Rome: Total War Barbarian Invasion Hands-On--Single-Player Campaign

We discover that barbarians get all the fun after we get our hands on the expansion and plunder a few Roman cities.

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Rome: Total War Barbarian Invasion
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Rome: Total War Barbarian Invasion is the expansion to last year's popular Rome: Total War, a strategy game that let you oversee the rise and dominance of the Roman Empire. Fittingly, Barbarian Invasion is about the fall of said empire, which itself was an epic event in history, as Rome's fall laid the foundations for modern Europe as we know it. Of course, you're probably more focused on the strategy than the history of the period, so we got our hands on a late version of the expansion and sacked a few Roman cities ourselves for this report.

Barbarian Invasion features changes to the map, to reflect population changes.
Barbarian Invasion features changes to the map, to reflect population changes.

The campaign in Barbarian Invasion starts in AD 363, several centuries after the campaign in Rome: Total War. Rome has been divided into eastern and western empires, with the east ruled from Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the west still centered in Rome itself. Meanwhile, many of the old tribes seen in Rome: Total War have faded into history, and new tribes, such as the Vandals and the Goths, have emerged in the wilderness beyond Rome's borders. Your mission in Barbarian Invasion is to take control of one of the 10 major factions of the era and survive and expand your empire, mainly through conquest.

All factions are available to play immediately at the start of the game--you don't have to unlock them like you had to do in Total War. In addition to the aforementioned factions, you can also play as the Samartians, the Germanic Frankish tribes, the Saxons, the Sassanids, the Alemanni, and the dread Huns. Of course, each faction has its own specialties and bonuses. The Huns are superb cavalrymen, capable of shattering mass formations of infantry. The Franks, on the other hand, have superior warriors; the Saxons are excellent seamen, and so on. And, once again, some factions are easier to play than others, thanks to the benefit of starting position. Western Rome still controls a large swath of Europe, while the Franks find themselves hemmed in on all sides by hostile neighbors at the start.

As expected, the campaign itself is relatively unchanged in terms of the basic gameplay mechanics. You once again must conquer provinces by capturing cities. Then, you manage the growth of the province by constructing improvements, such as temples, barracks, stables, and more. You can then raise armies and go campaigning to conquer more provinces, or defend your territory from attacks by your enemies. If you played Rome: Total War, then you'll feel completely at home with Barbarian Invasion. There are some minor differences in Barbarian Invasions to note, though.

The tribal factions in Barbarian Invasion feel a lot more fleshed out than the tribes seen in Rome: Total War, and they have more building and unit options than their predecessors. We suspect this is largely because they're meant to be played on a near-equal footing with the Roman factions, but also because the barbarian tribes themselves were more sophisticated by this time. So in addition to building sacred groves to various pagan gods, you also begin to see Roman concepts such as sanitation creep into the barbarian's technology, allowing the barbarians to build larger cities.

Religion is a notable new addition to Barbarian Invasion. Rome's adoption of Christianity helped propel that religion to the forefront, and this is reflected in the game as well. You're continually notified which religion (ranging from paganism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and more) has the most adherents. And, if you lead a barbarian tribe, you can choose to drop paganism and adopt Christianity to open up parts of the technology tree. It'll also be difficult to crush a barbarian faction, because even if you manage to capture all of its settlements, the surviving population will transform into army units, and the horde can migrate to new lands. If the horde can conquer a new territory, it will settle down again. Meanwhile, rebellions can now flare up into full-fledged civil wars; you're notified whenever one of your neighbors descends into chaos. And fans of Rome: Total War will probably be happy to hear that the Roman Senate is no more, so there aren't any more of those annoying senate missions that sent you off on wild goose chases or got you punished when you ignored or failed to accomplish them.

There's still nothing quite like seeing thousands of warriors dying for you.
There's still nothing quite like seeing thousands of warriors dying for you.

In terms of the real-time tactical battles, Barbarian Invasion does introduce a few new features. You've probably already read about the new night battles. If a general has a night-attack trait, it means his army can attack at night. This can be strategically useful because a night attack prevents enemy reinforcements from joining the battle unless their generals also have a night-attack trait. So you can divide a superior force and crush it piecemeal using night attack. And speaking of new traits, there are a slew of new traits (both vices and virtues), as well as new characters that can join a general's retinue. Tactically, there are also new unit orders such as the shield wall, which lets barbarian infantry lock their shields together, which is perfect for absorbing a direct charge by infantry or cavalry.

If you count both games and expansions, Barbarian Invasion will be the sixth Total War product to come out of Creative Assembly. And at this point, the series' gameplay feels like its being honed to a razor's edge. Barbarian Invasion feels a lot like Rome: Total War, and that's to be expected. And since Rome was one of the best games of 2004, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. This looks like a solid expansion that will offer up new challenges for Rome fans, and we're really looking forward to playing the final version of the game. Barbarian Invasion will ship later this month.

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