Once my time machine is properly operational, you and I are going to jump in and take a little trip.
We'll go see a few medieval kings and ask them a simple question, one that they probably haven't heard before: Why the hell can't you guys just chill out and relax and stop invading each other?
Like, they own a massive chunk of Europe. They get to enjoy the obeisance of nobles and courtiers, can turn their power to building great churches, formulating the basis of law and order, dabbling in the pleasures of prancing courtesans.
But what do we find them doing? Clomping around in muddy fields making a lot of noise about glorious feats, swinging claymores at foreigners and wading through the dreadful gore of comrades.
I don't get it.
Or, at least, I didn't get it, until I played Total War: Attila for a few hours. You see, once you become a king, the attraction of slicing out a little more land for your realm becomes not merely obvious, but pretty damned urgent.
This is a game set during the fall of the Roman Empire, when the pattern for the next 1,500 years of competing fiefdoms was just emerging. I began playing my preview build as the boss of the Saxons, happily existing in a verdant corner of Northern Europe.
When I play strategy games, I enjoy building tight little empires that no one cares to fuck with. But most games provide some reasonable excuse for invading neighbors and behaving like an aggressive SOB, and rarely is this more true than in Attila.
I was surrounded by bellicose bastards
My home of Saxony is surrounded by Gauls, Jutes, Angles and, of course, Romans, as well as a motley of menacing near-neighbors, from hairy Picts to the ever-prickly Burgundians. They are all, to a greater or lesser degree, bellicose bastards.
This is a world in which borders and "homelands" are fluid concepts, even at the best of times. With Rome on the decline, the nomadic and barbarian tribes (of which I am one) are looking to assert dominion over their section of geography. Atilla is also in the house, sweeping across Europe, scattering tribes who, lo and behold, turn up on my doorstep, brutalized and angry, looking for a new Eden.
In this cultural economy, what really counts is sufficient manpower to fuel armies. The resource that fuels manpower is land. So, when my neighbor decides to acquire more acreage than I have, he becomes more powerful than I am, and it's only a matter of time before he is going to send his vicious thugs stomping all over my green and pleasant pastures.
So, it is not so much greed that motivates expansion, as fear. This isn't a game that says "build an empire in order to win and feel great about yourself." It says, "you need to build an empire or you are going to die, pal."
What I found playing this game is that this dynamic alleviated any modern guilt I might have about, say, driving the Angles out of their homeland. (After all, this is what happened in real history, and if it hadn't, I probably would have been born in Germany or Denmark instead of England, and, frankly, that is a historical "what-if" I can live without.)
I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that developer Creative Assembly has created a playing board that I can believe in. I'm not sending my armies across Europe because it's what the rules tell me to do. I'm doing it because I am king of the Saxons and it's plainly the smart thing to do.
All the skills you'd expect to see on a Dark Age king's resume
Back to that time machine. Let's say you and I do go see some Plantagenet or other, to compare notes on medieval kingship. My guess is that Henry I (or whoever) would soon start complaining about the multiplicity of skill sets he needs to master in order to achieve maximum managerial value. He might bellyache about the granularity of data that he must parse in order to formulate the most advantageous strategies. You and I would nod sagely. Being a king requires multitasking.
Understanding this and, I think, being excited by it, Creative Assembly has created a game that throws together all the bullet points you'd expect to see on a Dark Age king's resume and turned it into a game. So, you need to manage infrastructure, research, hierarchies, defense, executing traitors, trampling rivals, marrying off comely second cousins, all that.
All this calls for a lot of menus, asking you for decisions and stuff that just needs keeping an eye on. If you don't like menus and detail and data, this is not the game for you (but we both know that you love that jazz).
I played a tutorial-ish section in which an on-screen adviser manfully tried to explain all the switches and gears, but even he was like, you know what, just press the buttons and see what they do and figure it out from there. This, for me, was very much a trial-and-error experience and I found it a lot of a trial with a good deal of my own errors, but it was OK, because after bankrupting myself a few times and annoying the people I needed to keep sweet, things began to make sense, and I started to enjoy managing all these different problems.
Each menu is like a minigame that feeds into the greater narrative. Some are more interesting than others. Shall I hike the tax rate? Shall I build a great hall or a clay pit? Shall I give this plum job to my brother-in-law or that scary bloke who seems more qualified? Is it smarter to be best mates with my weak northern neighbors, or my strong southern neighbors?
All these decisions make you a stronger or a weaker leader, and affect your ability to wage and to win wars. They point to the center of the game, which is the battles. And this is where I really understood where the kings of old got their kicks.
My king's-eye view allowed me to move my armies into position, then roam around the battlefield, repositioning and reacting according to circumstance. I found, in the dozen or so battles that I fought, that comparative numbers of combatants were a poor indicator of outcome. I needed to really show up, in order to make sure I didn't end up like that dolphin in Henry V.
Frankly, it's not much more than common sense. Seek the high ground. Put your range warriors behind your melee guys. Don't expect your cavalry to achieve much on their own. Avoid heavily defensive positions. Present a solid formation. Let the enemy do all the marching. Wait for him to make a mistake, and then punish him without mercy. You know the drill.
But in the moment-to-moment thrill of it all, I just loved directing my forces and watching my decisions play out. The battlefields, now with added raging fires, have a honed and polished feel that comes with a game series that is 15 years old and, to be honest, has known what it is to feel the wrath of consumers, who are unhappy with performance. Let us not forget that the previous Total War: Rome 2 released as a sticky mess of poo, that required much in the way of tidying up.
By the end of my time with the game, I managed to defend my Saxon homeland, repel an invasion, treble my landmass and stay solvent, while keeping my people reasonably happy. But it was a challenge, and I suspect that the deeper I get into this game, the harder it is going to become, not least because all those menu trees are only going to get more complicated.
As for Attila himself, he was barely to be seen, a far-off troublesome presence that, I figure, is going to show up later in that game, along with some other unwelcome Dark Age visitors, like plague, global climate change, mass migrations and civilizational collapse. I'll be ready for them because, in the Dark Ages, it pays to be a nasty piece of work.
Publisher Sega will release Total War: Attila for Windows PC on Feb. 17.