Stalling The Fall Of Rome In Total War: Attila

Where Total War: Rome II told the story of the rise of an empire, Total War: Attila tells of its downfall. The campaign starts in the final throes of the fourth century, with the Roman Empire split in half after the death of Theodosius the Great, and its vast reach pushing what it can realistically defend to the very limits.

Rome II’s release brought with it a lot of major changes to the Total War formula, some of which did not please long time fans of the series. The key defining aspects of the series remained, with the turn based empire management and waging of war juxtaposed with real time battles, but a new provincial system for ruling your empire was a big shift while others were critical of the enemy AI during battle, amidst a relatively buggy and troubled release.

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Attila is an opportunity to right some of those wrongs, flesh out some ideas further and keep the series pushing forwards. However, a big part of making the game feel different is the changing time period and the titular historical figure. Rivals such as the Sassanid Empire nibble at the eastern borders of the Roman Empire while barbarians and nomadic tribes strike down from the north, pushed south by harsher winters and the rampaging Huns.

Playing as and against the Barbarian and Nomadic factions expose the new horde mechanics, which give them a quite fascinatingly different twist on the familiar gameplay. Rather than being tied down to cities and provinces – though this still being an option open to you – your armies are able to set up camp in a location, simply switching stance on the campaign map, build and upgrade buildings, recruit more units and so forth. However, at any time, you can switch back and march onwards to besiege further settlements and cities.

Early on, these kinds of factions give the Eastern Roman Empire all sorts of problems, unsettling the economic balance and pulling your handful of armies in all sorts of directions. You might start with a lot of territory, but you also have to defend it, and as the Ostrogoths and Huns start to trample through your land, ignoring your borders and attacking your cities, you’re immediately on the back foot and in crisis management as you try to deal with the public order dropping, rebuilding cities and food shortages.

On the other side of the fence, playing as one of these nomadic tribes is even more precarious. The first few turns are tricky, as you try to familiarise yourself with new encampment mechanics and discover that standing still will simply get you killed. Picking on weak targets is important, so that you don’t lose too many men and then have to sit and recruit for too long, but you also have to be mindful of the seasons, with the harsh winters sapping armies that are on the move. Dillydally for too long and you can quickly find yourself caught out and in a near unrecoverable position. In a move that will speak to the long term fans, the campaigns appear to be quite difficult, right from the start.

My first attempt with the Ostrogoths ended in just such a fashion, as the fast moving mounted armies of the Huns caught me in an already weakened state and proceeded to wipe me out as they ran circles around me. It was devastating and shows just how effective they could be when in the right hands, quickly encircling and outmanoeuvring my troops and raining arrows down from horseback. Yes, the Huns will be a playable faction in the game, and not just an antagonistic whirlwind of death and destruction.

Those battles, particularly those taking place within a city, will often see another major new addition coming into play: dynamic fire. Setting trees on fire with flaming arrows where I know an enemy army is hiding could easily become one of my favourite tactics in the game, not to mention the havoc that can be wrought on a city by siege weapons, as fires spread from building to building. It’s particularly evocative to have barbarians rampaging through the streets as the city burns to the ground around them and civilians flee.

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You’ll have to be more careful if you actually want to keep the city though, as those fires within battle will have a destructive effect not just to a city’s stats but also to its visual appearance, with the ground smouldering as you try to rebuild – something that you can see even better, since you can now zoom in closer and out further on the campaign map. You can also raze a settlement to the ground, leaving devastation in your wake and hampering a region’s future growth and sustainability. For certain factions, this might be an objective, to strip the land as you march ever onwards, but for the more established empires it would be a desperate measure of last resort, gaining you a short burst of additional income, but affecting public order across your lands.

That could come back to bite you, with a renewed focus on the internal politics of your faction. This was something rather lacking in Rome II, but the family tree returns to allow you to bribe, backstab and actually assassinate to maintain and strengthen your grip on power. These can even play out within the campaign, and arranging an inter-faction marriage can be used to strengthen all important ties and alliances. Then again, illegitimate children can pop up out of the blue, scandals can see your trusted lieutenants discredited and if you’re not paying attention a civil war could come out of nowhere.

Other humans aren’t the only things trying to kill you, though. With the Dark Ages fast approaching, Mother Nature is being quite cruel, with harsher, colder winters drawing in and starting to affect your crops, but the fundamental misunderstanding of sickness and disease combined with rising populations in built up areas also comes into play. Squalor has become a separate value that you have to look out for, alongside things like Public Order and Food, when it comes to deciding which buildings to build in your cities, with the largest cities the most likely places for an outbreak of disease.

This year marks Total War’s 15th anniversary, but it’s clear to me that The Creative Assembly still have plenty of plans and ideas for their venerable series. Total War: Attila might depict the dying moments of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen, it also shows that there’s still life in the old war horse yet.

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