Total War: Attila review: the empire

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, Mac
Publisher Sega
Developer The Creative Assembly
Release Date Feb 17, 2015

"Fight, you cowards. Miserable worms. Pathetic, worthless shit-stains."

This was me, yelling at my PC screen at the end of a Total War: Attila battle that, as you may be able to tell, hadn't gone well. At a crucial point in a massive battle, my infantry had lost its nerve and turned tail. My archers were exposed. My cavalry was, regrettably, already spent. I was doomed and pretty ticked off.

This is the core of Total War: Attila, which delivers a very real emotional attachment to unfolding and fast-moving top-down battles between a dozen-or-so formations of military units. I had lined up spearmen, archers, lancers and axemen against a fairly evenly matched foe. We had gone toe-to-toe and I'd been out-thought and out-fought by the AI.

The Total War series is 15 years old, a venerable age for a still-experimental franchise that seeks to merge real-time and turn-based strategy gaming.

In 2013, developer Creative Assembly launched Total War: Rome 2, a major revamp that, unfortunately, came with significant technical issues and took a while to fix. The game has been tweaked in the intervening years and those improvements have helped shape Total War: Attila, which offers narrative and visual upgrades along with additional systemic annexes at the margins.

Total War: Attila is a safe and steady entry that seeks to complete the Rome trilogy with a focusing on the fall of that empire. With it, Creative Assembly has captured the thrill of real-time battles, while piling on a cumbersome, but still convincingly wrought overworld of late Roman political intrigue and economics.

total war attila map screen 1
Total War: Attila is challenging, even at low levels of difficulty.
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In Total War: Attila, the player can choose from a wide selection of tribes, including Romans and The Huns, and try to survive and profit from a near global collapse of order. Each tribe represents different campaigns that offer their own challenges and advantages. New additions in this entry include the ability for horde tribes to survive on the road, without a static base. This is a nod to the incredibly fluid movement of peoples at that time, by choice or due to displacement because of military defeat, climate change, famine and disease, often all at once.

In the battle scenes, you face an enemy in real time, directing units and reacting to events. These are the center of the experience, though there is a much wider game on offer here.

Surrounding the action section of the game is a host of systems that augment the fantasy of running a proto-Dark Age society. Of course, there are strategy standards like researching technologies, upgrading city buildings and building military units. There are also political ideas at play, in which you — the king — surround yourself with a network of men and their wives (this is an almost entirely patriarchal society) who will do your bidding effectively.

A map-world must also be managed, on which armies are moved about to best serve the society's military requirements.

Trouble comes in the form of plagues, bad weather, marauding warbands, court intrigues and diplomatic crises with neighbors. On the whole, your job in this turn-based mode is to keep an eye on the game's systems to make sure everything is in order and to choose between trade-offs when options are presented.

For example, shall I allow this ambitious and competent subject of mine to grab a position of power without my permission, or shall I turn a blind eye and take a small hit on my power-rating for a short while? Everything is underpinned by a vast stats system that confers benefits and restrictions. If I lose power, I have less authority to control my court. If I annoy someone, I face the prospect of a larger confrontation that might cost me more power.

It is an admirable attempt to garnish the wargaming part of the experience with a sense of political realism and, on the whole, it works. Action or inaction convert into stats that themselves convert into power and ability. While the management of all these systems can feel chore-like, such as endlessly upgrading characters, the whole comes across as a pretty convincing simulation of what it must have been like to run, say, the Visigoths, circa 400 AD.

Necessarily, this is all presented via a monumental superstructure of menus and screens, which takes a while to master. Even after many hours of play, I am not sure I fully understand the byzantine intricacies of managing my court and family, presented as an endless array of men-who-look-the same with funny-sounding names.

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Creative Assembly has worked to simplify its menus, but they remain complicated and, sometimes, downright baffling. There's also the issue of wait-times between turns, as rival stats and movements are calculated. Those waits aren't game-breakingly bad, but they are an irritant.

Individually, much of the turn-based activity feels at the margins. But in total, all this activity makes an enormous difference, especially in late game, when upgrades and the competence of your generals, carefully managed over several decades, can tip the scales between a disastrous defeat and a victory that will justify the player's entire campaign strategy.

Total War: Attila is challenging, even at low levels of difficulty. Neighbors are always in a high dudgeon, agitated and fearful. Borders are disrespected. Raiding armies are a regular occurrence. If you are the sort of strategy player who enjoys steadily increasing your borders while empowering your people with ever greater levels of happiness and wealth, you're in for a nasty surprise.

The game's economy is measured to ensure that it is nigh on impossible to defend all cities at the same time, with anything other than token arms. Taking a large band of armies in one direction in order to conquer new lands is to almost guarantee incursions from the other direction.

Movement of armies in the overworld game map is a matter of careful calculation. A moment of carelessness can be catastrophic.

Playing as a large empire is a nightmare. Playing as a small one is hard graft. Playing as a horde takes patience and skill. This, in case I am not being clear, is a difficult game.

In short, it is a realistic simulation of a world in a state of constant war and strife.

Total War: Attila can only really be mastered by careful marshaling of all resources, and by managing money, cities and armies as tenderly as possible. It is possible, easy actually, to generate armies and throw them endlessly into battles, but the trick, the stark beauty of this game, is in caring for your armies and your generals, so that they become more seasoned, competent and trustworthy.

This is what makes the overall management of each society so challenging. It's not so much about territory as it is about manpower and, dare I say it, brotherhood. The poetry and songs of early medieval civilizations linger on the deeds and sacrifices of fellow fighters and great leaders. Total War: Attila celebrates this cultural imperative in an age of cruelty and barbarity.

In short, it is a realistic simulation of a world in a state of constant war and strife.

And so we return to the actual business of fighting battles. This is Total War at its absolute best, offering a multitude of tactical options and strategies. In this game, soldiers will turn and run when they feel like it's in their absolute best interest. In the massive battle I spoke of before, I must sit and watch as my battle strategies, and my armies, crumble.

I was angry at my little men, milling around on the field in a state of panic, but the fact of the matter is that I had failed to prepare them correctly; I had failed to make proper use of the terrain; I had failed to react to the AI's own errors.

Now, here I was, behaving like an actual marauding Dark Age warlord, screaming at the dead, kicking corpses that they might rise and fight for me once more.

As I played more and more battles I gained competence in flanking and maneuvering, tricking the enemy and making the best of terrain. I learned to win, even when outnumbered. I figured out the trick of turning up with well-trained, spirited soldiers who supported each other with complementary skills.

During battles, it's possible to zoom about the field, looking at everything taking place in fine detail, or from the highest perspective. There is a special pleasure to be had in zooming the camera right down into the detail of the battle, to watch the hundreds of soldiers going at it. In pure video gamey terms, Total War: Attila is an impressive piece of work.

attila review screen four

Wrap Up:

Attila is a satisfying simulation of a world in chaos

Another battle sticks in the mind. I was outnumbered two-to-one. I used terrain to find distance and tire my opponent. My horses whittled away at the enemy, teasing units away from the horde and cutting them down, while my infantry stood firm on a wooded hilltop, archers raining arrows down on enemies.

Sheer numbers demanded that my units fell one by one. A lone squadron of archers was all that was left. I waited for defeat.

Those archers, nurtured over many game turns, fought until the end. The enemy's last squadrons, exhausted, dropped arms and retreated. It was miraculous and beautiful. I shouted for joy. "You beauties. You gorgeous, lovely, wonderful little beauties."

Total War: Attila is challenging, complex and often frustrating but it's also a satisfying simulation of life in a world of unfolding chaos and constant violence.

Total War: Attila was reviewed using a pre-release "retail" Steam download code provided by Sega. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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