Review – Aggressors: Ancient Rome

Every strategy franchise at some point or another plays the Rome card. There’s Age of Empire’s Rise of Rome expansion, Paradox’s Europa Universalis spin-off as well as an upcoming new IP Imperator, Rome: Total War of course, and the list just goes on. At first it’s easy to pass off Aggressors: Ancient Rome as just another in a long line of the same. Give it a chance though and you will be sucked into one of the most faithful and impressive takes on this mostly worn out genre.

Battles at seas

You can disable these summary screens for a simpler experience, but I keep them on if only for the artwork.

Aggressors: Ancient Rome is from the 4X family of strategy games and plays along the same lines. You spend your time exploring the map with your various units, exploiting both the natural resources you uncover and other factions you meet, expanding your empire through diplomacy and conquest, and finally exterminating anyone who stands in the way of any of it. These have been the basic tenets for the 4X genre since the very start and Kubat Software wisely realized that there’s no need to change something that’s worked for over twenty years.

Thusly, instead of relying on gimmicks to set itself apart, they refined and balanced out these core concepts and created one of the most comprehensive strategy games on the market. Every facet of this game has tangible purpose and is individually no more important than any other. Yet at the same time, there’s plenty of room for specialization so everyone can still play the way they want. It’s an impossible balance that the biggest names in the genre famously and continuously fail to pull off, yet Aggressors makes it look easy.

Quality not Quantity

A lot of modern strategy games go for large maps, instead of focused detailed ones. This is a mistake.

The standard scenario sets you as one of twenty factions set up across the Mediterranean, all vying for victory through one of the available victory conditions. Factions vary widely, creating very different gameplay experiences. For example, playing as Rome, one of the Greek city-states, or other similar major powers, starts you in an easier and more stable position. Starting as one of the Celtic tribes on the other hand, drops you in enemy territory, outnumbered and outgunned, putting you on the back foot from the very first turn.

The starting experiences and locations are as authentic to the time period as possible, with factions relating towards one another based on their real world interactions. Of course as the game progresses history is thrown out the window, but real history forms the base layer for this game. Other titles forgo this kind of realism at the start in favor of a more measured playing experience. Here, some factions are unapologetically better off than others and I would have it no other way. Factions aren’t all different flavors of the same thing in different places, the way they are all played is by necessity fundamentally different. The fact that it’s historically accurate is icing on the cake.

Spreadsheet lovers

The game is as deep as you want it to be, so don’t despair spreadsheet lovers, all those beautiful numbers are readily available.

While the basic mechanics are very reminiscent of Civilization, there is far more depth here than they ever had. Two major new mechanics are morale and loyalty. Everything from cities to individual settlers have individual morale bars that shift based off the general events within your empire. Losing territory to enemies, running out of food, or simply having a more influential neighbor can all lower morale. On the other hand, conquering land, having a generous supply of resources, and making sure to take care of your land all raises morale. Low morale can cause anything from dissension and riots to outright desertion of units for brighter prospects.

On top of the general morale bar, your standing army also has a separate morale bar representing how they feel and act in combat against each of your enemies. Victories or defeats against each faction affect only their specific army morale bar, but all still effect each unit’s general morale. This can drastically change the outcome of a fight, far more than the general morale bar. Even a numerically weak unit can beat a tougher foe through the strength of their faith in their leader and the knowledge that they’ve beaten this faction before, so they can do so again.

Choices must be made

Decisions such as these can have weighty consequences across your entire empire. Choose very carefully.

Loyalty on the other hand is mostly a civil statistic and comes mostly into play when cities are conquered. In most other games, capturing a city means it’s yours straight away. It’s exactly the same as any of your other cities and you can immediately put it to use at one hundred percent effectiveness. Here, capturing a city means you may control the land, but the people are still not yours yet. The only way to build loyalty is through time and by treating your new subjects well. In the meantime though, any units’ low loyalty cities suffer penalties while you get less supplies and resources then from a main city. Within a generation or two they will be yours in mind and body, and all penalties disappear.

Another unique aspect of both loyalty and morale is that both are also based in real history. Armies fighting against units from factions they have a heated history with will fight more ferocious and lose morale much slower. Conquering cities from your most hated enemies leads to severe loyalty penalties that take much longer to disappear than normal. No faction is the same and none view any of the others the same either. This being baked right into the core of the game, instead of just diplomacy which most games do, lend Aggressors an air of authenticity that lasts throughout your entire game. Real history directs your actions, even if what you’re doing is far from what really happened.

Bold New World

Everything from the year to the biomes, this is a perfectly capable customize world menu.

That’s just the main part of the game. In addition to a randomized map generator which sets the factions up on a new map of various sizes, there is a generous amount of mod support options. In these days where even basic mod support is lacking, Kubat went out of their way to make as much of the game as easily modable as possible. Maps, factions, entire new campaigns, all accessible either through Steam Workshop or even directly through the game. I haven’t seen anything like this in years and it reminds me of the glory days.

Aggressors: Ancient Rome is far more than it initially appears. A clear labor of love of both strategy gaming and history saturates every inch of this game from the artwork to the historically accurate interactions between armies. The fact that they managed to successfully blend fun and engaging gameplay with serious history is a testament to all those other strategy games that fall so far short of the mark. This game isn’t just another Rome strategy game, this game is the only 4X Ancient Rome strategy game that deserves to use this setting. I eagerly await Kubat Software’s next title.

Graphics: 7.5

There are prettier games no doubt, but a mix of great original artwork and solid animations such as units taking visible damage during battle, work well.

Gameplay: 10

This is 4X gaming perfection. Everything is polished to a point, no mechanic is wasted, and everything comes together beautifully instead of being lost in needless complexity.

Sound: 6.0

The music is pleasant, but outside the title theme, the rest is nothing special.

Fun Factor: 10

This is the first strategy game in a long while where exploration feels real again. Earning your armies loyalty and your empire’s love lend more credibility to genuinely building something. You don’t win success here, you earn it.

Final Verdict: 9.0

Aggressors: Ancient Rome is available now on Steam.

Reviewed on PC.

A copy of Aggressors: Ancient Rome was provided by the publisher.