In 453 AD, Attila the Hun decided he'd head west and give conquering Europe a crack. What was to follow was one history's greatest periods of conquest, drama, defeat and military prowess. From the Rhine in the north, to Rome in the south, Attila made his marauding presence known.
In 2015, Creative Assembly has tried to capture that sense of chaos and doom in their iconic Total War series by revisiting the bones of their Total War: Rome II title.
But to describe Total War: Attila as an expansion of Total War: Rome II is a little unfair. While the title draws heavily on its predecessor, Attila's gameplay, strategy and design have been radically changed to reflect the madness that was Europe at the fall of the Roman Empire.
This means that the game has a very different style to previous Total War titles. Since its inception, the Total War series has banked on players building empires, forging alliances and crushing their enemies. Get you self a big enough army and world was your oyster.
Attila changes all that. The Creative Assembly has thrown out the idea of slow and steady empire building and have replaced it with small tribes of Goths and roving armies of Huns, or stagnating and isolated pockets of Roman territory. It's a bold move. On the one hand, it undercuts much of the traditional Total War turn-based experience — fans of the series who love it for that reason will find the transition to Attila difficult. But on the other hand, it is one of the best reflections of the true complexity of historic warfare that The Creative Assembly has ever done. War is hell, and it's messy. For the first time, the series has reached out and touched that reality.
This change in direction is shown in numerous ways. The factions you can play as begin their campaigns in difficult situations, and can receive special benefits based on their historical circumstances. The Ostrogoths, for example, get a bonus for migrating towards central Europe before they settle down, while the nomadic Huns get a bonus for not settling down at all.
The game mechanics have been tinkered with as well. Europe is in crisis and the traditional boundaries of empire are breaking down around you. That means that keeping and maintaining large armies, all over the map, is much more important; razing, looting or sacking cities is now a much more attractive option than it used to be; and the importance of hiring mercenaries and agents on the go is heightened. This shift in style makes the game's micromanagement on the strategic map level much more intense, but it also makes it significantly harder than other Total War titles fans have played through.
This difficulty increase comes packaged with other niggles. The game's artificial intelligence is both maddeningly Machiavellian or tremendously stupid, and the look and feel of the game seems to be a step backward from the reasonably polished Rome II. The strategy map has poor draw distances, slow rendering and looks rushed. This is a shame, as although the Total War series' selling point is its huge, detailed infantry battles, any serious fan will know that it is in the game's turn-based strategy phase where you will spend most of your time and energy.
This annoyance is only made worse by a user interface that is half baked and poorly designed. Like Rome II, Attila has a whole bunch of complex levers you can pull under its hood, ranging from promoting heirs to governorships; accepting or rejecting missions; managing the politics of your empire; or changing province tax rates —but none of this incredibly important information is presented to you in an engaging way. This is a major problem because while Attila has slimmed down the need to conquer cities, it has compensated by ramping up the options you can do with them, and with the people that live there. But when the UI makes these new levers even harder to pull than they used to be, that's a sign things weren't quite thought through.
This lack of polish is a problem that seems to permeate throughout the entire presentation of the game — during one loading screen there was a quote displayed by the historian Tacitus that looked suspiciously like it was written in the Times New Roman font. If it was, the irony was not lost.
But the UI is only one part of a bigger picture. The Total War series has always had epic battles as its driving force. Having thousands of units on one screen, duking it out shield to shield always makes for a great Sunday afternoon. Here, The Creative Assembly has put on a solid show. The unit battles between factions are engaging, fun, and because of the game's change of style, there are much more of them. Even so, it's an experience you've played before. Total War's battles have never really disappointed, but it is disappointing to see no true innovation in the micro-game. What has changed is tweaks to the battle simulator's infantry controls. Annoyances from Rome II have been mostly ironed out, and basic problems — like units not going where they are supposed to — seem to have been resolved. But don't hold out hope for every defect to be spirited away; AI horsemen still seem to think charging spear walls is a great idea.
These are common problems that fans of the series have grown up with and have learned to play around. What makes up for this is the wide variety of battles that gamers are thrown into. When not playing as the Huns, factions are forced to fend off challenges from all sides - from the Romans, from rival barbarian hordes, or from other Huns who roam the map razing cities on a whim. If you're sick of taking on Principes turn in, turn out, rest assured - with Attila you definitely won't be.
Total War: Attila is not the circuit breaker that The Creative Assembly might've been hoping for. Instead, it's an example of the steady evolution of the franchise from its humble beginnings nearly 12 years ago. As a game it's far from perfect, but fans of the series will appreciate the studio's continued push in new directions. In 2013, The Creative Assembly came close to conquering Rome. But this time around, and like Attila before them, they too have been beaten back at the gates.