Be the barbarian
The horn sounds. Again and again. It’s kind of annoying really, these vuvuzela m’fers blowing wind all through my dramatic victory on the fields north of Constantinopolis. Still, it does feel good. I am sacking the center of European civilization after all. I never liked those Romans anyway. Blow those horns, you barbarian bastards!
Total War: Attila (PC)
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Released: February 17, 2015
In Total War: Attila, you can play as the Hunnic hordes, one of the various Germanic tribes, the entrenched Persians, or the Romans if you’re a masochist split between your Eastern and Western halves. It is nearly 400 A.D., and the world is ending for the classical European empire. Creative Assembly has done a decent job translating this era to its well-trod mix of turn-based strategy and real-time battles, but the ruts feel a bit worn. If you’ve played any Total War game, you’ll probably enjoy the slight wrinkles Attila provides in the new horde mechanic or the change in tone from empire-building to empire-smashing. But if the Total War series never clicked for you, there’s little here that will suddenly make you a believer.
The prologue campaign offers a bit of structure to learn the ins-and-outs. You’re the Ostrogoths, embroiled in a civil war with those dang Visigoths and beset in the northeast by the Huns. The talking head advisor in the upper-left grumbles out some important concepts such as how to monitor taxes, trade and diplomacy. It’s not as intrusive as some tutorials, but the voiceover does tend to be a bit long-winded. The basics of Total War are that your faction controls provinces and armies (or navies) on the strategic map of Europe, and vie against other entities to control more. When there’s nothing left to do, you end the turn and the season turns from, say, spring to summer. When you get into conflicts and two armies clash, the game switches to a real-time battle mode in which you control squads broken up into units of about a hundred or so men on a realistically generated battlefield.
These real-time battles are the true show-piece of Total War games, and Attila is no different. It is absolutely exhilarating to be a general, moving units across the map like a virtuoso. To lure your enemy into an ill-fated charge, only to ambush their flanks and force a rout really makes you feel like a badass strategist. Unit facing, stance, morale and fatigue all must be monitored to be successful. It’s not enough to smash your army against the other. To win battles, especially if you are up against a force with greater numbers, you must play with finesse. In Attila, there’s a certain joy to be had playing with the storied cavalry of the Huns; played well, an army of veteran Hunnic horsemen can destroy most anything those silly Romans can put on the field.
The improvements in siege warfare made in Total War: Rome II are on display again, along with the ability to use your navy to support the army on the same battlefield. Settlements can now be set on fire using various means — fire arrows are my favorite incendiary (What’s yours? Call me!) — but in practice this doesn’t change your tactics much. In truth, beside some graphical upgrades and a slightly improved AI, the battle system doesn’t feel largely different than its predecessor. That’s not to say it’s bad, just familiar.
On the strategic level, there are a few new toys. One of the hallmarks of strategy games is that once you conquer new territory, you can then improve that settlement by building new structures to make the province more valuable. In Attila, some of the starting factions (Huns, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals and Alans) don’t have any provinces to call their own. Instead, their armies are their settlements (did I blow your mind there?), and if you set up camp for a few turns, you can build specific structures there to unlock new units or buff your economy or whatever. The horde is an interesting change to the static strategy of occupying what you conquer — these nomads don’t want to rule, just to plunder and move on. That’s even more satisfying now that you can raze whole settlements to the ground after you capture them. The animation of an entire province being burned is appropriately dramatic and supports the theme of desolation over dynasty.
Speaking of dynasty, instead of the inter-faction politicking of Rome II, there is the return to a single family tree of characters to control. Your family can be your greatest asset, or your downfall. And, even though some fans might welcome this part of the simulation, it’s bothersome to have to keep track of who might backstab you next. There are some randomly generated moments of storytelling (similar to Crusader Kings II), but in general, it’s just distracting busywork. The attempt at random quests would be laughable if they weren’t so annoying. No, I don’t care about your silly flyting ceremony, man. I’ve got the Visigoths breathing down my neck!
Then there’s the unresponsive AI in diplomacy and trade. In theory, you should be able to broker some deals with the factions around your little nation, but they never seem to trust you. Nearly everything proposed — from non-aggression pacts to trade agreements — seems to be shut down. It’s frustrating, but it’s to be expected from playing previous games in the series.
In short, Creative Assembly still hasn’t been able to crack the nut of making the strategic layer of Total War as wonderfully engaging as the real-time battles are. At this point, instead of mucking about with boring systems, the series should just be about, you know, Total War.
That said, the production value of Total War: Attila is top-notch. Entertaining cinematics tailored to the faction you’re playing tell the story of the birth and rise of the titular Hun. While the sound designer should have used a different effect than the clanky clash when you click on updates each turn, the music evokes the period well. The map of Europe is a joy to explore, and the amount of fluid animation in the tactical battles is impressive. The animation is one of those elements you forget is so difficult to pull-off. We all remember the janky battle animations of yore, but the flow is never broken in Attila — at least in the present state of the review code played on a mid-to-high level gaming PC.
It’s impossible to forget the disappointing glitches many experienced with the release of Rome II. So far, the only thing that’s still in evidence in Attila is the interminably long computing time between turns. Even early on in the game and on a recently upgraded PC, you will experience wait times of 40-60 seconds where you’re just doing nothing. It’s usually acceptable to grab a drink or take a bio break, but when you’re pressing end turn multiple times in a row to recruit units, or build siege units while you’re getting ready to sack a major city, the endless waiting is the worst.
I guess Rome wasn’t burned in a day.
There’s a lot to like in Total War: Attila. It offers a beautiful glimpse into a part of history that doesn’t get often explored, at least in strategy games. Pax Romana ends. The classic era fails and the peoples of the world are tumbled into a dark age. A long-sung series like Total War doesn’t need to reinvent its formula each time it charges fifty dollars; but, setting even a well-made sequel in the crumbling legacy of the once-mighty may not have been a good choice.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]