Now we get to the ugly bits of the review. Creative Assembly has always lagged a bit when it comes to interfaces, and through Rome really improved in many areas, little progress has been made since then. Remembering to move your units, specifically special units like diplomats, spies, assassins, merchants, and princesses can be infuriatingly tedious. While it is possible to set movement orders to specific objects that will take several turns for a payoff, these orders can be interrupted if your unit is blocked. There is a notification, but that is likely to get lost among the half dozen notifications you start getting every turn after playing the game for a while. Of course, setting multi-turn movement orders for an army is almost suicide, it’s very likely they’ll get ambushed by at least rebels along the way.
The way special units gain skill is also unclear. Nothing in the game says that priests gain more piety by going into foreign lands and converting unbelievers or heretics. To become a cardinal (who can vote for a new Pope, or even become Pope), a priest must have at least 5 piety, which is of course gained by sending them off into the middle of the Arabian desert. This… is not quite how cardinals became cardinals in real life. In fact, it’s almost the complete opposite. Similarly, a diplomat of mine didn’t gain a single skill point when negotiating two treaties of trade, two alliances, bribing one foreign army and concluding a cease fire with the French. Yet, in two map trades, he gained two skill points. Bizarre? To say the least.
Merchants seem almost not worth using. Costing 550 gold apiece, they can – at best – gain about 100 gold per turn. More likely they’ll earn about 50 in their peak, which implies they must survive 11 turns on a resource while earning this peak rate. This doesn’t count the fact that it takes several turns to get that 50 gold, and they’ll likely start at about 10 gold per turn. Yet, if they’re in an area near a border or one that’s well-traveled by enemy units, an enemy merchant is sure to attempt to buy them out, and sooner or later they’ll succeed. Even then, the 300-500 gold or so that you can expect all your merchants to earn per turn is a miserable pittance compared to your actual income and expenditures. It’s barely worth the investment of time, never mind the gold. Fortunately, assassins and spies are more intuitive and useful.
The graphics are very pretty but they do have some annoying flaws. The level of detail algorithms and change are not very smooth at all. It’s like an extremely obvious and bad implementation of bilinear filtering, except much worse. Units pass a magical distance line and change from shapeless blobs of a certain color to recognizable objects, and then they pass another line and become the highly detailed creatures you see in the screenshots. Also, the game makes use of a lot of drastic terrain sometimes, and the engine clearly cheats in some sort of obvious and ugly way. Units become deformed and twisted as they enter steep terrain. It is unattractive to say the least. On top of that, mountain and hill battles are unnaturally common. Or at the least, they take place on terrain that is much steeper than would be acceptable in real life.
All this, even the interface, would be easily forgotten if the campaign AI wasn’t utterly insane. It will break alliance that have lasted 100 turns, just because you suddenly share a border. The national AI will attack without reason and often refuse to accept peace even when facing annihilation, simply because the mongols on the other side of the world are supposedly at war with you too, and thus the numbers are technically in its favor. The AI cancels alliances because you proposed a map information trade that, according to the game, was generous. This is not Civilization IV and nobody expects it to be, but in the name of all that is sane and rational, there has to be some sort of indication of what the AI thinks of you, some sort of history, some sort of incident or reasoning that explains why it suddenly decided to betray the two marriage alliances you have because apparently the perfectly natural Franco-Spanish border is intolerably close?