Total War: Attila, Review

It feels strange to say it, but Total War isn’t the correct name anymore. Has the series diminished? No! Calm yourself. Instead, that name Total War, right there at the top of page now feebly understates the full range of amazing things which can happen. It’s no longer just chess with murder. It’s a game of politics, feasting, famine, desolation and migration, embroidered onto the most lavish tapestry imaginable.

You want an example? How about this: 20-odd years into our first campaign, we were faced with a dilemma: one of our guards was caught drunk on duty. We could ignore it, have him flogged, or decimate the unit, cutting down every tenth man as a warning. We were playing as the Saxons, so the odd instance of mead-induced indiscipline seemed perfectly acceptable; we’ve all been there. The following turn the entire unit took our leniency as permission for a party: pillaging, looting, wine spritzers the works. It cost us 500 gold, but morale was improved because of high spirits. The effect wasn’t just statistical. The unit was no longer only an icon on a map they were rowdy, thigh-slapping warriors, braving harsh foreign climes with axes in their hands and ale on their lips. They were also completely sloshed, but it didn’t seem to matter.

Snow regrets
These flashes of colour are everywhere. All armies and fleets have names, giving them a real sense of place and identity. There are loads of customisation options. You can specialise in guerrilla warfare, stabbing at Rome’s soft flanks from the shadow of dense forests; become the noble wardens of your tribe, loyal and steadfast; or reave, plunder and despoil, leaving nothing but a blackened trail of desolation. You know, for a laugh. These choices alter how armies fight, too: if you have a rugged band of barbarians stationed on your northern extremities, you can make them resistant to the attritional effects of the cold. If the Romans prance up from the balmy vineyards of the south, you can let the weather do some of work for you. It also means that you no longer have identikit armies, and you can tailor legions to your specific requirements.
“A game of politics, desolation and migration, embroidered onto a lavish tapestry”
Things like this contribute to Attila having the richest sense of time and place in any Total War game to date. The setting is perfect. The threat of the Huns hangs over everything you do: it’s not if the gathering storm will affect you, but when. You’re given a set of objectives in keeping with real historical events, but you can choose to ignore them. Like with Attila himself, this is part of the game, but it doesn’t define it. Instead, it’s the fall of Rome and the inescapable march towards the Dark Ages which makes things so compelling. It feels like you’re staking your claim on the Europe of tomorrow, as you sweep away the detritus of a crumbling empire. Unless you’re playing as Rome, of course.

Let’s remove the stroking hand from our beard for a moment. It’s worth remembering that the ‘war’ part of the title is still a big deal. For all its detail and depth, this is a game about putting sharp things in fleshy bits, and you can’t complete it without fighting. Why would you want to? You’re better than that.

War and horder
Thankfully, battles are still amazing. Much like your armies, generals can be can upgraded to have specific abilities. Some are simple, such as rallying troops; others do more complex things, like preventing opposing units from using their special abilities. There’s a heap of them, and they all contribute to the sense that your general is a person, not just a portrait with a command ranking.

The way that you fight battles has changed too. There’s an immediate and pleasing familiarity to the combat spears beat cavalry, cavalry beats missiles, nothing beats elephants but the transitional nature of the world means that you can swoop in, sack cities and keep moving. That’s a really dry way of describing something which feels incredible, so here’s a less rubbish example: playing as the Saxons gave us access to some excellent naval shock units, perfect for raiding coastal towns.Instead of bashing away at city walls with siege engines, we sailed in, butchered the garrison and looted the place. It was utterly exhilarating watching a line of longboats cut through a churning sea, knowing that the attack was unexpected and indefensible. Short of growing your beard and changing your name to Snorri, this is about as Viking as life gets.

Nomad for it
What you do after a battle is equally compelling. Some of the factions are migratory hordes: the idea of settling down in a city would be akin to filling your drinking horn with Ovaltine. It means that Attila feels very different to play than any Total War game since Barbarian Invasion, way back in 2005. If you’re feeling especially generous, you can liberate a town from your enemies. In some cases, this leads to a new faction springing back to life. In our game, we were responsible for the emancipation of Gaul. It felt amazing to prise away the grasping fingers of Rome and watch new nations rise. We were also indirectly responsible for the desolation of Norfolk, but, thankfully, no-one noticed. No, really: they were too busy being brutally killed.

That leads us neatly onto diplomacy. For the first time ever, it feels sophisticated and satisfying. Other factions’ responses are informed by past transgressions and future hopes. If a vastly superior power threatens you both, friendly kingdoms often suggest alliances. It’s a welcome advance which helps make neighbouring domains seem like nations, rather than targets. There’s also a further layer of internal politics, as you try to keep power through feats of political back scratching. It’s Attila’s attempt at the intrigue of Game Of Thrones, and it’s partially successful. You can place family members and loyal generals in positions of prestige, but there’s no guarantee it’ll work. Failure to do so will make you look weak.

At first, the wide range of potential options is daunting. If there’s one major criticism, it’s that the campaign will feel inaccessible to anyone unfamiliar with the series. Persevere, though, and it’s worth it. Attila is a game built on a bedrock of fan feedback, layered with deft touches intended to please hardcore Total War fans. Most admirably, the series has managed to outgrow its name while still remaining true to its roots.

A symphony of destruction
Watching the world burn
Damage done in Attila feels more permanent than ever. If a city is razed after a battle, the resulting desolation lasts for decades. You can invest money and troops to restore it, but it’s costly. Besieged settlements also gradually deteriorate something you should consider when waiting for the defenders to capitulate, especially if you intend to occupy a town. The resulting damage is visible in the battles, too. Trees burn, walls crumble and structures rot. It might sound depressing compared to the sanitised progress of Rome, but it’s really not. There’s a desperation to the setting which means you’ll do anything to survive.


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