going forward. The checklist doesn’t disappear as you complete items. There is no ‘How the hell did I do that thing back on step 2 an hour ago?’
It is simple, elegant and efficient. And it was all learned from the ages of experience that were brought to this game. And that is an important concept to remember going forward.
The Forge of Hephaestus
There are phrases and ideas in marketing that give both consumer and reviewer pause. Claims like ‘never seen before,’ ‘Unlike any other,’ you know what I mean. Those same old lines that are trying to convince us plebs that the product is going to be some kind of revolution that needs to be experienced personally. And you can be part of that, just open that old coin purse of yours.
One such line is that ‘this is the sum of all our previous work.’ Or something to that extent. And that was a refrain chanted over and over again while I was keeping tabs on the Imperator development. My old brain box whirred and clicked and eventually just got my old bones to shake out a shrug thinking, this is fine. I am not sure what I was expecting of these claims, but if I am going to sheepishly admit it. I was not expecting the results.
One of the most common questions I’ve seen has to be ‘Is this a combination of CK2 and EU4,’ and the answer is ‘Yes, kind of, for sure, but really it is it’s own thing’ and there you go. Boom. Review over. Now you know where to spend your hard earned coins. I kid, I kid, let us go and break it down a bit.
No shock from those that watch my streams, but I love character interaction, RPG elements, and faction management in my strategy games. I feel it adds an immersive quality to games with emergent storytelling as a critical feature. It allows each game to feel unique. Crusader Kings 2 has it in spades and is why I keep going back to the game. On the other hand, the lack of it in EU4 was a key reason it took me so long to get into it. Here in Imperator: Rome, characters play an essential role. How you interact with them, punish or reward, and how close you keep them is all vital to how stable and prosperous your empire will be.
Every game of Imperator: Rome may have you winning or suffering defeat in the Punic wars as the titular Rome. But how many of those games did you have your rival, the leader of Carthage, tossed into an arena, and forced him to duel his son to the death? Of course, when he won, you granted him full rights of a citizen and brought his surviving family members into the fold, and a generation later, they were your most staunch supporters.
Yeah, you can get stuff like that in Imperator: Rome which will add so much flavour to your map painting experience. Character interaction is rich and in-depth, but not as overwhelming as it is in games like Crusader Kings 2, where the mishandling of a single vassal can spell doom to your entire game.
I could go on for pages, drawing comparisons and analysis of what the game took from other PDX titles. But that would be a massive undertaking worthy of an utterly separate conversation. Rest assured when they claimed it was going to take the years of knowledge Paradox has accumulated and refined it into a new system. They were right. Is there room for more refinement, no doubt. But this is a massive starting point in a familiar yet bold direction for the companies games going forward, and Imperator: Rome is holding the standard and leading the charge.
Tribunes, Territory and Treachery – oh my!
A lot is going on in the era of Imperator: Rome. The Diadochi squabble over land and the corpse of Alexander. Old enemies of the great kingdom sharpen their knives. To the east, significant figures rise from the Maurya Empire. To the west? Countless tribals long for unification. With so many countries to play, hundreds, in fact, the web of diplomacy can get complicated. Just like you need to pay attention to who you grant leadership of your troops, you need to be mindful of which smaller nations you are trying to dazzle with promises of protection. More than one great country fell to my Phyrgian empire because they stretched themselves too thin.
Mastering skills of diplomacy and knowing how to handle the ever-increasing unruliness of your conquered lands is vital. Much of the game between wars, while you allow your valuable manpower numbers to climb back up, will be spent assuring your power is used in the best way to strengthen your nation. Also making sure you walk the fine line of appeasement and prosperity with your would-be faithful countrymen.
That diplomacy web I was talking about, it is no joke. Let us say you find yourself wanting to take out Thrace. But if you attack Thrace directly, Egypt and others will get involved. And you couldn’t handle both those powers at once. What you can do is look hard at the political obligations of Thrace.
Oh, what is this? Thrace has promised to protect the smaller territory of Paphlagonia Superior. Thrace and only Thrace are making this promise. Perfect. Bring your forces to the Thrace border. Fabricate a claim on Paphlagonia Superior and then declare war on them. Now you will only fight Paphlagonia Superior any direct allies they may have (in this case none) but more importantly – Thrace has been drug into this fight, and Egypt and the other larger nations aren’t backing them up. Wage war, be victorious, grab a good chunk of Thrace and just ignore your claims on Paphlagonia Superior (if you want.)
But wait, what about the other chunks of Thrace? Now you have to wait how a decade in truce to get another shot? Maybe? Recheck Thraces political obligations. Are they protecting any other small countries? Countries that if you declared war on you wouldn’t have to face anyone but them, maybe a few allies, and of course Thrace? If you can find such a web, go for it. It will force Thrace into the fight again, regardless of truce. And the best part? They may not have had any time to recover from the last battle.
Sorry for the rant, but the way the political webs work in this game excites me greatly. It is a complex system that is easy to read. It is all clearly laid out on the diplomacy screen – including information on a countries current standing armies, navies and manpower. You can quickly make the hard choices of war in a straightforward fashion.
As mentioned, internal politics are also just as important. Do not be like this old fool and only appoint the person with the highest stat to the job. I had an entire section of Egypt ready to revolt because while very competent at his job, the appointed governor was a corrupt man who regularly invoked the ire of his charges. I was so happy when I caught another political mistake murdering him. That was a ‘two birds/one crucifixion’ kind of happy ending.
You will need to be sure to check several factors, all which can be seen quickly with very easily placed tooltips, when appointing researchers, governors and generals. Are you desperate to placate a scorned family? Will giving this mediocre 5 stat character command of his own army help? How loyal is he? Does he have any traits that may make him better suited for governance? Sometimes a shuffling of positions can help smooth out several issues.
Army management and tactics are also very easy to understand but have a complex system behind them. You can select objectives for each army and the AI will handle the task. You can also change the tactics for each army and the UI will display information on how efficient particular tactics will be with your current cohorts. That and the ability to change engagement orders for individual troops cause this game to give you a deeply satisfying understanding of how your military will function from the start, leaving little to guesswork.
I know this all sounds very time consuming, and it can be depending on how much you want to micromanage things. But I found it to be quick, complex, satisfying, and easy to understand.
Through my streaming of Imperator, comments were continuously made of the appearance of the game. The map is beautiful in both layout and scrolling execution. The way it curves like you are turning a globe is a lovely touch. The excellent DNA method of generating characters also results in many interesting, unique characters who age slowly before your eyes. I imagine coming up with portrait mods will be rewarding but maddening. Good luck to all you modders out there!
Aside from the beautiful art, the UI for the game deserves high praise. I keep mentioning how easy it is to find and understand the information, and that is in no small part because of the clear UI. Large but unobtrusive buttons and icons, clear character screens with all vital information, and the text are easy on the eyes.
Throw in how the map modes are both unintimidating and highly useful and how you can still enjoy tactical information when using the terrain map, this game is killing the UI portion of this talent show. I don’t usually gush over UI for games because it is so easy to be adequate and even easier to be bad. But here we can again see what Paradox meant when it said it was drawing on past games to make the best out of a new line. This user interface is going to be a welcome relief to Paradox veterans and new players alike.
Finally, let us talk about sounds. The last time I was this blow away by the audio for a game, it was Stellaris. The music, the sound effects, everything is just at the same time immersive but doesn’t distract from the game. That there, in my opinion, should be the goal of all audio and music directors. Make something that adds, not takes away from the experience. This will be a soundtrack that will be keeping me company on my morning walks, and likely some tabletop RPG sessions.
I honestly thought this would be it. This would be the Paradox game that broke my high praise streak. Maybe it wouldn’t be for me? I was never super interested in the Classical Era. Honestly, I’ve learned more about that period since I started playing Imperator than I ever knew before. Surely I’d fall into that comment trend that it would just be a bare-bones game at the start, maybe people should wait?
Hell. No. I can emphatically state that this game is glorious. A near perfect launch and a near perfect product. And we are already seeing information coming out about the first significant post-launch patch which will add dual leadership. A feature desperately wanted by the classical puritans. The only thing I would gripe about is the Hellenistic World Flavor Pack. I am never a fan of locking content that feels like it should be in the base game behind a paywall for day one launches. I know, I know, they got to make money, but this makes me feel a bit sad. The content looks so fun, thematic, and honestly, core to the time period of Imperator: Rome, that I can’t understand why it was gutted to be a separate DLC.
But, that aside, this is a glowing review of the game. This game is clearly the result of massive labour of love, the refinement of decades of game design, and a brilliant new standard for all PDX titles to come. I thank the team for their efforts, and I think that Paradox fans are going to be pleased, but this is also a title that retains the trademark complex nature of a grand strategy but is accessible to anyone who has an interest in learning. Well done. Absolutely well done. This has shocked me by rising to the top of my favourite strategy games in such a short time.
Final Score: 9/10 – A damn near perfect game, a gamble that paid off.
Review by: Joshua Smith (Old Man Mordaith)
This game was given by the developer for the purposes of review.