Total War is arguably one of the most popular franchises in gaming, and is certainly one of the most well-known strategy games out there – a collective I’d probably be remiss if I didn’t call it a generic cesspool, from within which small diamonds may sometimes float. Okay, so some metaphors don’t always quite makes sense; just let it go already!
Anyway, if you’re reading this, then the chances are you already know what Total War is and, no doubt, you already have at least some information on the latest instalment in the eponymous series – but I’m going to ramble on anyway; partly because that is kind of the point of this little article, but mostly because my Daddy always said to ‘never assume nottin’, cos’ assumin’ makes an ass outta you and me’. Actually, he never said that, he never will say that and I can’t imagine why I read the line back in a stereotypical backwater Kansas accent when he’s a Scouser, but anyway – Total War!
The franchise has crossed time and geography throughout its lifespan, moving from the days of the Shogunate Japan to Medieval Europe, from Roman occupation to Alexander the Great’s lifetime and the Napoleonic Wars; it is currently going through something of a reiteration of itself, in that Creative Assembly, the team that has been behind Total War from the very beginning, has continued to make the same times and locations for subsequent games; as in, Medieval and Medieval II, Rome and Rome II and Shogun an Shogun II – it’s not that hard a concept to wrap your head around.
Total War: Attila is something of a step in a new direction for Creative Assembly, as this is the first game to be directly drawn from an expansion pack rather than a full retail release – a connection which angered many gamers when it was announced cos’, y’know, that’s a hard thing to do. The influence behind Attila is the Barbarian Invasion expansion from the original Rome: Total War and, as it was one of the more interesting expansions, I was close to foaming at the mouth in excitement for the game’s release, even if I had issues about said release.
You see, the previous instalment in the Total War franchise, Total War: Rome II, had a rocky release – particularly with bugs and glitches and the entire game being unplayable for huge numbers of fans for weeks after its release, and CA were so busy on working the sort the problem out that they had minimal contact with the players trying to access the game, which made them come across, in many people’s eyes, as another one of these cold, uncaring game design companies which doesn’t care about its fanbase.
Even ignoring that, the game itself was somewhat disappointing; there just didn’t seem to be much in the way of content, despite the size of the game’s map, and after a few hours it felt like you had seen all there was to see, done all there was to do and, perhaps most damagingly, the AI on both your side and your opponents side was completely idiotic. It became, to an extent, a question of fighting the game itself, rather than battling your opponent and for a franchise which has offered one of the most incredible strategic experiences of all time this was a hugely crippling factor.
As a long-time player myself – actually, it’s almost scary to think how many hours I’ve sunken into the game over the years; I could’ve been a nuclear physicist or something otherwise – I understand how so many people could have such a negative reaction to the game and to CA in general. Of course, CA have tried to make it up since then, particularly with the recent free upgrade to the Imperator edition of Rome II, which included a whole extra campaign, but I think a lot of fans react somewhat negatively to a game that they have been playing for years, a game on such a grand-scale as Total War, offering small DLC campaigns in place of the world-redefining expansion they are used to.
Total War, as a franchise has, of course, grown over the years and many of the strategies CA are using can clearly be seen in the franchise’s past. DLC now seems to be based off of the ‘Kingdoms’ expansion for Medieval II, – one of the best expansions, actually – which offered four more-focused campaigns, rather than a complete world overhaul, and this could go some way towards explaining why Attila is a standalone game in of itself – an issue I know many long-term fans have brought up time and time again on the build up to its release. I think the issue of many gamers is that game design companies are just looking for ways to screw money out of them – to an extent one should agree with them, I mean, that is the entire purpose of an industry, not just video games – but many gamers seem to forget that they do not have to buy video games. They are not owed games as a birth-right, no matter how long they’ve been playing a franchise or on a specific console.
When we come to the game itself, Attila is a good addition to the franchise, and not really much more than that. Barbarian Invasion was one of the best expansion packs the franchise ever produced, and I am satisfied that CA decided to focus on the same setting. That is, perhaps, where this game truly stands out from other Total War titles – this game actually has an atmosphere. There is a kind of pressure on every faction right from the start – even the main objectives you are given typically tend to be ‘Survive until Year X’ rather than ‘Control X amount of settlements’. This subtle change also helps to feel like the world is moving on with or without you intervention, a feeling which has been lacking in recent iterations.
Total War Attila boasts a kind of desperation which I have never before seen as standard in any Total War game – the kind of atmosphere you get when your city or favourite army is under attack by a much more powerful opponent. There is the knowledge that, if you aren’t playing as the Huns, you are essentially holding out until Attila arrives and only then does the real threat begin. This adds an edge of desperation to the game which I haven’t felt, and experienced players won’t have felt, since their early days with the franchise.
Total War is, as I previously said, a 2x strategy game. This means that unlike, say, the Civilization franchise (perhaps the most popular strategy franchise of all time; certainly if Let’s Players are to be believed) where the player controls the nation in turn-based advancement, in Total War the player also takes command of individual battles, adding a much greater awareness of the units you build, the terrain you fight on, the abilities of your generals and your own strategic ability. Though the world map is this huge, sprawling thing upon which the fate of a nation might be decided by the movement of an army or a declaration of war, the battlefield is a much more tense environment, where the fate of that same nation might be decided by which of these two units breaks first, how quickly you can take out the enemy’s general, or how devastating that last volley of arrows could be to an enemy’s moral.
Much of the game has been lifted directly from Rome II, with often very minimal changes. For example, you no longer need to own all the cities in a region to enact a policy which should have negated the driving force behind controlling ever city in a region, but with the new ‘Razing’ mechanic, it is an invaluable addition. Now, instead of simply taking over a settlement, you are given the option to raze it – a brand new concept in Total War and one which adds a new tool in the strategic aspect of the campaign map. If you are unable to hold it from the previous owner’s counterattack next turn, for example, you can raze the city to the ground, earning you a little extra cash, whilst simultaneously denying your opponent a key base of operations. This is a key component for factions like the Huns or the Northmen (Jutes, Danes & Geats – yeah, there was day one DLC, of course there was) who might need some quick cash or, more likely, don’t necessarily need to be tied down to a specific base. Particularly for the Huns in fact, as their ability to move quickly and burn everything in their path is hugely important to their continued existence.
The cities can be rebuilt, of course, it isn’t like some kind of ‘Carthago Delenda Est’ manoeuvre, but it costs quite a considerable amount of gold to rebuild a ravaged husk of a settlement – as I found out when I attacked Britain as the Danes and had to raze Cadmulodunon so that I could have some breathing room to replenish my depleted armies. In my Danish campaign, half of Britain is black with ash and the Romans have already been completely kicked off of the island. When you do raze a settlement, the fact the entirety of the land owned by that settlement is also razed, by a wave of fire that does look like some vague Biblical threat, is hugely satisfying, and the first time I saw it I may have felt momentarily guilty for leaving Northern England in such a state.
When your last city has been razed, or you have decided to abandon it, your surviving armies turn into Hordes – Barbarian Invasion style – and these are your last hopes in finding a new home for your people. Of course, whilst in a horde, your army itself acts as a city, and you can upgrade relevant building within the army’s campsite, as well as levy local troops into joining your force. This is one of the main new mechanics which meant that Attila couldn’t be just another piece of DLC under Rome II’s banner and it adds entirely new play styles and allows a much greater sense of freedom for your faction – and it will be incredibly useful when Attila and his million horsemen show up with Roman blood on their hands.
The general system has been carried over from Rome II, although it has been adapted into a generalised skill tree now, meaning that you can see the direction you would like to take your general/admiral/agent in right from the outset. It does feel like there is less choice for personalisation now, and that many of the upgrades are completely superfluous, adding little to a character or army besides a ‘4% bonus to livestock related income’. Rock’n’roll!
Fire is more useful than ever in the game, as you can set entire cities alight whilst you fight in them, and the more damage done to a city, the weaker the defenders will become – their morale will suffer too! However, I found it most useful when I was attacked by a force of Geats out of a forest – my Onagers and archers set the entire forest on fire; it was pretty incredible.
Total War: Attila is a good addition to the series, but simply because it is what Rome II could, no, should have been. This is a game without the bugs and glitches and the AI failures, with a slightly more complex gameplay whilst on the campaign map and a more responsive interaction whilst on the battle map. I’m enjoying it at the minute, and I’ve sunk about twenty hours into the game since it came out without any lapse in enjoyment, but I still can’t shake this nagging feeling that Attila is little more than an apology for Rome II. I mean, I enjoyed Rome II, but it wasn’t what I was expecting, whilst Attila is.
It’s probably just me, because I have held the franchise in such high-esteem over the years, but Rome II was a definite low and Attila is the subsequent raising of quality. I’m not blown away by the game, I’m not going to run around and tell people that they HAVE to play this game; it’s just an enjoyable experience, and a solid contribution to the franchise, but there isn’t really anything new about it. Then again, do I really want something new? Am I not simply attached to the Total War franchise by my love of previous titles; by my memory of leading hordes of Apaches into North America; by holding out against the Vandals with an increasingly meagre Goth force; by setting France on fire with a thousand English Longbowmen?
Attila is a good game, a solid game, and I will be sinking a lot more of my time into it over the coming weeks, but it isn’t incredible. It isn’t reinventing the paradigm or altering the Zeitgeist of the gaming world – anyway, it’s on the PC, so most people will probably wait for a Creative Assembly Humble Bundle appearance or a Steam Sale before picking the game up.