Developed by Creative Assembly. Published by Sega. Released February 17, 2015. Available on PC. Review copy provided by Publisher.
I’ve been struggling to find a good way to condense my thoughts on Total War: Attila, but I finally struck on an analogy that I’ll admit I like for no other reason than it’s about tabletop gaming. You see, I think you can find a lot of mirroring between Dungeons and Dragons around the 3rd edition period and the current Total War franchise. With a storied and lauded past, Total War started moving into a new era, and it had a few bumps along the way. The issues weren’t anything too major, it was still at its core the game you knew and loved, but it was taking some updates and DLC to get it where you wanted, errata and supplement books. Eventually Creative Assembly would wrap these fixes and features into a definitive Total War: Rome II Emperor Edition, which is where my analogy starts to come off the rails a bit because you had to buy Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 and Emperor Edition was provided free to all current Total War: Rome II owners. What I’ve been getting at however is that Total War: Attila is basically Pathfinder in this scenario. It’s made further improvements on the existing mechanics and systems, but it’s still largely the same game and your enjoyment is going to hinge on whether you wanted refinement or would rather have had a departure.
By far, Total War: Attila greatest defining feature and accomplishment is its dog eat dog, kill or be killed setting. Let’s face it, you don’t make a game starring Attila the Hun where everyone makes friends and wacky hijinks ensue. It’s a period of time where the once mighty Roman empire, stretched thin and on the decline, has split into Eastern and Western halves and is beset by enemies on nearly all sides. Even the heartiest factions in the North are being pushed South by increasingly bitter winters, and folks to the East are being harried back towards the Mediterranean by hordes of Huns. Everyone is either fighting for or trying to desperately defend this precious cradle of limited resources. With Attila coming so close on historical heels of Rome II, you might be tempted to dismiss it, but the developers at Creative Assembly have managed to infuse the struggles of this time period into the campaign. There’s this immediacy to the setup that few strategy titles have; there are even these great little intro videos that give you a nice primer on your faction’s current situation. Where most grand strategy title focus on the slow building up of your glorious empire – which is still here to some degree, Total War: Attila is instead more about burning it all down and this sentiment infuses many of the mechanics. There’s even a whole graphic that plays when you raze a settlement of a slowly expanding fire reducing the province to a desolate plain.
As far as the basic gameplay goes, that has remained largely unchanged from previous Total War games. Like other games in the series, Total War: Attila is split between a turn-based strategic map and a real-time tactical battle map. In the strategic map you’ll make all the decisions of where to move your armies, what technologies to develop, hire new troops, and what buildings to construct in your settlements, among others. The tactical battles have always been Total War‘s bread and butter though. I’ve always found the tactical battles in Total War to have this really interesting dichotomy. On one hand their more ponderous affairs, where your troop placement and force dispositions matter a lot. You want to line up your spearmen against their cavalry and such. At the same time though, there are these split second decisions you’ll be faced with that will often tip the balance of the battle. Obviously not every battle is going to be evenly matched if you’re playing well on the strategic map, but when you do get into a pitched battle and you’re at that breaking points where your line is starting to crumble but you’ve just committed your cavalry to charge the enemy general is where the brilliance really shines through in Total War: Attila. I’ve honestly caught myself muttering “hold the line” while playing.
A campaign playthrough will start you off by selecting a faction, each with its own units and traits. The Romans still roll with armies centered around heavily armored and highly trained infantry, while say the Huns or Alans are more focused around their horsemen. There’s a lot of fun to be had in simply figuring out the best battle strategies for your faction’s forces and its special traits. The faction selection is a bit more limited this time around – though more are coming through DLC, but each one’s starting position has a really unique effect on the campaign, making some far more difficult. Some factions like the Romans start with developed starting nations with lots of settlements and armies, but they are quickly attacked and it becomes increasingly hard to defend it all. The game mechanics favors this devastation is subtle ways. For instance, it’s almost prohibitively expensive to settle new colonies, making it better to just go attack your neighbors instead. In addition, this attacking heavily mindset is highly favored by Total War: Attila‘s new twist that some factions will start the game, or at certain points can become, hordes.
A horde is effectively a settlement and an army combined together, and this has inherent advantages and disadvantages. Your army is always defending your holdings and you can recruit more than just mercenaries no matter where you are, and any time you want to improve your economic side you can settle the horde in a spot for a few turns to upgrade your tents and camp followers. But it’s sort of an all your eggs in once basket approach, and there are a few other mechanics that make hordes a tricky balancing act to play. For instance, hordes don’t get along well and being near each other will trigger rivalry. So while the hordes are really good at raiding and sacking outlying settlements, it’s much harder to effectively come together to siege major cities. Where I found the hordes the most interesting is that any of the horde factions will split out a horde if their last settlement gets taken over. So you’re left with this decision point of either trying to hunt them down or make peace and hope they go bother someone else.
Other factions will have to deal with their own rivalries as well however. The faction and political side of the game has been greatly expanded in Total War: Attila, and this time it centers on your control as a specific family. It sort of plays as a more muted version of Crusader Kings where you’ll appoint heirs, arrange marriages, secure loyalties, assassinate threats, and placate nobles by appointing them as generals, governors, or other positions of power. There’s even some clever interplay between how powerful you want your ruling family to be. The more powerful you are the more taxes you can collect, but this comes at the expense of your tyrannical rule that pushes down public order and growth. A weaker rule sees the reverse of this, where public order is improved but your armies and characters are less loyal to you.
Every character has their own stats and upgrade paths, and various random events will add certain positive or negative traits. You’ll certainly feel the sting when one of your developed generals dies in battle or old age. For the most part, Total War: Attila strikes a nice balance of how much you need to engage with this aspect. The only part I found to be an issue was the tedium of swapping out the characters items. Each general and governor can have 3 items equipped which range from bonuses to sanitation for that province or how cheap it is for that army to hire mercenaries. There is a lot of incentive to min-max these, especially passing along the more powerful public order related items, but the inventory system leaves a lot to be desired.
Unfortunately, for as much as Total War: Attila does well in resolving issues plaguing recent outings in the series, there’s still some lingering problems. At this point I wonder how much it’s worth bringing them up since they’ve practically become inherent to the series and it’s just what we as fans expect to deal with for the rest of the experience. The end of turn resolution still takes too long, leaving you staring at the little faction icons for upwards of a minute or two. The balance of fights in and out of auto-resolving is still laughably out of sync at times. There’s supposed to be some wiggle room baked into the predictions, but for instance I found that is basically goes out the window concerning armies on transport ships. It’s not a huge issues since you’ll want to be playing out most battles besides the trivial ones, but the AI makes its decisions based on these odds. Once you learn to start properly defending your settlements you can devastate the AI over and over by leaving what it believes a undersized force to defend. I feel like the developers still haven’t found the best way to implement agents. Heaven forbid you ever fall behind in developing them and you’re suddenly hit by one nation spamming powers off of level up agents and you haven’t even build a recruitment building yet. And it just wouldn’t be a Total War game without some crashes and lock ups, though granted these do get smoothed out quite quickly by the developers.
What Total War: Attila really comes down to is whether you were really interested in Total War: Rome 2.5. For as many great strides that Attila makes in terms of its ‘kill or be killed’ feel or mechanical improvements, it’s still working off of much of the same core experience. I for one have been really captivated by the setting, it goes a long way towards making Total War: Attila more than just an standalone expansion.
Bottom Line: Total War: Attila brings an under-explored time period to bare to create a great setting and system of mechanics for a strategy game based more on tearing down your enemies than building up your own empire, but it’s still plagued with some issues inherent to the Total War franchise.
Recommendation: If you want more Total War, here it is. Veni vidi vici.[rating=4.0]