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Playing Total War: Attila is like watching Rome burn

Attila the Hun's best story is the one where he ordered all the thousands of soldiers in his army fill their helmets with soil, as they marched on Rome.

He wanted them to use the dirt to build a hill above the city, so he could watch its destruction from the most comfortable view. The story is apocryphal, but it neatly demonstrates his reputation for barbaric grandiosity and gratuitous cruelty.

Total War: Attila is a game that hopes to convey the great invader's most bloodthirsty myths, while also documenting his genius for tactical organization, military logistics and diplomacy.

The game follows on from Total War: Rome 2, and is the latest in a series that has been tinkering with a pleasing hybrid of real-time strategy and empire-building mechanics for almost 15 years.

This game, due for release on Windows PC in 2015, is jam-packed with maps, schematics and trees to manage, as the player takes on the role of an imperial leader in the fifth century AD. These range from city management, to senior personnel picks; from faction management to technology research. And then you have to fight the actual battles, managing real-time deployment of archers, horsemen, melee and siege units.

Fans of Rome 2 will see changes in these management pages, mostly streamlining and aesthetic, as well as big improvements in geographic portrayals. The different parts of the world, from misty, damp Britain to dry and windy North Africa, are all portrayed with higher textures and audio details than those offered before.

Developer Creative Assembly has built a game based on the doom and destruction of the late Roman Empire. If you want to play in the most difficult mode, pick Western Rome. From the beginning, you will be sloughing off territories and sacrificing cities, as the invading hordes pick off anything that is vulnerable and valuable. Part of the strategic puzzle in this game is knowing when and how to say goodbye to an asset.

As always with these games, you get to play as any one of many factions, including Attila's. His empire, already significant when he came to power, spread from central Asia into areas occupied by Roman vassals in Western Europe as well as the Eastern Roman Empire. This was not merely a duel between civilization and barbarity. At the time, Rome was threatened by many peoples, many of which she had been casually exploiting for centuries.

The Hunnic invasions and violence provoked a mass westward migration of Germanic peoples that seriously destabilized the Roman Empire. Ironically, World War I allied propagandists dubbed the Germans as 'Huns.'

This sense of an era ending and the end of a certain way of life is something the developers have tried to insert into the gameplay. Playing the game, there is a certain apocalyptic feel to its look and in its sounds. End-of-the-world obstacles like famine and plague are also featured. In this sense, the game has its timing about right.

For the micro-manager there are multiple overlay maps detailing the spread of wealth, religion, public order and topography.

Managing your people is a matter of assigning the most appropriate personnel to the right jobs, upgrading them and bringing their buffs to bear on particular problems. Edicts are issued through governors, which help to bring cohesion to an empire, that might be on the brink of collapse. Cities are improved through the erection of buildings that offer health, defense and production boosts. All this can make a big difference when it comes to the sharp end of the game;  the actual combat.

I played three battles as the commander of an English city under siege from heavy forces. I was defeated each time, but by the last game, I was able to deliver serious damage on the invading forces. Each battle was engrossing, though when I play these games, I tend to try to manage them as much as possible, so as to avoid fights in which the outcome is uncertain.

Another change is an improvement in sharing, so players can easily upload data from their empires to a central website for the sake of comparison. This was prompted by home-made efforts to compare and contrast, set up by Total War's dedicated fans.

Attila never did get to sit atop his hill in Rome. A Roman delegation visited his camp and told him the story of Alaric the Goth, who had sacked Rome a few decades before, but who had died soon after. The Romans liked to think that Attila was convinced to turn back, through a superstitious fear of meeting a similar fate. More likely, he was facing just the sort of problems familiar to anyone playing this game; a loss of morale among his men, prompted by disease and a lack of plunder-able resources, due to a recent famine.

He went home and died a few years later, likely from feasting and drinking too enthusiastically. I like to think he wished he had sat on that hill and watched Rome burn. Now, you can do it for him.

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