The Expeditions series has gone through its own epic voyage over the years. From the early days of the Spanish conquest of South America, through to a rich (if slightly convoluted) Viking romp back in 2017, developer Logic Artists has returned with a third game. Instead of leading a viking raiding party, this time you’re commanding an entire Roman legion during the height of the republic.
You are the child of a recently murdered senator, whisked away to one of the Roman Republic’s various theatres of war so you can escape the political infighting that’s breaking out across the capital and earn a reputation for yourself at the same time.
The implicit intimacy of an RPG may not sound like the obvious bedfellow to a game in which you lead thousands of legionaries, but Expeditions: Rome elegantly handles the setting and your place within it. You are the tip of the spear, an SAS-like group of elite warriors called Speculatores. Despite this specific anchor of a military campaign, Expeditions: Rome mixes in the usual blend of exploration, side quests, and light RPG party management.
The large-scale battles are handled with a fun, if slightly barebones minigame that sort of resembles a Paradox grand strategy game. However, the real meat of Expeditions: Rome is its squad-based tactical missions, in which you lead a crack team of companions (and even generic soldiers when needed) into various situations that require a more targeted application of force. These can range from covert operations and raids that set up a larger clash of armies later on, to less aggressive tasks like forging new alliances, seeking out information, or tracking down some sweet loot.
Direct comparisons to Expeditions: Vikings are harder than you might think – the change of setting to Ancient Rome and the military campaign systems make this feel like a very different game. Even the RPG mechanics are more streamlined – skill trees are compact and there’s less to do in character creation. But there are more clearly defined roles, too. RPG purists may bemoan the lack of depth, but it’s easy to get into and I find myself thinking more about the mission and less about the intricacies of my build.
smart positioning is just as important as your raw combat stats
The turn-based tactical combat that’s been at the heart of the series is the best it’s ever been. In Expeditions: Rome, each side’s members act simultaneously, rather than individual units from each team taking it in turns to wail on each other based on an initiative order. This lets you choreograph some poetically beautiful combos; you could move in and attack with one soldier, finish off the target from range with an archer, before shuffling the archer over to the first soldier so the vulnerable unit doesn’t get isolated.
Clever positioning is just as important as your characters’ raw combat stats, with environmental factors such as terrain and cover also affecting the outcome of a skirmish. In one fight I come across a stash of oil barrels; I order one person to chuck it in the direction of the enemy and then command my archer to light it up with a fire arrow, which ignites a huge area of the battlefield and sets multiple targets on fire. Be warned though – the enemy AI can and will use those same tactics against you.
The military campaign is a fun distraction for when you’re not looking to progress active quests. Your legion acts like a second party you can order around the map, building infrastructure, conquering settlements, or defending a key position that’s being threatened by enemy forces.
Expeditions: Rome is already shaping up to be the best game in the series
There’s a typical RPG ‘hub’ in the form of your Legion camp. This can be upgraded to give you bigger and better capabilities, such as improved party healing and Legion combat stats, crafting, and other support abilities, although you will need to secure resource nodes on the campaign map to fund these upgrades. You can even station companions here to lead up recruitment, oversee crafting, or to get some much-needed R&R.
When it’s time to engage in the big, pitched battles with your legion, you effectively hand the reins to a handful of key NPCs you can recruit and train up for different types of engagements. During battles your job is to pick the commander you think is best suited to the scenario, and then select stratagem cards over three phases for your commander to carry out – with more strategies being unlocked as you upgrade your Legion camp.
Logic Artists has struck a superb balance between RPG questing and strategic campaigning. It feels natural to be wandering around, completing missions and preparing the groundwork for the massive battles that trigger at regular intervals. And even though questing is the game’s bread and butter, you are working towards the ultimate conquest of the map, so the military metagame ends up serving as the climax for each campaign area, providing a greater sense of scope and scale than previous games.
There’s more to Expeditions: Rome than I’ve managed to see so far. For example, between campaigns there are sections where you return to your ancestral home in Rome and dive into the political underbelly of the republic. And while the first area is no cakewalk, the military campaigns become more dynamic and complex as you wage war across North Africa and Gaul in the later chapters.
Expeditions: Rome is already shaping up to be the best game in the series. Vikings was great, but many of its mechanics were overwrought and could run away from you. Logic Artists has expertly distilled what made the previous entry fun, and adapted it for a new setting, immersing you in the violence and politics of Ancient Rome in all the right ways.
What it lacks in mechanical depth, it more than makes up for in the succinctness of its tactical gameplay, and despite being approachable, Logic Artists constantly challenges you as you progress through the campaign.
Expeditions: Rome releases on January 20 for PC via Steam.