The Fall of the Roman Empire was one of the saddest moments in history; almost as sad as that scene where the dog dies in Marley & Me. Civilizations and people come and go, but none of them were as important as the Romans — screw the Ancient Greeks; without Rome, we would all be barbarians.
Creative Assembly loves the idea of turning us into philistines, and the latest DLC for Rome II — the first in three years — is set smack dab in the middle of 270 AD, also known as the Crisis of the Third Century. After 50 years of unrest and 26 different emperors, the Roman Empire split into three factions and almost collapsed under the combined pressures of economical depression, invasions, plague, and civil wars. In 270, after rising through the military ranks, Aurelian reunited the Empire under one Emperor again. That’s when Empire Divided takes place.
As usual with the smaller Total War campaigns, Empire Divided focus more on people than empires. Unlike Rome II’s or Shogun II’s grand campaigns where you lead cultures to glory, the DLC almost asks you to choose a leader more than a faction. On one side of the ring, we have the five “Heroic Factions”, three of which are the Roman ones: Aurelian’s Rome, the Gallic Empire, and Palmyra. Those “main” factions possess more elaborate victory conditions, unique named leaders who cannot die in battle (such as Aurelian, Postumus, and Queen Zenobia) and unique event-chains that affect character’s abilities and faction-wide bonuses. The other five non-heroic factions round up the lot to make up a total of 10 playable groups from five cultural groups.
This change, clearly brought about by the success of Total War: Warhammer, actually takes precedent from the excellent Napoleon: total War where some named characters could only be incapacitated and the highly linear nature brought about specific static events. However, Empire Divided‘s generals and agents have had their skill trees overhauled, and the player can now customise and specialise their characters in the disciplines of Recruitment, Combat, Strategy, Governance or Maritime Proficiency. Even better, armies and legions themselves also had a minor update to their skills, making it considerably easier to see what bonuses a particular tree will bring.
Those changes are actually not part of the DLC, but of a free update called Power & Politics that launched alongside Empire Divided. It revamps Rome II’s existing political system (bar Caesar in Gaul’s) by adding character missions, reasonable Civil Wars, and a surprising government type option. No longer will the whole map rebel against you if a civil war erupts, and you will be able to bring about your dreams of dictatorship by creating an empire out of the ashes of a republic.
Regardless of your government type, you will have to deal with banditry and plagues, two new mechanics that sound interesting, but are little more than administrative busywork. Plagues cause attrition and are fought by sanitation, while banditry acts as a food deficit and can be fought by some of the expansion’s new buildings.
Also added is the concept of cults, which work as representatives of the religion and can cause unrest or public order while bringing in massive benefits. Choosing to build a cult building is tantamount to embracing that religion, and removing it becomes quite expensive as it amounts to state persecution.
Thankfully, those grubby Total Warhammer hands didn’t changed Rome II‘s excellent battles, and clashes remain engaging, tactical affairs instead of the MOBA-like “over in a minute” conflicts of Warhammer. The new Roman units are quite different from the Grand Campaign legionaries and maniple troops, offering an interesting degree of variation to what was once a pretty straightforward arrangement.
On the turn-based side, the actual campaign takes a page out of Attila and places every major faction in a somewhat dangerous position. Romans start full of allies, but also surrounded by nearby enemy tribes, while those very own enemy tribes also start with their own rivals and the looming threat of a large empire at war with them. It leads to a very tense game of diplomacy in the early turns, as you secure deals and peace treaties everywhere you can in order to reduce the number of fronts your already stretched forces must secure.
In the end, Empire Divided is a capable DLC and a nice addition to the brilliant Rome II. It adds a new beautiful UI inspired by the white marbles of the Empire, redresses generals’ portraits, and brings about a host of new designs, both to army cards and building icons. The developers even went one step further and did us all a solid by replacing the staple horrible encyclopedia with proper in-game pop-ups. With every update, CA apparently seeks to redeem the failure of the game’s launch all those years ago — if they keep this up, they will definitely succeed.