By this point, the Total War series is so woven into the fabric of PC gaming that it hardly needs explanation of its take on grand strategy. Its creators, Creative Assembly, have a vision of what they want and they deviate from it rarely, if ever. Indeed, looking over reviews of past Total War games meant reading intros that are markedly similar to what I just wrote. Even reviewers have to acknowledge that each new entry is much the same as the last in structure and art style, just as they did with the one before that and the one before that.
This isn’t brought up to be snarky about Total War, the folks who review the games, or (certainly) myself. It’s just that a Total War game simply doesn’t change a whole lot between entries. This isn’t Paradox, reinventing game maps and core systems, or Firaxis, switching to hexes and eliminating stacking. Creative Assembly has a blueprint stretching back over a decade and they’re going to keep building with it, come hell or high water.
Briefly, for the few who are still uninitiated, the Total War games wed zoomed out grand strategy a la Civilization with zoomed in real time strategy battles. You build armies and research tech on a turn based map. When a battle between armies takes place, the real time layer takes over and you actually play out the battle.
Total War: Attila is, for better or worse, a Total War game. Speaking only for myself, it comes with added pressure to succeed. The past few entries in the series have been, to put it nicely, a bit of a letdown. Empire had to contend with crippling bugs. Napoleon was too limited in scope, Shogun II too simple. And then poor Rome II was hobbled by strange performance issues and AI flubs which took a free expansion/revamp a year after release to fix.
Since Attila is essentially the same game as Rome II, only set during the Migration Period which preceded the fall of Rome, I was more than a bit trepidatious. Thankfully that was mostly without merit. Attila isn’t the best entry in the series’ history, but it’s done quite a bit to claw back Total War’s reputation for me.
The basics are the same as the others in the series, so there’s not much to say. Attila tinkers very little with the basic Total War formula, other than making the tech trees for the factions more robust. Everything is still “move on big board/fight on small board” as it has been for years. Newcomers should be able to grasp the basics quickly, while old hands will pick it up comfortably. Most pleasantly, the game sticks with the improved building UI from Rome II, which isn’t terribly surprising but is very welcome given the sometimes confusing maze of buildings from earlier games in the series.
Attila really shines in the way it matches its mechanics to the historical situation in Europe and the Middle East at the time it presents. This was when huge masses of people, primarily Germanic tribes from the north and nomadic tribes from the east, began to move around Europe. This placed enormous strain on the Roman Empire, at that point split into east and west. The Romans couldn’t fight the hordes and, despite their best efforts, couldn’t absorb them. So things slowly crumbled until the Western Roman Empire collapsed entirely and the Eastern Roman Empire became a far more inward looking, less Roman state.
To represent these masses of humanity moving around Europe, Attila allows nomadic factions (the Huns, Alans and Goths) to combine city and army mechanics into one on the strategic map. Essentially, every army in a horde faction doubles as a mobile city. An army can build buildings (in this case, it’s more accurate to call them tents and fields) and recruit new troops or leaders, just as the cities of a normal faction can.
The catch is that an army needs to be stationary to either build or replenish troops. To do that, an army camps via the stance selection mechanics. It’s very well done and makes the hordes feel different from the Roman and Sassanid factions. You’re forced to constantly figure out both when and where to camp, as the Roman factions eat up most of the map and they’re not pleased with you.
You can (and probably should) eventually settle by taking over a city or rebuilding one which was razed (razing a city is now really razing it, wiping the province from the map). Once you do, your faction becomes a normal one: you measure your empire in number of cities, deal with squalor, can build more advanced buildings, etc. It makes for two games in one, with an early game based on trying to keep on the move and a middle to late game based on civilizing your barbarians.
Except for the Huns. The Huns are absolutely terrifying and cannot settle. They’re permanently horde based and come with both massive bonuses to their warmaking capability and a selection of mounted troops which feel like some of the best in the series. When you play the Huns, the message is clear: you are here to make war and destroy things. And if you’re not, well, you’d better run.
Historically, that’s what happened. The Gothic migrations were already in full swing when the Huns showed up and the sheer destructiveness of the Huns forced the Germans west and south. This is another example of historical flavor being made concrete by game mechanics, because there is no way that you want to stick around for the Huns to rob and attack you in the early game. My Visigoth campaign was based entirely on trying to get as far into Gaul as I could before settling after I had an army crushed by an army of Huns.
This historicity also leads to more varied play, despite the lack of factions. In most of the Total War games, expansion is the long and the short of the game, no matter who you are. In Attila, however, I found that each faction was tied to a specific playstyle. The Romans are all about maintaining what you have; this is really hard, as indicated by the Western Empire’s Legendary difficulty. The single province factions, like the Franks, provide a traditional Total War experience, with the horde factions combining that style of play with the demand that you pick and choose how you move wisely. The Sassanid Empire, off to the east and surrounded by friendly tributary states, allow you to play at a relaxed, peaceful pace. And the Huns, of course, are for the tactical battle junkies.
Those tactical battles have been tweaked a bit. Fatigue both kicks in and dissipates more quickly. This lends weight to tactics involving unit cycling. The AI feels a bit sharper on the battlefield, as well. There were a few times that an opponent showed a certain patience, for lack of a better word, which was sometimes lacking in other games in the series. Overall, it doesn’t feel that different to me, but that may be down to my historical focus on the grand strategy portion of the series; folks who do deep dives into the tactical combat might find the changes very noticeable.
All isn’t perfect, however. The game runs awfully slowly and I could never get it looking as good as I’d like. My computer is hardly top of the line, but it put me in mind of Rome II’s release. The strategic layer feels muddy, with the cursor chugging slowly and shadow rendering creating both ugly trees and performance sluggishness. The battle map is the same, with the cursor sometimes moving so slowly that I sometimes have a hard time selecting units.
No adjustment of the settings alleviated this issue. Creative Assembly states in the review copy manual that release day graphics tweaks are coming, but I’m still nervous. The issues are nearly identical to those of Rome II at its release and those took a year and a lot of public apologies to fix. And, because they’re identical to Rome II’s, it makes me wonder why they exist at all. Hopefully those will be fixed like Creative Assembly intends.
There’s also the usual issue of DLC. You can play proto-Vikings in Attila. I’d really like to. There’s even a button to do so, but it costs. Even if it only ends up being three bucks, the insistence by Creative Assembly to lean on DLC for factions grates. By now, that’s just the world we live in, but it should still be mentioned in the vain hope that companies will ease off of this sort of thing in the future.
Attila is a solid, innovative entry in the series marred by some inexplicable performance issues. Assuming that the performance issues get worked out, Creative Assembly may have a keeper. As their recent history has shown, though, that’s unfortunately far from a given.
Total War: Attila was developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega. It is available for PC and Mac.
Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.