Creative Assembly's first expansion for its hit RTS Rome: Total War deals with barbarian hordes attempting to tear the Roman Empire to shreds, in a nutshell. Events in Barbarian Invasion take place a couple of hundred years after those portrayed in the original game and it's not looking good for the Empire as an interior power struggle creates upheaval and barbarians mass together and gaze upon Roman territory with a glint of hunger in their eyes. Things are going to get very bloody.
Total War fans will eat this up and, with it out this Friday, there's only a couple of days to wait before you can march onto the new battlefield. We recently caught up with Creative Assembly's Mark Sutherns to find out what's in store.
Barbarian is the first major expansion pack for Rome. What would you say are the major advances?
Mark Sutherns: The first thing is some major aesthetic improvements. The battles are spectacular and all the siege battles are really spectacular. If you look at the siege battles, just see how good they look at night but there's so many tweaks and little improvements throughout the game. AI has even improved on the battle and campaign maps and fans will notice that. People can even go back and play the original Rome and they'll get a much tougher game.
The campaign itself is 300 years on and the empire you built in Rome is crumbling under the threat of the barbarians. So, there's a completely different mechanic than in Rome. Now in Barbarian, it's all about saving the crumbling Roman empire or, if you're playing as the Barbarians, it's about ran-sacking your way across the map. In Rome it was 'let's build an empire, build up my family's reputation and march on Rome". Barbarian is more about "let's just get stuck in".
Introduce us to the Barbarians?
Mark Sutherns: There's ten playable factions, with the Huns as the showstoppers. They start off as a horde faction and their job is to sweep across the map laying waste to all before them. On the campaign map there's an interesting new strategy, where barbarians can up sticks and turn their population into an army. Then they can move at any time, increase the pace of the game and create larger battles.
At any one time you can say, 'let's give up on what we've got here', turn your people into an army and move on. The disadvantage of that is when you give battle, you're fighting with your whole population, so you risk loosing your entire civilisation. So you're fighting, but at greater risk.
When you then choose to settle down again, there's a lot more strategy in that. Some people will sweep across and some will settle straight away to get a good defensive position. As a Barbarian faction, one thing to worry about is that if you're not playing as the Huns, the Huns are there and you know they're coming. You have the option of building your defences to make a stand, or upping sticks and moving away. But move too far west and you have the Romans to face. They're not as strong as they were in Rome, but they're not a walkover either. You're up against the Huns, or the Romans. It's a tough decision, but at least you've got a huge army to play with.
What are your favourite new Barbarian units and tactics?
Mark Sutherns: Each of the new Barbarian factions comes with its own signature unit. Some like the Sarmatian female virgin archers (warriors who weren't permitted to marry before slaying an enemy) are slightly bizarre but these aren't just fun new toys to play with - they actually add a great deal of new tactics to the battlefield. The Arian Priests are a particular favourite - they can chant and inspire troops on the battlefield, making them less likely to rout, even when the odds are stacked against them. When you consider that you also have units that can swim rivers at your disposal, and new special abilities and formations such as the Barbarian Shield Wall, Invasion offers a whole load of new tactical options to exploit in both single and multiplayer battles.
Have you added any new 'one off' battles, or new campaigns?
Mark Sutherns: There's two new battles; Badon Hill and the Battle of Chalons - they're the two we're shipping with. Having historical battles in the game is important to us. There's people who like to dig in and get into a long drawn out campaign, but there's also ones that just want to jump in right away and we've got the quick battle option for them. In multiplayer, all the factions are playable, the ones from the campaign, but also the non-playable factions from the campaign.
Can you design your own scenarios?
Mark Sutherns: That's all there. Supporting the mod scene is something we want to do. I mean, Rome supports the mod scene more than anything out there really. You'll be able to create your own battles, with tools and editors from our website.
When's it out?
Mark Sutherns: It's available on September 30th. We hope it's a great success, and we've given them a huge single player campaign. We've also improved visuals and AI and we are very pleased with where we're at.
What direction do you think Creative is going to go next?
Mark Sutherns: In the next three to four years there are some big developments that we can't talk about right now, but the Total War series will continue on. Total Warrior with Sega is our next new franchise, but the next few years are very exciting.
Have you thought about next-generation machines?
Mark Sutherns: We're looking closely at the next gen consoles, as hopefully they'll eventually embrace the keyboard/mouse scenario and that opens the door. We have to be confident before we do it, that we can do it to the level. We're known for great strategy games and we'd want to do it 100%, we wouldn't want to do a watered down version for the console. So if we do it, we'd like it to be as spectacular as the PC version. We've got one eye on the next gen, so has every developer in the land, that's no revelation, but we'll see.