The Age of Charlemagne is the latest expansion for Attila: Total War [official site] and I've had a splendid time with it over the last few days. I'd go so far as to say that the entire package, Charlemagne and Attila, has been my favourite Total War experience since Shogun 2, but that's partly due to my love of this period. Caught mid-stride between the remnants of the Roman Empire and the dawn of the medieval period, Charlemagne provides a concise campaign that gains a great deal from its concentrated focus.
I am the unmerciful King of Mercia. For five years, I waged war on the Welsh and when the last of their kind who dared to rule fell, I celebrated even as their settlements burned. Every time my men rode into battle against the armies of Powys and Gywnedd, they'd rattle their spears and respond to every instruction to adjust their formation slightly with a cry of “WE WILL HAVE THEIR BLOOD!”
None of my brave warriors seem to be able to do so much as take a stroll across a field without bellowing about their love of blood. For a while, I pretend I've fallen forward through the months and that I'm leading a vampire count and his army of the undead in Total Warhammer.
But, no, those are the fields of England and Wales, running red with blood. And this is The Age of Charlemagne, in which armies clash as their rulers struggle for control in the power vacuum left by the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. I've always loved the flavour of the Total War games and even though their battlecries become repetitive, I'm already very fond of my fyrd.
It's a great chunk of DLC, in the form of a full-fat expansion that adds new rules, new tech, new factions and new units. The most important change of all, however, is the setting itself and the starting points for each of the factions. Total War has always been at its best when there are clear and controlled objectives within its strategic sandbox, which is one of the reasons Shogun 2 worked so well, and why the sprawling expanse of Rome II was so vague and untidy.
In Charlemagne's world, everyone has the same long-term goal – to ensure the survival and eventual dominance of their own culture. How you approach that objective is partly determined by the faction you choose and partly by your own actions, failures and successes. Where the game excels, it's largely thanks to the clever balance of the starting positions for each side and the existence of several short-term targets at almost every point in a campaign.
This may be an expansion but it certainly isn't expansive. Sure, there are still battles involving thousands upon thousands of men (and they're little changed from Attila - solid, eventually repetitive and occasionally spectacular), and a large chunk of history is covered, but the campaign takes place within a controlled arena. It's a sandbox but there are strict rules to the game you play within that sandbox. Prime among those rules is the new War Weariness mechanic that dictates the length and intensity of your military endeavours.
Essentially, if you expect a massive army to run across half of Europe putting people to the sword, you're going to be disappointed in the results. War is exhausting, not only for those in the field risking bodily harm but for those left behind at home who are without husbands, sons and labourers. Gone are the legions of Rome and in their place are ragtag levies of men who fight due to a form of conscription and whose presence on the battlefield is always reflective of an absence at home.
An army that spends too many seasons far from home will lose integrity, risking eventual desertion. This creates a new flow for the game, forcing you to look for suitable breaks in your military activities. It makes sense to tie these to the seasons, resting and recuperating when travel would be most arduous and costly, but as that is the case, it also makes a certain kind of sense to strike at your enemies during the winter months, when their defences might be down.
While the system doesn't (and isn't intended to) emulate a mythical chivalric sense of combat, in which the opposing parties greet one another and flirt with the idea of confrontation before striking, there is a dramatic tension as you wait for what seems inevitable. Whether that's a neighbour coiling his people into a fist or an ally spreading himself so thin as to be ripe for the plucking, Charlemagne handles the breaks between conflict well, giving them purpose and a sense of unease.
Unfortunately, they're still periods best spent preparing for conquest and defense rather than concentrating on civic affairs or matters of state. Perhaps it wouldn't be quite as noticeable if the game didn't throw certain quotes my way during the reduced but still significant loading times before and after battles. Cicero pops up from to time, with this gem: “Armed forces abroad are of little value unless there is prudent counsel at home.”
Wise words indeed but there just isn't that much room for prudent counsel. Total Government this is not. The series is still true to its name and is far more invested in its generals than in its statesmen, and while there's an admirable set of buildings to choose from within a settlement, villages, towns and cities still feel like factories for the creation of manpower rather than centres of culture. Their primary function is to produce warriors and their secondary function is to defend the lands around them using those warriors.
You can assign characters to govern a province but they're there to provide buffs rather than to perform actions or make decisions. There are choices to make, tied to the faction you're playing, but they're based around historical events rather than moments that emerge from your specific playstyle and situation.
In a way, the relatively lightweight civil side of the game works in the favour of the whole. Like Attila itself, Charlemagne keeps touch with the grandeur and epic scope of the series, but directs its energies toward particular themes and conceits. In Attila, broadly speaking, that conceit was apocalyptic, an era coming to an end and a world in decline. Charlemagne is about beginnings.
Each of the eight playable factions - including Charlemagne himself, the Emirate of Cordoba and surviving pagan powers in the north – is on the verge of carving out their place in the world. They all have their own historical story and the game's strength is in letting you explore the possibilities around those stories, rather than dropping you in an enormous, sprawling world and leaving you without direction.
The AI is much-improved, as it was in Attila. In fact, it may not be improved, as such, it may simply benefit from the more robust structure of the campaign map. Either way, when it does make poor decisions, as is often the case, it usually does so in a way that creates interest rather than destroying it. And that's the key to The Age of Charlemagne – rarely a turn passes without something of importance happening.
It might be an unexpected offer of peace or the sighting of a separatist army, which heralds a civil war on your borders and the possibly dangerous splintering of an enemy. There are opportunities and threats in every dialogue and decision, and the motivations of the AI are always clear. It is a time for new beginnings, as the storm of the Dark Ages prepares to break, and whoever holds the most magnificent throne will dictate the shape of Europe for centuries to come.
It's a step forward for the series and a step toward Total War: Medieval III. I hope the improvements here will inform that game, should it be on the drawing board. These gloriously attractive strategic sandboxes may be about the journey rather than the destination, but without a clear destination in sight, and without a shared objective to tie their factions together, they can become unwieldy. As a template for Total Warhammer, Charlemagne seems like a snug fit.
Judged as a stack of numbers, The Age of Charlemagne might seem disappointing. New, distinctive units seem thin on the ground and the map can quickly become claustrophobic. It's also true that some factions are more enjoyable than others, and that the exact consequences of your actions are often vague in a way that feels clumsy and opaque rather than enigmatic. But this is a lean and well-crafted campaign for a game that made its setting an advantage in ways that were beyond Rome II and it has far more character than the previous DLC, The Last Roman.
Age of Charlemagne is available now.