Developer: The Creative Assembly
It would slightly misleading for me to say that I am a big fan of Creative Assembly’s Total War series, but rather, its Shogun games. I purchased Shogun: Total War when it launched in 2000 and I absolutely fell in love. RTS games are my favorite genre, and I once invested an obscene number of hours in playing Age of Empires 2, particularly the Asian factions due to my affinity for ninja. There were no ninja in AOE2, but I felt that Japan’s Samurai were close enough. When I read about Shogun Total: War in PC gamer, I had to have it. That game taught me more about real (but simulated) combat more than anything I had ever played. It also debunked many of my preconceived notions concerning Japanese history through a masterfully-constructed manual included on-disc. However, I had zero interest in Medieval: Total War and Rome: Total War because European history bores me and there are already almost too many tributes to the Occidental in film and school curricula, let alone games. However, when Total War: Shogun 2 was announced, I made sure that I purchased it on day one. Once again, I found myself completely spellbound by Creative Assembly’s re-imagining of Sengoku period Japan.
I skipped Empire: Total War, Napoleon Total War, and Total War: Rome 2 for the same reasons that I skipped the others. Nevertheless, I recently noticed Total War: Attila on Steam and thought about the Huns of the Orient, and how they came to power and contributed to the fall of western civilization into the Dark Ages. I thought it would be an engaging change of pace from building the west to destroying it.
Rome has gotten too big for its britches and has split into two factions, the Western Roman Empire where Rome is actually located, and the Eastern Roman Empire of Constantinople. Barbarians in the northwest bear down on the West, while the nomads of the East are knocking on the doors of civilization. Attila, the “Scourge of God” is coming.
Sega is being greedy by making gamers wait and pay for the inevitable blood mod, so one need not worry about any of that here. This is a war game featuring countless animations of people being stabbed in the forehead with swords or taking arrows to the knee, but not a single drop of blood is rendered in this game.
Games in the Total War series are played through two interfaces: the campaign map and the battlefield. I will first discuss the dynamics of the campaign map.
Total War games are torrential and complex in scale, and Attila is no different. In fact, I would say that Attila goes above and beyond what I would even consider to be necessary features to the point where even a veteran gamer familiar with the Total War series such will find themselves completely lost in all of these features and mechanics. The Advisor does its best to keep players abreast of everything, but even it cannot fully appreciate the scope of what Creative Assembly has…assembled. I noticed that after beginning a legitimate campaign, the Advisor spoke about the offices under my faction screen when during the tutorial, he said nothing about them at all, and I became frustrated with not understanding that I needed a minimum of 20 Influence points—an important stat for those in the family tree and potential agents to have where the method of acquiring more still eludes me at the time of this writing—to put this or that character in an office, or decree them governor of a province. Influence can be used for a number of actions, from embezzling money for some extra funds in the war chest to divorcing barren wives and marrying a fecund one—though most of the time, it was my general who couldn’t man-up, suffering from traits which grant -20% penalties to reproduction such as “curious,” which I believe is code for “queer,” or “flaccid.” Indeed, this game gets intimate with its characterization.
There are too many uses for Influence to name here, but they are important…I think? The only time I truly felt compelled to use them is when one of my subjects began to falter in his loyalty, which means he could have defected or began a revolt. Through the faction screen, it is also possible to change the nation’s religion of choice. The details are legion, and while Creative Assembly did well program the mouse arrow to respond with an informative drop-down window when it sits still on something, I still do not know the difference between some features such as “Control,” “Power,” and “Dominion.” I do not know what the Integrity stat does.
The skill trees for generals return, as do skill trees for armies themselves, called “Traditions.” Some of the stats from upgrades are so negligible (such as +2% to replenishment for units in that province), or at least I cannot fully appreciate +2% to anything when my army’s upkeep is so full that I am making -50 gold per turn, even when I upgrade wealth buildings.
Unfortunately, maintaining wealth or earning money in general was something with which I struggled while playing as the Huns, the “showcase” faction. While the other factions have the option to sack, move in gently or roughly, or raze a territory, the Huns can only sack, raze, or subjugate (think Vassal in Shogun 2), because the Huns are nomadic, never settling behind the walls of villages, towns, or fortifications. It is unclear to me what makes the most money, or where the most fertile land is for me to set up my camps, or how I can generate growth to make more buildings or raise agents, because due to my inability to find a sense of direction to go in my first four attempts with the Huns, I found myself picking fights I should have avoided, and lost about four times before I played a campaign that lasted long enough for Attila to be born. I attribute this to my inexperience with the Rome 2 map locations, because I did not have this problem with Rise of the Samurai or Fall of the Samurai because I knew virtual Japan far better than I have ever known virtual Eastern Europe. It also does not help that the territories in the game are not click-able like in Shogun, and thus, the boarders are difficult to discern between provinces, for the larger areas surrounded by rivers or tree lines.
To segue into combat, once again, besides my prior experience in Total War games and knowing the strength of hit-and-run cavalry against infantry, using spears against horses, and always prioritizing killing the general, I have no idea what to do with some of these units. The simplicity of the Samurai and Ashigaru is absent here. Just look at the screenshot below for all the options available to the Huns, exclusively in the category of missile cavalry!I once again find myself frustrated because I am ignorant of the difference between the ten different kinds of mounted units available in Attila. I could have taken a screenshot of infantry and it would have been just as full of units that are hardly distinguished beyond spears and no spears, shields and no shields. Those who love subtleties in units will find this satisfying. Those who are like me and just want efficient units will find themselves desperately looking for a favorite to attach to. I never built archers on horseback in Shogun—because it was more fun to build a high-level unit like the cavalry Samurai and run down ranged units, but I find that archers on horses is my bread-and-butter in Attila. The play style of the Huns with the accessibility of horses from Tier 1 feels like it is historically accurate even though I am less familiar with the Huns than I am with the Mongols who will appear nearly 1000 years later. Good thing the in-game Wiki includes some history! While the campaign map aspect of the game almost breaches the threshold of being too large to be fun (and too much like a Civilization game than Total War), the combat on the battlefield is thoroughly satisfying even though the AI still suffers from failing to protect itself from being kited with bow cavalry and leaving its general vulnerable on the backline of its army, there are few things that will pump the ego more than embarrassing an army of 3000 with an army of 1000. I almost never do a battlefield siege in Total War games because I feel that if I simply park an obscene number of units outside of a stronghold and auto-resolve, I lose less units than manually trying to take on a barrage of arrow towers and troops on elevation. Attila offers three options for auto-resolve: aggressive, balanced, and defensive. I cannot say for sure that choosing one option over another yields different results, but I feel satisfied in making my choice to ravage with reckless abandon or maintain an indomitable stance, and that’s what matters. Perhaps building ladders and battering rams and siege towers was possible outside of the Shogun games where backdooring large castles with Battlefield Ninja to capture the flag (like I did with Kyoto in Shogun) was the most viable “siege option,” but I dislike being forced to create siege weaponry to take on certain strongholds. The provision of siege machines—whose construction times are dependent upon another variable that I do not understand, “manpower”—adds for an interesting dynamic, as it is supposed to be difficult to conquer large cities. I generally force a siege, and as the enemy suffers attrition, I auto-resolve when their units are depleted to my satisfaction. Minimal losses are accrued. I have not had the opportunity to do an ambush, but I never liked them in Shogun because the AI is always smart in choosing the right targets and defending well its most vulnerable points. I did really enjoy the fact that low-level infantry are not always absolutely slaughtered by archers because they have shields and are actually animated to walk in a “blocking” stance. Archers have the choice between four arrows—standard, heavy, flaming, and whistling—each with its own use depending on if the enemy is shielded or on horseback or suffering from morale penalties, but using different arrow types comes at the price of firing rate and/or fatigue. I derived great pleasure from burning down forests, traditionally an intelligent place to shield armies from superior range, with my fire arrows, or walking down hurlers with low-tier shielded units. Total War has always excelled in the area of combat, but with the bloated campaign interface, I almost wish for once that there was an option for a player to allow the AI to handle the campaign map, and I could just focus on the battles. That would be splendid.
Attila, like most Total War games, is gorgeous if one has the system to run it. The music is convincing in its reproduction of the sounds of the Orient, and even while writing this review, I have the music from the Main Menu playing for authorial inspiration. The unit voices are slightly disappointing, because I could barely tell the difference between the Visigoths and the Huns. Yes, there is a slight change in accent, but the lines are virtually the same. I was expecting something more exotic.
One of my favorite additions to the battlefield is the cinematic camera, defaulted to the “insert” key. It makes for some great shots when one is routing the enemy or just trying to create quality images for a project like this review.
I recommend this game to Total War veterans because the learning curve of the campaign map is a game in and of itself. Total War games are already difficult by industry standards, but Attila raises the stakes. If I felt frustrated trying to figure out who to realistically attack— because while Attila provides objectives, many of them are across map which would require players to abandon their tributary states and leave them vulnerable to other barbarian factions—then I know newcomers will feel completely lost. I also never understood how key features to a strong army and economy, growth, fertility, and income worked. I would camp with the Huns in one province and have +300 income and camp in the next province over and have -100. Sometimes I could build buildings and the next turn I could not. I understood enough to camp my armies in different (but adjacent) provinces to avoid food shortages, but all of that kind of stuff is too distracting from the main attraction of the game, which is to play as the Huns and raise literal holy hell in the West as the “Scourge of God.” I believe that all but the most dedicated gamers will either lose the game or lose interest in it before ninety-six turn requirement for Attila to come of age. Yo, in Shogun 2, I’m already Shogun in that many turns if not already completed an entire (short, easy) campaign!
The Bottom Line
Total War fans looking looking to experience the fall rather than the rise of Western Civilization should definitely invest some time into Attila. However, due to the scope of the campaign map, newcomers may want to approach with caution as the learning curve is even more severe than usual.