Rome: Total War - Alexander
Gordian knot? Gordian, yes.
Downloadable extras. For cash. There's a lot of that this year, isn't there? While most of the attention has circled around Valve (positively, for its excellent Episode 1) and Bethesda (less positively, for its less excellent give-horsey-some-armour), it's not just the first-person developers who are getting involved. Creative Assembly's Alexander is the most notable example of a strategy developer trying this, and while not up to Episode 1, it's in a position to snort at horsey-armour. That it's about our favourite always-entertaining top-ancient greek bisexual conqueror's another bonus.
Alexander presents a trident of gaming additions - the extended campaign mode, historical battles and the extended multiplayer. While it's arguable that, like its mother game, the map-based campaign-mode is the true heart of the game, the historical matches are of more import than we've seen typically.
In fact, it's a little more like a traditional RTS-campaign. The six of Alexander's great victories (oh - all right, five of Alexander's and one of his old man Phillip when Alexander was just there) are played in sequence, requiring you to beat each one before progressing to the next. Between each you get an extended piece of narrative, with Brian Blessed on voice-overs. One of the few golden rules of videogames is that it's always better to have Brian Blessed doing a voice-over than not. You think we love Shadow of the Colossus? We'd have to make an extension off the top of the mark scheme to contain our ardour if they'd had our Brian's voice booming some gobligook from the heavens. No, really.
While the opening mission is relatively simple, with you merely in charge of few units in a larger mass-melee, it's clear that in terms of difficulty these are aimed at the Total War veteran. Even the initial one took me a few plays to manage to work out how to beat the dastardly Theban phalanx, effectively acting as a chance to remind myself how to best manipulate the more-realistic tactical approaches which are the mainstay of the Total War world. And you need to remind yourself, as well as being hard, the AI appears to have been particularly tweaked on each of these. It's a challenge, and not a bad one at all.
Creative Assembly must be pleased with these six missions, as they're also the heart of the multiplayer game additions. Each of them has been balanced to be playable for online play with teams or individuals taking each side. Also, as well as individual bouts, you can string five of the six into a tournament, with a winner being declared at the end of the struggles. It's clearly one for the more dedicated RTS fan, but a serious challenge to get involved in. As well as this, there's the standard custom-game mode where you can set up dream bouts between the game's four new factions.
The true campaign mode, while the meatiest part of the expansion, is a little more streamlined than you may have come to expect. As opposed to the Barbarian Invasion add-on, which introduced new mechanics for tribes forming hordes and marching wherever they choose, this works with the Rome rules you'll be familiar with before trying to create a unique experience by the situation it presents and unusual victory conditions.
The most obviously pressing one is a pressing turn time limit. You're charged with conquering thirty regions (which is the vast majority of the map) in a scant 100 turns. This is to simulate the huge achievements Alexander managed in his short life (he was dead by thirty), and requires more daring play than you may be used to than in stately Rome. It's also a more direct game, basically forming a battle between the united Greek City states beneath Macedonia and the huge expanse of the Persian Empire. To simulate this, the diplomacy options have been removed, with only spies and assassins for more subtle hands.
There's a couple of problems - or rather quibbles. The first is its difficulty. You start the game in a relatively precarious position, with Persia owning the seas, Greece not completely pacified and an economy which really needs to be a hell of a lot more economical. A great standing army, yes, but it's one which really needs to go out and conquer the world as soon as possible. The problem is that, especially if your skills are rusty, a couple of early mistakes on the battlefield will basically render your position unsalvageable. 100 turns is barely a few pages in the history book, and you don't have time to rebuild an army. It's not a major problem, as it's clear that the pack's aimed at the more experienced Rome-veteran. Perhaps understandably: it's the second Rome expansion, and mainly available via download (It's also in the gorgeous Total War: Eras pack). This isn't a casual thing.
The second niggle is one which will grate with the hardcore: the matter of historical accuracy. While the Total War games are more faithful than any other period mainstream strategy game, its mechanics don't particularly simulate Alexander's method of conquering too well. For example, since your expansion is so rapid, you have to do everything to prevent revolts springing up. You don't have time to bring people into your civilization properly. You're also phenomenally poor. Since you're marching eastward fast you're increasingly reliant on hiring mercenaries as you get further and further from your unit-producing home-cities. The best tactic for dealing with this is a scorched-earth policy. Kill everyone, take all their gold and head on. Problem being, that's really not what Alexander did. Also, Its modeling of Greece - perhaps understandable with the scale of the map - is a little simple, with no real inter-greek politicing... but I suppose that could have easily been an expansion pack by itself. Perhaps its biggest problem is the campaign only lets you play Alexander's position, limiting its replayability.
A shame, as the four factions in the game are interesting. The Macedonians rely on their heavy cavalry and ultra-heavy phallanxs. Since their main rivals are the light cavalry and archer heavy Persians, it's an interesting interplay between one side trying to close as quickly as possible to leverage their higher-quality infantry against theirs, and the other trying to stay the hell away from that wall of spears. The assorted Barbarians are an infantry-centered war-cry group, with some particularly mean sicklemen and the Indians marry extremely light infantry with extremely heavy elephants.
So Alexander is limited, but compelling. For a full-price add-on, you'd judge it more harshly, but for £8.50 (Plus an extra couple of quid if you want the "Download Insurance", which frankly sounds a little sinister), for some strategic challenges while we all wait for Medieval 2 it's entirely acceptable. As far as great human achievements go, it's not up with conquering pretty much the entire known world in ten years, but as videogame tributes go, far from embarrassing.