Total War: Attila (PC) review
- Big - keeping your empires together is covered on a lot of different levels, and will keep you involved for a long time
- Surprisingly welcoming to newcomers, despite the complexity the series presents
- Different factions take completely different approaches to reach victory, giving much to replay
- Large scale battles are a well-refined system, letting you feel in control
Not so much?
- Some of the menu systems in the turn-based sections are not exactly intuitive, which can make the micromanagement sections drag...
- ... and when there is extended peace and all you need do is keep ending your turn you realise how much you miss the battles
- DLC concerns, when new playable factions are released very soon after the main title - no real new content, just more things to pay for
Total War: Attila is one part history lesson and many parts strategic thinking. It may seem intimidating but does welcome you in with advice rather than commands. Some menus can feel unintuitive, but the battles are well-streamlined. Most importantly, even when controlling hundred of troops your actions leave you feeling in command.
“No plan survives contact with the enemy”, as Moltke the Elder is paraphrased. Of course when a beginner like myself sits down to Total War: Attila having no experience of the series so far, will any plan survive contact with the commander?
Total War: Attila is set during one of the less well known eras of European history – the end of the fourth and start of the fifth centuries AD. It is one of the major times of change, with the Roman Empire collapsing (already having split into Eastern and Western entities), the climate beginning to cool down several degrees, various tribes either migrating to or fighting for new territory (or both) – and ‘the Scourge of God’ Attila the Hun’s armies pushing from the east. In this turmoil various cultures came into conflict, and in many cases established themselves where their descendants are still found today.
There’s no escaping that the era ticks all the right boxes for a Total War game – although a cynic might note that if you’re looking for a time period with culture clash and war, almost any era in history fits. But as a newcomer to the series, there was also a sense of trepidation due to the series’ reputation for complexity.
Thankfully, the tutorial prologue starts off dropping you in the shallow end of the pool – by default placing you in control of the Visigoths at a battle against the neighbouring Ostrogoths, which is interrupted by the Huns. If you’ve played many RTS titles you’ll have a rough instinct on how to select, group and command units, with an AI advisor occasionally giving hints on formations, unit abilities, terrain and the like.
Of course, battles are only part of the process. The non-fighting part of the game is a turn-based affair, each turn being a season of the year. This is the time you recruit armies, begin building projects in your towns and cities, engage in diplomacy with neighbours, and make decisions on research paths to follow – the game’s tech tree split between civil and military advances.
It’s at this stage you realise just how big the game really is. It’s not that the map is overwhelmingly huge – although it is large enough to keep you occupied for the six decades the core game covers. No, the realisation comes when you finish a turn and see dozens of AI factions cycle through as they do their thing; as agents unlock, allowing you to spy on, assassinate or manipulate rivals; as your heirs vie for positions of influence; as new buildings unlock new units to fit into armies; as enemy factions seek peace in the face of common threats…
There is also the choice of faction making a difference too. Each of the groups have their own perks and can make playing a different experience. The bloated, bureaucratic Roman Empires are a different experience to the small Gothic tribes, while the entirely nomadic Huns are something completely different again (and something new to the series, where some factions have no territory and instead make camp to expand and subsist). As a side note, new factions are being released via DLC – in principle not a major factor, although there is concern when a game manages two pieces of DLC within a fortnight of release.
You will spend a lot of time overseeing your faction, even with a small amount of territory. Expect a single campaign to run for many, many hours. It is unfortunate that the menus can sometimes be less than intuitive here, and there are sometimes outbreaks of peace that lead to repeated turn skipping. While it looks pretty, and offers a lot of control over your domain, this overview is no Civilization challenger that could hold an entire game – Total War is very solidly about the battles, and when these begin it is easy to see why.
On its most basic level, units exist in a scissors-paper-stone relationship with each other – spearmen take down cavalry, who in turn take down regular melee units, who you’d use against spearmen. Of course, this simplification overlooks just how much detail is included – missile troops can wear down enemies… while they have ammunition; groups can lose morale and flee, or suffer exhaustion, or be flanked; fires can cause chaos for neat formations; using natural terrain can tire the enemy or hide friendly groups; and your army’s commander can provide advantages while he is alive… and a severe morale hit if he dies.
Every win feels special, whether it be an overwhelming victory thanks to good planning, or a pyrrhic win with barely any survivors on either side. One encounter had me defending a town from Huns, the nearby small army having to arrive as reinforcements and no chance to get any groups together to form a coherent force… and when the battle ended, the line having been held at great cost, it was still a special feeling.
Creative Assembly are sometimes accused of not pushing the series far beyond a basic template – a comment that my lack of series experience can unfortunately not put into solid context. However, there is no escaping that they have got the large scale battles down to a T, and while moving several hundred soldiers is not a quick process, establishing the best ways of crashing that slow momentum against enemy units does make for some tense gameplay – win or lose, your choices feel they matter.
Of course, if you want to test your skills in battle without the process of maintaining parity on the map or a tech tree, there are several quickstart historical battles to try your hand at. These are presented with some context, before setting you the challenge of matching the actual result from seventeen centuries ago. Alternatively, custom battles can be set up, although personally I found these to lack the same compulsion to win without either historical or gameplay context. And if you want a real challenge you can take on multiplayer battles, either as opposing small teams or directly head-to-head.
Total War: Attila is one part history lesson and many parts strategic thinking. The large scale battles may seem intimidating if you’ve not tried the series before, but the game does welcome you in with advice rather than commands, helping you towards victories that are often the result of prior planning more than flashes of brilliance on the battlefield.
Menus in the turn-based sections can sometimes be unintuitive, but the battles are well-streamlined. Most importantly, even when controlling hundred of troops your actions leave you feeling in command, and win or lose there is the sense that your decisions were important.
Total War: Attila is available now for PC and Mac, with a Linux and SteamOS version due later this year