Total War: Attila – Review

Title   Total War: Attila
Developer  The Creative Assembly
Publisher  Sega
Platform  PC
Genre  Real-Time Strategy
Release Date  February 17th, 2015
Official Site

War. Ron Perlman once claimed it never changes, but I’m not exactly a firm believer in that. After all, it’s a far cry from the days when Ug first caved someone’s head in with a large shiny rock just because Garr’s wife looked better than his, and it’s only become vastly more complicated since then. Swords, archery, and catapults were all developed and then promptly left by the wayside the moment we realised guns were more effective, and even those seem a bit paltry in comparison to flying drones that can eliminate targets from miles away and the prevailing attitude that if we want someone’s oil we can drop the nukes and let the radioactive aftermath sort them all out.

However, for those who want to harken back to the wildly less scary and more personal version of killing everyone because you want their land and don’t like their flag, there’s the Total War series. Covering some of the most famous historical periods, from the rise of Rome, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Middle-Ages, Creative Assembly’s latest concentrates on the beginning of the Dark Ages with Total War: Attila.

Taking place during the later stages of the fourth century, players will have to choose between five main factions, raise their army and attempt to shape the course of history in their favour one in-game turn at a time. It won’t be anywhere near as easy as you’d think, either as, alongside your armed forces, you’ll also have to keep on top of the dense political system at play, work through alliances and diplomatic relations with other nations, and also cultivate your civilisation to new, prosperous heights. At least, that’s very much the intention, but it can all become a bit muddled all-too quickly. As someone new to the series, despite this being its ninth instalment, it wasn’t long before I found myself absolutely inundated with information flying at me from all corners; it can feel like a lot of the difficulty curve comes simply from attempting to parse all of the data sent your way.

There’s just too much information thrown at you at once and it can take a while to make sense of it all, especially when you’ll be expected to deal with about four or five different mechanical systems at once. You could just be figuring out the combat when a town will suddenly riot against you… except it’s not entirely clear why they’re suddenly so unhappy, but before you deal with that someone is declaring war on you or expecting you to side with them, except their target is one of your own allies, and now one of your generals is dead and you need to choose a new governor and decide whether you need to evolve a military unit or put those turns into developing a Chieftain’s Hold so you can recruit scouts… and now you’re crossed-eyed, everyone’s dying and your advisor thinks you’re a massive berk.

To make up for this, Total War: Attila sends two saving throws your way, but the total sum isn’t as much as it should be. The first of these is the extensive prologue mode, which puts you in charge of the Visigoths and attempts to introduce each idea one-by-one and at such a pace that it doesn’t overload your senses. Unfortunately, even this can leave some ideas and concepts only half-explained, with the embarassing addition that the enemy AI sometimes won’t perform tasks necessary for mission progression and the game itself will glitch out and refuse to acknowledge that you’ve completed specific missions. I had to restart the prologue on three seperate occasions because it wouldn’t let me progress or give me new objectives despite doing everything it asked, and the game’s busy support forum yielded no answers or fixes on any of the many trips I took there.

The second solution if you find yourself stuck or unsure of what to do is to take a visit to the surprisingly extensive in-game encyclopedia, which will happily elaborate on your chosen subjects. Yet, even this is fraught with problems, as while each entry is extensive, there’s still a good chance it won’t tell you what you actually need to know. There were several occasions where I’d jump into the encyclopedia, read an entire entry and either fail to find what I was looking for (or how to go about finding what I needed to know), or come out more baffled than when I came in. Even this is prone to difficulties as well, as there were also times when I’d try and load the encyclopedia up, only to be made to wait for a loading page that never manifest into a full article.

There’s a small consolation in the sense that the campaigns are only as deep and intricate as you make them. While it’s dependant on your difficulty level and chosen empire, there are moments where you can simply ignore some of the deeper systems and find yourself having just as much fun. The issue with this, however, is the risk that if you’re not mastering the diplomacy, performing regular admin on your faction or getting your research on, then you’re eventually going to seriously start hurting.

Fortunately, that doesn’t also extend to the combat. First, you have to understand which units are effective against what, what they’re weak to, and the best ways to employ them on the battlefield. If you’ve played any real-time strategy titles before, then this is relatively easy to get your head around, especially as most of it is common sense to anyone familiar with the genre. Pikemen are best against horses, catapults are great against structures but terrible against people, and archers are a great at killing pretty much anything from a distance but could be carved to pieces by a particularly aggressive gnat.

As long as you have a well-balanced squad, choose your tactics carefully and remember when it’s appropriate to flank or pull out, then the combat isn’t going to be too taxing, and it’ll be one of the easiest things you figure out. There are also plenty of advanced techniques you can employ, such as spreading out your troops to make them harder to hit with missiles at the risk of having them torn to shreds if anyone charges at them, or encouraging your archers to fire shots that are less deadly but have the effect of constantly unnerving the enemy and make them more likely to retreat. Battles can be over in a matter of minutes if your strategies are particularly great or your forces are especially overwhelming, and it can be exhilarating to see enemies dispatched with such fervour. An unfortunate side-effect of this, however, is that it can make you a bit impatient during larger battles, especially when both sides are evenly matched and you’re waiting for another unit to slowly trundle up to the skirmish and get stuck in.

Considering how well-paced the battles should be, it feels slightly jarring to issue a command to a unit and have it take so long to actually perform the order you’ve given. This is admittedly mitigated by the fact that you can speed up the pace of the battle with the click of a button, although this has its own side-effect of looking like something that would be best accompanied by the Benny Hill theme, occasionally accompanied by a sad tuba noise whenever your archers decide to stop firing at enemies and, instead, walk towards them, attempting to best them with their non-existent melee skills.

So it is that combat is brief but often satisfying, with the enjoyment slightly fading if the skirmish feels as if it’s dragging. The victories can feel well-earned, the defeats are humiliating, and there’s an ever-smug grin that accompanies fights where you outnumber your enemy by an easy thousand units and see the steam-rolling coming from a mile off. If the battle looks too obviously like it’s going to go your way or you can’t be bothered entering a fight with only seventy enemy troops, then you can choose to auto-resolve them and save yourself the time and effort. It’s a great time-saver, but there’s always the pervading feeling that it’s geared towards you losing more units than if you’d tried it yourself. This is most evident when the game claims that some skirmishes see you losing marginally or decisively, but will result in a more substantial victory if you take part yourself, although the argument could be made that you should be overseeing fights this close anyway.

If you’re a lover, not a fighter, then not only was a game in a series named Total War and subtitled after Attila the Hun an incredibly poor choice for you, but there’s also a diplomacy system in place where you can attempt to get along with everyone instead. Alliances don’t always come easy, and who you can side with will also wholly depend on your starting faction, but it is possible to smooch and smaltz your way to alliances with many of the armies around you. Some will lock you into fierce negotiations, demanding various riches and items to trade, while others will want nothing more than a standard non-aggression pact. Not every friendship will last forever, but there’s also a risk to breaking up with other factions of your own accord, as if you behave too ruthlessly or prove that you can’t be trusted, then it won’t be long before others turn on you or refuse to come to your aid when you ask for it.

As for the factions, these are split into five main empires, each with their own political system, armies and research branches. If you play through the prologue, then your first exposure will be to the Great Migrators, who start off roaming in the middle of Europe and quickly need to find somewhere to call their home before the Huns get hold of them. The Nomadic Empire also start off without a solid home, but unlike the Great Migrators – who have to capture and occupy towns to build their forces – the Huns have mobile bases linked to each General, allowing them to bolster their strength without being forced to sit still for too long.

Meanwhile, the Franks and Saxons make up the Barbarians, who are stuck in the North of Europe between the failing Roman Empire and Attila’s incoming armies. Further East lies the Sassanid Empire, and the final faction is comprised of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires; both of which are beginning to suffer from over-expansion and are under duress from every other leader who is starting to scent blood in the water.

Whatever your choice, you’ll have to acclimatise yourself to the different political systems and diplomatic issues at play. For example, controlling the Great Migrators will see you initially struggle to find people to promote within your ranks, while Romans have the exact opposite problem, with too many important figureheads all vying for the same few roles. Meanwhile, the Sassanid Empire will find themselves knocking on the East Roman’s doorstep, but also have to balance their attentions with their various puppet states and appease them with arranged marriages.

Then there’s research to conduct, which requires you to choose between evolving your military or making your civilisation easier to manage. A further complication arises as it takes several in-game turns (themselves each representing a season of the year) for each decision to come to fruition, forcing you to think long-term with many of your ambitions.

It takes hours to even make a dent in some campaigns, and each one is made easier or harder depending on which empire and faction within it you’ve chosen to take command of. When everything comes together, Total War: Attila can make for a pretty good time-sink; there were several occasions where I only intended to play for a couple of turns and suddenly lost hours. Sadly, those were few and far between in comparison to my main experience, which was sitting bored, slowly dealing with all the latest politics, pondering over the next thing to research, and only occasionally finding myself with a battle to fight. I’d dare say that about a quarter of my overall playing time was spent in combat, and not every skirmish was necessarily fun.

The biggest problem is that it never feels like an amazing experience that’s worthy of your time. For the most part, it just feels alright, and I found myself bored more often than I found myself enthralled. While there are times where you’ll give the action your undivided attention, there are plenty of stretches where you’re simply just biding your time or nothing happens despite your best efforts and wishes, and it eventually becomes harder and harder to immerse yourself once it finally gets going again.

Total War: Attila is by no means a bad game; there’s plenty of stuff going for it that will no doubt appeal to fans of the series and give hardcore RTS veterans a time to remember. The various systems at play mean that it’s as complex as you want it to be, and there’s enough variety in the different factions and armies that you could play through multiple times and have completely different experiences. However, for someone new to the series, or whose experience with turn-based-slash-real-time-strategies is little to intermediate, then you’ll potentially find yourself with an occasionally baffling affair where most of the difficulty curve really comes down to how much you enjoy reading encyclopedias in your videogames. There’s fun to be had taking on the Huns once everything starts falling into place, but by then your attention may probably be permanently elsewhere.

  • Plenty of variety between the different playable empires
  • "One more turn" can easily become another hour or two of play
  • Can be just as complex as you want it, and rewards players for how much effort they put in
  • Prologue and in-game encyclopedia go a great way to help explain the complexities to newcomers...
  • ...But tend to leave out important details, and the encyclopedia especially can leave you just as confused as before
  • Some game-breaking bugs
  • Enemy AI can be erratic
  • Takes too long to get going, and there are often stretches of gameplay where nothing happens
  • Not enough war in it

Depending on your experience with Real-Time Strategies, Total War: Attila is one of two different games. If you're familiar with the series or can command armies in your sleep, then this is a turn-based RTS with plenty of depth, complexity and enough variety between armies that you'll be playing for a long while to come. If, however, you're new to the franchise or you're not au fait with controlling your own empire, then this game can be an initially confusing and intimidating experience that you'll easily lose hours of your life to, but may find yourself becoming bored by before long and wondering where all the war has gone.

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