Reviewed: October 15, 2005
Released: September 27, 2005
For centuries the invincible legions of Rome have kept peace in the civilized world.
That age is coming to an end. In the North, Saxon pirates lay waste to the shores of Britain. The western frontier is ablaze as the warring Franks and Vandals push ever deeper into Roman territory. The Persians lays siege to the great imperial cities of Constantinople and Alexandria in the South. But the greatest threat Rome has ever faced comes thundering out of the eastern steppes – the Huns.
Last year, Creative Assembly gave strategy fans the chance to forge a new Roman empire in their best selling Rome:Total War. Players now have the chance to save Rome during its darkest hour – or burn the Eternal City to the ground – in the new expansion, Rome: Total War - Barbarian Invasion.
The expansion doesn’t change the basic gameplay of Rome: Total War, with its mix of turn-based strategy and massive real-time battles. Barbarian Invasions introduces a new campaign set in the late fourth century A.D., a time when the empire has been split into two halves but a century before Rome falls to invaders. The campaign map remains the same but there are fewer cities and resources, ensuring tensions between factions will explode into no-holds-barred warfare.
Barbarian Invasions offers:
As much as I loved Rome: Total War, several things really annoyed me about the original. The Roman factions used to be overpowered compared to the barbarians. I also found the AI at times lacking. Generals would commit suicide by charging too far ahead of their armies; computer armies would often besiege a city only to wander off a few turns later; and the computer rarely used diplomacy beyond setting up trade routes. But my biggest complaint was the never-ending imperial campaign that grew boring long before you accomplished all your objectives.
I’m happy to report Barbarian Invasions has made big improvements in these areas. The AI has greatly improved, the campaign is fast paced, and Rome no longer dominates. Even when you are winning, there is the constant fear a rampaging barbarian army may appear over the horizon and ruin your best laid plans.
You no longer have to conquer the entire world to win. Each faction has a set victory condition. Smaller tribes only need to capture a few provinces to win, while the Romans have to end the game with their empire intact. You only have 115 game years to accomplish your goals (compared to several centuries in the original), so you have to be utterly ruthless in expanding your empire.
Both halves of the Empire can still dominate in later years, but the Romans start the game with little money and plenty of unhappy citizens. It’s not uncommon for the Western Empire to lose a third of its provinces in the first few years to rebellions or invasion. At least the Roman Senate can no longer send you on pointless mission after mission until you start to wonder if you’re playing Everquest: Total War.
The barbarians start off with few provinces but plenty of nasty killers looking to do some old-fashioned pillaging. The new horde option makes things a challenge for Romans and barbarians alike. If your barbarian faction is reduced to one province, you can choose to “horde,” immediately converting your remaining population into a massive army. The Huns actually begin the game as a horde with eight full armies from the get-go, the largest force I’ve ever seen in a Total War game. Your army pays no upkeep while on the move, but you can still earn money by sacking settlements.
Watching the Huns and Vandals roll across the frontier and head straight for Rome was one of the most terrifying moments I’ve ever experienced in a strategy game. Of course, it’s great fun when you’re not on the receiving end of an attack. Leading the Huns on a rampage across Europe proved as much hell-raising fun as driving on side walks in “Grand Theft: Auto.”
You might be tempted to play the entire campaign as a horde, but keeping your people too long on the move has some major downsides. You cannot win victory conditions until you settle the horde in a new homeland. Also, the more horde troops you lose in battle, the fewer settlers you will have when you find a new home. The biggest drawback is that your mighty army disbands after capturing three cities, leaving your fledgling empire open for a counter-attack.
The strategic AI is now more aggressive and will form alliances among your enemies, as well as send assassins after your leaders. You can now recruit new generals if you have the right buildings in a province, but some factions must now worry about commander loyalty. Traitorous generals can always break away and start their own faction. There are also hidden computer factions that suddenly appear to make your life hell. While playing as the Saxons, I quickly overran the Roman garrisons in Britain only to watch a large army of Romano-British appear overnight.
As if there wasn’t enough to worry about with rampaging hordes and shifty generals, religion plays a big part in keeping your people happy. Each settlement believes in one of three religions – Christianity, paganism, and Zoroastrianism – and woe to a conquering general who belongs to another faith. Religious unrest can lead to rebellions, but religion can also provide bonuses to public order once you convert subjects. Some factions like the Franks actually get powerful paladin cavalry by converting from paganism to Christianity.
The strategy campaign has no shortage of new challenges, but the real reason strategy fans play Total War is for the battles. The AI is as brutal as ever in this category, but now does a better job of protecting key generals and fighting in formation. The computer also does a much better job of besieging settlements, using siege towers and tunnels to overwhelm your defenders. Highly skilled generals can now choose to attack at night, which prevents the enemy from bringing in nearby reinforcements.
Barbarian Invasion also partially solves the problem of bridge battles, which in the original to be very bloody affairs for attackers. Barbarian Invasions now allows units to swim across the river and outflank the defenders. The computer is not very good at fording rivers unfortunately, but the swimming option is a great way for players to capture bridges without losing half their armies.
If I were to voice a complaint about gameplay, it would be Barbarian Invasion still has balance issues. The Romans are too weak in the early game, the barbarian hordes are left too defenseless when they finally find a new homeland. I should also mention the expansion is a system hog, especially on the large battles. My older system (1.5 GHz with 512 MB RAM) experienced little lag during the original game but locked up during the largest battles in Barbarian Invasion.
Barbarian Invasion offers the same sweeping landscapes and detailed armies that made the original Rome: Total War famous. Believe it or not, an already realistic game now has even better shading and fire effects. The late Roman cities are truly epic size in the expansion, offering magnificent temples, monuments and palaces to ogle at while your troops run amok in the streets.
Barbarian settlements may not be as grand, but they now look like cities instead of villages. The night battles are amazing to watch, as torch-bearing armies clash and fireballs turn midnight into noonday. Watching the Huns assault cities by night was the closest I’ve felt any computer game has come to recreating the best battle scenes from Braveheart or Kingdom of Heaven.
The reason I’m not giving a 9 in graphics is the soldier models could use some work. While most unit skins are nicely detailed, others look cartoonish. The worst offenders in my mind are the Sassanid “immortal” heavy cavalry with their clown faces, but the peasants sporting California surfer hair are a close second. The original Rome: Total War offered brightly colored units, but vibrant uniforms seem wrong for a game set in the Dark Ages. I would have preferred gritty looking warriors to battalions decked out in neon purple, orange, or yellow.
Fortunately, even the ugliest units look good from a distance and the bright arcade look is not so glaring if you zoom out a little. Total War fans might also be disappointed in the lack of faction movie clips at the beginning and end of a campaign.
The good news is the stirring music and well-done sound effects from the original have not changed. The bad news is the horrid voice acting has also remained the same. The barbarian generals are simply painful to listen to – I would have preferred Kung Fu movie style voice-overs for the Huns at the very least. Then there are the Roman officers who sound vaguely American, when anyone who watches the History Channel or HBO knows the Romans all spoke with crisp British accents.
Should I judge Barbarian Invasion by what people commonly expect from an expansion, or should I judge it by what fans have come to expect from Creative Assembly?
When the company released an expansion for its Medieval: Total War series in 2003, the add-on package offered a new Viking campaign as well as new units and playable factions for the original campaign. Barbarian Invasion offers no new reasons to replay the original Imperial campaign, since there are no new units. Multiplayer only offers real-time battles, with the Holy Grail of an online strategic campaign still out of reach.
In my humble opinion, Barbarian Invasion is not as good a value as Creative Assembly’s previous products. I also realize many gamers only expect a few new features when plunking down $30 for an expansion, and Barbarian Invasion offers new content in spades. First and foremost, the expansion fixes many of the minor bugs and AI quirks that drove me nuts before.
While I found the original campaign to be predictable (Rome and Egypt always seemed to dominate), the expansion offers quite a few surprises every time you play. The barbarian tribe that stays small and powerless in one game can end up looting Rome in the next. I wouldn’t call this expansion a must-buy, but with 40-50 hours of challenging new gameplay, it’s definitely a good deal for Total War fans.
I think Total War fans and strategy lovers in general will be pleasantly surprised with the new expansion. The whole Dark Ages period is pretty unique for the strategy genre, and I admit that it can be as much fun to crush an empire as it is to build one.
Granted, Barbarian Invasion is going against some heavy strategy competition this holiday season, with Age of Empires III already out and Civilization IV on the way. But for those of us who crave battles with thousands of bloodthirsty warriors on each side, the Total War series is still your best bet for total carnage.