The most obvious improvement to the tactical battles are, of course, merely visual. The unit models and animations are much more varied now, so you won't see rows and rows of identical legionaries swinging their swords at nothing while cavalry horses gallop and pivot in place. Here you'll see something that looks much more like a real battle. Elephants will crash through rows of archers, soldiers will roll boulders down the hills at advancing infantry, and ballistae crew will scatter in the face of cavalry charges. The addition of naval battles in Empire and Shogun 2 paved the way for Rome 2's combined land and naval battles. Now if you have ships and a sea next to you, you'll also have to manage your ships alongside your land forces.
We played all this in a recreation of the Battle of the Nile in 47BC. Caesar, leading the 13th Legion, marches on Pompey's hilltop camp. Pompey, in charge of Egyptian forces, definitely has the upper hand, including elephants, ballistae, and loads of traps that he can send down on Caesar's legionaries as they advance. Off to the west, the two generals each have fleets facing each other. If Pompey can keep Caesar's fleet from landing fresh forces and hold out until reinforcements arrive, the Romans won't stand a chance. The battle is definitely harder on the Roman side, but not impossible if you manage your forces well and have a bit of luck on your side.
You'll want to preserve your units, not only because they cost money to create, but also because they can gain ranks in battle and unlock new abilities. You might, for instance, create a legion that excels at sieges, or marching, or that is simply tough to defeat in battle. For Rome, these traits are associated with the legion's standard, which you can reclaim and reuse even if the legion falls. There's a similar RPG mechanic for your generals, who you can develop into first rate field generals or skilled bureaucrats.
Ruling an empire is about more than just great generalship; you'll also need to manage the internal political struggles of your faction as well. Nowhere is this more engaging or important than in Rome. There you'll need to manage your clients and gain the game's two political resources, Ambition and Gravitas. You spend those to arrange marriages, assassinations, and all the other tricks a proper Roman should know how to perform. You'll also have to manage key subjects; if Cicero starts spreading trouble, you'll need to find a way to extort, discredit, or just flat out kill him.
There's also a bit more transparency in the game's diplomacy engine now. When you send your agents round to negotiate deals, you'll be able to see the sum total of your relations with the other nation. That way, you'll know just why they are or aren't happy to deal with you.
The series has always suffered under the crush of late-game administration. As your empire grows and grows, you'll find yourself responsible for the management of numerous territories. Rome 2 incorporates some of the series' recent conveniences, and also adds the option to bundle regions together and administer them as a single unit. So if you have multiple territories near the front lines of a war where the people are discouraged and afraid, you can increase the recreational budget and boost the morale for all those regions at once.
As your empire develops, you'll be able to read the map much more easily than in previous games. Not only will you see the various camels, elephants, and pyramids that represent real resources available in each territory, but you'll also see cities expand on the map itself. If you build temples and marketplaces in Milan, for instance, you'll see the city grow larger and the forests get cut back.
Rome 2's definitely one of the most ambitious and exciting strategy games of the year. We'll be taking a closer look at it during E3 next week, so be sure to check back for updated impressions.