Total War: Attila
There’s a pattern to the way Total War traces the rise and fall of empires. The first game of an epoch introduces sweeping design and tech changes, then standalone expansions fix the bugs and refine the formula as the era wears on. Attila arrives during the twilight phase of Total War: Rome II with the unenviable job of cleaning up one of the series’ creakiest entries. It does an admirable job, even if it can’t quite overcome Rome II’s cracked foundations.
The setting is fascinating: it’s 395AD and the Roman Empire is divided into Eastern and Western factions, barbarians are rampaging, and a freezing climate shift is ruining crops and killing standing armies throughout Europe. Apocalyptic portents such as the birth of Attila and the worsening winters add structure to the sandbox campaign, which lets you command one of ten playable factions belonging to the beleaguered Roman empire, the barbarian hordes, the Sassanid empire or the ascendant Huns. Your chosen faction’s armies and settlements are controlled turn by turn on a gorgeous map of Europe, which has received a moody overhaul to reflect the oncoming Dark Ages. When the pawns representing each nation’s armies inevitably meet, conflict can be resolved with a probability roll or controlled directly in realtime battle.
Most of your governing happens in the turn-based map phase, during which you build structures, pour points into your generals’ skill trees, conduct diplomacy and move armies. You micromanage by manipulating a constellation of values that represent everything from food stores to the political influence wielded by ruling figures. Rome II exposed a lot of the numerical machinery that drives Total War’s simulation, and Attila does likewise, both games to mixed effect. The built-in wiki exposes these fiddly, over-complex systems.
Significant individuals in your civilisation, such as generals, assassins and politicians, have five attributes: authority, zeal, cunning, influence and loyalty. They behave differently depending on the character’s role and have knock-on implications for more poorly explained numbers representing army morale, army integrity, public order and much more. Too many of Attila’s decisions are about tiny percentage tweaks to yield unobservable consequences. A ruthless act such as razing a captured settlement damages your army’s ‘integrity’ by a few points and lowers the ‘fertility’ in surrounding lands, but the repercussions – beyond a bright conflagration on the world map – are hardly felt.
Similar issues hamper Attila’s politics. A view of your family tree lets you promote members of your clan to senior social positions so they can perform acts of subterfuge such as embezzlement and assassination. Instinctively, you might seek to promote as many family members as possible to increase your influence, but you’re punished for straying too far away from an even balance of power and encouraged to hamstring powerful allies to keep the peace. Leaders’ traits – alcoholism, a sickly demeanour, irrepressible libido – give them at least a semblance of personality. The system strives to match the characterful politicking of the Crusader Kings series, but is too inconsistent to generate the same stories. Attila’s bitty stat-crunching is just too obtuse.
Over-complication holds the recent run of Total War games back from greatness, but the series consistently delivers astonishing spectacle, and Attila thrives on the engine improvements developed for Rome II’s Emperor Edition update. Where that game’s luminous, sundrenched map and bright UI spoke to the aspiration of its starring empire, Attila is suitably muddy and weathered. Rain storms wash over the dark forests of central Europe. Battles take place under threatening clouds and dull-red sunsets. The mood is perfect.
Battles are snappy, too. It’s not uncommon to resolve a fight with an exchange of charges, counter-charges and volley fire in just ten minutes – a sprint by Total War standards. Units break faster and reform more often, and victory often goes to the general who best manages to skew the other’s battle line. The flexible mounted units of the migratory barbarians and the Huns are adept at doing just that, and offer an exciting foil to drilled blocks of Roman infantry, instructed capably enough by Rome II’s heavily patched AI. Elsewhere, Attila makes small common-sense adjustments to the Rome II format. Fewer walled settlements means fewer drawn-out siege scenarios. Now the well-protected fortresses of capital provinces serve as occasional boss battles to be approached with siege towers and ballistae. Total War’s giant unit flags are gone, replaced by a less intrusive array of floating icons. Once a battle has ended, you no longer have to spend five minutes chasing down routed enemy units.
There’s also a lot of replay value, thanks to cleverly delineated starting positions for each faction. The Western Roman Empire faces attack from all angles, the Sassanids must manipulate surrounding satrapies to fend off aggressors, and the nomadic tribes operate on new rules entirely. The Huns don’t take cities, but make camp at will and raid settlements for gold when needed.
This is an exhilarating way to play. You can park your people at the gates of Constantinople, and if the Romans can’t raise a big enough army to throw you off their doorstep, there you stay. It gives you the freedom to embrace the aggression and impetuousness that made the Huns legendary, and serves as a reminder that, for all its flawed systems, Total War’s model of history frequently creates evocative scenarios. Attila only improves that model incrementally, but for players who have exhausted Rome II’s riches, it’s a gritty, satisfying coda to Total War’s Roman era.