Game Review: Rome: Total War – Barbarian Invasion

Hrm… I know the Goths are in there somewhere…

Rome: Total War – Barbarian Invasion

Review Criterion:
Good Gameplay
Good Stability
Very Good Graphics
Excellent Research
Excellent Game-vs-Historical Realism Balance

Overall Score: This is a really good game. (8.5 out of a *very* picky 10)

(UPDATE: Welcome, Carnival Readers! Please feel free to poke around and comment!)
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Full Disclosure: So, I was asked if I might like to do a game review. And this very kind man was willing to provide me with a copy of the game in order to review it, even though I had to pony up for RTW out of my own pocket. Fair enough. Rest assured that the guy who likes to smack people around with a "clue by four" won't go soft on the difference between "tell me what you think" and "tell me that you like it."

The nice part of this review is that they're both the same thing. Barbarian Invasion has a lot to like, when held to a very high standard.
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My background is somewhat different from that of most game reviewers, so you're not going to get the typical game-summary review (see Gameplanet's somewhat shallow review) or a slew of pretty pictures (for that, see the TotalWar site — and they ARE nice). I'm a strategy gamer, not particularly hardcore… just on a very casual level, especially compared to the other thing I do for fun and profit… which is medieval military history and experimental archaeology relating to ancient and medieval military technology.

In other words, as a reader, you may disagree with me wildly regarding some typical game mechanics, graphics, etcetera: gustibus non disputando est. When it comes to the game and what it's supposed to represent, though, I'm more than justified in saying that you should give me the benefit of the doubt, because I know what I'm talking about.

Let's see how it goes:

Gameplay
Even though RTW is miles ahead of Medieval Total War on the combat screen and strategic map (which could be a satisfying game in and of itself, with a flavor very similar to the old Warlords games) I stuck with MTW for a long time, for a very simple reason: the opposing AI was a complete pushover. It was worth it to me to play a (heavily modded) variant of MTW in order to have an opponent who would, if I screwed up, hand me my butt on a platter.

Barbarian Invasion fixes that handily. The AI at medium levels is fairly weak: a human player should feel bad if comes back from a computer battle with less than a "Clear Victory." However, the AI will make workmanlike use of its troops, and will hand you your head if you wind up in an untenable situation (it was all that I could do to simply hang on when my pathetically outnumbered heavy cavalry was engaged by a horde of horse archers. Villehardoin's ghost would have snickered.) The AI uses its troop types correctly, and the level of sophistication directly varies with the difficulty set: it is MUCH easier to engage in the standard (and historically correct) "hammer and anvil" cavalry/infantry tactics on medium level than it is when set harder, because the AI will try to intercept your cavalry as it moves into position.

As well, the background music is very well done, and actually does create a sense of drama: a hard-fought battle will actually obtain sufficient feel that it breaches the suspension-of-disbelief barrier, and immerses you in the action.

On the strategic map, the movement of individual units "in turns" rather than moving "by order" still slows down play, however, and the AI makes very poor use of reinforcements/reserves, tending to commit his forces to the forward zone piecemeal, so that they wind up outnumbered. This problem is endemic to the RTW engine, however, and is a fairly small price to pay in order to be able to actually use the terrain to strategic advantage.

I have one copy of this game, so multiplayer is simply not an option and not reviewed here: frankly, I don't miss it, even though an occasional "I'm going to kick your butt" is fun between friends.

Stability

Good. I experienced "temporary hang" on the strategic map, but no CTD, and no CPU burps on the battlefield. Irritating, but easily tolerable, since you can grab tea or coffee without worrying about suddenly recovering into the middle of a (sorely neglected) clickfest.

Graphics

The graphics are simply beautiful, and only somebody who is a) VERY spoiled, or b) working with graphics themselves would have any quibbles. Sometimes something with the "skins" (the graphics overlaying the figures and giving them distinguishable characteristics) would look odd for a second, but I couldn't pin down what, and it never detracted from gameplay. Let's face facts: the game delivers MUCH better graphics than is needed to enjoy a strategy game. You know that a game has arrived graphically when the cut scenes are significantly less impressive than the in-play graphics.

Research

The game is compellingly researched, and good enough that a junior-high school student could easily use the game as an impromptu lesson plan in for learning some of the basics of late Roman history. Some things are not as well spelled out as they could be — for instance, the Roxolani are presented as a separate faction from the Sarmatians, whereas they were actually one of the various Sarmatian peoples. Also, the Slavs as a faction should appear nowhere in the game, as they don't really appear on the Balkan scene until they are brought down from the Dnieper region as the (horrifically abused) slaves of the Avar Kaganate. The Gepids would have been a much better choice in that respect.

However, other aspects of the research truly shine: the Christian world is wracked by all the right heresies, and the map represents history that the average gamer won't have a clue about, but is nonetheless accurate. For example, "Campus Iazyges" is called that because the Goths kicked the Iazyges, a Sarmatian people, out of that territory and made it their own. If you study classical history, expect to recognize names… and to shudder in your boots when you step up to Sirmium (a major "hard target" of the Roman Empire). There are lots of little examples on that score, and the care it took to include them shows — and it especially shows when compared to the hack-job that was done on Europe for MTW. The improvement is dramatic, and deserves sincere praise.

Game-vs-Historical Realism Balance

Sometimes, though, game research and realism is incorrect for lack of a workable option inside a game. "Berber," for example, is a term that doesn't occur in history until the Arab hegira, when they refer to the various North African peoples as "barbarians" — it's a historically pejorative nickname, like "Welsh" for the Cymri. But, on the other hand, what are you going to do? You can't call them by the Ameziri, because that's too specific a "berber" people for what is actually being represented, and "north African tribes" just sounds stupid. So you have to strike a balance between things that make your college professor happy, and things that sell a game because people are — gasp!– enjoying it.

For example: You can't lay waste to the countryside in order to force an engagement by defensive forces — this should be one of the major goals for any next developments, so long as it doesn't cause one to be in a position where individual terrain hexes then need to be micromanaged by the player. Burning your opponents' crops and raiding his countryside when he refuses to do anything but sit behind his walls is a Good Thing(tm), because it hits him in the pocketbook where he pays his troops. And it's precisely for that reason that the Roman troops starting the game are divided into the types they are: Rome needed border troops to slow down opponents and keep them from simply burning and devastating everything in sight while the heavier legions went a-marching to catch up to them from a more central location.

How you set that up without turning RTW into a really boring game is beyond lil' ol' me.

But those are the only two quibbles, and quibbles they are, compared to factors such as historically-accurate units that behave correctly and an advisor who will irritate the stew out of you while he tries to bring you up to speed on basic generalship. In other words, the advisor will ask you, in so many words, "are you sure you want to leave your warlord's butt hanging out in the breeze while he's being charged by enemy spearmen?" Because the game will teach you to be a decent armchair tactician, they can make sure that units fight how they should, and rout when they should, without creating a game that is impossibly difficult for a newbie to computer wargaming.

Adding to that are a slew of new game issues, such as the "horde" feature, where naturally transhumant peoples (that's "nomad," boys and girls) can pick up and make tracks for a new homeland if the place they're living now becomes inhospitable. This is good. Extra tactical options such as the schiltrom and shield wall are even better. (Schiltrom is a term from late-medieval Scotland… shades of future projects?)

Even better is the feature of this game that is perhaps most universally overlooked: different factions have different victory conditions, which may or may not intersect, or even conflict. Yes, Virginia, we're no longer having to shoehorn all factions into the same game, or even necessarily the same play style. This is a simple, should-be-obvious realization that is long overdue in the gaming world.

Combine the last two paragraphs, and you have the standing potential to take Barbarian Invasion and take it all the way into the high middle ages, two or three hundred years at a time… and to take it further back in time, if desired. If the developers heeded the player community and left the new game additions soft-coded for the modding community, Barbarian Invasion could wind up being the springboard towards a lasting and enthusiastic fan community.

In Other Words:

Rome: Total War – Barbarian Invasion has its rough spots. But they're pretty smooth, as rough spots go, and the game is one of those very few where very young and quite older players can happily co-exist. The gameplay is good, the graphics are great, and the research and historical realism will satisfy the faculty members of your local college.

It's a great game, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Russians threaten Ukrainian genocide, part 2

It’s official: Russia has officially declared that unless Ukraine plays ball according to its rules, it will cut off natural gas supplies to the latter on January 1st.

Ukraine is, like everybody else previously pounded into the dirt by the Soviet-Russian Empire, abjectly dependent on Russia for energy resources. It’s that way intentionally: the Russians designed the whole sick apparatus so that they could keep the Oil Spigot of Damocles hanging over Europe’s head, just like Saddam used to do to the Shiites with potable water. Cutting off natural gas in the middle of a Black Sea winter *will* effectively result in the sickness deaths of thousands of Ukrainians at the bottom of the economic pile. (G’wan, try making it through the equivalent of a Minnesota winter with no way to heat water or cook. That’s right: gas stoves. Everybody in those old Soviet block flats will be screwed.)

Everybody in the region, top to bottom, Russian, Ukrainian, Balt, Pole, Finn, German, Hungarian, Romanian, etc., knows this. Well, maybe not the Germans, since their international hypocrisy and ignorance has reached autistic proportions of late. If the Germans even notice something’s wrong, I fully expect Der Spiegel, IG Metall, and Stern to come out with pompous editorials on January 3rd describing how this is all America’s fault.

“If we don’t have a contract (with Ukraine) then all the gas in the pipe goes to
European consumers,” Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kuprianov said in comments on Ekho Moskvy radio.

Gee, I wonder who these “European customers” might be. Perhaps those same Germans? Now that Schroeder has officially sold his soul to the Russians in exchange for a job working for the Russian government (remember Gazprom is the Kremlin, which is why Khodorkosvsky was jailed… Yukos represented energy assets not directly under Kremlin control and was therefore unacceptable). The East-Central Europeans and Baltic countries have rightfully been screaming bloody murder, because they know full well that the Bear has not reformed in the slightest, and intends to reassert its imperial ambitions by economic means until it can do so again militarily.

20/120 Hindsight from Kaplan at The New Republic

Over at The New Republic (following link requires registration, easily circumvented by visiting BugMeNot), Kaplan says we’ve forgotten the lessons of Vietnam by turning our backs upon counter-insurgency, and that this failure comes from the policy level:

Returning to conventional orthodoxy made a certain amount of strategic sense
during the cold war, when the Army’s mission was to defend against a Soviet
thrust across the plains of Central Europe. But, thanks in no small measure to
the direction of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and the
doctrine of overwhelming force named after him, the Army kept training for that
mission, even after the Soviet empire collapsed.

Gee, Larry, perhaps you’ve forgotten about Iraq I and the Balkans? This is merely hindsight: a dedicated insurgency (who, btw, we’ve been kicking the shit out of) was merely one of the potential problems we were bound to face, and a significantly more minor threat than the “is China about to pull the trigger over Taiwan” issue that you seem to have conveniently forgotten about. Perhaps total overwhelming force is why China has continued to back off that trigger?Furthermore, facts on the ground would have been starkly different if Turkey hadn’t suffered a serious political hiccup on the eve of the invasion: blaming the military for a diplomatic failure is simply silly.

Kaplan furthermore moves the goalposts by making every counterinsurgency into the Vietnam Tet-vs-media approach:

As in Vietnam, an effective counterinsurgency strategy requires time and
patience. But, just as in Vietnam, Americans have run out of both. Had the Army
employed its current approach from the beginning, it might have had a chance at
winning the war in Iraq before losing it at home. But, as the war grinds into
its third year, the clock has nearly run out. Which can only mean one thing:
It’s almost time to forget about counterinsurgency again.

Which translates to “I don’t like Rumsfeld, and the Democratic leadership continues to try to screw over the military at every opportunity.” Gee, tell us something we didn’t know. Like the fact that perhaps our political leadership simply has more stones than the guys who pulled out of Vietnam, and then, crucially, failed to fulfill treaty obligations by funding the SVs, who would have been more than capable of holding off the wrecked North Vietnamese military. (Why is Kaplan simply assuming that we’re going to cut and run b/c of what some NYT editors and career leftist protestors think?)

It’s a nice try, but blaming people for losing while they’re winning is simply inane wishful thinking. Blaming the military for supposedly failing to learn the lessons of Vietnam, while demonstrating to the world that one is completely clueless regarding those same lessons, is prima facie proof that Mr. Kaplan would greatly benefit from a reading of Mark Twain:

Far better to remain silent, and allow others to wonder at the extent of one’s ignorance, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

Stalker! China vs. Texas edition

The Chinese have let off a guy who broke into this gal’s apartment and stole a bra and her MP3 player.

But wait, there’s more. This dude’s basically a pathetic dweeb stalker, and has been doing her laundry, leaving snacks, and basically turning burglary into “House Elf: the stalker edition” for some time now. She didn’t say anything: either she was terrified, fantasizing that he’d be somebody cooler, or simply utilitarian enough in a country with a kick-ass ratio (in her favor) to let the poor dumb schmuck be her willing slave.

I’m thinking of the women I know, and trying to imagine how they’d handle having their laundry mysteriously folded, love notes on the counter, snacks placed out for them in the afternoon…
after the initial “ewwww” and feeling of having their space violated, most of them would ambush the poor sap with a .45 and turn his head into pesto.

The Dallas gold-digger contingent (amongst whom I unfortunately work) would think it was cute, attempt to use hidden cameras to figure out who it was, and then call in some guys to pound him to death once they found out it wasn’t that guy whose clothes and wallet they were fantasizing over the previous week.

Zamboni vs. F-22

Joke graphic from StrategyPage (one of the newer links that should have been up there at least a year and a half ago)… not sure about IQ requirements, but otherwise, the truth hurts

This is why international courts are a joke.

Slobodan Milosevic has been accused of “wasting time.” So, no more lengthy adjournments.
You know, I just can’t see how Slobo can sleep at night, tossing and turning about how “wasting time” penalties are going to add on to his “attempting to implement genocide,” “political mass murder,” and “generalized tyrannical mayhem” charges…

Somehow, you’d think that people would recognize right from the bat that obvious bad guys are going to try to game the system in obvious ways… but not our international tribunals… No-o.

There’s a lot of things wrong with the way that Ceaucescu’s cronies were able to throw him and his wife up against the wall and shoot them as a “please don’t hurt me” appeasement to the mob. But, to quote Chris Rock talking about OJ, “I don’t approve, but I understand.”

British Ambassador in Deep Doo-Doo

(hat tip: A Step at a Time)

For committing the worst possible offense that an ambassador can contemplate: giving his frank opinion. The Poles are reported to be livid.

Well, the Poles in government, anyway. The new Polish government seems to have a leg up on the current political dynasties in East-Central Europe, which are every bit as resented by their people as the ambassador’s email suggests.

Typically smug, with the characteristically British complete obliviousness to any context other than that of the Brits? You betcha.

Justifiable in spite of all that? You betcha. No wonder the EU slobs, unelected, unaccountable, a “parliament” only in the worst possible “mocking democracy” sort of way, are a bit miffed…

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