Thursday, 19 March 2015

Total War: Attila

System(s): PC

Genre: Strategy

Developer: Creative Assembly
Publisher: Sega

Release Date: February, 2015









"The wind whispered and the earth grew cold with death. And I beheld a black horse. And he that sat on him had a pair of scales on his hand."

Thus Attila the Hun, the Scourge of God was born....

The Total War series is Creative Assembly's flagship IP, and has been going strong now since Shogun: Total War was released in 2000. After the series came full circle with the release of Total War: Shogun 2, which was well received by critics, CA experienced a strong backlash from fans with very high expectations after the disastrous, bug-filled launch of Total War: Rome 2. Numerous DLC packs, glitches, problems with the AI - it wasn't until the release of the Emperor Edition that some fans began to accept it as the sequel to a game so lauded for its battle engine it was used in a television series, BBC's Time Commanders.

Following on from the original Rome came the Barbarian Expansion, which changed the setting to the terrifying migration of Germanic and Nomadic steppe peoples rampaging, sacking and looting across Europe, bringing the dying remnants of the Roman Empire to it's knees and plunging Europe into the Dark Ages. Total War: Attila is the spiritual successor to this expansion, except this is a stand alone title that doesn't require Rome 2 to play. After the disappointment of Rome 2, CA has taken feedback on board and attempted to change a number elements for Attila.

On launching the game I have to admit I was awestruck by the presentation in the title screen. Total War has always been blessed with good cinematic sequences, and Attila lives up to this reputation. Tuvan throat singing from the Mongolian steppes can be heard as the background music, while shadowy, smoothly animated horsemen stampede with bows outstretched. The eventual birth of Attila himself is announced with a dramatic cut-scene that will leave non-Hunnic factions quaking in their stirrups. The graphics are much improved but quite honestly the optimisation is poor, and if you have an AMD processor, I would turn around and go back the way you came, as Attila did upon entering Rome. Your system will struggle.

4E3290DD80EA1FCF11C8A3969D9E3A7B07645384 (1920×1080)The changes to the user interface are really a mixed bag. The UI has been altered to reflect the decay of the once mighty Roman Empire, with crumbling marble lining various windows, which is a nice touch. The strengths and weaknesses of particular units are the main stats highlighted in the box when hovering over unit cards now, but long running fans may not appreciate the hacking away of information previously found there. The unit cards' art style have been altered, and although many people disliked the Greek black-figure pottery style unit cards in Rome 2, I found myself pining for them in Attila, as many of the troops look generic and even more difficult to tell apart. The same also goes for buildings.

The units on the battlefield no longer have the classic Total War banners but instead have generic coloured boxes with symbols denoting whether the unit is cavalry, ranged etc. While this is a nice idea, the boxes are too small and clicking on them or hovering to determine the unit's morale is more difficult than the old banners as a result. On the plus side, there is a neat little feature that allows you to draw coloured lines on the battlefield, indicating where you want units to go, which also serves a purpose in multiplayer co-op battles.

8447250B9EDD49D257062AA054181722C2E029E7 (1920×1080)The battle AI is certainly much smarter than in previous games and battles no longer consist of swarming enemy units with everything but the kitchen sink. Greater strategic awareness is needed here, especially if you choose one of the Roman factions. The campaign AI on the other hand is still ludicrous. Opposing factions will still spam agent actions every turn and the game world is filled with one region factions with two full doom stacks. What should be an easy means of expanding is made pointlessly difficult, and often these factions will remain for a long time despite their small size. New factions also seem to emerge frequently due to the AI liberating them, something that seems wholly unrealistic and historically bankrupt.

One of the new features is the glorious return of the family tree. Credit has to be given to CA for listening to their fans. Along with this the political side of things has also been expanded to make things more interesting. Marriages to other factions, adopting generals as sons - many of the classic elements are here. You can now carry out a slew of actions that also affect loyalty of statesmen and generals, or promote people to offices in a way that is visually represented on the family tree screen. Gone are the days of having to check bonuses in the politics screen just to figure out the political ranks of your generals. In addition, you can increase influence of generals and family members by appointing them as governors.

The return of family trees also helps make generals and other characters seem important, as though they can have a genuine impact if they die. One other interesting feature that has been expanded since Rome 2 is your generals and family members can now equip armour, a weapon and one member of your retinue. This makes it possible to add a number of bonuses to customise your generals. It certainly improves upon the utterly forgettable generals in Rome 2, the death of whom felt anti-climactic. One thing I feel should be here that still hasn't been brought back was the ability to send troops without the need for a general. On the one hand, it adds a strategic element that makes the game tougher, but much of the time it was needlessly limiting and didn't reflect reality. Not every military unit should need to be accompanied by a general. On the whole the politics side has been improved but if you were looking for the family tree of old, you'll be disappointed.

C1E5F5169BB87E3DA544C292C5F71FC7722C00B6 (1920×1080)
If there is one major new feature since Barbarian Expansion, it's that hordes can actually grow and act as miniature settlements on their own. You can build improvements with them and use them to recruit units, making them truly terrifying. When attacking settlements you can also choose to raze them, leaving huge areas barren and costly to occupy and rebuild. I found the AI a bit trigger happy with razing though, with half the map razed to desolate wilderness within 30 turns.

Another concept which is inspired by history is the abrupt climate cooling that caused mass crop failures and piled on the misery for the European population. Such changes in weather will quickly lower the fertility of lands, bringing an extra layer of strategic planning into the mix. This perhaps becomes a bit too limiting later in the game, as huge swathes of land become increasingly barren. That said, this game is billed as a survival game, not strictly an empire builder like it's predecessors. An example of just how much tougher the game has become is Imperium. Imperium now works based on technology as well as province ownership, leading to the player faction potentially having huge diplomacy penalties, even if they only have one province with no armies.If you felt that the previous games in the series didn't offer enough challenge, then you'll be happy with the difficulty of Attila.

77E5A8F7922559CE1C3196F4135C5120B6B43951 (1920×1080)The faction rosters are a big disappointment. There just isn't enough variety. The Picts, Caledonians and Irish use Norse rosters while whatever powers survive in Western Europe are either using generic Roman or Germanic units. In theory you could spend hours beating down stacks of the same handful of units. Thankfully, CA has at the time of writing, announced a DLC pack that allows you to control Celtic factions to counterbalance the fact that nearly everything is Germanic at present. It's just a shame they couldn't have included these with the game to balance the diversity a bit. The DLC faction packs are so far of much less value than the previous two games. Most factions play similarly. Nearly all start with the exact same units and have only one or two unique units, while in Rome 2 even the numerous Hellenic factions felt different and had different units available. The only way to get a truly diverse and versatile army is to hire mercenaries, which is probably best if you are a horde faction. The mobility of hordes makes this style of play much more enjoyable. The base game is probably not worth playing full price for given the similarity of many of the factions and the DLC policy that has been steadily getting more aggressive since Shogun 2.

I wanted to love Total War: Attila, and in many ways I do, as the gameplay has improved, battle AI is smarter, family trees are back and the presentation is of a very high standard. Attila is ideal for those who want a greater challenge than Shogun 2 or Rome 2, since merely surviving is the aim for most of the game, and in this sense Attila gets the setting spot on. Unfortunately, in spite of having the trouble free launch its predecessor was missing, the similarity of many factions and units combined with an incremental DLC-heavy approach to improving the game mean that all but the most die hard Total War fan will feel a little aggrieved and I would recommend waiting until the price goes down or a newer edition with more content is released.


Summary

+ Improved battlefield AI
+ Excellent presentation
+ New ideas that build on Rome 2 and the earlier Barbarian expansion's hordes
+ Much greater challenge than other Total War games
+ The chaos of the campaign game makes it feel like the end times, as people did in Late Antiquity

- Poor optimisation
- Doesn't represent good value for money
- Many of the factions and units feel identical
- UI changes feel like a step back
- Campaign AI is still cheap, even more so with razing




Overall Score

6/10

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