Review: Rome: Total War - Barbarian Invasion04 Apr 2017 1
Review: Rome: Total War - Barbarian Invasion
Released 28 Apr 2017
Rome: Total War, one of the most popular PC games in the history of PC gaming, was painstakingly recreated on the iPad by Feral Interactive and released back in November 2016. Feral pretty much nailed it, garnering a boatload of accolades from fans and press alike, including my own four-star review and the strategy game-of-the-year nod from this very site. Unsurprisingly, Feral had more in store and it was quickly announced that Rome Total War - Barbarian Invasion would be following quickly behind the original. A mere four months later and it is out as a standalone game for iPad.
Barbarian Invasion offers what is largely the same gameplay experience as Rome: Total War. It features the compelling mix of turn-based world conquering strategy alongside real-time tactical battles for which the franchise is best known. While the game hasn't changed much in the months since Rome: Total War was released, the state of the world in which the sequel is based certainly has. Where the original focused on the rise of Rome as a hegemonic superpower, Barbarian Invasion returns us about three-hundred years later for the twilight years of its dominance. Constantine the Great has reforged the Roman Empire to suit his desires, moving the capital to Byzantium—renamed Constantinople after himself—and adopting Christianity as the official religion. When Constantine dies, however, so does any possibility of a unified Rome. The Empire had become bloated and difficult to manage and without Constantine at the helm it split into two ostensibly aligned factions, east and west. Meanwhile, the unconquered tribes surrounding the Roman Empire—considered barbarians by the civilized Romans—grew emboldened by their clearly weakening neighbor and chose to strike.
In Barbarian Invasion, you get to play on either side. You can be an emperor of the Eastern or Western Roman Empire and try to turn back both the clock and the barbarian hordes massing at your borders. You can also play a warlord of one of the eight playable barbarian factions and bring about the end of an ancient superpower, and the rise of a new power.
Barbarian Invasion is really a tale of two conflicts. There's the civilized world of the two halves of the Roman Empire versus the so-called barbarian tribes of the Saxons, Franks, Goths, Vandals, and—well really everybody else. The second conflict is one of faith. It's primarily waged between polytheistic Paganism long practiced by the Romans, and the Greeks before them, against the relentless rise and expansion of monotheistic Christianity. These two conflicts provide a much different backdrop to the game when compared to Rome: Total War.
One of the coolest things about this type of game, especially for history buffs, is the potential for historic authenticity getting baked in. The Rome series, and Total War games in general, are really rather good at this. When you start a campaign Barbarian Invasion gives you a little bit of the history of each faction, including how they interacted with other factions in the game. For the Eastern and Western Roman Empire this means a look into what was to come—the fall of Rome in the west and the eventual conversion of the east to the Byzantine Empire. For the barbarian tribes you get a quick overview of what parts of what was once Rome they snapped up, the Franks seizing the whole of Gaul and eventually becoming France for example. Barbarian Invasion lets you step into this historical context and make of it what you will. You can be the emperor that reunites Rome and makes it greater than even Constantine ever dreamed. You can be the Hun warlord that makes it to both Rome and Constantinople. You can be a Saxon king that sweeps across Europe and sacks Rome.
Each faction has its military strengths and weaknesses. The Huns have unrivaled cavalry and archers but very little infantry support for them. The Goths have both cavalry and infantry but limited siege equipment. Starting strengths and positions vary as well. Most barbarian factions start with one settlement and a modest military but the Huns and Vandals start out with a lot of military might but no settlements under their control. They must quickly conquer and consolidate an economic base before going broke paying their soldiers to keep fighting. As a barbarian faction you can prey on a rival tribe early, or take out rebel settlements, but eventually your conflict lies with Rome.
Both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires start out with a great many settlements, many of which are quite advanced. The problem is that they are beset by enemies on all sides, enemies with very little inclination for peaceful borders, let alone an alliance. They also face a great deal of public unrest, especially the Western Empire where almost all settlements are on the verge of revolt on turn one.
Another difference from faction to faction is victory condition. Each barbarian faction has a slightly different path to victory that includes holding ten-to-twenty settlements, including two-to-three historically significant ones. This always means the faction must gain land at the expense of one or both of the Roman Empires. The Franks are on the high side of that requirement with twenty, though they have a nice starting spot with easy access to all of Europe—the plan is basically to take Gaul and win the game. The Vandals on the other hand need only ten settlements but start off in western Asia with no settlements and an imperative to take Northern Italy, Africa, and Baetica (southern Iberian peninsula). Both halves of the Roman Empire, on the other hand, must hold thirty-four settlements including Northern Italy and Africa. These variations—military, starting situation, and victory condition—fuel a very high level of replay value in the game and many gamers will be excited to try them all. The huge disparity between the Roman factions and the barbarians really drive the first conflict between nations covetous of more versus those with a great deal who will struggle to hold onto it.
As for the second conflict, religion has become a pivotal aspect of public order in Barbarian Invasion. Rome: Total War has long made a point of conquering being one thing, but ruling another. Taking settlements is a glorious achievement for a general, but holding it is the harder part. You must subdue foreign populations through wise policies of taxation, distraction through games, increasing happiness via public works like sewers and aqueducts, and through the presence of a garrison. Religion joins this mix and has a huge effect on public order. The presence, or lack thereof, of shrines and churches will sway order depending on the dominant belief of the public, and will have to be constructed or demolished accordingly. It gets particularly complicated, and interesting, in factions like the Western Empire where Christianity held sway under Constantine but the Emperor Julian attempted to revert it to Paganism. The spirituality of the people will swing wildly from settlement to settlement and will more often be mixed within a single settlement.
It's these two conflicts—Rome versus Barbarians, and Christianity versus Paganism—that really set Barbarian Invasion apart from Rome: Total War. It's a much different historical context and really shows up in how a campaign plays out.
I haven't talked much about the actual gameplay of Barbarian Invasion because it is more or less the same as in Rome: Total War. You control generals and their soldiers, diplomats, assassins, and spies on the world map. You manage your settlements, balancing economic requirements with military buildup. You look to the needs of your people to stave off costly uprisings and revolts. When the time comes for battle you can zoom in and take control of real-time combat—with the same ability to micro-manage every unit if you so desire—or you can auto-resolve battles and move on with governing.
The game's touchscreen controls work well but can be finnicky at times, unfortunately, which was also a problem in the original. When a lot of armies, diplomats, assassins, and so on are clustered together on the world view it can be frustratingly difficult to draw effective routes from one to another, for example. There are also times when touching on units, or the reports come in at the beginning of a new turn, are unresponsive. These things are annoying but certainly not deal breakers.
The bottom line is that if you enjoyed Rome: Total War you should pick this up without hesitation. Whether you're interested in the new historical period or not, Barbarian Invasion provides a new scenario and a bunch more factions with which to play what was already a great game. If you haven't played Rome: Total War and enjoy this genre I whole heartedly recommend Barbarian Invasion to you as well. Few games combine strategy and tactics the way the Rome: Total War games do, and other than time-period preference there's no reason you have to play the original.