Rome: Total War was one of the best games of 2005 and one of the best blends of turn based and real time strategy in recent memory. Almost a year after the original release of Rome a superb expansion pack titled The Barbarian Invasions was released, and shortly after that a gold package that combined the two.
Rome: Total War concentrates on the experience of conquering Rome and establishing a Roman Empire. There are three starting factions on the boot of Italy to choose from and with only a few provinces under your control you must annex Italy and conquer the known world. The Barbarian Invasion expansion begins after the separation of the Roman Empire and spans the emergence of what are now known as the Barbarian Hordes and the eventual decline and destruction of the Western Roman Empire. Both games are functionally identical-with a grand strategic map played out in turn based mode and a real time tactical combat portion. The strategic map is detailed and beautiful, resembling an intricately drawn map, complete with changing seasons and little armies marching across the lovingly created terrain of Europe and North Africa. The tactical battles are where Rome really flexes its graphical muscles, however. Each unit is intricately detailed, and the texture count is far higher than similar units from Medieval: Total War. Each unit is colorful and well animated, although at a distance they still look somewhat stiff and blocky. The terrain has seen a major improvement too, with meticulously crafted yet vastly different environments hosting the hundreds of battles the player will surely engage in. While the graphics in screenshots appear to be lifelike and near photo-realistic, they don’t meet that standard in game. While they do look good, the year and a half since the release of Rome has left the units looking just a touch behind the graphical curve. While Rome is still the benchmark for graphics in strategy games, the next iteration of the series will probably be an important step closer to more lifelike and realistic graphics. The music in Rome is excellent, and the game ships with a soundtrack to let players listen to the cinematic score while not playing the game, which is a nice touch. Unfortunately, the sound effects are not quite as good. While battles sound fairly good, I would have enjoyed feeling more involved in the chaos of the battle. Louder noises, more screaming and yelling, more pronounced armor and weapon contact noises and much more. When you consider the production values of the music, the sound effects are somewhat deficient. Movement in the strategic map is simple. Each army has a movement allowance based on the types of units in the army and modified by the terrain they are moving over. Some areas can be blocked by enemy armies or cities, but otherwise most terrain is passable. Players will want to build several large armies to send to different parts of the world, defeating enemy armies and laying siege to hostile provinces along the way. While just having a military might seem enough, the smart player will also supplement his forces with spies, diplomats, and assassins-special units that can see the details of enemy armies and cities, assassinate enemy special units, and sue for peace and trade with opposing factions.
The basic controls in battle are fairly standard for a real-time strategy game. Click on your units to select them, create groups, point where you want to go on the map, and voila, battle is joined. Actually learning to effectively command and maneuver your troops is a whole other matter that will take dozens of battles to master. Beyond the basics of moving and arranging your units, players must learn a somewhat sophisticated form of rock-paper-scissors gameplay. While each unit does have an effective and obvious counter (spearmen devastate cavalry, cavalry destroy infantry, infantry beat everything else), the sheer number of units and their different abilites and offensive and defensive abilities make the dynamic far more complex, although still easy to learn and play with for the less experienced or hardcore players. Battles in Rome occasionally involve sieges, and lining up trebuchets and rolling towers to complement battering rams as your army streams towards the walls of an enemy town is immensely gratifying. The strategic element of Rome is deep and involved, but not as complex or demanding as Civilization 4 or Europa Universalis. Each province you control provides income and can build a wide array of buildings and units, such as barracks, mines, stables, and so on. Control of each province is gained by capturing the major city or town, and unlike previous games each city is fully rendered. Seiges now involve tearing down walls and clearing out narrow streets of the last vestiges of enemy resistance.
While strategic management may be the meat and potatoes of Rome, most players will find the tactical portion the most visceral and enjoying part of the game. The real-time battles of Rome are played out in glorious 3D. Each unit type is detailed, from excellent textures to convincing animations, and there are dozens of different types of units. The environments are also hugely improved from the previous games, with a variety of terrain and locations that goes a long way towards increasing the immersion factor.
In general battles are well balanced and are almost never too hard or too easy. There are still some exploits that can take advantage of weak enemy AI and allow a force that is grossly inferior in number to defeat a much stronger army, but these exploits are the exception and not the norm. Most battles unfold much as you would imagine an ancient battle, with legionnaires fighting in close packed columns while auxiliary harass the enemy flanks and small units of cavalry battle for tactical dominance. The battles can appear so accurate that the History Channel even ran a series of documentaries that utilized the combat engine in Rome to recreate historical battles. Should the player choose they can dispense with the strategic game altogether and simply play any one of the several historical battles that are included with the game-almost all of which are extremely well done and offer a tremendous challenge.
The Barbarian Invasions expansion pack does little to modify the basic formula of Rome except for in one important area-the Barbarian tribes cannot be defeated by taking all of their cities. Once all of their land has been confiscated, Barbarian tribes simply pack up and become a horde, moving across the map as a huge, deadly army attempting to reestablish a foothold. To defeat a Barbarian tribe, you must also defeat this horde in battle.
The new units in Barbarian Invasions are excellent, and each tribe has unique units that are superbly animated and detailed and that are very useful and can help turn the tide of battle. The dynamic of the battles is somewhat different as well-rather than the more rigid and formation based combat of Rome, the Barbarian tribes allow the player to experiment with more chaotic formations and horde rushes of units. These methods are simple and crude, yet they somewhat accurately reflect the actual tactics of many of the barbarian tribes of the time. The ability to have success with a different tactical approach is a welcome addition in Barbarian Invasions. Rome: Total War Gold Edition is all about value. The original game and its campaign could last most players 50 to 100 hours, and the new tribes and gameplay dynamics in The Barbarian Invasions offer almost that much gameplay. Factor in the skirmish battles the player can setup, the historical battles that ship with the games, and the multiplayer skirmishes, Rome: Total War Gold Edition offers a staggering amount of replay value at a phenomenal price. Really the only thing missing in this package is the ability to play the strategic portion of the game as well as the tactical portion online, but at least we can hope that feature makes it into future games.