In his travelogue A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes a stopover at an inn along the Danube, en route to Istanbul in the winter of 1933. He falls into conversation there--as Paddy is wont to do--about regional history with a local polymath. For Fermor's benefit, the older man sketches ancient civilization out on the back of his copy of the Neue Freie Presse--the Marcomanni tribe here, the Quadi there--little circles of semi-permanent existence alongside the Danube's sinuous line. "And suddenly, at last something happens," exclaims the polymath, invoking Attila and his horde with a slash of graphite through the Viennese classifieds. "Everything starts changing place at full speed! Chaos!"
The sudden flurry of activity is a welcome change of pace to Fermor, a 20th-century student with wanderlust. Probably less so to the Quadi and the Marcomanni. But someone playing Total War: Attila has more in common with the former--there's no fun in watching civilizations, to hear Paddy put it, "float about as lonely as clouds, expanding across the map as imperceptibly as damp or mildew." And so in that limited sense, the Huns are a welcome arrival to Total War's late antiquity. Finally, something to upend the dreary peace!
In the beginning, there was "interface." And it was just OK.
Total War: Attila is centered on its turn-based Grand Campaign, a broad representation of the military situation Europe found itself in around 400 A.D. The Roman Empire is in its death throes, bloated and harried even after being cleaved into Eastern and Western halves. To the north and northeast, perennial all-barbarian first-teamers the Vandals and Visigoths flee from the Huns' onslaught--straight into Roman territory. To the east, the comparatively recumbent Sassanians lie within striking distance of Constantinopolis. A litany of small but active tribes occupy the interstitial spaces, cannibalizing each other and nipping impishly at the heels of the larger factions. All eyes are drawn to the eastern steppes, however, when Attila enters the world stage, providing a not-so-subtle cue to start getting your affairs in order.
Lest there be any confusion about the stakes, Total War: Attila's cutscenes and campaign descriptions regularly invoke the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But Death himself can be slow coming, depending on your chosen faction--Attila still has to grow up before the gears of the Hunnic war machine really start to turn, so it can be some time before he makes his presence known to those in the far corners of the map. In the meantime, Famine proves to be a more immediate concern, as does Disease, both of which need to be mitigated through the construction of relevant buildings in one's home cities. A waterworks system, for example, confers sanitation +2, public order +1, while a sheep pen does as much for statistics like food surplus and wealth.
War, for his part, is an old hand by now. The series' battle engine is set in its ways; save a few new wrinkles in the siege system or the way fire spreads, it's mostly content to demonstrate mastery of those skills it already possessed. As opposed to the turn-by-turn politicizing, battles take place in real time, across fields or along castle ramparts, between collected armies that are, if not a one-to-one representation of the thousands of soldiers present, close enough in abstraction to dissuade you from counting. Your units engage the enemy's automatically when the two collide, leaving you to concern yourself with formations.
Lest there be any confusion about the stakes, Total War: Attila regularly analogizes the Horde to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
If that sounds simplistic, it's because you haven't seen how many formations there are to choose from--to say nothing of the stances and abilities that can be toggled on each individual unit, or the passive qualities like morale or fatigue that themselves hinge on dozens of other factors. If there were any doubts, let it be known that Total War: Attila retains the series' depth of strategic offerings. But for the uninitiated and leery, it's entirely possible to play par golf on normal difficulty armed only with an understanding of the series' now-familiar unit rock-paper-scissors. Swords beat spears, spears beat cavalry, cavalry beat swords. And generally speaking, everyone hates having arrows lobbed at their heads. Once armies clash, you never concern yourself with any individual soldier. Instead, you command armies as the Sorcerer's Apprentice commanded waves and lighting, pointing out what you want done and watching a wave of spearmen break off in that direction like a tributary branching from a roaring river.
Most of the quirks of Total War's artificial intelligence have been ironed out by now: it properly diverts forces to prevent dead runs at the main capture point of its bases, and those old instances of units spinning aimlessly have yet to rear their heads. But Attila is not without its idiosyncrasies. Battles can occur at sea, but naval skirmishes remain a mess of sails and hulls, a paltry imitation of their counterparts on land. Back on terra firma, units occasionally show their displeasure with your commands by sprinting headlong in the wrong direction, particularly when you try to send them up a siege ladder. Then there's the curious case of the Vandal general at Ad Decimum, who will refuse to break his tidy formation to chase off a single unit of horse archers sent out to pester him.
You don't need a field manual to beat an enemy like that, but for what it's worth, Total War: Attila's tutorial prologue is comprehensive, and a good precursor to the Grand Campaign. It has its limitations, though--perhaps inevitable when you've got an interface that's as complex as Photoshop and half as intuitive. Information like, say, the cost of unit upkeep, is lost among the icons and numbers that are tucked into each of the screen's corners.
The camera can be swung in for a close up of the balancing act between scale and fidelity.
Speaking of too much information: every member of your chosen faction's royal family has a set of qualities that affect his or her statistics, and let's just note that “flaccid” is one of them and continue on. There are wives that affect stats, companions who affect stats, even random little trinkets like necklaces and scrolls that affect stats. Imagine, if the scales of rebellion truly tipped on some statesman getting a particularly shiny bracelet! Absent that hyperspecificity, the returning familial power system is welcome. Family members and statesmen accrue influence, which can be leveraged into political actions. Influence needs to be wielded to avoid losing control of your faction, so running low can mean ceding a percentage of your control every time the game springs a political event on you, like a power play from a rival or an inopportune marriage. Neglect your influence, and each time it'll be another -2% control, -2% control...death by thrown shade.
That granularity flows into all of Total War: Attila's historical representations--here, it's not Istanbul, it's Constantinopolis. This a game that's got its Latin roots in mind when it suggests that you might need to "decimate" your troops to deal with failing integrity. It certainly seems to put a tax on the in-game encyclopedia, which regularly fails to load properly (though it should be noted that the review copy's encyclopedia is online-only). The whole game regularly seems to struggle under the weight of its own persnickety attention to detail, stuttering when the map is panned even when graphical settings are tuned down. It's uncanny to watch the seabirds that float above the game world's coasts sputter out and stall whenever you click "end turn."
Each of those turns represents quite a bit of data: each one a season, each season a time to specify constructions or appointments, or expend a unit's action points towards movement, raids, or out-and-out battle. Scale translates well on the world map, generally speaking: forests allow concealment, and distinctive masses like the great Arabian Desert represent near-impassable natural barriers. Total War does stoop to representing armies on the world map with single avatars, a rare moment of generalization.
Cities now reflect damage done to them during a siege on the world map.
It's a beautiful map, really. Its deciduous trees have a lovely, fungal sort of grunginess to them, like anything viewed through an electron microscope (though they do turn a bit fractal when viewed from directly overhead). Sand looks like it was cascaded over real rock and dirt. Select a settlement, and it’s illuminated by god rays. Waves sound along the coast, sometimes pierced by a shout from a unit that's been set to raid a nearby trade route. This never fails to sound like a bunch of people pranked their fellow soldier with the old “let's tell Maximus that we're all going to yell “HRUAGGGH” at the count of three then totally not do anything” gag.
Raiding isn't considered an act of war, strangely enough. So you can sue for peace with a neighbor, then promptly start pillaging your way across their country. They're unable to retaliate lest they suffer the betrayal penalty for all other factions. There are a few other tics of note here, too. Sometimes messages need to be clicked twice to confirm them. The "show/hide deceased" toggle in the family tree menu doesn't appear to work. More egregiously, if you assign a statesman to a provincial governing slot, the decision appears to immediately and irrevocably transport him across the thousands of miles to his destination--try to recall him, and you'll be told that he needs to travel back. It's the one time when I wish the game would ask me to click twice to confirm.
On the world map, the opponent empire AI seems cautious by nature, rarely pressing an offensive. Enemies are not sleepwalking, though--if they catch you trying to send an ambush force deep into their empire they'll crush it with overpowering force. Other than that, though, they seem mostly content to maintain their border wherever it lies at the time. Newly introduced puppet states hold up their end of the bargain, though: on more than one occasion they've chased separatist fighters away from my besieged cities, and they regularly seem to harry enemy forces. They're a little too eager to use the new ability to raze cities, though, so it’s probably best to step in before they go and annihilate a city you'd been eying.
Naval battles are an unmanageable mess of sails.
Unless you're playing as the Huns, that is. Then you'll probably want to do the razing yourself. They're fast, dangerous with bows, and packing a fear-inducing bonus against Christian factions. They--and the Vandals and Goths--eschew stationary living for slightly different pick-up-and-go versions of the same structures the other factions build. Don't expect to be the dominant force right out of the gate, however: the nomads and migrating tribes of Total War: Attila face the steepest initial difficulty. You might begin not with a city to rest in, but only with your nomadic units themselves, playing mouse to other factions' cats until you come to terms with the wandering life and learn to make a home wherever the heart and Horde are. These factions are fun to play as, highly mobile and free from some of the fussier portions of the game's political realm, carrying their culture in their saddlebags, driving the "civilized" world before them like a flock of sheep.
As the Huns, you upend the status quo, even if Total War: Attila itself doesn't represent a major disruption. Austere writing, along with campaigns that come to a close rather quickly compared to many games of this ilk, come as a surprise given battles of such enormous scale, and given systems that allow you to poke and prod at so many fine details. At least the production values fulfill the promise of historical grandiosity, including a militant musical score that brilliantly anchors the game's atmosphere. "Everything starts changing place at full speed!" it calls out. "Chaos!" it cries, echoing the mighty Huns as they raze the landscape. Attila is more of the same and a little bit extra, then, not as convincingly realized as the best Total Wars, but strong enough to keep you clicking until the inevitable patches and expansions trickle in.