With each game in the Total War series, The Creative Assembly attempts to more closely simulate the concept that gives the series its name. The latest iteration, Total War: Attila, is an impressive entry; visually spectacular, grand in scope, and with a depth in gameplay which is complex but never overwhelming. It’s probably one of the biggest, grandest games in the series, but it still isn’t quite one of the best, let down as it is by dodgy pacing and lack of direction. It also suffers some of the traditional Total War problems – such as an inscrutable diplomacy system and long wait times – but is nevertheless a worthy instalment which should please old fans and newcomers alike.
It isn’t unprecedented for the series to follow the life of a single historical figure, given the previous release of Napoleon: Total War, but where that game required you to closely follow the campaigns of the illustrious Frenchman, Attila has a more open structure. After a (relatively) short prologue teaches you how to play – though veterans may choose to skip this – you can plunge straight into the traditional Grand Campaign, where you’ll find the main meat of the game and the place you’ll spend most of your time.
For practiced players of Total War, it will be no surprise to learn that the Grand Campaign’s map covers all of Europe, spanning from the Middle East to North Africa and up to the heights of Caledonia in the far corner. Where former games have seen you looking to build and establish your empire by capturing provinces, Attila begins with a different sort of look. The Roman Empire, divided between East and West, is on the verge of falling, and the catalyst for all this upheaval is the advance of such barbarian hordes as the Ostrogoths, the Vandals and, of course, the Huns.
The result is that the entire scope of the Grand Campaign is significantly different. The Western Roman Empire, which has been the central civilisation of several previous instalments, has now become the most difficult campaign of all; attempt to take it on and you’ll inherit an overstretched empire burdened with debts, protected by only a few armies, and threatened on all sides. Expansion is a sheer impossibility, and if you want any chance of victory you’ll have to cut your losses, give up vast swathes of land, and focus on your core territories.
If you choose instead to play as one of the barbarian civilisations like the Huns, you’ll get to try out the new Horde mechanics. In effect, you’ll start out the game with no territories under your control; instead you will have several armies – or rather, as has already been given away, hordes. Your people will be constantly on the move, carrying their homes with them as tents and driving their livestock across the land. The recruitment of new troops takes place on the go, too, rather than at pre-established garrisons in towns and cities. It’s a different style of play than is usual in Total War, and takes some time to truly master.
It’s a welcome mechanic to add to the series, and helps the game fit authentically into its historical period. The previous attempt by The Creative Assembly to recreate the Hunnic invasions came in the Barbarian Invasion expansion pack for the original Rome: Total War, but in that case no attempts were made to make hordes seem – as they were – the migration not merely of armies, but entire people. Once you settle somewhere by occupying a city, you lose all advantages of the horde – but should you then abandon your settlements, you can continue your great migration.
There are plenty of other new gameplay features added in Total War: Attila, and the most noticeable of these is the overhaul given to factional politics. Having a family tree is nothing new to Total War, but there’s more depth to it than ever here. You’ll now have to watch out for threats from within your nation as well as without; if your family has too much control of the faction, or too little, civil war can break out as other nobles seek to overthrow you. To prevent this, your family members can undertake various political actions such as seeking support, disgracing rivals, and trying to gain the personal loyalty of disgruntled noblemen.
This is probably the most comprehensive look at politics that the Total War series has ever managed. It makes an interesting accompaniment to the usual gameplay, though it can eat up a little too much of your time. Unfortunately, diplomacy with other nations is still incomprehensible. The AI’s actions on this front are often totally illogical – such as refusing a trade agreement which will greatly benefit them, or demanding a princess’ hand in marriage from a significantly more powerful faction they have only just encountered. It’s a shame that this has improved so little in so many years, and ends up being the most jarring aspect of the game.
The other problem left over that The Creative Assembly has failed to address is that of wait times. Each faction takes turns to act on the world map, but once yours is ended, you’ll be left sitting around until the others are done taking theirs. While you don’t get to see every last action being undertaken, simply cycling through all the civilisations – sometimes spending barely a second on each one – still takes a fair while. Furthermore, when you raze a city – another new function added – a marvellous burning cinematic begins, spreading across the province to indicate the destruction. Unfortunately, it’s also quite slow, and when the provinces are large, it once again ends up delaying you.
If you can stomach these moments – perhaps with the aid of a good book – Total War: Attila is still a fine game. It is visually stunning, the world map finely detailed and vibrantly colourful. The music is also beautifully done, subdued enough to never become intrusive while having enough character to complement the game’s aesthetic. Various improvements have been made to the battles in order to make them better balanced; factors such as fatigue and morale are implemented more dynamically, and are therefore more realistic. Units tend to have more defined roles as well, with some being better, for example, at capturing buildings during a siege. Though the difference is only a slight one, the battles are marginally more focused.
It’s difficult to say where the game ends, too; as with other instalments in the series, it can provide countless hours of play. There are ten starter factions for the Grand Campaign, each with different circumstances, advantages, and objectives. You can play multiplayer campaigns too, both locally and online, or just field battles if you don’t feel like such a protracted endeavour. A number of historical battles have been recreated too, such as the Battle of the Catalaunian Plain, and these add a few extra hours’ worth of gameplay. Ultimately, you could spend a lifetime playing Attila and never truly be done with it, such is its scope and variety.
It’s certainly a game which becomes better the more time you invest in it, but it is also peculiarly unfocused in its early stages. The first objective you receive as any civilisation is merely “survive” until the year 400AD, when Attila himself is born. The result is that the first five years of the Grand Campaign are spent somewhat aimlessly, particularly if you play as a migratory faction with no fixed homeland and no certain idea of which way to progress. Things start to pick up after this date has passed and a few scripted events occur – Attila is always born, for example, and always survives to adulthood – and this gives the game some more direction.
A second problem comes associated with this lack of focus, and again particularly if playing as a horde faction. It is too easy to make fatally bad decisions in the early stages of the game without realising it; if, playing as a Gothic nation, you settle too early and without enough thought, you can find yourself trapped between the hammer of the Huns on one side and the anvil of the waning, yet still powerful, Romans on the other. It can be frustrating to sink a fair few hours into a campaign and realise you did everything wrong right at the start, and the game could prevent this by serving the player a little better at its opening.
The fall of empires has largely been consigned to expansion packs in the Total War series – as in Barbarian Invasion for the original Rome, and Fall of the Samurai for Shogun 2 – so it’s a new look for a main instalment to concern itself with the topic. Nevertheless, it is largely successful in its ambitions, and is probably one of the most epic experiences you’ll find in the tactical-strategy genre. Despite all the tweaks and improvements, however, it’s held back by the lingering problems of the series: in short, long wait times and nonsensical diplomacy. With a little more focus to its early stages, these might have been forgiven; as it is, as fine a game as Attila might be, it stands more as a refinement than a revolution for the series.