A few months ago, I posted an article outlining some suggestion for unique civilization themes and abilities for a possible Sid Meier's Civilization VI game. In it, I proposed a unique characteristic for the Huns or Mongolians: that they be a true nomadic empire. The idea was that they would have traveling cities that allowed them to move their empire with their army and essentially occupy any unclaimed territory or territory vacated by defeated rivals. Well, the Creative Assembly had already beaten me (and Firaxis) to the punch with Total War: Attila (and apparently Firaxis is embracing the idea with Beyond Earth's first expansion). Total War: Attila has a feature almost identical to what I had conceived for the Huns and Mongolians in Civilization. I'm a fan of the Total War series as is, so I was going to play this game for sure. Of course, Creative Assembly running with an idea that I had independently conceived of only made me more curious to play the game.
Attila acts as sort of a sequel to Rome II. While that game was all about building up the Roman empire (or whichever empire you happened to select), Attila is all about tearing down those empires. But this is a fully stand-alone game (like Napoleon Total War was to Empire Total War), and does not require Rome II in any way.
Learning how to be a horde
The Prologue campaign in this game is brutal! It's like a Demon's Souls tutorial that is designed to kick your ass. I restarted it once before realizing that it was designed for the player to fail in order to teach the new migration feature.
This prologue acts as a tutorial for the new features and mechanics of the game, but it doesn't do a particularly good job of teaching these mechanics. It also doesn't go into much detail of the established features of the franchise (other than telling you that a feature exists, then making you click on the button to do it), so new players might find themselves completely turned off by the fact that they are having their asses handed to them and aren't being taught much about how the game actually works, or - more importantly - why they are failing so hard. Perhaps having two separate tutorial campaigns would have been advisable: one to teach basic Total War concepts of empire and army management; and a second tutorial campaign for experienced Total War players that just teaches the migration features.
The brutal tutorial concludes with the challenging, climactic, historical battle of Adrianople,
in which your Visigoths must hold off Emperor Valens' superior army until your cavalry arrives.
Playing as migratory hordes minimizes city management, but you do still have to develop infrastructure for your nomadic armies. Rebuilding conquered cities and defending your borders, however, is not an issue - which was always the most tedious part of the game anyway. You don't need defensive armies in your territory and are free to focus all your efforts on your eventual goal. This change works well with the requirement that all armies must be attached to generals, and is a big step up from Rome II. There were large chunks of Rome II's campaign in which I felt like I couldn't do anything because I had to camp out my armies in cities in order to replenish and improve public order. Since I was at the army cap, the campaign would stagnate because I couldn't build new armies in order to watch over my newly-conquered settlements while also pressing forward with my primary armies.
However, your hordes do still need to stop and camp every now and then in order to replenish and build up their infrastructure, so you still end up with chunks of campaigns in which you have nothing to do except hit "End Turn". This doesn't take nearly as long as you might have spent camping in cities to prevent rebellion in Rome II, so it doesn't kill the pace quite as much. The speed of the game turns also helps. Like Shogun 2, every turn represents a single season (spring, summer, autumn, and winter) within a single year. So your generals don't die of old age while you're camped in cities or replenishing your forces, and your spies don't kick the bucket halfway to the city that you want them to sabotage.
Unfortunately, the learning curve for playing as a horde is much higher. The tutorial doesn't do a very good job of conveying how managing a horde differs from managing a settled empire, or what (if any) benefits there are to starting a migration, or what (if any) benefits there are to settling in a region. In the early game, I struggled while I tried to figure out how to grow my population, keep a balanced budget, and raise new armies, and I frequently wondered whether it's a good idea to settle temporarily or not. In general, I concluded that it is not a good idea to settle temporarily, and that you should wait until you can capture territory in one of your objective provinces before you bother settling. But this required several trial-and-error restarts of the Visigoth's Grand Campaign to learn.
Abandoning settlements should be a last resort, so wait until your reach your victory regions before settling.
I'm also unclear of the purpose of the horde building chains for any migrating force except the Huns (who can never settle). If you settle (which you eventually will with every one of the great migrator factions), then your new settlement starts over from scratch. None of the infrastructure that you built as a horde converts to a settlement building, so any money that you spent to upgrade those buildings goes to waste. As far as I can tell, you're better off just stockpiling it all and settling as soon as possible. You can delete all your horde buildings for a fractional refund, but the whole thing still feels wasteful to me. The same problem holds true for starting a migration as a settled empire. Settlement buildings don't convert to horde buildings, so all that money that you spent upgrading a building to level three or four goes to waste if you ever have to abandon your settlements and migrate. Starting a migration once you're settled should, therefore, be a last resort action that you take only if you're about to lose all your settlements. But if you're doing that poorly, then you've probably given up and started the campaign over anyway...
I was also very disappointed that the emphasis on marauding hordes didn't lead to the return of countryside infrastructure (especially since they have graphics for such infrastructure on the map. Just like in Rome II, all buildings and resources are still located and developed within cities instead of out on the actual campaign map. This makes the map feel a little barren, and the "Raiding" command for armies feels underwhelming. The fact that an army may see a need to leave its city in order to attack a horde encampment stationed on the map pulls a little bit of the action away from cities, but city-sacking is still where most of the action takes place. Your horde armies can also make more money simply by settling (which also heals your units and grows your population), so I never found a situation in which raiding was more profitable than camping. Maybe if I parked an army on the road leaving Constantinople, or between the Sassanids and their client states, there might be some profitable raiding...?
Infrastructure like mines and farms are plainly visible in the countryside,
but marauding armies can't pillage or damage them without going through the city.
For the record, I really like that the entire province can be managed from a single panel. It's very convenient. It eliminates the tedium of having to click on a bunch of farms, mines, and plantations on the map in order to build things and upgrade them (like in Empire and Shogun 2), and reduces the head-slapping frustration of realizing that you'd forgotten all about that level 1 iron mine hidden between two mountains and haven't clicked on it for a hundred years. But I don't see any reason why those objects can't still be located out in the actual world map, but simply managed from the provincial panel. Having such objects out on the map would have given delicious targets for the new hordes to plunder and raid. As a corollary, the need to protect such infrastructure from such raids would have been a great way to catalyze more open field battles and small-scale skirmishes.
Another common source of frustration for my armies (horde or not) was that if I used all my movement to sack a city, I couldn't move away from it on that turn. That army would thus get stuck in that city's zone of control on the following turn. This would force the army to have to sack the city again just to move away. This seems like something that should be considered a bug, and I hope that Creative Assembly fixes it at some point. Sacked cities should not impose zone of control the following turn. The A.I. also isn't above blatant cheating. I've lost whole hordes because the A.I.'s stacks are able to flawlessly pursue me, and there doesn't seem to be anywhere on the map that I can go where they can't see me and take the most direct path to me.
More variety in the campaign
In the previous games, almost every faction started out pretty much the same. They held one or a handful of territories and had to conquer neighbors and expand. Starting a new campaign with a different faction was rarely substantially different than just replaying the same faction.
The horde mechanics and time period of Attila actually helps to add a lot of variety in the different factions available in the campaign. A couple factions (like the Saxons and Franks) start with the traditional Total War setup of having one territory and having to conquer more. But the new horde tribes such as the Huns, Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and so on don't start with any territory and have to migrate across the map, sacking and raiding and pillaging as they go. I think it was a bit unfortunate that the Hun armies on the campaign map are still represented by a soldier walking around and fighting with a sword, rather than someone fighting from horseback.
The Huns are unique among the nomadic tribes in that they cannot settle - ever.
And then there's the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, which both start with large chunks of territories. The player takes over these large empires as they are on the verge of collapse and has to face off numerous challenges and threats from all different angles. And if you want an easier empire-management campaign, there's even the middle-eastern Sassanid Empire that starts with a large swath of land, numerous client states, and easy-to-defend borders.
This lead to me being much more excited to try out different factions and even play multiple campaigns in parallel in order to try out the various challenges of each faction's starting conditions. The different conditions of the various factions also brings about different playstyles that means that different factions can appeal to different players. Players who want constant war and conflict can play as the Huns or Germanic tribes; whereas, players who are more interested in building an empire and managing diplomacy and economies will likely be more interested in the Romans or Sassanids.
Set your enemies ablaze!
But regardless of which faction you select, things will burn. Fire is a recurring motif throughout the entire game. From the title screen featuring an endless horde of Hunnic horsemen in front of a backdrop of a burning village, this game just loves to set things on fire. More units seem to have fire attacks, and more things in the environment burn. You can target specific buildings in the real-time battles in towns and cities and burn them down. Even forests can be lit on fire in the tactical battles. Settlements can be razed on the campaign map, which ignites a cascade of fire across the entire region. The same effect happens in every one of a faction's regions if the faction is forced to abandon its settlements and start a migration. Even the zone of control of armies and cities are highlighted with a ring of fire.
Buildings, forests, and units can be caught on fire, and the campaign uses fire as a common graphical effect.
When in tactical battles, the attacker can set fire to buildings, which lowers the morale of nearby units, and damages city infrastructure when you return to the campaign map. Obviously, if you are planning on occupying the settlement after the attack, then you probably don't want to burn the buildings down, since it will only hurt you in the end. But if you're planning on sacking the city, then setting it ablaze will weaken the enemy's ability to counterattack in subsequent turns.
The actual battles play out in a much similar manner as Rome II Emperor Edition, except that there is a much greater emphasis on horse units and mobile tactics. Horse archers become a huge nuisance very quickly. Their speed and ability to fire backwards and while on the move makes them a formidable hit and run unit. Good luck chasing them down with foot infanty! Instead, you'll need to build your own cavalry army to counter your enemy's cavalry, meaning that the field will often become full of horse units.
The speed of horse units and the proliferation of horse archers means that spears and pikes
are only an effective counter if defending an entrenched position or bottleneck.
City sieges are a slightly different story, since garrisons are usually dominated by foot soldiers. So in addition to the variety in the factions, there is also variety in the different battle theaters. City sieges tend to be dominated by artillery and foot soldiers; field battles are the domain of horse units; and sea battles have their own flavor. In fact, I found it almost necessary to keep a large reinforcing army of cavalry near my primary city-sieging army in order to protect it from marauding Hunnic armies. It's great that cavalry finally feels like a more threatening class of units. Much more so than in previous Total War games, I am finding that army composition is a huge part of the campaign strategy. I often find myself spending a lot of time in the unit recruitment screen debating exactly which unit I should buy; whereas, in previous Total War games, I usually just recruited whatever was the strongest melee infantry available.
I still have recurring problems with my artillery not following directions. They like to ignore my target instructions and fire on seemingly random targets. The soldiers sometimes pack up the weapon and start wheeling it around if I give it attack orders, even if the target is well within the firing arc and range. I remember these sorts of things being problems when Rome II first launched, but I'm pretty sure that they had been fixed. Unfortunately, these problems seem to have carried over into Attila's code base.
Finally, some common-sense campaign improvements!
Event notifications are finally repopulated when
loading a saved game. Huge improvement!
There's even a few common sense, legacy issues that have finally been resolved! One of the best fixes is that the event notifications are now saved and repopulated when you load a saved game. So if you haven't played for a few weeks or months, you'll have some idea of what was going on in the campaign and what situations you need to deal with. Creative Assembly has even added some useful, new event notifications as well. Such as informing you that a city siege has started or been broken off, reminding you of battle outcomes, or notifying that you're trespassing in neutral territory.
Another new feature is the inclusion of minor victories in the campaign. These act as intermediate stopping points if you don't want to go through the grind of finishing the campaign all the way up to the final end date and total conquest of the map. It gives the player the satisfaction of playing a campaign that's on the time-scale that most appeals to them. After all, we don't all have hundreds of hours to dedicate to the game. There's a pretty quick minor victory that requires conquering just a single province along with a handful of other objectives. From there, you can go for either the military victory or the culture victory (which were introduced in Rome II). And if you're really dedicated, you can go for a total domination victory that requires you to control almost the entire map. So in addition to having variety in factions, you also have variety in just how far into the campaign you want to go.
Something that is lacking in this game - but which might be worthwhile for future games - would be an "advanced start" option that allows you to take over a faction campaign after its minor victory conditions have been met, without having to play through the preceeding turns. This would allow the player to skip the phases of the game in which they must build up their faction, and they could go straight to having a more developed army, techs, and territory (if applicable). Of course, this would remove most of the hordes from being playable (since all hordes except the Huns would have settled by this time).
Minor victories allow the player to play
the campaign on the timescale that
most appeals to them.
The interface itself is also much more thematic and attractive than Rome II's bland black boxes. Event notifications have some slight animation instead of being static pictures, and certain elements of the interface are easier to find. Some info panels show more relevant information, while others do a good job of condensing information into summaries, such as the unit panel that lists strengths and weaknesses of units rather than showing their full stat list. Planning out the development of armies and characters is easier since the full skill trees are displayed in the ability panel. The city siege prompt won't even give you the option to assault the city unless you have already built the siege engines necessary to scale or penetrate the walls. And there's even an option to preview the battlefield prior to a battle, which allows you to determine whether the terrain gives you any tactical advantage or challenge prior to commiting to engagement (and sitting through a loading screen).
Creative Assembly did neglect to improve some aspects of the army movement interface. Encamping and raiding are both army actions that consume 25% of your army's movement, and so both can be performed after moving the army, so long as you left at least 25% of the movement available. However, the game doesn't bother to illustrate this 75% cut-off, so you have to guess how far they can travel before encamping or raiding. Usually, I just quicksave before moving an army that I intend to encamp. If I move too far, I can just re-load and move them again. But this trial-and-error reloading shouldn't be necessary, since the mechanics are designed to allow this sort of behavior.
Managing tributary states is also a pain in the ass. Not being able to negotiate peace between other factions means that I routinely subjugate defeated states only to have them persist in their wars with one another, often resulting in one party or the other being destroyed. Why can't I demand that my own tributary states make peace with one another?! Tributaries in general are obnoxiously flaky. They don't automatically enter wars on your side, and they can back out of their tributary status by simply refusing to ally with you during a declaration of war. Subjugating one enemy, and then declaring war on your next target often results in losing the tributary state. I end up having to go back and forth across the map reconquering my former subjects (which of course damages their infrastructure and reduce their profitability).
Another thing that confuses and disappoints me is that the Twitch streaming integration that was added to Rome II seems to have been removed. So I guess I don't get to stream my pillaging and sacking of Rome to all my friends...
Drop-in multiplayer battles were also a feature of Shogun 2 that was removed in Rome II and did not return for Attila. I didn't really notice that this was missing in Rome II because it got burried under all the other problems that game released with, but now that Attila is so much more playable, I really miss that feature.
Families carry the burden of Rome II's political blunders
On another positive note, in addition to having a reasonable implementation of seasons in campaign turns, the campaign also brings back the popular family tree mechanics of earlier Total War games and integrates it into a variation of the political system of Rome II. Having generals that are part of your own family makes them feel much more important and vital to protect, since they can't easily be replaced. You can still recruit generals and nobles from other families and adopt them into your own family, but they aren't quite the same as a natural-born relative.
Unfortunately, you can't turn family members into agents (they can only become generals or statesmen), and women have very little (if any) role in the activities or development of your faction. They can play tangential roles in some of the random events that crop up from time to time, and you can marry daughters off to other faction leaders to improve relations, but they just never feel like a very active element of the game. You can't recruit your leader's wife to act as a spy and send her along with the general's army to scout ahead, nor can you recruit her to be a dignitary that you can send to other factions for diplomatic purposes.
How am I to decide to extradite or grant asylum if I don't even know where this random fugitive comes from?
The random events themselves are also still a complete crap shoot. The descriptions provide very little (if any) context to help you in your decision making. For example, in my Visigoth campaign, I once came up with a random event in which a fugitive from a neighboring tribe asked for asylum. I had the option to grant asylum on the vague assumption that he may provide useful intel, or I could extradite him for a potential diplomatic reward. But the event didn't give me any indication of what rival faction the fugitive came from! That's an important piece of information when deciding whether to extradite him or interrogate him for useful intel. If the other faction is a close ally, then I would probably want to extradite him (unless maybe I suspect them of betrayal); but if the other faction is a rival that I'm planning to fight sooner or later anyway, then of course I'd want to grant him asylum and hope he provides useful intel because a diplomatic buff would be pointless.
I don't mind having randomized intrigue event, but they have to have at least some context. Ideally, intrigue would be an emergent property of the decisions that agents in the game make, but I understand that there needs to be some randomization. In any case, the player has to have some clear understanding of the possible consequences in order to make a decision; otherwise, the decision is meaningless. If I don't have enough information for my decision to be any more insightful than a coin flip, then the game shouldn't even be giving me the option. Just randomly give me a result, because that's what the net effect is anyway.
Attila is fun and challenging, but probably only a temporary diversion for Total War fans
I've been enjoying Attila much more than Rome II. The increased challenge and variety within the various factions has me much more excited to play multiple campaigns with multiple different factions than I've ever been in a Total War game. I think Total War fans should be very pleased with Atilla, even if it does repeat some of the same mistakes that Rome II made. It still pales in comparison to Shogun 2, though.
It is kind of hard for me to recommend this game to a Total War newcomer though. The tutorial really wasn't very helpful at all, even for an experienced player. I can easily see new players being overwhelmed and turned away by the failure that the prologue campaign imposes on you, even if it is done with the intent of teaching the new mechanics.
Attila includes a lot of fresh new ideas, but I can't help feel that these features are kind of a dead end. I can't really think of many other time periods in which migratory hordes would be a major factor in gameplay. Maybe if Creative Assembly made a Total War: China game that included the Mongolian invasions? Or Total War: Israel? Actually, the nomadic factions could work well for Great Planes Native American tribes if Creative Assembly ever gets around to making a Total War: America game based on the American Civil War! Man, I want a Total War game about the American Civil War so bad!
But instead, it looks like they're delving into the world of table-top fantasy...