Roman history has always been among my favorite periods to study. That has extended to my gaming life. One of my favorite PC games as a kid was ROME: TOTAL WAR, after all. I’ve long wanted a modern strategy game that captures that magic. Well, on April 25, Paradox seemingly answered my prayers to Jupiter by releasing their latest grand strategy title, IMPERATOR: ROME!
IMPERATOR: ROME is a spiritual successor of sorts to Paradox’s first foray into the Roman era, EUROPA UNIVERSALIS: ROME, released in 2008. A product of an older, pre-CRUSADER KINGS II era of Paradox, EUROPA UNIVERSALIS: ROME… well, kind of sucked. It had a tiny map, few countries to choose from, and most of the gameplay consisted of “colonizing” places such as Gaul and Iberia by sending settlers there, which was rather boring. It was only worth playing at all if you used the Reign of the Ancients mod developed by Martin “Wiz” Anward, who now works for Paradox.
A Bygone Era
Of course, EUROPA UNIVERSALIS: ROME was a product of a bygone era, an era when the development team could be counted on one hand, games were released horrendously buggy and unfinished since they couldn’t afford a QA department, and the Paradox servers were literally under the desk of the studio manager, Johan Andersson. In the decade since then, Paradox has come a long, long way. The Paradox that made IMPERATOR: ROME is the Paradox that made CRUSADER KINGS II and EUROPA UNIVERSALIS IV, not the Paradox that made EUROPA UNIVERSALIS: ROME, or the infamously buggy (even by pre-CRUSADER KINGS II Paradox standards) HEARTS OF IRON III.
Surely, that means that IMPERATOR: ROME will stand head and shoulders above its spiritual forbear, and truly be a game to be reckoned with. But does it? Is IMPERATOR: ROME worth buying? Should you wait for a sale? Or give it a pass entirely?
This review will help you make that decision and see if IMPERATOR: ROME is right for you!
The Setting of IMPERATOR: ROME
IMPERATOR: ROME is set in Europe (as well as North Africa and India) during the period of antiquity, with the start date being 450 AVC (Ab urbe condita, or the years since the supposed founding of the city of Rome by Romulus). Or 304 BCE, in the Gregorian calendar. All dates in IMPERATOR use the AVC year, though you can see the Gregorian year by hovering over the date, and there is a mod which makes the Gregorian date always visible.
Anyway! The game starts during the beginning of the ascent of the Roman Republic from a mere local power in what is now Italy to the hegemon of the Mediterranean world. During my first run, while I didn’t quite recreate the borders of Trajan (which themselves would not be reached until nearly a century after the period depicted in IMPERATOR, as the game ends around the start of the first century AD), I had fun recreating Rome’s rise from minor city-state to superpower.
But whilst Rome may be the star of the show, they aren’t the only ones on the stage! As you can see in the screenshot above (which does not even cover all the countries in-game) there are dozens and dozens of countries on the map. And every single one of them is playable! You can play as Ptolemaic Egypt, one of the many successor states to Alexander the Great’s empire. Maybe you can reunite it? Or you can play as Rome’s arch-enemy, Carthage, and attempt to succeed where Hannibal failed. If I wanted to, I could even rep my hometown of Durnovaria in Britain!
A Lot of Balls in the Air
IMPERATOR: ROME may be a spiritual successor to EUROPA UNIVERSALIS: ROME, but to my knowledge, the setting is where the similarities end. The gameplay of IMPERATOR: ROME is an… interesting beast. In a sense, it takes aspects from most mainline Paradox titles. The warfare aspect and the focus on the nation is similar to EUROPA UNIVERSALIS IV. However, there are also characters who interact with one another, similar to CRUSADER KINGS II (though to a far lesser extent). Finally, there is also a focus on the population (whom the game represents via units called POPs) who make up your empire — an aspect not seen since 2010’s VICTORIA II!
So IMPERATOR: ROME is clearly taking mechanics and inspiration from other Paradox titles. But does it work? Does IMPERATOR: ROME successfully keep all these balls in the air? Or is it a hodgepodge of systems that don’t work well together?
In some ways, yes. In others, no.
IMPERATOR: ROME is competent at what it sets out to do. It is competent when it incorporates these systems from other Paradox games. While there are ways in which they could interact in more meaningful ways, it is not a complete mess. However, while it is competent at what it sets out to do, it doesn’t excel at any of them. It’s a jack of all trades, but a master of none.
Warfare and diplomacy are competent, but not nearly as fleshed out as they are in EUROPA UNIVERSALIS IV. The character interaction mechanics leave a lot to be desired. While admittedly the game is not as fundamentally character-focused a game as CRUSADER KINGS II, and I am not expecting as in-depth interactions as in that game, I feel like they could be so much more than they are now. The population mechanic imported from VICTORIA is interesting and I was glad to see it make a long-awaited return (I’ve been hoping for a VICTORIA III announcement for years now), it also lacks the depth that made it so fascinating in its home series.
All in all, these systems, while they don’t work badly together, also don’t really come together in such a way that makes the game feel truly unique and fleshed out.
IMPERATOR: The Road Ahead
Perhaps I am being a bit unfair. After all, both CRUSADER KINGS II and EUROPA UNIVERSALIS IV are very, very different games from how they were on release in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Both have been substantially updated and expanded over the years to the point that their sequels will basically be CRUSADER KINGS IV and EUROPA UNIVERSALIS V. I am comparing a game that has just been released to games that have been out and updated for years.
I have absolutely no doubt that Paradox will continue to support IMPERATOR: ROME into the far future. All of “modern,” post-CRUSADER KINGS II Paradox’s mainline titles, such as EUROPA UNIVERSALIS IV, CRUSADER KINGS II, HEARTS OF IRON IV, and STELLARIS, continue to be supported and updated years after their original release. IMPERATOR: ROME will no doubt follow in these games’ footsteps and continue to improve. What may be lacking now could very well change over time. For example, tribal government now is basically a worse form of any other government. But I’m sure in coming patches they will be more fun to play as. Then I can rep my hometown of Durnovaria!
The Immediate Future for IMPERATOR: ROME
Indeed, Paradox has already announced that a new patch, entitled 1.1 “Pompey”, is on the way. This is on top of the recent hotfix to fix some critical bugs. According to Paradox, they have been working on this patch since mid-February, when they froze base game development in anticipation of its release. This patch will change a number of things about the game. For example, stability will be revamped to be less of a no-brainer, as in the screenshot above. Other adjustments include adjustments to technology, population, some aspects of warfare, and more. Overall it is being tweaked to be a mite less arcade-y and instantaneous. I am sure this is the first of many patches to come.
That aside, this leads me to…
The Verdict: Is IMPERATOR: ROME Worth Buying?
So, after listening to me go on and on about this game, you probably want me to get straight to the point. That is, should you buy this game? Or wait for a sale? Or even give it a pass entirely?
To that, I say: don’t buy it… yet.
This is not a bad game. Far from it, in fact. It’s well-made, with one of Paradox’s smoothest and least-buggy launches to date. It’s fun to recreate the rise of Rome from podunk city-state to the hegemon of Europe and the Mediterranean. I’ve enjoyed my time with the game thus far and don’t regret any of my time spent playing it.
But I’ll be honest: if I had not been given a review copy and instead had paid the full $40… I’d feel kind of ripped off. Again, not because it’s a bad game or anything like that. But it lacks the depth and flavor that make me love its sister series. I have no doubt that it will continue to receive updates and improvements. Eventually, it will be a worthy addition to Paradox’s grand strategy stable. But it is not quite there… yet.
Per Aspera Ad Astra
For now, my advice is: wait for a sale. Paradox games always go on sale eventually, and IMPERATOR: ROME will be no exception. This is definitely a title to watch for future developments. I have faith that eventually I’ll have far more fun playing it than young me had playing ROME: TOTAL WAR back in the day. And that’s a pretty high bar! But in its current state, while the game is anything but bad, it’s not something I can in good conscience say is worth forty dollars. I’m sure it will be, someday. And when it eventually does go on sale, pick it up for sure. But for now? I’d say, hold off.
Developer: Paradox Development Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Platform: Windows (Reviewed), MacOS, Linux
Release Date: April 25, 2019
Copy: Sent a review copy by Paradox Interactive