Feature: TOTAL WAR: ROME II might offer “Total War with a human face”- but what of the real human face behind it? We catch up with lead designer James Russell to find out more about The Creative Assembly’s grand strategy behemoth.
It takes James Russell two hours to get to work. The lead designer on Total War has made this lengthy trip twice a day for the past eight years. “That’s how much I love my job,” he smiles. “It’s pretty insane, actually.”
Total War has become The Creative Assembly’s raison d’être. Since the 1990s, the team has been working to hone its unique take on grand strategy: a micro/macro mash-up that sees you work towards regional or global domination in a particular historical setting.
Even within the strategy space, Total War has almost become a genre in its own right. Few other studios are brave enough – perhaps able enough – to pull off such an ambitious take on either real-time or turn-based strategy, let alone to throw the two into a blender.
“I think there are some games coming into this space,” says Russell, “but I do think Total War is unique in having pretty much a full turn-based strategy game of empire-building, plus the battles when armies clash on the campaign map. I think it’s a really great combination. We love it because we think the games are more than the sum of their parts.”
And it’s the way those two parts – the micro and the macro – gel together that’s the secret to Total War’s success. Historical strategy games, generally speaking, are only one step above tractor sims in the niche stakes. But somehow, The Creative Assembly’s games have always managed to garner more widespread attention. “It’s interesting to think about whether it’s popular because people want to play a big game of empire and statescraft building, or whether what makes it popular is the exciting visual feast of the battles,” Russell ponders. “I think it’s the combination of those elements.”
The studio’s enormous budget can’t hurt, either. “I think that can help them escape the niche by creating a visual spectacle,” Russell says. “People just go, ‘Wow, what’s that? I want to have a go at that’.”
Like humans do
With the studio’s next game, Total War: Rome 2, they’re hoping to take this one step further by focusing more on the details to give the bigger picture even more impact. The Creative Assembly have been talking a lot about “Total War with a human face” – and the idea is to utilise the newest technology to allow players to see each individual as a human being, in order to increase the awe of witnessing an entire battle.
“We’re doing that in a lot of different ways – facial animations, interactions between men, all that kind of stuff,” says Russell. “But the idea behind it is to make them feel more human on the battlefield. And so when you zoom out and you see the thousands of them, it just feels more epic, because they’re not all robot ants – they’re real humans.”