The fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century is a problem I’ve spent far too much of my life thinking about, including doing a PhD on the subject. The what-ifs and may-have-beens are innumerable and incalculable, yet there was certainly nothing inevitable about what happened. Had the Empire collapsed during the third century “crisis” we might have assumed, with historical perspective, that this was no less inevitable. Yet it didn’t collapse then, and it needn’t have done so in the fifth century. The unique combination of internal and external pressures faced by the Western Empire, some of which were all too deliberately deflected from the east, were not insurmountable. Clumsy policy, poor leadership, lack of responsiveness, in-fighting were all factors which had plagued the Empire throughout its history. There were many turning points and missed opportunities. Even as late as the 450s and 460s, had the Vandals been driven from Africa, a task which should have been far easier than it was made to look, the west might have found its feet again, though things were already quite far gone by this stage.
Total War: Attila is a game I have dreamed about for decades: a grand simulation of a period of history that is all too often neglected. The team at Creative Assembly have gone there before – the 2005 Barbarian Invasion expansion of Rome Total War I dealt with the same period of history and, indeed, contained many of the same ideas present in Attila, such as the existence of horde factions – groups with the ability to pack up and move as a group, thus not being rooted to a city or province. Yet it was, I felt, poorly balanced and unsatisfying. Total War: Attila makes up for all those shortcomings, including many of the shortcomings of Total War: Rome II – a flawed masterpiece in itself. This game too has its flaws and is not as perfectly balanced as it could be, yet its strengths are so great that it ultimately shines through.
As with all Total War games, it is the attention to detail that makes Attila such a wonderfully immersive experience. We can’t expect complete historical accuracy – it’s impossible to simulate the complexity of reality – but with Attila we get a satisfying approximation of the initial set of circumstances and existing conditions. It is, of course, an approximation and it is also created with the idea of playability in mind, and thus liberties need to be taken. Many, for example, might question the logic of a technology tree in which the Romans almost seem to rediscover past talents from the earlier empire, and, in which, by adopting religious enhancements, older technologies are forgotten. I would certainly question the tone of the opening narrative, which is rather tiresomely sanctimonious and moralising. Still, we can’t have it all.
The game kicks off in AD 395, immediately after the death of Theodosius the Great – the last emperor to rule a unified Roman Empire before its division into East and West. In the west, Honorius is on the throne in Milan, whilst in the east, Arcadius rules in Constantinople. The player has the choice of playing a variety of factions; either half of the Empire, the Sassanids, the Huns and a whole swathe of barbarian factions depending on which DLC packs one has: The Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Suebi, Franks, Alans, Burgundians, Saxons, Allamans, Langobards, Picts, Ebdanians, Caledonians, Jutes, Danes and Geats. Some might question the prominence and, indeed, starting strength of some of these factions, yet, after all, it is a game, not an accurate historical simulation. I mention this point again, because I had constantly to reassure myself of this in order to avoid frustration at numerous points with some of the liberties taken.
Without a doubt, the toughest assignment of all is to play the Western Empire. It shouldn’t be as hard as it is, yet in this game, everyone will declare war on the west and most factions already have huge and powerful armies ready to roll in and cause havoc. Indeed, some factions actually start with armies inside Roman borders. The Romans, on the other hand, begin with scattered, weak armies which are already depleted of troops on account of the civil war which was recently fought to assert Theodosius’ rule. Depending on how rapidly the other factions declare war, it can be nigh impossible to stand up to this wave of invasion. Yet, it can be done.
Likely the easiest start is the Sassanids. They begin with a number of puppet states across the east and not only command a formidable force of their own quality troops, but are ably backed up by capable allies. They have the eastern edge of the map at their backs, thus limiting the frontiers they must defend and their economy begins in good shape – the coffers filled not merely through the economic wealth of the regions they command, but also through the trade and tribute from their puppets. They can give the Eastern Empire hell as war with the Sassanids inevitably means fighting all their puppets – an almost constant stream of armies will pour from the orient. For the Eastern Empire, it might be best to strike early, and go in hard and fast.
The game begins with a cut-scene narrative of a world falling into darkness. Winter is coming and so is a wave of death, destruction and barbarism. The old world is on the brink of collapse and only a herculean effort will save it from being overrun and picked apart, or, indeed, razed to the ground. Appropriately therefore, the first mission issued is to “Survive until AD 400.” It sounds ominous, but then, the same mission is issued to all factions, irrespective of power or starting status. For those choosing to play a horde faction, the game can resemble a survival game. Unless one settles into a region and secures a base from which to grow an empire, you will constantly be on the run from the many potential enemies who don’t like you wandering through and raiding in their lands.
The narrative continues with cut-scenes at key historical milestones. In AD 400, we witness the birth of Attila, who, it is said, “was born from darkness and despair.” The scenes are engaging and evocatively atmospheric, yet Creative Assembly needs to abandon its habit of using its battle-field models as actors in these cut-scenes. They are wonderfully detailed for individual soldiers in a strategy game of massive armies, but look amateurishly rendered when viewed close up as protagonists in these animated dramas. In AD 420, Attila comes of age, and from that point forward, you will constantly be asking yourself: “What fresh hell is this?”
The basic mechanics of the game will be very familiar to any who have played Total War games in the past. It is turn based strategy, based around managing regions, cities, armies and agents. One can make alliances and trade with other factions, subjugate factions and turn them into tributaries or foederati, and, of course, wipe them out altogether. What differs in Total War: Attila is the ability to raze cities altogether, and, indeed, to refound them.
What also stands out is the unique capabilities of the Huns, whose armies spawn repeatedly in the east and drive west and south, razing, pillaging and basically murdering everything in their sight. Their armies are initially comparable to those of other factions, yet, once Attila comes of age, their spawn rate steps up and all their units suddenly become tier 3 merchants of death. They are, without a doubt, far too overpowered for the sake of balance, and their ludicrously impressive units are made all the more devastating by the fact that they inflict a -10 morale penalty on all who face them.
That is, trust me, savage indeed, and fighting them can be so extremely frustrating that one is inclined to pile three armies in just to take out one Hunnic force, and hit the auto resolve button to avoid overly raised cortisol levels. The Huns inspire such a sense of utter hatred that I don’t think I can remember any other game in which I was so motivated to exterminate my enemies. And, in truth, the only way to defeat them is total extermination – because otherwise they will exterminate you. Until Attila is dead, the Huns will continue to spawn huge and powerful armies, and even after his death, any lingering hordes can cause havoc.
It might, therefore, seem a simple enough mission: kill Attila and then proceed to finish off the Huns. The problem is that Attila, most annoyingly, has a randomly generated number of lives, so even if you destroy his entire unit and watch him killed in battle, he will escape, wounded, and turn up leading another horde next turn. This can drive any player bonkers, especially as whether he lives or dies seems rather arbitrary. I’ve read many opinions in the forums stating such things as the need to kill him twice in non-autoresolved battles, but this doesn’t stand up to repeated experimentation – in one game I killed him six times in battle. It seems truly random. At some point, however, a message will pop up informing the player that Attila was, after all, Only a Man – and from this point forward he is vulnerable and will indeed die if killed in battle or assassinated. Once he’s gone it’s almost an anticlimax, but when he’s there, you cannot rest. This is not a game for the faint-hearted. You will swear a lot, trust me.
As mentioned earlier, Attila only appears as an active agent in the game after about AD 420, and yet the world is usually already greatly destabilised by this stage and not well placed to meet him. This is largely because the western and eastern Empires often collapse in a balsa wood heap pretty early on in the piece – in some cases, even prior to AD 410 – so poor is the AI at playing these factions. If you want to see them survive at all, generally the only option is to play them, and that’s easier said than done.
In this regard, the game is problematically a-historical and is largely a consequence of the level of hostility of the barbarian factions towards Rome, and their significantly over-powered nature. When it comes to the Eastern or Western Empire, the AI runs around like a chicken with its head cut off; indeed, it is rather hopeless at defending large empires, but well suited to expanding small ones. It doesn’t know where or how to defend itself and continually makes stupid decisions. One particular frustration is its unwillingness to recapture its lost cities, even when they are undefended and they have sufficient armies sitting outside. More often than not they will sack the city and leave it to whoever presently holds it, even in situations where they could subjugate a faction with a single city, or recapture a vital choke-point and resource. Countless times I have attempted to support the Roman factions by moving armies close to their former cities, but instead of recapturing them, they either sack, raze or completely ignore them. In some cases they leave their armies camped outside pointlessly, turn after turn, and in one particularly shameful case, the Western Empire razed Rome which had fallen into the hands of the Visigoths. Really? I mean, come on. This really needs fixing – some algorithm to prioritise the recapture of former territory, rather than more futile expeditions across the Mediterranean, and some means to stop the Romans razing their former cities, which seems unnecessarily out of character if nothing else.
The game also suffers from a problem of time-scale, which affects the possible scope of the campaign. I had hoped things might carry on as far as the 6th or even 7th centuries – after all, Total War: Rome II begins in 273 BC and is playable right through to times AD. Yet with four seasons in one year, and thus four turns to a year, Attila moves through time at a much slower pace. This has two significant consequences; firstly, the family tree hardly advances through more than two generations, which robs it of some of the pleasures of creating a dynasty; secondly, far too much happens in too short a period of time, historically speaking. In a way this feels unsatisfying. Playing the Western Empire in my first hit out, I had wiped out the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and Sueves before AD 405, which was curiously disappointing, and, as mentioned above, I’ve seen the Western Empire reduced to just a couple of regions as early as AD 408, from a starting point of 68.
The completely a-historical effect of climate change, however, is my biggest gripe in this game. It is far too greatly exaggerated. Every time we have a cut scene – AD 400, AD 420, AD 432 and so on, the game increases its climate effects in a way that is savagely debilitating. Each region suffers a -1 to fertility for each change, which means by 432, you have a -3 fertility penalty to all regions, and it doesn’t stop there, but ticks over again in 445 and, I think, 460.
This turns some areas infertile, which affects food production and economic capability. Even more debilitating, however, is that the area of the map which is covered by snow in winter extends southwards with every increase in climate change, and the snow increasingly stays on the ground throughout spring. This means that troop movements anywhere north of the Mediterranean cause horrible attrition. This is certainly a problem for the player, but much more so for the AI which seems to take little notice of the situation and persists with wandering armies through snow until they are significantly depleted.
It’s all rather ludicrous, considering that whilst there were mild climatic changes during the period, they were certainly not this pronounced, and the most significant effect occurred much later – c. 535-6 – when an especially cold period is recorded, both in chronicles and in the archaeological record – a nuclear winter caused by an enormous volcanic eruption, perhaps Mt Tambora in Indonesia. It wasn’t a trend but rather an anomaly caused by a single incident, yet the game persists in this debilitating fiction. I understand that the idea of an increasing climate penalty is a mechanic to drive people further south and add an impending sense of doom to the scenario, yet it is also highly limiting in that its continued application and increasing severity mean that most of the map is designated “infertile” by the middle of the fifth century. That’s pretty stupid, let’s face it.
The other major issue is the aforementioned weakness of the Western Roman Empire and the strength and number of its foes. In the first few turns, most of the barbarian factions across the border, and the hordes both within and without, will declare war. As the Western Empire begins with a few small, depleted armies, and most of these factions already have twenty-stack armies ready to roll, the west hardly stands a chance. If it isn’t external enemies, it is internal rebellion, civil disorder, lack of funds, sanitation problems leading to multiple disease outbreaks and the like. It doesn’t help that nearly every single faction near the west declares war. The game’s diplomacy works on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, and as all the barbarians are fighting Rome, they all have very positive relations with each other and lend battle support with multiple armies, further making Roman victory a strategic impossibility much of the time and making it impossible to make peace with any single faction. It would be nice to see the Empire more able to hold its own, and a mechanism which encourages the barbarian factions to fight amongst themselves more, as they tended to do.
Gripes aside, and they are not insignificant, the game looks and plays magnificently. It is wonderful to see the return of the family tree, which makes the whole business of running one’s faction more engaging and personal. This requires some management to sustain loyalty and faction strength, whilst being relatively undemanding. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of it is the high rate of infant mortality. Likely more than half of your children will die as toddlers, which is rather frustrating, especially considering it takes, in effect, around 72 turns for them to come of age. Best to reload the auto-save; after all, it is a random seed determined afresh each click of the turn button.
Again we are treated to a gorgeous campaign map and stunning battle maps covering all the diverse landscapes of the entire Mediterranean, stretching as far west as Britain, as far north as Scandinavia, as far East as Afghanistan, and as far south as Sudan.
As with Total War: Rome II, the game also offers lovely levels of detail with regard to demographics, diplomatic relations, region growth, fertility and the distribution of religions. These can both be vital aids as well as providing more immersion in the minutiae of this huge simulation.
The weather and lighting effects are achingly beautiful, and the usual attention to detail in troops’ outfits and equipment is laudable.
Like Total War: Rome II, of which this game is truly a direct descendant, the troops in the armies have a diverse range of faces and emblems, and one’s generals can be seen sporting the face that appears in their portrait, on the battlefield. There are also many lovely illustrations to accompany event notifications which add variety and atmosphere to the setting.
One of my favourite elements in the game are the cities and towns, which are a real pleasure to witness. The designers have done a great job in capturing the architectural flavour of the late Roman period, as well as referencing some known phenomena such as the re-use of spaces like amphitheatres for residential purposes.
This is likely anachronistic in its rather early occurrence, but it adds great flavour to the image of Europe transitioning into its rather less grandiose medieval phase. This kind of minutiae adds a lot of colour to the game. It is worth taking some time and exploring the map, finding things such as vegetable gardens, laden carts, peristyles, cloisters, georgeous tiled floors etc. amongst the building models in the cities. Coastal towns are especially attractive, and, as in Rome II, the ship models are highly detailed and glide and bob majestically on the stunning seas.
Cities are also now easier to defend, which is a relief. Many players complained about the inability to erect walls in Total War: Rome II, which has now been rectified in that non-capital cities which reach size IV automatically gain walls. All cities and towns now have defensive towers, which unleash flaming arrows of death at approaching foes. Many cities also have internal ramparts, which can really assist in defence by protecting defenders and funnelling enemies into corridors of death. There are, however, too few city and town models to choose from and I found myself, much of the time, fighting in one of a limited number of commonly recurring town designs in Western Europe. This is great for strategic purposes in that one develops an intimate understanding of how to defend each design, but not so great in terms of variety and diversity. The game does, however, do a wonderful job of rendering different cultural architectural styles. They are inevitably, too uniform, in that there is a Near Eastern and African style, west Roman, Barbarian, East Roman etc, but they’ve put a lot of love into each of these and they are beautiful to behold in their own sweet way.
And of course, the game achieves its greatest levels of enjoyment when it comes to the battles. This is always what Total War games have been about, and it is absolutely key that you get in there and enjoy them first hand, rather than playing this as a strategy game and just spamming the auto-resolve buttons. After all, any good general should really be able to win a battle where they aren’t too ludicrously outnumbered, and often enough, with real tactical prowess, one should be able to win battles for which the auto-resolve options only offer ignominious defeat. As in Rome II, one can hit the insert button and get up close and personal with the troops by zooming the camera into a unit view. It’s not a practical way to view the battle as a tactician, but it’s a beautiful way to immerse yourself in the game. Battles in Attila, as in Rome II, can be absolutely epic in scale and duration and it is where the real pleasure of the game lies.
As stated above, cities can be razed to the ground and then rebuilt, though it costs a fortune and half your army’s troops to do the latter. Sadly, all too many settlements end up being razed to the ground. Particularly by the Huns who are the one faction that cannot capture cities and transition from horde mode to settled mode. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to play the Huns. I get no pleasure from being purely destructive, and, anyway, they are so overpowered it would not be a great deal of fun. I far prefer to take them on as the defender of civilization, crush them and see them driven before me. They do, however, create some splendid units available for hire as barbarian mercenaries.
What I did particularly enjoy about this game was, as stated in the intro, the ability to take on the leadership of the Western Empire and face down the encroaching hordes. Honorius, a rather weak and ineffectual puppet in the west who ruled for far too long, in my game became a conquering hero, who, after defeating the Huns in eastern Europe, campaigned as far away as Egypt and led the Western Empire to renewed glory. This amused me no end, especially the idea of him leading resurgent western armies against the Sassanids and putting down rebellions across north Africa.
The map is huge, the scope is huge, the odds of survival are initially slim, but if you love the idea of rewriting history, or seeing it rewritten before your very eyes, then this is the game for you. Attila Total War is not an easy game, indeed, it can be notoriously difficult and it takes a hell of a long time to play out a full game – possibly as much as 100 hours. It has its flaws and can be highly frustrating, and, on reflection, there are probably more complaints in this review than there is praise, but once you are in there, fighting to death against seemingly impossible odds, the stakes are raised so wonderfully high that victory offers a level of elation and rejoicing rare in strategy games. I can’t think of any previous strategy game wherein I have become so deeply invested emotionally. I complain about these frustrating elements, because I love this game so much – for its setting, atmosphere, scale, intensity and its attractive, if GPU-heavy look. The battles are ferocious, the music is epic, the addictiveness and immersion is supreme. You will shout, you will cry, you will swear and you will punch your fist in the air and whoop with pride and pleasure – but you will no doubt share my conviction: no matter what, that mofo Attila, the Scourge of God, must die.