Total War is going fantasy, and that has a lot of people excited as of late. I, however, don't give a toss about fantasy - I'd rather play Attila. You probably should give it a go, but a lot of the strategy fans among you may have not because of that Total War we'd ratehr not talk about. Well we're going to talk about it, and how it has tarnished the rather brilliant Attila.
There is a lot of cynicism in a gamer’s mind, and understandably so. But sometimes that causes some games to become unfairly tarnished. So before people get gooey about Total War: Warhammer let us consider Total War: Attila. Ignored, under loved – I consider it in the top 3 TW games. (Along with Medieval 2 and Shogun 2, if you’re interested)
Total War: Attila had a lot to make up for after Creative Assembly released Rome 2 in a state that was - let’s face it, terrible. Riddled with bugs, performance issues and poor AI the game left a large audience sorely disappointed with many losing faith in CA and the Total War franchise. As a result Attila needed to be good to make up for Rome’s launch catastrophe and to rejuvenate a franchise that Creative Assembly relied upon, it being the studio’s annual franchise.
Before continuing it should probably be explained that I strongly disliked Rome 2 for one simple main reason: a total lack of historical narrative. Most TW games get placed against some sort of time period in which a change occurs and you must cope with it. Shogun 2 dealt with the introduction of gunpowder weapons, Empire (for its many faults) dealt with colonialism to a standard I found acceptable. Rome 2 was supposed to be set against the rise of the Romans however for the 200 hours I have played Rome 2, I never had to face the military might of Rome. Some plucky barbarians wiped them out by turn 30 almost every time. For a historical strategy game, that truly sucked. The total lack of historical narrative killed my enjoyment of the game far more than its bugs or lazy AI. I had hoped that Attila would remedy the situation with some good storytelling through the rise of the Hun and I am very happy to say that it achieved more than that. There were cutscenes that signalled key events such as the birth of Attila, his ascension to the Hunnic throne and his death – each one giving me some crucial information to work with and inform my grand strategy, taking pointers from Medieval and Shogun on how to set things up. CA avoided the mistakes of Rome 2 by making the Huns deliberately overpowered so that they will not be destroyed before their invasion is due. No matter where I am on the map, the Hun will have a very significant impact on my diplomacy, my economy and if I am unlucky, my military.
This brings us on to the topic of the grand strategy. Traditionally in TW games, you would build up your army and your economy; make a few allies and then steamroll across the map (at least that was usually my strategy). This tactic proved unstoppable in Rome 2 because the AI was frankly too stupid to stop you. Armies would wonder into the desert and starve, or sail into the ocean never to be seen again. Then the battle AI could not properly understand such basic tactics as flanking and holding the high ground. Attila’s AI jumps between brutal and predictable. Perhaps oddly, these are not problems. The campaign AI is an efficient army destroying machine. It will sacrifice territory to send armies around yours and sack your settlements. It will – in my experience – become desperate and resort to razing your settlements. To explain what the new AI means for the grand strategy here is an anecdote from my campaign as the Sassanid Empire:
It is 412 AD. I am doing well, my economy is strong and my treasury buckles with the weight of accumulated gold. My 15 satrapy states obey my will. The Armenians don’t like it, but tough – they answer to me and me alone. However my borders have reached their limits as the Eastern Roman Empire has not budged and has in fact grown in strength, currently having an army easily as powerful as mine and those of my satrapy states combined. Owing to Attila’s politics mechanic I am blessed with good fortune: the East Romans face rebellion by separatists. With my sights set on Roman lands I decided to play matters cleverly by helping the separatists conquer all of Greece and the Balkans with a supporting army. By the time my army got there, the AI had already taken 7 settlements and besieged Constantinople. This episode distracted the Eastern Romans from my borders as they scrambled to protect their capital and I chose my time to attack. Split on two fronts the TW AI of titles past would panic and become paralysed, choosing to attack my weakest settlements in a very predictable manner that I could easily deflect. Not so in Attila – the AI moved four armies to remove the forces besieging their capital. It left two armies nearby to fight my separatist allies and sent the rest to defend Asia Minor, in which I had taken three settlements since the war began. The AI then acted predictably, defending choke points and settlements where possible, a far cry from the AI of previous titles that would often ignore my attacks. My forces were stalled and it took until 445AD for the Eastern Roman AI to retreat fully from Asia Minor. I believed that was the end of it - I could negotiate peace and take my territory. The AI had other ideas as it launched a naval campaign against me, costing me my entire navy. It razed coastal settlements before retreating to Crete – where it defended against my allied armies until the end of the game.
The key points to take away from that campaign are that the AI is very persistent and fully capable of taking the initiative from you. It targeted not just my military, but my economy by raiding coastal settlements. It rather intelligently ignored the separatists, choosing to place armies at choke points to minimise vulnerability. This is a very visible (and sometimes costly) improvement in Attila compared to all TW titles. A far cry from the suicidal AI of old. It will engage you in any way it can and if it knows it is losing it will do its damned hardest to take you with it in the grand campaign. This fits very well with the time period, in which empires and nomads fought over territory and resources to survive the harsh environmental and political problems they faced. It will impact your economy as factions migrate as nomads and as the Huns raze previous sources of trade income. The frequency of razing can vary wildly between campaigns – sometimes only a handful will be razed, sometimes all of Europe will burn. It is another aspect of the game that sells the time period to me in a way that previous TW titles have been unable to achieve. It is also worth noting that, as a strategy game, the AI improvements dramatically improve the overall depth of strategy required to succeed – so the game will require you to pick your battles wisely, which for the keen strategists is a welcome improvement.
Unfortunately, that experience is damaged by an old problem in TW games: diplomacy. Diplomacy has for a long time been opaque, with no predictability as to what others will say. You could offer 10k to a faction to fight the Huns and they will accept. Paying them the same sum four turns later for a non-aggression pact will fail. I have no idea why and it is a persistent problem in the franchise and one that does not appear to have received any development time to solve. Using the diplomacy in Total War is like trying to teach a parrot English – you may think you’re getting somewhere but let’s face it, you’re not. The result is a diplomacy system that will, at some point, annoy you.
Despite this CA do seem to be getting the hang of politics. The family tree and government system in Attila takes a while to get used to but here is the gist of it: you have your ruling family, who you will want to keep the loyalty of to avoid civil war. You also have the other families who are part of your government, if neglected they will get annoyed and start a civil war. If they become too powerful they will try to remove you from power through war. The basic strategy is this: keep a place for everyone and keep everyone in their place. This requires constant management. Your borders can be as secure as you like, it will not stop your political enemies from plotting against you. In some ways this is an irritant. If you want to fight the wars and let the politicians do politics – you can’t. If you don’t bother with politics the balance of power will change and there will be a civil war. A side effect of this initial irritation is that you get to know your faction. You cultivate characters for roles and may feel a small amount of emotion if they die in battle. You get to know your ruling family to such an extent that even if you could ignore politics, you probably won’t want to after familiarising yourself with it. In terms of domestic politics, it is by far the most developed TW game.
There are also a large amount of minor changes to military aspects of the game that are – overall – a net positive. The unit cards display your units distinctly, rather than Rome 2’s cards; which would show an obscure painting that may or may not be a Spartan hoplite, or a carving of an alien – it’s difficult to tell. The banners in battle take up a small amount of space, but contain all the information you need to know at a glance. This becomes very important if you play as a cavalry focused army because cavalry move quickly and can be hard to manage if you have to go looking for tactical information. Cavalry are far more hard hitting than they used to be. A charge in the flanks at the right moment will easily kill half an enemy unit and the AI will try to use that to its advantage where possible - so keep your flanks secure. A minor change from Rome 2 is that archers now fire in arcs where required to hit a target - something that TW has done for a while but seemed to completely forget in Rome 2, the archers there thought only on the horizontal plane. The fatigue system is also different and makes a lot more sense; your units will tire when fighting and running but recover quickly when resting. Beyond that the battles are unchanged from previous titles and thanks to the AI have the potential to be far more interesting. There is also a satisfaction in beating the odds as doing so requires you to outmanoeuvre the new AI – something that, on open ground, is a tricky process. As a note on the ‘blobbing’ that occurred in abundance in Rome 2; it is mostly gone however you can provoke the AI to ‘blob’ by limiting its movement to one area. If you ‘blob’ the AI will encircle you and annihilate you – so don’t do that. In cities and settlements the AI acts quite predictably whilst fighting in those environments, though it will occasionally surprise you. Forums, however, will tell you that the AI is just as crap as Rome 2’s – such people have not fought enough campaigns – it is a shame that Rome 2 casts a shadow so dark that some cannot see the improvements.
Overall Total War: Attila should be loved and heralded as a great Total War game. This is mostly due to the return of politics and the improved AI. Attila is not an easy game. It is not a kind game. It will test your strategies and if the AI triumphs over you it will be merciless in its actions. If you don’t like the idea of a hard strategy game, Attila is not for you. If you like a challenge it is essential. Salvaging the West Roman Empire is near impossible, even playing as the ‘easy’ Sassanid Empire becomes challenging as your lands become less fertile. It has rekindled my love of the TW series and if you are refusing to play Attila owing to Rome 2 – you are seriously missing out. This is an excellent game in its own right and is one that the strategy fan will be very happy with.
Unfortunately, Rome 2 was, at launch, and abomination. It cast a shadow on the franchise that makes it hard to see the progress that has been made. Give Attila another chance.