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My kid was asking me for a ride to a friend’s house. But I was busy trying to save the Western Roman Empire from eternal darkness. I was doing my duty for Rome, but it was kind of a no-win situation. Sega’s Creative Assembly has delivered another fine addition to its Total War real-time strategy game series, and Total War: Attila is one of the toughest yet in this ancient warfare series.

But that also makes it a good game. In the year 395 AD, you can try to save the divided Roman empire from the barbarian hordes. And after you deal with them, then you have to fight Attila. Of course, there’s a way out of this problem. You can play the Eastern Roman Empire and hope the hordes hit the Western Roman Empire instead. Or you can play the barbarians themselves. Or you can be Attila, the destroyer of civilization, and sack Rome yourself. Total War: Attila will bring out the barbarian in you. There are 10 playable factions in all.

Total War: Attila is sure to be another hit in this series. These games thrive among new fans and history buffs long after they’ve launched. In fact, the Total War games had around 850,000 monthly active players in 2014 even though a new entry in the didn’t come out last year. On average, people play Total War titles for 104 hours per game. The Total War series has been around for 13 years, and The Creative Assembly is now launching multiple offerings based on the same Total War brand. For instance, it recently launched the Wrath of Sparta expansion for Total War: Rome II, and it also announced Total War Battles: Kingdom, a free-to-play realm-building game.

This huge PC game is based on Creative Assembly’s massive strategy game Total War: Rome II from 2013. It uses the same campaign map and game engine, but it has a lot of improvements and a more thoughtful design. The player challenges have been heightened. Not only must you guard your borders, you have to deal with family politics, betrayal by allies, disease, starvation, and bankruptcy. The beginning of the Western Roman Empire campaign starts out with the empire in a state of decline. It has split in two and it faces wars on six fronts.

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Total War: Attila resembles Rome II in that it combines real-time combat between armies on a 3D battlefield with the Civilization-style strategic campaign map where you manage your empire. But while Rome II enabled you to take over the known world, this time it’s different. The quality of the 3D graphics is getting better and better so that you can see flames licking the rooftops of a burning city while soldiers are clashing on the ground below. Civilians scream and run in fear, adding to the drama of an attack on a city. The sweeping views of the vast armies, with thousands of soldiers marching toward a citadel’s walls, are still breathtaking.

In these Creative Assembly games, you can zoom out to see the strategic map of Europe on the edge of the Dark Ages. Then you can zoom in on cities and meet the enemy on the battlefield. The armies and landscapes are rendered in beautiful 3D graphics. You can zoom out to get a bird’s eye view of the action or zoom in during the battle to see individual soldiers fighting desperately.

Climate change has forced migrations of the barbarian tribes from the East to the West. Those tribes come crashing like waves on the empire, which has now split into the Western Roman empire, centered in Mediolanum, north of Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople. The Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, and the Vandals are all showing up as wandering hordes. They flee the million horse warriors of the Huns and collide with the Romans. The campaign lasts about 70 years. After every turn, I was wondering if the fall of Rome was imminent. And I was always happy when then answer was, “Not today.”

Total War: Attila. The overhead map of the empire in 395 AD.

Above: Total War: Attila. The overhead map of the empire in 395 AD.

Image Credit: Sega

What you’ll like

Challenging single-player campaign

The Roman empire was an intricate thing, and that’s what makes this a deep and difficult game. Even the Prologue, a tutorial where you learn how to fight and listen to your in-game advisors, was tough. I started out on the normal level, and I ran out of armies and money. The nomadic barbarians won. I had to start over and play on the embarrassing “easy” level. When I played with more resources and fewer imminent threats, I fared much better. But I really wondered if I was going to make it through the first mission, which included five years of nonstop warfare. All of this took me around 48 hours to accomplish.

This is a far different game than Rome II, where your toughest decision was about which lands to conquer first. When you start out, you have around 75 cities to defend and no more than 10 legions or fleets across all of Europe. You have to use those armies wisely. But one thing you may not realize is that your cities actually have large garrisons to defend themselves. Your legions, then, are really available for offensive use in crushing enemies that are rampaging through the empire. In fact, the Roman army was at its peak at this time, with around 600,000 soldiers. But you’ll see how it is stretched so thin.

I had to burn a few of my own settlements in North Africa first, because I felt it was indefensible and I had to give up something in order to raise cash. That was my scorched earth strategy, and I never did lose North Africa altogether, as I defended one province.

Each time you abandon a city, you receive some of its value in your coffers. I invested in three legions to hang onto Britain, where the Picts, the Caledonians, and ancestor of the Irish were all at war with me. To protect my six cities across England, I had to constantly fend off multiple armies from the tribes, and deal with multiple rebellions in my cities. When you raze a city, you see the fire burn on the campaign map and leave a black mark on the terrain. It’s pretty costly to try to bring a city back.

I had fought a truly epic battle for control of Linden against the Caledonians. I sent them back in full retreat. But after a couple of years, they came back with another army. I finally had to march north and take out the Caledonians, the Picts, and the Edlanians. They were really quite pesky, staging hit-and-run attacks on my cities.

Meanwhile, it was really hard to hold on to other territories. I had to try to defend all of Spain against rebel armies with a single legion, and I also had to defend Gaul with a single legion. I brought my legions from North Africa into Italy, and made a strong alliance with the Eastern Roman Empire. The Mediterranean was relatively peaceful, so I started improving the cities there, while the northern frontier was constantly in flames.

Total War: Attila. The campaign map burns when you raze a city.

Above: Total War: Attila. The campaign map burns when you raze a city.

Image Credit: Sega

The A.I. strikes back

Every time you think you’ve got a handle on your empire, it springs another leak. My problem was keeping a lid on the rebellions. I didn’t have enough money to upgrade cities so that living conditions were better. That stirs rebellion. And you can’t let the rebellions run unchecked, or you’ll get more of them. I faced no less than seven rebellions per turn. And with each pesky rebellion, I had to crush another rebel army. It’s hard to make peace with factions without giving them a ton of money. And that’s as it should be. After all, everyone hates the Romans.

Part way through my campaign to conquer Britain, I discovered that the winters were getting really cold. And my troops were dying when they were besieging the British cities during the winter. It was easy to see where I shouldn’t camp my troops, because the northern part of the campaign map turned white.

But it’s not hopeless. You have to figure out quickly which lands you can hold and which ones you should abandon. You can’t worry about the dishonor of abandoning your hard-won cities, but you do have to make sure your citizens don’t become discouraged by the shrinking empire.

My solution was ultimately military one. I had to spend money upgrading my cavalry stables so that I could create heavy Roman cavalry. Then I had to populate these units into every legion. Once I had armies that could outflank larger forces, my armies were harder to beat.

Total War: Attila

Above: Total War: Attila

Image Credit: Sega

Tactical battles are easier to manage

With each battle, you have the option to auto-resolve it, or manually fight. I chose to fight most of the time, because I learned I could get a better result. The battles are what this game is about. If you auto-resolve everything, the game would be not much different from Civilization.

In the tactical fights, Total War: Attila shines. You move your soldiers in cohort-size formations, attacking and countering the enemy as their commander does the same thing. Once the armies lock arms in battle, only one of them comes out standing from the brawling mass that resembles two beehives in combat.

Total War: Attila. A massive battle.

Above: Total War: Attila. A massive battle.

Image Credit: Sega

Within the real-time battles, you can zoom in on individual soldiers fighting and pull up to a board-game style view from above. But most of your practical battle management will take place at an angled 3D view, just above your forces. You can zoom in and out with the mouse wheel, and the game responds in a fluid fashion. You can get about 2,000 soldiers on the battlefield in a single formation. That doesn’t seem like much, but it is a good choice by Creative Assembly because it’s harder to control a huge army. But you can still get more of your own soldiers into a fray by positioning several armies together. Once you attack with one, the others will show up as reinforcements who run onto the battlefield in real time against you. I had a few battles with a few thousand soldiers fighting on my side.

The terrain is very important. Like the armies, the landscapes are all beautifully animated. You can fight in dense forests, deserts, or detailed cities. The provincial capitals have their own walls, towers, gates, temples, monuments, squares, and quays. The combat takes place along broad avenues that can become bottlenecks that are defended by a single unit, if necessary. Rain or fog can completely change the nature of the battle as soldiers can bog down and become tired in a torrent or lose sight of the enemy entirely in dense fog. The visual weather changes are top-notch, too.

Total War: Attila. The world in flames.

Above: Total War: Attila. The world in flames.

Image Credit: Sega

The pacing is good

If you played every battle, the game would be longer. But it’s also more fun because you get to see the pretty scenery.

In the past, battles were determined quickly because a unit that routed never came back into the fight. You could make a small mistake, leading to one unit panicking and the rest following suit.

But now, the pacing is better. Units that rout can come back after they’ve rested. Fatigued troops are weak, but resting for a short time gives them a lot of morale. That means you can rotate troops out of the fighting. Some can sit on the sidelines and go into the fight fresh when exhausted troops head for the rear. This makes cavalry units particularly powerful and valuable. Raider units can capture gates, towers, and other control points more easily. That allows the side that has more maneuverability to win, particularly in city battles.

Enemy lines will buckle quickly if you pin them in the front and hit them in the flanks or the rear. In short, this means that a good general has more control over the battle. I was almost always able to defend cities with a sufficient garrison of troops, and I often won even with a skeleton garrison. The exciting part is that almost every battle hangs on the bravery of a single unit. If that unit stands its ground, you may be victorious. If it collapses, the entire army may run. That’s what makes Total War: Attila such a joy.

There are also things you can do to improve your odds. You can build siege equipment such as towers, rams, or catapults to blast your enemy’s gates and walls. And if you set the enemy’s city on fire, the troops are more likely to wafer on the front lines. The A.I general will use these tactics too. The enemy will try to take out your towers and walls. When the enemy has taken down your walls and gate, the A.I. will launch the army forward. If you mind the gaps in the walls and hold the gate area, you can make the city assault extremely costly. Sometimes the enemy still does stupid things, but it’s smart enough to put up a good fight.

Naval battles are better in Total War: Attila.

Above: Naval battles are better in Total War: Attila.

Image Credit: Sega

A simpler interface and easy learning process

Total War: Attila is very educational, and parents will be tempted to use it as a learning tool. But the violent cut scenes are a bit graphic, even though there isn’t any blood. I like the interface because I know what to do no matter what level of the game I’m playing. With the campaign map, you simply click on a unit and move it around. When you run into an enemy army, you can choose to fight or run. You can corner an enemy so that it has to fight, and that’s a satisfying “check mate” sort of feeling.

When you do fight, you can control your units individually. But you can also highlight a bunch of units and drag them in a direction to create a whole formation. That formation will be stronger when fighting against the enemy, since soldiers fight better when they are aligned with friendly units side by side. You can tell which units are doing well and which are wavering based on the unit’s flag. If it is colorful and unwavering, it’s in good shape. If it is blinking and turning gray, the unit is about to run. You can also easily hide troops in trees and tell if they can’t be seen because of a “hidden” icon over them. That’s great for setting up ambushes.

Your aide-de-camp also shouts when major events happen, such as when one of your units routs, or if the enemy general has been slain. Once that happens, most of the enemy units will waver and start to run. Likewise, if you lose your own general, your army could be doomed. Over time, the generals gain experience and become much better able to hold the army’s morale together.

Once you take over a city, you’ll find that it is connected to as many as three others in a province. To control the province, you’ll have to take over the walled capital city. That means you can either besiege the city and starve out the inhabitants. Or you can build siege weapons and storm it by force. The good thing is that you don’t have to spend time building the actual siege weapons. You simply select them during the siege and wait until they are finished. Then you’ll have either sheltered battering rams or siege towers to assault the ramparts. Once you fight a battle, you can immediately save it for replays if you wish.

Campaign map over England in Total War: Attila

Above: Campaign map over England in Total War: Attila

Image Credit: Sega

A sheer breadth of the empire that you must defend

Attila has a ton of variety, given dozens of factions. You can play the Huns, the Eastern Roman Empire, the Western Roman Empire, the Visigoths, the Vandals, the Sassanid empire, the Alans, the Saxons,  the Ostrogoths, and the Franks. A culture pack for Viking fans will be out that lets you play the Danes, the Geats, and the Jutes.

I’ve only scratched the surface of it. There are 10,000 unique battlefields available across the map, not counting battles you can fight at sea. Fighting naval battles is much more fun than in the past too. The huge map ensures that you’ll never run out of random or strategic places to meet the enemy. But the map of Europe, North Africa, and Near Asia is designed with a lot of strategic choke points such as roads through forests or river crossings where you can defend. I found that cities were the best place to set up a defense, particularly the larger cities with walls and gates. But the scars of battles are lasting for cities. If you fight in a city a second time, you’ll find the walls are still down if you haven’t had time to repair it.

The world is so vast, you could send out spies in every direction (at great cost) and not find every threat to your empire.

Total War: Attila

Above: Total War: Attila

Image Credit: Sega

Better management layers

If there is a flaw in Total War games, it’s that they try to cram too many games into one game. Do we really need a complicated spy game on top of the empire-building game? Not really.

Compared to past games, the designers of Rome II have imposed some limitations to address the problem of complexity. No longer do you have tiny armies roaming the map without great leaders. Each province — two to four cities — can field no more than three armies or fleets, each led by a noble general. This limitation means that you’ll concentrate your forces in large armies and fight huge battles, not tiny skirmishes. The number of spies is also limited.

The map interface is also well conceived. You can easily see where you stand relative to another faction through a diplomacy menu or just by hovering over the faction’s region on the strategic map. That’s a smart way to communicate information to the player.

From an economic view, the player manages a province as a whole, not a region, and you only build certain kinds of specialized buildings. (By contrast, in the Civilization series, you can micromanage the construction of dozens of building types). Public order is maintained on a provincial level. That means you have to keep all of the cities in the region happy or they will rebel. If you own all of the regions in a province, you can gain economic advantages and issue edicts that bring benefits such as extra food. The management layers are a welcome relief because they reduce the complexity without sacrificing depth or gameplay. You can still do things such as engage in spy-versus-spy assassinations; you just can’t do it in every city on the map.

When your empire grows sizable, you’ll run into a variety of challenges, like how to spend money on one province but not on another or how to deal with growing corruption.

Another massive battle in Total War: Attila

Above: Another massive battle in Total War: Attila

Image Credit: Sega

Trained units make your troops more skillful

After you’ve fought some battles, you’ll see why it pays to have trained generals in charge of trained troops. Your general levels up by gaining skills that give him better leadership abilities in sea or land combat. With a better general and troops that have seen battle, the chances are greater that a cohort will hold its ground in a one-on-one battle against another unit. A wavering line of troops can get spooked easily, and veterans can last longer than green troops. Moreover, flank attacks are more effective now as the combat system allows for multiple attacks against one soldier rather than one-on-one combat. And since veterans can execute flank attacks better, their assaults can have a more devastating impact on an entire wing of an army.

The presence of trained troops will make you think more about the order of battle. You’ll want to have strong units at the critical center and flanks.

On the political side, you also have to manage the progress of your family. You want to keep the balance of power among the different noble houses by appointing generals from each house to positions of power. You can gain and lose influence through actions such as marriage and assassination. You can assign governors to different provinces to help manage unruly regions better. In the past, you didn’t have to worry so much about the politics. But I saw the risks as time went on and the loyalty of my generals began to waver. Civil war is perhaps the quickest way to lose your empire, so you have to do what you can to hold it off.

Family tree in Total War: Attila

Above: Family tree in Total War: Attila

Image Credit: Sega

What you won’t like

The A.I. can still do dumb things

When you play a campaign for five years, you may fight scores of battles. And during those battles, you’ll see the enemy A.I. do some dumb things. Most of the time, the A.I. is really good. It does things like try to break the siege of a city using a secondary army. But I watched dumbfounded as two A.I. cavalry units just wandered around a riverfront while the rest of the A.I. army was in a pitched battle. I can also tie up a lot of A.I. units by sending a single cavalry unit out to attack the rear of the enemy army. It’s a great trick to draw off a lot of A.I. units from the heart of the battle.

Total War: Attila can zoom in on soldier-to-soldier combat.

Above: Total War: Attila can zoom in on soldier-to-soldier combat.

Image Credit: Sega

The slow sweep of turns

Back with the 2013 launch of Rome II, I complained that the changing from one turn to the next is a lot like the Civ games. It hasn’t changed. The faster your computer, the faster the game will compute all of the A.I. moves from dozens of factions that are active at any given time. As you move later in the campaign, it seems to take forever to execute and finish the turns.

After you end your turn, every faction has to make its move. And because many of these turns could be relevant to you, Attila tries to graphically show you what many of the visible factions are doing. This is a necessary but wasteful part of the game. Creative Assembly still hasn’t quite figured out how to process those moves in the background while you’re still able to do something useful within the game. Of course, if they did try to entertain you during the turn change, it might prolong the time it takes.

I played the title on a fairly hefty PC, with a 3.2-gigahertz Intel Core i7 CPU, 12 gigabytes of main memory, and dual GeForce GTX 680 graphics cards and 4 gigabytes of graphics memory on a Windows 7 machine. Still, the turns were still a little slow. But for the most part, the game ran fine in real-time battles, where it counts most. And it was easy to cruise through the big map of Europe without a slowdown.

Total War: Attila

Above: Total War: Attila

Image Credit: Sega

The economy still won’t keep up with your ambitions

This is a problem that the series has had for years. When I played the Western Roman empire, I was clearly in charge of a bankrupt empire. But the lack of funds was a little too severe. I couldn’t even build a couple of farms in two cities without running out of funds in a turn. When you have dozens of cities under your control, you can see that your money won’t keep up with your desire to spend it.

This paralyzes you. Your ability to recruit soldiers depends on how well you manage the economy. And it’s hard to tell exactly how much you should be investing in it versus your military might. I started out in a deceptive state, where no one was revolting or bugging me about money. But the vultures came fast. First, I got attacked on all sides and couldn’t spend money to replace troops. Then the citizens began to starve and they revolted, in one city after the next.

I still feel like Creative Assembly needs to deliver a better picture of the state of affairs of the whole empire’s economy, and where you really can make enlightened choices about how to manage it. We’re in the age of cool dashboards and analytics. That may seem out of place in a game about ancient warfare, but I still feel like I could use more help figuring out what’s going on in the empire. For instance, I’d like to know which cities are going to riot and rebel next. When I look at the dashboard, it looks like everybody is going to go nuts.

Total War: Attila diplomacy

Above: Total War: Attila diplomacy

Image Credit: Sega

Conclusion

As with Rome II, the positives outweigh the annoyances. Creative Assembly has been very ambitious with Total War: Attila, and the game is a lot more compelling than its predecessor. It feels more balanced. The A.I. is smarter, but a human general can still beat it. But the unrelenting weight of a collapsing empire pushes a human ruler to the limit. If you simply survive for a while, you’ll feel like you’ve won the game.

I think that hardcore gamers — including any fans of the Total War, Civilization, and Age of Empires games — are going to love this title. It has an appropriate teen rating, but you’ll find that it’s worth bringing the kids over to show them a cool battle or city. I can easily see someone sinking hundreds of hours into all aspects of the game. I keep coming back to this franchise because it lets me see the strategic high points of running an empire, and also see the gritty tactical horrors of the battlefield up close. The pitched battles go back and forth, but my interest in this franchise never wanes.

Score: 88/100

Total War: Attila will be released on Feb. 17 on the PC. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a download code for the purpose of this review. 

Total War: Attila requires a Windows Vista or newer system, with 3 gigabytes of RAM, an Intel Core 2 Duo at 3 Gigahertz, and 35 gigabytes of free hard disk space. For graphics, you need to have a 512 MB NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT card or better, or an AMD Radeon HD 2900 XT or Intel HD 4000. 

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