Games Review: Total War: Attila (PC, 2015)

The Total War series is a venerable one. Releasing one game after another over the last 15 years, it remains willfully experimental, seeking a way to combine real-time strategy with turn-based strategy into one cohesive whole. Total War: Attila not without its problems but, like its namesake, it’s more than willing to take a few risks in order to achieve greatness.

Back in 2013, Total War developer The Creative Assembly released Total War: Rome 2 which saw a huge revamp of the series that sought to bring it into the next generation. It was weighed down with any number of technical problems, however, that detracted greatly from the experience. Though Rome 2 has been more or less fixed in the intervening period, its influence is felt rather sharply in Total War: Attila, which has a focus on narrative and boasts a significant visual overhaul with some of Rome 2 bloatier additions lopped off.

This is something of a steady-as-she-goes sequel that rounds out the story of the Roman Empire that has run through previous two entries in the series and is sets its stage as the SPQR begins it’s spectacular decline. The illustrate this, The Creative Assembly put you through any number of real-time wars, as well as a rather clunky but nevertheless well put together Civilization-esque (Civ-like?) turn-based overworld filled with late-Roman era economic management and diplomacy.

Total War: Attila allows you to pick from a remarkably large assortment of tribes to play as, chief among them the Huns and the Romans. Your goal is simply to survive and somehow come out ahead economically as the civilized world bloodily tears itself apart around you. Playing each tribe kicks off a different campaign all their own, filled with unique pros and cons. You can now have horde tribes actually survive on the road without having a home town to protect them, which is historically accurate – the people of the time were often wanderers due to any number of socio-economic ailments.

When the game drops into battles, you square off against a rapacious enemy in real time, sending units hither and yon, trying eke out a tactical advantage wherever you can find one. It’s this mode that’s core to the Total War series, but its far from all Total War: Attila has going on.

Whenever you aren’t duking it out with some barbarian horde over an especially grassy knoll, you’ll be messing about in the Civ-like overworld. It plays host to a vast array of systems that allow you build a fledgling empire, expand it and properly run it. You’ll have to research new technologies and appoint governors to any new cities or areas that you take in order to keep the overthrown denizens from taking up arms against you. You’ll have to upgrade your cities and construct additional units for your growing military. You also have to content with things that are beyond your control like the weather, raiders, various political disasters and even plagues among your people.

The Creatively Assembly seeks to give this Civ-like other-half of the game a sense of realism and in this they mostly succeed. Everything you do, or don’t do, reflects upon you and becomes power to be wielded. It becomes a bit of a slog though, with a seemingly limitless amount of disparate elements to keep track of via a metropolis of menus and submenus and stat screens and maps. It’s overwhelming at first and takes quite a while to get to grips with. Even after a solid ten hours of play, there’s a lot about the management side of the game that I still straight up do not get.

Look, to their credit The Creative Assembly has gone a long way to making their menus and screens far easier to read that they used to be but they’re still a warren of information to be trawled through while you try to remember where you go to accomplish a specific task.

For those on the hunt for a serious challenge, Total War: Attila will scratch that hurt-me-plenty itch many gamers are hungering for these days. Your nearest neighbours are rarely in anything other than a foul mood – deeply suspicious of your every move and ready to launch a full scale assault over any perceived slight, real or imagined. Territorial borders mean absolutely nothing. Raiders can be relied upon to show up on your doorstep en masse at precisely the moment you want to see them least. And heaven help you if you’re the kind of player who can balance steady territorial expansion with citizen happiness. Things have a way of coming back to bite that player harder than any other.

Also, you simply can’t be everywhere at once. Defending all of your cities is impossible. The moment you move to take a new city, you will be instantly skewered by a rival civilization moving in from the opposite direction. You have to be so careful about the movement of your troops on the overworld map. One moment of inattention – literally just one – is all the enemy needs to crush you utterly.

But enough about the overworld already. Let’s talk about the real draw of the Total War series – the RTS component. Rarely has a Total War game been this on point when it comes to waging war and getting into battle. Soldiers now turn and flee whenever they realize the skirmish isn’t going to end well for them and, generally speaking, they will really only have to do this if you haven’t adequately prepared them for the fight they’re in. Maybe you didn’t use the terrain properly. Maybe you didn’t notice when the AI made mistakes – a rarity, but when it does you make your move or perish.

Maneuverability is key here. You need a firm grasp of flanking and faking the enemy out in order to gain the high ground. You need to understand troop synergy and the value of taking units with complementary abilities and intensely high spirits. If you can do that, you become a formidable opponent, able to turn the tide of battle in your favour even when the numbers are piled against you.

The usual RTS control mechanics are in play here – you can zoom in on the battlefield to closer inspect troops and zoom out again to get a broader look at the map. You can rotate the camera and move it around to find the best vantage point and watch on as your hundreds of tiny soldiers tear another army to shreds. Holding down the left mouse button allows your to select multiple units and right clicking sends them on their (glacially slow) way. It’s all very familiar.

Honestly, the amount of soldiers that can be on screen at any one time is absolutely staggering. I’ve really never seen anything on this scale in a video game before and my machine ran it all at 60fps which was just delightful. There’s detail in every part of this game from the armour your soldiers are wearing to the landscape they’re doing battle on. Houses and structures look like they’re constructed from their real life materials, lakes and rivers shimmer realistically and even the weather patterns are impressive to look at. Wait until you fight in the snow. So pretty.

Total War: Attila is a maddeningly difficult game but incredibly rewarding for the dedicated strategy fan. I think that’s important – this is a game that is built for lovers of strategy. If you’re not that sort of a person, your relationship with Attila will be short-lived, but for those who adore this sort of thing, you’re going to spend a lot of time with this one. This is a real feather in The Creative Assembly’s cap.

Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Deep, challenging gameplay; gorgeous visuals; massive scope
Lowlights: Can be frustrating; overworld very system intensive
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Publisher: Sega
Released: February 17, 2015
Platform: PC

Reviewed on PC