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Game Name:  Rome: Total War - Barbarian Invasion Expansion
Developer:  Creative Assembly
Publisher:  Sega
PC Release Year:  2005
Review Date:  September 27, 2015

As another warm season slips away into memory, I smile to myself just a little bit.  Sure, sweater weather is great and planning for the holidays is a blast, but the real reason I relish these colder, shorter days is they mark an end to the hectic social schedule that is such a large part of adult summers.  Without all the weddings and barbeques, there is actually time to sit down, relax, and put a dent in my backlog of computer games.  Despite the many new acquisitions from sales and bundles over the past few months, the only one that has consistently fueled my anticipation for a change in temperature is Total War: Attila.  It has also piqued my curiosity, since this is not the first time the Creative Assembly has tackled the demise of Rome.  Barbarian Invasion covered this same ground ten years ago, and one has to wonder, can it hold its own against this modern competition?  With a copy of each sitting in my Steam library, a side-by-side playthrough seemed like the best way to say for certain.  Fanboys like me can certainly find fun in any Total War entry, and this one was no exception, but Barbarian Invasion ultimately lacks the je ne sais quoi that makes the series so popular.  While this esoteric complaint can be levied at Attila too, ten years of gameplay improvements make it the superior way to scratch that Late Antiquity itch.

So many of Barbarian Invasion’s flaws are evident from the outset, it is hard not to blame the combination of start position and overarching game design as the cause.  Most of the Total War series is set in a time and place with evenly matched warring powers, like Sengoku Period Japan or Europe in the High Middle Ages, which allows for the crowd-pleasing combination of territorial expansion and internal development.  Not this one.  Starting in the year 363 AD, when the Huns first appeared on the shores of the Caspian Sea, the game map reveals a now divided Rome as the sole superpower.  It is only in the borderlands that any external enemies lurk, like the Berbers in Africa and Sassanids in the Middle East.  This leaves the roaming hordes and internal instability as the real threats to an empire in decline, which is not the most enjoyable position to be in as player.  Either you try out one of the uncivilized tribes and start with relatively nothing, or you are forced to deal with the tedious administrative problems that come with saving a giant dysfunctional state.  While I respect the inherent challenge in taking something broken and trying to fix it, this setup stands at odds with the essence of Total War, and works far better in a genre without as big a time commitment.

Nevertheless, a franchise veteran like me would not be deterred by such uninspired choices on a faction selection screen.  If there were no appealing powers to play, I would opt for one that was challenging instead.  So with the click of a button, I picked the Western Empire and endeavored to assert the will of true Roman authority on barbarians and Byzantines alike.  Naiveté was the winner of that first game; as I failed to respect the reality that broad swaths of Africa, Spain, and Gaul were dangerously close to rebelling on turn one.  By thinking I could have it all without retreating and consolidating power, I ended up watching public approval sour and my dominion splintered by turn three.  Damn those treasonous plebeians!  With that hard lesson learned, it was time to employ a tactic I had picked up from my Attila playthrough: razing.  While the ability to sow salt into the earth and completely abandon a settlement is unique to that title, I did have the option of dismantling all of the buildings in a region, leaving the land temporarily useless and earning a small sum of gold in the process.  Wielding this newfound power with a vengeance, I destroyed the infrastructure in every city that could not balance its books.  To my great horror, each time I did this, the deficits migrated to a once profitable area like a sick game of whack-a-mole.  When I finally realized this was an upkeep fee for the military and I was senselessly destroying Rome’s economy, it was too late to save my second playthrough. 

Getting frustrated at this point, I resolved that win or lose, this third Barbarian Invasion start would be my last.  To make the most of it, and hopefully get to the point where I could write this post, I needed a nice defensible position for my people to call home.  With the English Channel as a natural barrier against the nomadic hordes of mainland Europe, Britain seemed like the best, albeit unorthodox, location to make my stand.  Salvaging what gold I could from Rome’s continental cities, I marched my armies towards northwest France and watched a sea of green wash over the map, as rebel groups staked claim to much of the former empire.  Like Douglas MacArthur, I made a vow to return, but not before hitting the Celts with the full fury of my imperial legions to incorporate Scotland and Ireland into the fold of a very early United Kingdom.  Having fully secured my borders, the race to financial solvency was on and I slashed the army down to the smallest possible force to keep the peace.  Somehow, though, I was still losing money.  Poring through the ugly and obtuse data screens, which are a far cry from the sleek and stylized menus in later Total War titles, I discovered the culprits were my emperor’s many distant relations.

While it is certainly good to be the king, Barbarian Invasion proves that it comes at a cost.  Each time a nephew, brother, or son reaches adulthood, players get the choice of using them as a general or governor to aid the war effort.  Under most circumstances, these comings of age would be a cause for celebration, but that is usually in the context of a growing empire where personal wages and bodyguard upkeep can be absorbed by new tax streams.  Attila gives players a way to deal with the conundrum of supporting too many family members with a shrinking empire, by letting them disband a general’s military unit.  That, however, is not an option here.  With my stockpile of funds almost depleted and knowing expansion was impossible until I had a positive income stream, it was time to resort to the type of desperate measures that would have made Joseph Stalin proud.  If they had been real people, would Leontius Flavius and his son Nero have known why I was making them embark on a sea voyage into hostile waters with no backup?  Would Nero’s brothers, Oppius and Marcus, know why I was sending them to quell uprising after uprising with only their bodyguards for support?  In the end, I suppose the ends justified the means.  The deaths of all but Oppius ensured I was finally able to pay my bills, and the experience he gained, in what were supposed to be suicide missions, ensured I had a competent general to take the fight into Gaul and beyond.

Having finally solved the puzzle that was Barbarian Invasion’s opening, the title’s difficulty level plummeted to the point where I honestly felt a bit robbed.  It would be many turns before the Goths brought the first horde into my lands, and the rebels who had so enthusiastically tried to forge their own Roman Empire were quickly at war with factions to the east, allowing me the peace and quiet to develop Londinium into an unrivaled economic powerhouse.  From there, it was just a matter of retaking lost territory.  Unlike Attila, this process was eased by the fact that tax rates can be set for individual cities instead of the faction as a whole, development plots are unlimited within a city so each settlement can have the best of every building, cavalry are ridiculously overpowered to the point where 50 horseman can successfully rout 2,000 peasants, and food is not a separate resource that must be managed to prevent famine.  It all adds up to a boring experience that stands at odds with the initial challenge.  Rome did not fall in a single day, and it is unrealistic and gimmicky to see it happen that way.  As much as I might like the fact that units on the battlefield are colorful and fun looking, or the world map has fewer cities which promote open-field battles, it is not enough to keep Barbarian Invasion from being supplanted by Attila’s gameplay and presentation.  That is not to say I would recommend either of them over Rome II or Empire, but at least the Creative Assembly’s latest outing can entertain a modern audience.

Verdict:  Not Recommended