The worst of Total War: Rome II’s many problems is its failure to explain its mechanics clearly and especially how those mechanics interact. The internal politics of Rome – something critical to why the Rome: Total War was good – are a particularly badly represented mess: a variety of bars and numbers move around the politics screen without explaining themselves or what they mean in relation to the rest of the game. The food system, newly introduced in this iteration of Total War, is not necessarily the worst offender but it is the one I’ve had the best luck untangling and so it provides a good case study for why Rome II’s obscure, badly implemented mechanics utterly rob the campaign of its basic joy.
I’ve written already about how playing as Austria in Europa Universalis IV successfully addresses the recurring problem of the late game in strategy and grand strategy games. That is specifically the phase of the game where you have won and yet it goes on. In Civilization V, you might reach the year 1800, find you’re vastly ahead of the AI opponents and simultaneously realise it’ll take 100 more turns to finally finish that Conquest or Science victory. In Europa Universalis IV, you might beat France in a major war and realise that all it takes to gobble up the whole continent is a series of tedious, easy conflicts. In Total War games, where the objective is to conquer a quota of provinces, usually being merely half-way to this quota is enough to be larger and stronger than all your rivals. Rome: Total War is interested in solving this problem and while it’s not wholly successful, it does mitigate the tedium which suffuses so much of the late game in strategy and grand strategy. By dividing the game into two phases, one in which you expand for the glory of the Roman Republic and another which sets you against other Roman factions and the Senate itself in your quest to become emperor, Rome: Total War makes victory difficult. It forces you to recontextualise your conquests and think again about what territory is ‘safe.’ It forces you to zoom out from small-scale, distant wars to focus on a larger conflict. Rome: Total War’s late game challenges you, a phrase we can rarely use honestly about this phase in these games.
Dishonored’s DLC ‘The Knife of Dunwall’ has three missions. The story concludes in the third mission, but by the end of the second the action has reached its climax. The infiltration of the Timsh Estate, which closes out that mission, should rightly be celebrated among the great stealth sections of all time and it is the greatest single section in Dishonored. Your objectives are simple enough: break into the estate, steal Arnold Timsh’s will and kill or otherwise incapacitate him. In a mission with otherwise merely serviceable level design, however, the Timsh Estate is an intricate, confined environment which is a delight to explore and sneak through. It is easily the highlight of the whole DLC and from a mechanical perspective it’s a better conclusion that the poor third mission (entitled ‘The Surge’). It tests the player’s knowledge of the mechanics introduced thus far and, especially at higher difficulties where simply cutting enemies to ribbons isn’t an option, succeeds at something Dishonored rarely even attempts: making the player feel vulnerable. Someone seeing Dishonored for the first time in ‘The Surge’ or missions like ‘High Overseer Campbell’ in the main game could be forgiven for thinking Dishonored was an adaption of Batman. The Timsh Estate, though, forbids player from lurking in rafters or easily picking off its guards and to its credit it makes for a more thoughtful, tense experience.
There are spoilers here for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood faction here.
The first half of the Dark Brotherhood questline in TESIV, up to an including ‘The Purification’, and the player’s arc through that organisation is Oblivion’s strongest content. While most of its appeal is certainly down to its quest design (which is, simply, better and far more imaginative than the rote collection or killing quests seen elsewhere), it also distinguishes itself from the rest of the game by thoughtfully constructing a community within the Dark Brotherhood. In a game also featuring a Mages, Fighters and Thieves Guild – not to mention a lengthy Arena career – the Dark Brotherhood, alone, manages to make the player feel a member of an organisation rather than its sole saviour. Other guilds are acceptable vendors of quests, but the Dark Brotherhood exceeds them in one important respect: only there does the player become attached to the group’s NPC members, seek them out for advice and relish interactions in the Sanctuary, the Brotherhood’s headquarters. This is all the more impressive since the Brotherhood stands for the values most alien to most players, worship of an ancient, evil deity and taking pleasure and pride in murder. There is, of course, a dramatic shift in the quest line halfway through, after which it becomes much more of Oblivion’s standard fare, but is first half stands so far above the rest of the game’s content it’s worth examining why, and particularly how the player comes to feel they have joined, in a real sense, a ‘brotherhood.’