It’s the end of the world, if you’re Roman. In Total War: Attila, the vast empire is fractured and beset on all sides, sandwiched in between nomadic tribes, expanding eastern kingdoms and the tidal wave of Huns. The Romans are the delicious slab of meat in the middle, and everyone is trying to get a bite.
Attila the Hun rides into this rather gloomy world and sets it on fire. This is Creative Assembly’s most aggressive Total War game, set in a shifting, turn-based campaign map where warbands and armies rearrange borders with axes and spears in rock, paper, scissors combat. And this most warlike of Total War games is also one of its most interesting.
The upheaval that kicked off the early medieval era is the perfect setting for the series. Just look at the players in this historical drama.
The old guard
You’ve got the Western Roman Empire, a towering giant with a legacy that, thanks to Virgil, stretches all the way back to Troy. But it’s old and fat and, let’s be frank, just not the empire it used to be. Its other half is a lot less Roman, but a lot better off. The Eastern Roman Empire is tougher and spread less thin, but it’s fixated on a dick-measuring contest with the Sassanids.
As the heirs to the Persian Empire, the Sassanids have big plans. They’ve unified much of the east by making countless kingdoms into puppet states, and now their eyes turn west, to the Eastern Roman Empire. Much of what was once Persia is held by the Empire, and the Sassanids would really quite like it back.
These three are the old guard. They are huge and powerful, but, especially in the case of the two Roman Empires, stuck in the past and slow to adapt. While Total War games are so often about expansion, playing these sprawling but vulnerable empires is more about consolidation and survival.
Both Roman Empires have a lot of pressure to deal with from the north. Migrating hordes and the threat of the Huns bears down on them, crushing their minor settlements and raiding their lands. Particularly in the Western Roman Empire, the best strategy is to simply leave and raze their more distant provinces, while focusing on protecting the heart of the empire. The Sassanids have more opportunities to expand early on, but eventually they can become targets as well.
It’s a dramatic change from Rome II, which was all about building these classical superpowers. Now they’re struggling to keep the seams of civilization together. Playing either of the Roman Empires is meant to be a supreme challenge, and the overwhelming odds breed a sense of desperation that permeates throughout the campaign. Their challenges are unique, though, informed by their neighbours, treaties and their resources.
Attempting to batter down the door of these empires is a mass of tribes that stretch from Britain to Asia. There are the settled tribes, like the Saxons and the Britons and even the ancestors of the Viking kingdoms. They fight amongst themselves, but as they seek to expand, they brush up against more established factions. The changing climate and migrating tribes can make life hard, forcing them to compete with each other and the Romans over dominance of Europe.
Migrating hordes pillage their way south as they are pushed out by the Huns. They can work with the old empires, fighting in their wars, but there’s also the temptation to settle in new lands, and that means forcing people out. Like the Romans, they are under pressure too — from the Huns and from climate change. But that pressure drives them to conquer and raid, creating more unrest.
Fuelling this unrest are the Huns. They are Total War: Attila’s protagonist, antagonist and main act. To the other factions, they are an unbelievable foe, always moving, swallowing up whole nations from atop their lightning-fast horses. They are the world’s greatest threat. But they’re also the most fascinating of all the factions.
The Huns cannot settle down. They are a relentless hurricane that really doesn’t want to be contained. Where other cultures build cities and hide behind walls, the Huns are like a force of nature, sweeping through Europe and the east, never stopping. When they conquer a province, they can loot it or raze it, but never occupy it. But without settlements, there’s no infrastructure, and the Huns still need food and money so they can maintain their vast mobile horde. That’s where subjugation and camps come in.
When a faction’s been beaten down to its last province, a new option pops up when its final settlement is conquered: subjugate. This is the aggressive alternative to making a client state. Instead of diplomacy, these puppets are made through war. A client state acts a little like an ally, though one that might also hate its so-called “chum”, but it’s also a source of cash. If the Huns leave a city standing, it’s because they need a new piggy bank.
Constructing temporary camps is about as settled as the Huns get. Like regular settlements, buildings can be erected that confer food and gold bonuses along with other quality of life improvements and army recruitment options. These buildings are unique, as is the case with most factions, and are tied to the Huns’ technology tree.
What makes them different from normal towns is their temporary nature. Migrating tribes and nomads like the Huns can, at the click of a button, pack up their settlements and form hordes. When a province gets too dangerous or if it’s been razed, lowering its fertility, then they can simply move on. All the buildings that were constructed before are retained, though their bonuses will only be reapplied when the horde makes camp again.
It’s a peculiar way to play Total War. It inspires a perpetually offensive playstyle, and feeds that by forcing confrontation. The Huns always have to keep moving, and wherever they move, they’re pissing someone off. Nobody likes it when a bunch of known conquerors suddenly moves into their back yard and eats all of their food.
Their reliance on cavalry also sets them apart from most factions. Cavalry can be devastating, but it’s tricky when every enemy army is bound to be full of spearmen. They need an extra bit of micromanagement. So having a faction that’s entirely focused on fighting on horseback poses an interesting challenge. It also means they can take full advantage of the gargantuan battle maps, rushing around, spreading the battles out by forcing the enemy to exhaust itself with chases.
When two tribes go to war
Outside of the Huns, the ebb and flow of Attila’s fights is mostly familiar. Every type of unit is weak against another, and within those types are a smorgasbord of units from different cultures, each with their own wall of stats. There are cowardly levy spearmen who will do a runner at the first sign of trouble, confident warbands who fling axes, and indomitable front line warriors who brace themselves for charges with imposing shield walls.
For all the stats, skills and the massive assortment of formations that you’ll probably never use, even if you knew what they did, battles really boil down to smart use of terrain, particularly trees and slopes, and knowing when to engage and when to hold back.
Sea battles return again, though I can’t for the life of me figure out why. They are once again ponderous, tactically dull fights where the principles are the same as land combat, but absent the varied topography or large variety of troops. I found myself auto resolving most of them when they couldn’t be avoided. At least with the Huns, the sea isn’t really their cup of tea. They don’t need to hop in a ship to find a good fight.
The aggression and mobility of the Huns and other nomadic tribes turn the campaign map into a lively place. Factions are forced to interact more, and someone is always getting right up into someone else’s face. It’s messy and chaotic and radically different from the languid pace of Rome II’s grand campaign at launch.
It is still burdened, however, with eccentric AI. Hordes sometimes seem to move around without rhyme or reason, and armies often won’t react logically to threats. It’s a bit disconcerting to see an army patrolling while its provinces burn.
Hyperactive tribes do sometimes threaten to become a nuisance, though. They can set up shop in any province they like - which is great when you’re playing as them - without declaring war. Then they start to nick food and lower the fertility of the land. With the Huns, chances are that they’ll soon declare war, but with other tribes, that’s rarely a guarantee. Indeed, they might be the last remnants of a settled tribe who fled their homes after a war, and are more interested in just surviving than fighting. So they’ll just sit there, being a pest until someone kicks them out. And that might not always be simple.
In one campaign as the Geats, Viking forefathers, I’d made peace with a tribe after taking some of their land. The tribe then migrated, right into my bloody kingdom. Their presence ended up lowering my public order and cost me stability, which meant a greater risk of revolt. But to get rid of them, I’d have to declare war, which would lower my standing with my neighbours because these pesky campers and I had a peace treaty.
Waking up with a dagger in the back
Attila doesn’t just make leaders contend with invasions and wandering hordes; there are plenty of domestic threats to worry about. Everyone wants power. The people will try to take power if there isn’t enough food, if there’s religious tension, if their town isn’t clean enough, if taxes are too high, and countless other reasons. It takes a while before they rise up, but it can only take one bad year for everything to start falling apart. And don’t expect utter loyalty from fellow nobles, or even your family either.
The politics system from Rome II, which was awful, has been transformed into something more evocative of Crusader Kings II’s dynastic intrigue than the dreary random events from the last game. The politics screen is now a family tree, with an extra column for other important nobles, and is essentially another battlefield. Unlike Rome II at launch, these nobles will stick around for a long time. A turn in Attila is a season, so the years go by slowly, and you’ll grow familiar with the cast of governors and generals.
Family members and nobles can be given (or can sometimes cheekily take for themselves) positions that improve their standing and give them bonuses that make them better governors or generals. More traits, both positive and negative, can be gained through the lifetime of the individual, while experience in battle and leadership gives them points that can be spent on a wide variety of skills, just like an army. But giving them power can make them greedy. Unfortunately ignoring them can have the same result.
If a noble grows too discontented, then they could potentially cause a civil war. Relations between the leader and those under him can be improved, though. A ruler can try to secure more support both from an individual or the nobility in general, or another can be sent in their place. A positive outcome is not always guaranteed.
While attempting to hold on to my struggling Saxon kingdom, I sent my ruler’s wife to butter up his rebellious brother. Things didn’t go too well, and I was left with three choices: have the wife blind him, castrate him, or drop the matter altogether. He got castrated. Everything was fine for a little while, and the ruler’s brother was now a loyal, mutilated general. Then the reprisal happened. Disgusted over the punishment, a group had the ruler’s wife murdered, weakening the ruling faction.
In Rome II it felt tacked on, but this new politics system is a massive leap forward. However, it can be overwhelming. When a noble gets pissed off, they always get pissed off with the leader, and they tend to want one thing: to rule. Placating them is more a matter of luck, rather than identifying a desire and finding a way to give it to them. It’s vastly more intricate than its first incarnation, but it still feels a bit like a blunt instrument that exists to create civil war unless you keep trying to make friends with the nobles over and over again.
Even though some of Attila’s additions to the Total War formula have created new problems, they still have an overwhelmingly positive effect on the campaign. Huge armies collide more often, leading to more titanic battles and dramatic sieges, and most turns throw up new crises or actions that need to be taken, reducing a lot of the stagnation and constant clicking on next turn that sometimes happens in a grand campaign.
That Attila was developed concurrently with Rome II’s post-release content is clear in the way that it feels like a more evolved Rome II. The old has been refined, and it’s sprouted new mechanics. But a lot of fat has been left over, too. City management often feels like a chore, due to the countless elements that contribute to the stability of a province; naval battles are a horrible slog; and it has a tendency to throw lots of numbers and information in long, bloated lists.
It is, across the board, an improvement on Rome II, despite some issues that have been carried over. And not just Rome II at launch, but even when comparing Attila with the Emperor Edition, the new kid puts on the best show. It’s a confident marriage of setting and mechanics, with a historical and environmental narrative influencing each faction, pushing them into engaging situations. And you can burn the world, which is fun.