Imperator: Rome in the test - The Paradox formula

Author: Stephan Bliemel
Date: 2019-04-25 18:00:00
After a break of almost three years, the in-house development studio of the Swedish publisher Paradox Interactive is releasing a grand strategy game again. Our test shows whether it can meet the high expectations of the fans and still be accessible to newcomers.

The year is 298 BC. The new Sufet Metallo Mattinid has just been elected by the popular assembly as the highest official of the Carthaginian Republic. The war is still raging against the armies of Syracuse in Sicily, but after months of siege the mighty Greek city has finally fallen into the hands of Carthage.

But Metallo still has a very personal plan: He wants to free his relative Maharbal Mattanid, the former governor of Sardinia, from prison. Maharbal had held a pompous festival during a severe drought and was then obliged by the previous sufet to pay 200 gold coins. For this Maharbal had to go into debt that he could not pay. He was removed from office and thrown into the debtor's office.

Since the new Sufet Metallo has the character trait »stupid«, we decide on a risky solution: We arrange a gladiator fight between Marhabal and one of the captured Syracusan generals, because the winner is given freedom. However, we have overestimated Marhabal's abilities : he dies in combat, instead the enemy general is released ...

Antique selection

Imperator: Rome takes us back to antiquity, to the year 304 BC to be precise. The playable area covers the Mediterranean area, includes the British Isles and southern Scandinavia in the north and extends from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea to the Indian subcontinent in the west.

As usual, all the tribes, republics and monarchies represented on the huge map can be played - from the small Suebian tribe in Germania to the Greek city-states in southern Italy to the Diadochian kingdoms in Asia Minor.

To get to know each other, it is recommended to start with one of the factions proposed by the game - in addition to Rome and Carthage, there are Macedonia, Egypt, the Seleucid Empire and Phrygia. They each offer the player special decisions, goals and event chains that guide the gaming experience and make it varied.

For example, as Carthaginians, after conquering Spanish territories, we can found Carthago Nova and receive special bonuses for further expansion. Or we as Romans have to deal with the rise of the Egyptian cult of Isis, which is gradually gaining a foothold in Italy.

Best of Paradox?

Points of power in the areas of rhetoric, military, civil and religion limit our political options, and overly expansive wars are punished with the penalty of aggressive expansion, which brings us into disrepute in the eyes of the rest of the world.

The beauty of the card

The most obvious development shows Imperator: Rome, however, in the representation of the game world . The continuously zoomable map is one of the most impressive map displays that we have ever seen in a strategy game. At the highest zoom level, the map resembles a historical globe - showing a colorful patchwork quilt depicting the fragmented world of ancient states.

The closer we zoom in to the action, the more transparent the coloring becomes. In the smallest zoom level, the fields, forests, lakes, rivers and cities can be seen. You can get lost in exploring the fertile course of the Nile, the rugged Dalmatian coast or the Afghan highlands (see the comparison pictures below).

This huge game world is divided into thousands of small urban areas. While in Europa Universalis 4, for example, Sicily still consists of three provinces, in Hearts of Iron 4 there were at least nine, in Imperator: Rome, on the other hand, Sicily is divided into 23 (!) Cities. This small-scale approach pays off especially in the campaigns: This makes maneuvering significantly more demanding, as the different terrains, river crossings, impassable areas and the control zones of the fortresses can be taken into account even more intensively.

The father of all things

Warfare with the aim of expansion is accordingly the central game element of Imperator: Rome. However, anyone who expects complex internal political mechanics or role-playing interesting character interactions will be disappointed. All of this is there, but it doesn't support the gaming experience. Those who do not want to expand will be bored.

Fortunately, the rules and ways of influencing warfare have been expanded accordingly. After all, there are nine different types of troops to choose from (including archers, heavy infantry, camel riders, chariots and elephants), which, based on the rock-paper-scissors principle, have strengths and weaknesses. We can determine the composition of the battle lines and flanks as well as choose from various tactic cards. With so-called military traditions, one's own armies can be further specialized.

Constant threat

Fortunately, the challenge of Imperator: Rome is not just about overcoming the opponents and "painting" the map in the color of your own nation. Because the bigger an empire is, the more one has to pay attention to the loyalty of one's own population and that of the important characters in the state. In order to keep the population in the provinces satisfied, you need good governors. Garrison troops can be used to keep things calm and provincial decrees grant greater autonomy. Or you can keep people happy by importing luxury goods.

Characters and nobles alike want their families to have a fair share of government offices, but they can also be flattered by triumphs or bribed with gold. If all else fails, tyrannical players can incarcerate, banish or even execute the disloyal subjects - which, however, does not do their own good justice and possibly creates new enemies of the state.

Those who fail to achieve this balance between expansion and internal stability can expect liberation wars of renegade cultures or even a major civil war. The disloyal characters then split off and take some of the troops with them. Then it's all or nothing: Either you can defeat the other side or the game over threatens. It is from this latent danger that Imperator's late game: Rome draws its tension.

World trade organization

Another strength of the game is the motivating economic system . Each city in the game world produces a commodity (grain, precious metals, olives, etc.). Each commodity provides a certain bonus in the province to which this city belongs. Grain, for example, increases population growth, while wood is the prerequisite for being able to build ships at all. If provinces have surplus trade goods, either the province bonuses increase or the goods can be exported in order to generate additional income.

The capital province has a special role to play in this: here, surplus trade goods result in nationwide bonuses that are particularly powerful. A city produces more goods when a lot of slave pops work there. It is therefore important to concentrate slaves, which can be dangerous again should a riot break out.

In the trading system, the different game systems interlock in an impressive way. Which population groups do you need in which province? Do you want to earn more money, or are the bonuses of the commodities more important? What resources do I need to upgrade my troops? Every decision has advantages and disadvantages and is a pleasant headache.

The missed opportunity

So everything is great with the Imperator: Rome? No, because the other aspects of the game are kept rather flat: research, religion and diplomacy are limited to manageable interactions. Often you wait for the accumulation of power points in order to unlock a new invention or to ask for a divine omen. Here you are used to a lot more depth from other Paradox titles.

The biggest shortcoming of Imperator: Rome is its lack of beginner-friendliness . Paradox missed the chance to make it easier for newcomers to access their own game universe. There is a tutorial that explains a few basic game concepts using small-scale goals. But many of the more complex rules are not addressed at all and are hardly explained in the many detailed tooltips. The tutorial is more suitable for connoisseurs who want to find out in a nutshell which Paradox-typical game elements and systems they can expect. Beginners are only advised that there are mechanics. But not how they work.

Nowhere is it explained that enemy fortresses create control zones that severely restrict the movement of their own troops. If you do not know the underlying rules of movement, the total annihilation of your own isolated army may well threaten - frustration is inevitable. The most opaque is the calculation of the combat strength of the individual cohorts during a field battle. A degree in mathematics seems to be necessary here in order to understand the modifiers and formulas used.

More comfort please

For die-hard Paradox fans, it is particularly annoying that so many cherished elements are not found in Imperator: Rome. We sorely missed the opportunity to give our allied troops - controlled by the moderately intelligent AI - guidelines for military action or siege targets. And why can we no longer divide the news settings for important and unimportant countries? The lack of overviews and statistics is also noticeable: The management of one's own provinces is very important, but one looks in vain for a complete province overview with all the necessary figures.

And as interesting as trade can be, the game becomes confusing for people with strong exports. As a Carthaginian, for example, trade inquiries pop up every minute and we don't want to have to study the trade menu every time to see which resources we currently prefer to keep. Another time, at an event, two cities are at odds over a field dispute, we should arbitrate and draw boundaries. We would like to take a quick look at where the towns are and use statistics and geostrategic considerations to weigh up which city should manage the land. But the event window always remains in the foreground until the decision and is superimposed on all other menus. These small but frequent annoyances cost the strategy game the bottom line of the 80s rating.

Don't get it wrong: Imperator: Rome is a rock solid game with well-functioning game mechanics that mesh and are fun. The Paradox formula works this time too. However, those who know the other titles of the developers will miss the innovation. There is only a fine line between best-of and lack of profile . Paradox Imperator: Rome will certainly continue to develop in the usual way for many years to come (see box "DLCs on the move"). It is therefore quite possible that in three or five years the base game will have become a real masterpiece that can scratch the 90s mark. At least the foundation for this has been laid.