Alea Jacta Est review
Those were the words that Caesar supposedly said before he crossed the Rubicon and effectively started the civil war that will bring the old Republic to its end. “The die has been cast” or, as the popular saying would go, “the chips are down”. From his action, there emerged yet another famous expression “to cross the Rubicon”, which basically means to conduct some action from which there is no turning back. Rubicon marked a northern border of Roman Republic, a border that Caesar wasn’t allowed to cross with his army or he would be considered having declared the war on Senat and Rome.
AGEOD, a French developing studio already well known by a series of strategic titles like Pride of Nations, has just recently released Alea Jacta Est and has managed to garner a lot of interest from the community for their latest project. MatrixGames teamed up with them as a publisher and we now can immerse ourselves in one more reincarnation of the golden age of Rome and its momentous wars and development that shaped the world to come.
The early steps
You should definitely start off with tutorial, regardless of how good a player you are and how much experience you got. AJE has approximately a million options available, and it is all too easy to get lost in all those options. Of course, if you are an experienced AGEOD games, you will have a much easier time getting inside the game and mastering the gameplay, but if you are not, stick with the tutorial. It will not teach you just about everything there is in game, but it will show you the basics; the rest you can learn the good, old-fashioned way – trial and error.
There are too many details about the game to reiterate them all here, so we will concentrate on the most important features. First of all, the game consists from six scenarios, first one being Marius vs Sulla at 87BC, then the great Mithridatic War of 75BC, Followed by the Roman Civil War (Caesar vs Pompey) at 50BC and the Year of the Four Emperors at 68AD to end with the Septimus Severus at 193AD scenario. And in case you were wondering, yes, the love for the historical accuracy is strong with this game and it certainly runs very, very deep, down to the minute details of different units and their abilities. It is one of the game’s strong selling points, and since especially attractive for the history buffs interested in this period.
In case you are not familiar with these titles, be advised that AJE is not a tactical strategy game, but a pure strategic title. That means that even though you command your armies on the campaign map, assemble troops and move them where you want them to be, once the battle starts, it is a war of numbers, abilities and stats of your troops, and not micro-managing units. For that purpose, you need to make all your preparations before the battle, which also includes the choosing of a general of your liking who will then slay your foes in your name.
Alea Jacta Est is big, but not as big as Pride of Nations was; it is being played out on smaller scale maps and is, according to that fact, a relatively faster game. If you have played Pride of Nations, you probably remember that the turns could last anywhere up to five minutes until the entire range of moves were processed. Yes, there is some improvement in AJE, but mostly due to the fact that the scale of gameplay is smaller, the game engine is still the same, without any apparent changes. Also, one somewhat annoying aspect of the game is the fact that map scrolling is actually very jerky, far from desired “fluid” scrolling, regardless if you got a high-end machine running the game. It seems hard to believe that is so difficult to optimize the game to the degree that a 2D map can be moved around on in a fluid fashion, but apparently, that is the case here. These are the weak points of the game.
The AI that wanted to be the king
We can say only the best things about AI. It is very difficult to make a decent AI in games of this caliber without making the AI either too simplistic (or simply put, stupid) or enabling it to cheat in order to provide human players with more challenge. AJE has a very decent AI that will provide you with sufficient challenge, making almost always the best choice in respect of their current situation. The real challenge though are the human players, and AJE enables you to play PBEM (play-by-e-mail) campaign with your friends or random Net opponents that will truly push you to your limits.
OK, once you have picked out the scenario and decided which side to lead – playing as Pompey is much more interesting when you actually find yourself in a real, authentic situation and see how easily Julius Caesar could have become just another footnote in history books. You take your armies into battle, recruit new troops, make sure your people are happy and entertained by providing them games or giving out grain and bread to them. AJE is truly complex game, with deep gameplay and a multitude of options. Only when you spend a longer time playing do you begin to recognize all things you can do in this game to influence the victory. Of course, there is the old fashioned “march towards your enemy and stick something sharp in his stomach” approach, but this gameplay can offer much more refined experience than that. You can, for instance, use your influence to reduce the local popularity of your enemy in the region he is holding, subvert his efforts to have people like him, which will make his holding on to a province much more difficult. Stage games for your people, improve the infrastructure of cities and provinces, hire mercenaries and recruit foreign special units, build roads, besiege enemy cities, block their ports… It is easy to start feeling dizzy with all the possible roads to victory.
But there are, of course, always dangers connected to any of your actions. If you see a juicy target province neighboring your holdings, you may easily lose lose your patience and send of your finest troops to conquer them only to realize that you made a grave mistake by marching to the enemy during the winter months as well as the fact that your supply lines don’t reach that far into enemy territory. Suddenly, after hitting the turn button, you receive reports of your army being decimated by attrition and bad weather and learn that because of lack of supplies your soldiers are suffering and dieing. Suddenly a cozy, almost casual stroll into enemy province becomes a struggle of life and death long before any battles are fought, where you need to conquer the enemy main city in order to supply your troops with food. Things like this make the game both fun and filled with tension!
Armies on the move
Of course, the armies are alpha and omega of the gameplay, and you will do your best to assemble the optimal troops for your conquering forces. Armies can be set on different modes, you can let them be aggressive and attack all opponents on sight, be passive and defend or simply ignore the enemy, even when these enter your own province. Sometimes you will experience that both you and your enemy won’t be willing to attack, since both of you are waiting for reinforcements. In AJE you must assess any possible situation and see what is the best possible outcome for you. Winning a battle and losing a fair portion of your army while doing so can easily mean the loss of an entire war.
The war is being waged not only on the land, but on the sea as well, and your fleets are essential to conquest of a huge number of coastal cities. A city that is being besieged will hardly go down if it can resupply itself via sea, even though you are setting up siege towers all around it. You can also harass opponents trading fleets with your own fleets and lower their income from trade, and this is one of the tactics you should not ignore if at all possible. The AI will give you a tough battle on the army engagement front as well, as it will withdraw and defend if outnumbered and attack if it sees a good opportunity to winning.
Alas, the die is truly cast
Alea Jacta Est is an engaging strategic experience. The wealth of options, the depth of gameplay, the amusement and the amount of fun strategy fans will be able to derive from this title is enormous. We especially appreciated the way how war was not always the best answer; after waging direct, brutal warfare on one of our opponents in the one of six scenarios, we found ourselves on the losing side, again and again. By changing the focus from military conflict to all possible forms of undermining the opponents population moral, we managed to lower his “nation moral” so much that our troops had much easier time conquering and holding enemy provinces. Now, that is how you provide options in a strategy games. The time pressure to finish the scenario in a certain number of turns makes players be both creative and, above all, fast!
In the end, this is a very solid game, especially because of the time period and setting, and has no particular flaws or bugs that stand out, apart from some graphic issues when scrolling around the map and the slowness of the engine when calculating the events after each turn. Apart from jerky map movement and slow turn processing time, we couldn’t find anything else to even remotely dislike on this game. For us, the die has been cast, and we’ve won with this title! If you like strategy games of this type and also like the era in question, there is no doubt, don’t miss out on Alea Jacta Est!
- Historical accuracy
- Detail rich gameplay
- Content rich, multitude on options and possibilities
- Great music
- Jerky map movement
- No engine improvement over Pride of Nations
- Long turns