When I envision Attila and his Hunnic hordes, a very specific set of images are conjured. Towns and cities being pillaged and burned. Arguments over a flagon of booze quickly escalating to all-out brawls and, occasionally, decapitation. Post-battle parties flowing deep into the night with all sorts of debauchery on display. The course the Hun overlord and his homies took through history is part and parcel with a sort of uncaring, caution-to-the-wind attitude, which is why there’s a slight irony that the first word that comes to mind when playing Total War: Attila is “safe”.
Let me get something out of the way first. After the debacle surrounding Creative Assembly’s last outing, Total War: Rome 2, “safe” is exactly the attitude the developers needed to adopt going into their next game. In fact, it’s quite likely that, prior to Attila’s development, quite a few meetings involved little more than the shaking of heads, shrugging of shoulders, and viewing of encouraging puppy videos. Months and months of patching schizophrenic AI, network code, and a veritable mountain of other miscellaneous bugs will do things to a programmer. Horrible things.
Set during the beginning (if you could pinpoint it) of the fall of the Roman Empire, TW:A does not tread a great deal of new ground beyond that claimed by its predecessor. Aside from an updated political and social climate, the campaign map hardly differs from that of Rome 2. The main difference is, as expected, the introduction of the hordes, whose unique mechanics mark the largest divergence Attila has to offer. Around half of the starting nations in Attila adopt this form, meaning that they typically begin without a city to call their own. Instead, their armies become roving campsites that are able to set up shop at any location on the campaign map to create buildings, recruit new units, and generally take on the role of a regular, static city. If, at any point, the player grows tired of their location, they can simply order their citizens to pack everything up and wander elsewhere.
In the event that a horde’s reign of terror results in them capturing a city (as opposed to razing it and putting up a sign that says “Romans suck, cow blood for lyfe”), they immediately lose this ability and transform into a standard static nation. Warrior nations feeling a bit cooped up are able to revert to their original ways by simply losing control (of their own accord, if they desire) of their last city.
Aside from the new type of nation, Attila is by and large an expansion on the mechanics introduced in Rome 2, albeit much more honed and tightly developed. The ability to create unique armies complete with badass names (Lightning Riders is a personal favorite) makes a welcome return and is possibly one of my favorite additions of the past couple Total War iterations. The “Crusader Kings-lite” dynasty tree, along with all its accompanying internal slapfights, has also been tweaked to match the era. All in all, the game almost feels like Creative Assembly’s attempt at an apology, as if they’re saying, “Guys, we know we goofed, but check out the way it could’ve been!” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but praising the developers for new ideas in Attila would be somewhat akin to praising EA for successfully releasing another iteration of Madden. There are a number of solid, well thought out tweaks and minor additions, but no one’s revolutionizing the genre over here.
For what it’s worth, the AI seems to have improved since the last couple outings. From Shogun 2’s, “Did the Oda just completely abandon their capital city?” to Rome 2’s, “I think I just saw General Octavius eating a jar of paste”, Attila’s strategists seemed much more capable of properly reacting to their surroundings. The same goes for the tactical aspect as well. At no point did my captains report back, “Well sir, we would’ve met them in battle on the shores of the Mediterranean, but it looked like they weren’t quite sure how to get off their boats. So, we just kinda wandered off at some point.”
My time with the Attila’s co-op gameplay was split into two distinct campaigns, each with their own polarized experience. Initially choosing the highly unlikely Franks-Saxons alliance, my partner and I soon decided that the crumbling husk of the Western Roman Empire was ripe for the taking, which is where we ran into one of my main issues with the game. At first, our conquest went as expected. We pushed the technically superior Roman armies back through sheer numbers, razing some cities and capturing others. Unfortunately, even though we tried to be selective with what cities we took as our own, our campaign quickly ground to a halt as we discovered that our newly captured Roman cities had to be “converted” for our use, lest they further detract from our empire’s efficiency. The conversion process took quite some time and drained resources from what would’ve been an effort to reinforce our now scattered armies. As such, we were forced to spend a number of turns doing little more than checking a few numbers while we waited our cities to become sufficiently barbaric. In a single player campaign, this would not be a very significant issue, but it lead to a bit of early-game boredom that was tough to shake.
This boredom was slightly compounded about 10 to 20 turns into the game, when my partner and I were informed that Attila, the near-mythical warlord the game is based around, had just been born. Not rising to power. Not even figuring out that he likes girls. Born. The sense of dread and impending doom that previously draped the game’s beginning stages quickly withered away when we realized that it would be at least another forty turns before the instrument of our destruction could legally ride a horse.
Those who are looking for a faster paced co-op experience would likely be interested in playing as two of the game’s starting horde nations, but be warned: unless one of the two players chooses the Huns, the game can be very unforgiving. In our second campaign, the Visigoths and Ostrogoths came to find peace (admittedly, this was probably not the easiest pair to choose) in the mountain ranges directly between the Huns and the Eastern Roman Empire. Full disclosure: my friend and I are not decorated generals, nor could either of us pass for what some call “tactically capable”, but our time with the Gothic duo required no less than three near-immediate restarts, as we were easily crushed by one of either the technically superior Romans to the south, or the Hunnic hordes to the North. Once we finally determined a safe route out of our situation, the campaign took on a nice flow that involved pillaging and reinforcing in brief, alternating phases.
It’s tough to call Attila a bad, or even below average game. In fact, I would venture to say that it does what it sets out to do quite well. It’s certainly not going to be turning any heads or coaxing in new players, but Creative Assembly’s most recent effort proves that they are indeed capable of making competent games. Unfortunately, the disaster that was Rome 2 seems to have made quite an impact, and the developers appear unwilling to venture too far into new territory, at least in this iteration. Veteran fans who felt spurned by Rome 2 should definitely give it a shot, as TW:A does nothing if not show off what its predecessor should have been, but I certainly wouldn’t point to it as a watermark for the future of the RTS genre. The minor iterations and potentially plodding co-op gameplay mean that Attila is really only a necessary purchase for current fans who want to see what they missed the last time out, or possibly for anyone with a real deep-seated hatred for the Romans.