To­tal War: At­tila

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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.

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