Hands On: Total War – Attila

The last time I wrote a preview of a Total War gameexcluding spin-offs – I was excitable. I wanted nothing more than to go Roamin’ with the Romans across enormous, epic campaigns, and the small slice of the game I played filled me with confidence that the short portion I’d enjoyed was a fitting representation of the eventual end product. I was wrong.

Playing Attila it’s easy to see evidence of a franchise revived, not only by technical fixes but through the insertion of new mechanics that reflect a strong central theme. The early signs are good and there’s a great deal of promise, but this is a game about the end times, and until the full scope of its campaigns can be seen a cautious approach is advisable.

At release, Rome II had serious problems. Many of them were related to issues that had been chomping through the series like woodworm for years but the scale of the new sandbox campaign seemed to magnify them. There was a far-too-tempting analogy to be drawn between the expansion and fracturing of the Roman Empire and the apparently insupportable bloat of the game, with its prolonged load times and stumbling AI.

Creative Assembly acknowledged that all was not well, with words, patches and the Emperor Edition of the game, which I decided to spend some time with over the holidays. While the load times are still arduous, on my slightly creaky machine at least, Rome II is a much finer game than it was at launch. I didn’t go back to the original release to perform thorough analysis, but I did spend about thirty hours playing when I’d intended to dip in for a quick look. That

Beyond the technical issues, Rome II still feels quite loose though – as baggy as that one knitwear gift that you know you’ll never wear but can’t be bothered to throw away, just in case. The next game in the series, Attila, should be a little more snug thanks to a central theme of decline and ruin that has been translated into an in-game slide toward the end times.
Attila bings snugness through the medium of apocalyptic climate change. In this game that is about survival rather than expansion, wars will be fought on many fronts but the one continuous theatre of conflict will be the cold front.

There are plenty of other changes, including a reworked interface, the return of family trees and dynamic fire during the series’ usual enormous battles, but it’s the integration of the apocalyptic theme into long-term strategies that sparked my interest. Strategy games usually task players with expansion of some sort but Attila represents a world teetering on the brink of collapse. In Rome, you could build an Empire – in Attila, you’ll be struggling to survive as the world freezes over.

As campaigns develop, the snowline moves south, steadily, causing longer winters, which impact on resource management, army movement and battle tactics. Some factions are better suited to survival than others and there’s an entirely new method of city-building in survival to be found in the nomadic wanderings of certain factions. With the ability to pick up sticks and move to fertile ground, or away from warzones, these playable entities are well-equipped to avoid the worst of the elements.

They won’t have it easy though. According to the team, the difficulty level will be pitched relatively high, with some factions, such as the Western Roman Empire, beset on all sides from turn one, and seemingly doomed to failure. Players will find ways to survive and to prosper, of course, because even with the encroaching doom offering the sense of a narrative, Attila is still, essentially, a sandbox strategy game.

I played the game at the end of the year, when the amount of daylight in any 24 hour period could be measured with an eggtimer. It seemed a suitable accompaniament to 2014’s final breaths and I found much to admire. The map is beautiful and the ability to develop and relocate settlements when playing as a Horde faction makes the world seem more like a thing to manipulate, changeable and reactive, rather than a backdrop. I’m also pleased by the strength of character and devious plotting opened up by family trees, which provide an extra level of emergent narrative and engagement.

All good. I didn’t find a great deal of time to play with the dynamic fire, which will apparently sweep through settlements, causing damage that is reflected in updates on the strategic map when a battle ends. I also didn’t get a chance to see how effectively some of the central features are implemented, particularly the development of the changing climate and the long-term strategies that might emerge when using a horde faction.

That’s because the preview build ends after 40 turns. It’s enough to enjoy the taste but not enough to know how much time my computer will spend chewing on its thoughts between turns in the mid- and end-game. I’m remarkably interested in how the end-game will work because Attila appears to be about something – the descent into the Dark Ages, the effect of invasion and climate change, the inevitable end of all things.

When I first sat down to play, I expected to react with a slight shrug. Even after playing Emperor Edition for a good while, I’m not entirely convinced that all of the technical issues that troubled my time with Rome II have been eradicated, but I’m impressed by Attila’s focus and commitment to a central thesis. If the question posed by Rome II was “What would Rome: Total War look and behave like with modern technology driving it?”, Attla seems to be built on a rather more interesting proposition – “How does a genre and series that thrives on expansion deal with a turn toward decay and decline?”

I like that question and I hope that Attila is able to formulate a robust response. But I don’t know if it will because 40 turns only reveals the first flakes of winter. I spoke to Creative Assembly at great length about what they hope to achieve with the game, what they took away from the experience fo Rome II and how the series has changed over time. I came away impressed and excited to see more, and we’ll have the full transcript of that conversation later this week.

Attila is promising and the new additions could run deep, changing the character of the strategic map and the way players interact with it. That’s the intention and this is a case where listing new features isn’t as important as understanding the thematic significance of the new features. There’s a focused goal at work here and an attempt to play with the Total War formula in a way that should make this far more than a pseudo-expansion.

I’m intrigued. But I’ve been here before and this time, let’s not bring a pinch of salt to the table – let’s bring enough to pay an entire legion with*. There’s not long until release on February 17th and it’ll probably take at least a week with the full game after launch before the extent of the new features and flaws can be seen. I want to see the darkness enveloping my empire, I want to take my horde from one end of the map to the other, burning and pillaging as I go. I want to push the simulation to its extremes and see which bits break. It’s ok for some bits to break, that’s what happens, but will they break in a way that makes me interested to see more? If so, I’ll probably end up losing weeks of my life to the game, as I did wit the first Rome and Medieval.

I also want to play as the Huns, to see which strategies suit them and if it’s possible to create the radical alternate histories that the series makes me hungry for. I want to eradicate empires and rebuild them in the cold, dark end of everything. But that will have to wait and so shall we, until the full picture is revealed.

Look out for more details and thoughts in an extensive interview later this week.

*This salt-based salary gag brought to you by the dubious etymological practices of Pliny rather than Actual History.

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33 Comments

  1. WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

    ‘If the question posed by Rome II was “What would Rome: Total War look and behave like with modern technology driving it?”, Atilla seems to be built on a rather more interesting proposition – “How does a genre and series that thrives on expansion deal with a turn toward decay and decline?”’

    Surely Attila’s question would be “What would Barbarian Invasion look and behave like with modern technology driving it”? :)

    I for one absolutely loved Barbarian Invasion, probably Creative Assembly’s best designed campaign to date and certainly the one I found to be most atmospheric. Possibly because it was ‘only’ an expansion, BI never got the critical appreciation it deserved in my view. Hopefully Attila can harness what made BI so captivating a decade later, whilst ironing out the things that made Rome II so tedious.

    • Adam Smith says:

      That’s almost word for word what I wrote in my notebook when I first started playing – I love Barbarian Invasion and it’s the obvious comparison, but I think beyond the time period and the hordes (which don’t behave quite like the BI ones anyhow), it’s the climate and changes to the map that seem most interesting in Attila.

      It seems – and hopefully is – a strongly thematically linked set of mechanics.

      • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

        That sounds lovely, thank you!

      • Grizzly says:

        To me, it’s something that even the original Rome always lacked. The first Shogun: Total War greets us with very foreboding and athmospheric Japanese music, looking at a carrion-strewn battlefield. The menu is a parchment that opens, whilst animations in the background reflect that of japanese art (specifically in regards to how perspective and 3d is handled). The tutorial throws Sun Tzu at you and is actually genuinely hard for a first time player, reflecting the difficulty of winning a battle properly and teaching you the importance of terrain.

        Diplomats and your servants speak proper japanese, whilst following japanese customs, such as never turning their back on you in your throne room. You have a throne room! With an adviser speaking in wisdoms and in ridddles whilst he subtly advises you to, say, attack more often. The foreign diplomats (the Portugese and the Dutch) meanwhile speak to you in absolutely horrid Japanese where it is clear that they had to rehearse their lines – which again makes perfect sense. They also come across as very rude, not being accustomed to the japanese diplomatic costums that have gradually grown on you. Your units on the battlefield speak japanese. The maps themselves were highly detailed hand made maps for each province. Assassinations had their own several minute long animations, showing intriguing murder weapons, having interesting soundtracks, being quite bloody, and were the reveal was not known untill the final moment several minutes in, making them hair raising affairs.

        An additional CD comes with extensive documentation of the actual history at the time, turning any person from a totally clueless perosn into someone who is quite knowledgable about the sengoku-jidai and the concept of Bushido, something which most westerners don’t know anything about. The game just oozed athmosphere and it felt great to immerse in a historical yet obscure setting, whilst the AI and the battles were top notch.

        ABSOLUTELY NONE OF THIS is present in the original Rome. For the sake of having “full 3d battles” every single inch of athmosphere was thrown overboard in favor of an engine that had only slightly prettier graphics at the cost of all the immersion, and at the cost of the AI, which has never reached the heights of the first installments.

        All the thematic stuff was gone. The music was generic overly dramatic stuff. Hardly any films, and the ones that were were far, far uglier then Shogun’s. No latin. The roman faction (which is your only option in the beginning!) is vastly overpowering the other factions right from the get go, whilst Shogun emphasized brave and skilled generals overcoming impossible odds. In Shogun, victory was an achievement. In Rome, victory was inevetable.

        I have absolutely no idea why the game was lauded so much, but I do feel that Rome 2’s failure was in part due to the first game just being so… weak.

        That got a bit longer then I thought it would, but… There are many people who will say that Shogun was the best Total War game, and it is mainly because of what I described above – the game was *very* strong thematically. It clearly stated what it was about (you overcoming impossible odds due to superiour use of tactics) and it let you do exactly that. If Atilla can evoke a similar sense of thematics, then CA has a very strong game on their hands.

        • sicemma says:

          Yeah, the de-souling of total war from Shogun through Medieval through Rome is something really only matched by what happened to The Elder Scrolls.

        • dsch says:

          Agree with all of this, though I slightly prefer the first Medieval to Shogun. I liked how there was a structure to the emergent narrative in MTW because you know the Horde is coming.

          • Grizzly says:

            I never picked up Medieval, only playing it a long time later, but yeah, it’s also a strong contender. It is basically a straight sequel, but instead of a spirit of bravery and shrewdness, it breathes one of faith and fear.
            However, I have never played it extensively (it doesn’t run that well on modern systems) and as such I can’t speak so passionately about it.

        • revan says:

          Spot on analysis. I never was much into Rome for those same reasons, and very much into Shogun. Ironic, since I knew nothing about sengoku-jidai before playing the game and reading that marvelous encyclopedia on the second cd. At the same time, Roman history was a fascination of mine for a long time.

          Never bought Rome II. Stopped at Shogun 2, which I haven’t yet properly played.

      • blastaz says:

        How does that theme work if you play as anyone other than wre? It was never that difficult to hold the line and slowly start to grow as ere in bi, and if you play as the Sassanids or Saxons the game is about expansion and profiting from others weaknesses.

        It seems strange to have such a consistent theme then only apply it to two of the playable factions.

    • Volcanu says:

      I never played BI – but from experience the TW expansions frequently benefit from a tighter scope and provide some of the series highlights. Medieval 2 : Kingdoms had some great campaigns, and Fall of the Samurai was also excellent.

  2. Volcanu says:

    To my mind this will only evoke the period in an engaging way if the diplomatic/ non-military options are up to snuff too.

    The Western Empire in particular frequently resorted to allowing migrating Germanic tribes to settle in Roman territory in return for defending the Empire against other invaders. It would be interesting if the player (if playing as one of the Roman factions) has to weigh up whether to fight a certain “horde” group or instead could opt to surrender direct control of some territory in order to focus on other threats and provide a buffer/ defence against some of the other “horde” factions. Of course this would carry a risk that the ‘settlers’ decide to become autonomous or make further demands etc, if they feel you are too weak…

    Adam – is there any word on this side of things being a feature at all?

    • Adam Smith says:

      There’s a video focusing on diplomacy and forum discussion here. There’s a little bit of info about diplomacy in the interview but otherwise that video contains almost everything I know.

      Doesn’t sound like it’ll be as extensively redone as you (and I) might hope.

      • Volcanu says:

        Hmm, thanks Adam.

        Not able to watch the video at the moment but you are right, from reading the thread it doesnt sound like the diplomatic system will be getting an extensive overhaul and some people are stating that region gifting/trading wont be a feature (although no-one from CA, so who knows).

  3. Velko says:

    Attila – 11
    Atilla – 7

    Over half correct! Pass.

    • Adam Smith says:

      Ha! Every single image file is an Atilla. I’m going to fix the ones in the text but shall leave your comment as monument to my shame.

      • Velko says:

        In a truly shameful RPS fashion, you probably should’ve called him Atilla the Pun!

  4. fish99 says:

    Glad I decided at the last minute not to pre-order Rome 2. It was more based on not having finished a Shogun 2 campaign yet, rather than doubts about the quality of Rome 2. And since I still haven’t finished a Shogun 2 campaign I won’t be rushing into Attila. They churn out these games too quick for casuals like me.

  5. Thurgret says:

    This could be fantastic, and I still won’t give them more than a tenner for it, out of sheer disgruntlement about Rome II (and its ongoing DLC releases).

    What’s this about a snowline moving south? The Total War games have never been historically accurate, by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s taking it a bit far, if true.

    • Glubber says:

      I quit at Shogun. It was the better of their latest releases but I still needed mods to find it really worthwhile.

      Finally developed the ability to wait before purchasing TW games following several prior disappointments (none of which exceeded Empire) and now, whenever a TW game appears on the horizon with the all too familiar hype of how CA will finally get to show us what they’ve learned, I just think, “Great, another TW game I’m not going to buy.”

      • Baines says:

        I think that I will just wait for some other dev studio/publisher to decide to fund their own version of the Total War idea. Creative Assembly peaked a long time ago and have arguably yet to even reach the quality of their previous titles, much less improve upon them.

  6. Eightball says:

    The big question in my mind is:

    How many turns/year?

    I got Rome 2 on deep discount a few months ago and it’s alright. The DLC campaigns with more than 1 turn per year are really great though, mostly because of that one change (because your characters don’t get old and die so fast).

    Can you reveal that to us Adam (or does someone else know)?

  7. DetCord says:

    I played the immensely disappointing Rome II. Shall not make the same mistake twice.

    link to i.imgur.com

  8. mrpier says:

    Is Rome II in a good state now?

    • Zenicetus says:

      Depends on what you’re looking for. From my perspective it’s gone from abysmal to “okay” if not exactly “good.”

      The campaign side is still a mess in many areas, like the Rome-style political system that’s forced onto every faction. But they did improve (if not completely fix) the siege AI, which was another glaring problem for a long time. I dip into it every now and then as a battle simulator, when I feel the urge to see armies killing each other with pointy sticks instead of modern warfare.

  9. teddancin says:

    40 turns gets you to the first flakes of winter…is that one week per-turn? Because I love the sound of that.

  10. J-Force says:

    It is fantastic to see prolonged goals brought back to Total War. They have tried to do such a thing recently by restricting expansion. In Shogun 2 the AI would unite against you if you became too powerful and a similar mechanic is at play in the Wrath of Sparta DLC for Rome II (which does make the map more than a static backdrop to your inevitable strength) however I think they failed because rather than preparing you to fight more difficult foes it instead puts limits on your military might. Limits that were largely arbitrary and without historical basis – except for Wrath of Sparta, the mechanics at play had historical backing in that piece of DLC.

    Attila, if I’ve understood the article correctly, abandons the approach of limiting the power of the player and instead focuses on a narrative of ‘become as strong as you like, you will still have to face the hordes’ which would be wonderful.

    I remember playing Medieval 2 for the first time as England, only ruling Britian and Ireland and not really caring about the continent until I had a strong army with good tech. Then I got a little notice telling me that Poland had been destroyed. ‘eh – so what?’ I thought. Then a few turns later The Holy Roman Empire was defeated. I was a little concerned but oh well, that’s half way across the map – it can’t harm me. Then 20 turns(ish) later France fell. ‘umm… what?’ I thought. Then I sent a diplomat and realised ‘oh shit… all of northern Europe belongs to the hordes’. As I planned my eventual invasion with a rapid recruitment drive I noticed boats, about 6 of them, heading for London. Crap.

    I hoped that Attila would deliver that feeling again. One where I can be strong, but the enemy is always coming and they are much stronger than me. From this article I get the feeling that this is exactly what Attila delivers – correct me if I’m wrong.

  11. buzzmong says:

    From the screenies it looks as if it is using a bulding system similar to Rome II’s. A shame, as it was pants.

    • sicemma says:

      Yeah, that was what bugged me about RTW2 the most, in the end – leaving aside that I preordered the fucker and that it was unplayable for months. All this work putting in these abstract, gamey-game systems to do with generals, buildings, regions, army movement, whatever else. And every single one of them is something that either:

      * slows the game down

      * is actually less clear about what objects even are or do than even just having a big wall of text would be

      * totally kills immersion and reminds you at all times you are playing a video game

      I simply can’t get my head around what they were thinking with any of it. The overriding goal seems to have been a desire to stop the player from just steamrolling around the map, only … that’s still what you’re meant to do?! So you have these convoluted, obtuse, slow, game-y caltrops littered around the game, no adjustment to the fundamental goal of the game, no meaningful adjustment of the basics of gameplay.

      I mean – making it so reinforcements need a general to move around, does not actually mean that I somehow have no need of reinforcements – it just means it’s now a huge hassle to get them. It now potentially requires several turns of planning and knowing exactly how many regions I will own in several turns to boost my number-of-generals cap to move a single unit around the field. So immerse. Such streamlining.

      Did they ever do a dev diary along the lines of “what the fuck were we thinking”? Because I would watch that in a way that a machinima’d trailer with the pretense of being actual gameplay never would be.

      • buzzmong says:

        Yeah, it’s bit odd how they went about changing all the systems on the campaign map and made the decisions they did. The reinforcements probably bothered me the most though, as it made no logical sense and was a big departure from previous titles.

        That said, I did actually enjoy Rome II’s combat (note, I only starting playing it properly about 6 months after release despite owning it from the get-go), which was certainly an improvement over Empire. I quited liked some of the settlement defences as well.

  12. lordcooper says:

    Movable cities and encroaching winter.

    Total War: Endless Legend?

    • Shadow says:

      That second thing is what I don’t quite understand.

      Have they shoehorned an advancing ice age into the first millennium AD?

  13. RanDomino says:

    The only Rome game in this time period worth mentioning is, as always, Ruins of Glory
    link to twcenter.net

  14. wrcromartie says:

    For reference, Rome 2 recently enjoyed the release of a great overhaul mod called Divide Et Impera – the mod authors just recently updated to their 1.0 version which is a HUGE improvement over vanilla R2. If you are looking for a R2 experience that more closely replicates the depth and combat of Rome 1 & Med 2, check out DeI – > link to twcenter.net