Imperator: Rome - One year on, Paradox's newest grand-strategy game is turning the tide20 Jul 2020 2
The Paradox business model of releasing incredibly ambitious (yet equally niche) grand strategy titles heavily supported by updates and paid DLC has allowed them to carve out a market of incredibly loyal and zealous fans. There is a reason people are still dropping hundreds of hours into games like Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV, even if they were originally released years ago.
The downside of that business model though is that, at launch, new titles can be a bit … rough around the edges. This is a problem that's only getting more exacerbated over time as perceptions around what a grand-strategy title should be at launch start to warp.
Imperator: Rome was one such diamond in the rough. Its first birthday – along with the most recent update – passed back in the chaotic days of April. With the release date of the next update - Patch 1.5 (Menander) - looming vaguely on the horizon now is as good a time as any to look back at where Paradox’s most recent grand strategy title stands today.
Imperator: Rome has taken a circuitous (and not always scenic) road to its current incarnation. It has faced significant existential challenges from virtually the moment it was released. At launch, a flood of negative reviews on Steam seemed to take issue with some of the most fundamental pillars of the design. The 'mana' system, which was modeled after EUIV’s Monarch points, was despised as overly abstract and tedious. The mechanics that governed migration, religion, culture, and class were lambasted as hand-wavy ahistorical nonsense. The world outside the immediate confines of Italy was shallow and underdeveloped. Few culture groups besides the Romans had any notable events or decisions and city development was virtually nonexistent.
While Imperator was never bad, there was a noticeable hollowness to the design that became more apparent the longer one played. Without interesting internal dynamics, end game goals, or missions to strive towards, the middle and late game were aimless exercises in map painting. Something had to be done.
Instead of doubling down, Paradox instead tore down their existing game and started again (ish). Imperator’s second major update – Patch 1.2 'Cicero' – was a turning point. The much-reviled mana system was discarded altogether and replaced with organic systems that shaped nations based on the player’s policies and choices. The rudimentary city management and development mechanics were tossed out and rebuilt from the ground up. A food system, entirely missing from 1.0, was added for all provinces and later extended to armies as well.
Subsequent updates have ironed out many of the remaining quirks, bugs, and flaws. Missions, both dynamic and procedural, have been introduced. Great families, powerful elites within each nation, were added as well, providing some much-needed challenge to internal politics. The result is a radically more developed experience than what appeared at launch.
Where Are We Now? (Patch 1.4 Archimedes)
The most recent update, patch 1.4 'Archimedes' rolled in about a week before Imperator’s first birthday and brought a host of welcome changes. Religion, one of the blander aspects of the game, received a significant (and much needed) facelift, replacing the cookie-cutter “omens” (buffs that had to be mindlessly renewed whenever a timer ran out) with a more personalized system. Now, each state has a pantheon composed of the various deities worshiped in its domains (not limited to just the gods of the state religion). The gods in the pantheon confer passive buffs and a periodic active buff when worshipped.
The new religion system also allows you to swap out the gods in your state pantheon. Different gods have different active and passive abilities and provide a happiness bonus to the segments of your population that worship them. With enough popularity, you can even deify past rulers. Numerous holy sites — and the ability to raid and desecrate them — have been added as well. The result is a religious system that has a significantly more concrete presence in the world and much more personality compared to what was a very overlookable mechanic at launch.
Released alongside the Archimedes update, the Magna Graecia Content Pack introduced, among other things, several unique mission trees for Athens, Sparta, and Syracuse. These add a bit of flavor to these factions, building out the “stories” of these states navigating a Hellenized world that has relegated them to the periphery. Both Athens and Sparta have been given a path to slip out from underneath the Macedonian boot. If they can do so, they can try to reclaim the empires they lost a century earlier and rebuild either a resurrected Delian or Peloponnesian League.
Syracuse, especially, has received some much-deserved love. One of the most rewarding states to play, even before it received its slew of updated missions, the Syracusan missions allow the player to decide the fate of the city and its tyrant and then eject the twin evils of Rome and Carthage from the shores of Southern Italy. The result is that the Greek world is considerably more fleshed out and resurrecting these once-great powers feels rewarding.
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
For all these improvements, Imperator is still a work in progress, even if the worst of its post-launch faults have been rectified. This is because Imperator is, and always has been, a chimera — built liberally from the component parts of its grand strategy predecessors in the Paradox stable. Because of this, it can come off as not quite as fully realized as its siblings, especially so early in its lifecycle. The game still, for example, tries unsuccessfully to walk the delicate balance between the dynastic, character-driven gameplay of CK2 and the systemic, nation-driven map-painting of EUIV.
Flavor and polish, in the form of unique missions, events, and decisions, aren’t yet where they need to be. These little details go a long way towards making the world feel real and lived in. Several cultural and religious groups, especially the tribes who make up the bulk of the non-Hellenistic world, still lack the robustness to make them worth playing. While Paradox undoubtedly has plans to expand on the various tribal societies in content and expansion packs down the line, at the close of Year One, from the Atlantic coast to the Central Asian steppe, the tribes on the periphery of the Greek and Roman worlds are an undifferentiated mass.
The other big hurdle for Imperator will be in building out the middle and late game. For the moment, once you cross the threshold of becoming the most powerful empire in your neighborhood and you have no credible rivals, there is little, besides gross mismanagement, to check your inexorable rise. Without an external threat to keep the player on their toes there is not yet enough nuance to the internal government to make for a truly compelling experience.
Endgame states, gorged after decades of conflict and conquest, should resemble the Roman Republic at its zenith: incredibly powerful, unimaginably wealthy, but sclerotic, unwieldy, and fractious. The massive influx of wealth and slaves distorted the character of the Roman Republic beyond recognition; civil and social wars replaced the threat of external invasion; the loyalty of the legions turned from the central government to ambitious generals. As of right now, Imperator lacks the mechanics to accurately model such challenges to imperial consolidation in any meaningful way.
Is Imperator: Rome Good Now?
Imperator: Rome’s second year will hopefully bring changes to address some of these lingering issues. Luckily, the development diaries for patch 1.5, look very promising. Republics will be getting a much-needed overhaul. Greece will be seeing more unique missions with the Epirus content pack and it appears continuing tweaks will be made to the power struggle between the Diadochi kings. (Most importantly, Phrygia will finally receive a long overdue name change to its proper title: the Antigonid Kingdom).
All these improvements look promising, and it seems likely that if the progress that was made in the first year is repeated in the second, then we will have a grand strategy game worthy of Paradox's considerable pedigree. For those that are wondering, Editor Joe has commented that if Imperator had released in the state it was at the end of Year One, even before around the 1.3 Patch, it definitely would have reviewed better than it did.