So I'm not desperately excited for Arkham Knight. No, I know, it's another long-winded, rambling introduction before i get round to the point I'm trying to make, but bear with me, and I'll try to make it brief.
Thing is, I've played - and thoroughly enjoyed - Arkham City and Arkham Origins, but I think truth be told, I've seen enough to know how these things go. Sure, there's the Batmobile, and a bunch of new enemies and stuff, but I bet you a fistful of GD-Dollars that the next game will have upgradeable glue bombs, scenes where you hoist a raft along using metal rings and an award for long-distance gliding. Games are exciting and fun partially for the feeling of experiencing the new and getting that little reward for learning a another skill. My fear is that I've already learned all the skills that Arkham Knight is going to try to re-teach me, and that it'll drip-feed weapons and gadgets that I'm already completely used to.
Now: Here it comes! The bit where I explain why this has anything to do with Attila: Total War. Well, for the most part, Total War is Total War. A campaign map where you move armies and spies around, and battle maps where you personally command your troops and watch them die on the pointy ends of the other guy's spears. And while there are differences, some fairly major, at the end of the day it's more Total War. So far, so blindingly obvious. But the real point here is that the magic of Total War that made every game up to and including Medieval 2 seem so fresh and ground-breaking, so clearly ahead of their time that they were even being used as historical simulations in dorky TV shows... those halcyon days have passed. Attila is Total War by the numbers.
So the changes. Firstly, the situation at the start of the grand campaign is a pretty unusual one. The Roman Empire is a sort-of coherent whole, albeit split into two separate chunks, one with its HQ in Rome and the other in Constantinople. Then, all around the periphery are barbarian tribes of varying types - a couple of settled kingdoms in the north, there, presumably all drinking magic potions and collecting Roman helmets, and the more mobile nomadic groups further to the south. The Romans have a tenuous grip on many other factions, holding their cities but able to be cast off with little more than a swift kick.
The surprise is that certainly at first you're expected to play as one of these little barbarian tribes, gnawing at the ankles of the fading Roman empire(s). It's an unusual setup for a strategy game, and certainly interesting, particularly if played as one of the migratory tribes. Rather than playing in the traditional "border expanding" style, each of your armies can be turned into a settlement, then back into an army, as you see fit. Putting roots down for a bit allows you to replenish troops and build a couple of tents that bring the usual slew of city improvement benefits (defensive walls a notable absence, of course), but they're vulnerable to attack by the angry Romans.
And the Romans WILL be angry. Because unlike most Total War scenarios, where you're trying to capture cities, Attila sees your early game chipping away at these big, wheezing empires. Stick around in one place too long and you'll get swamped by the Roman legions, when they finally mobilize. You'll be sacking cities, liberating them (and returning them to their original owners, thus securing much-needed allies) and razing them to the ground far more often than taking over.
Until later on, of course (or if you chose one of the more traditional starting points). Once the Roman Empires are properly inundated with barbarian attacks from left, right and centre (and of course once the Huns get their game together and horse-spam the map from the east), it's time to put some proper roots down, and the game starts to feel much more like every other Total War game. Of course, Creative Assembly simply love adding new features and tinkering with the basic model, so there's still plenty to learn, even if you're familiar with the setup.
Full disclosure: I didn't play Rome 2. After the bad press, I decided I could probably live without it, leaving it with Empire: Total War as the only two Total War games in the series I've not played. So there may be some features in Attila that were introduced in Rome 2, and I'd not know. But there is a lot of tricky new stuff in Attila that I don't remember spending time worrying about in Shogun 2.
You only have to mouse over the bonuses and penalties your leaders impart. They have tribal bonuses, combat bonuses, and a million other places where things are different for them than for your other leaders. There is a wealth of information for each leader, and for each direction you can go, and sometimes it feels like this stuff detracts a little from both the shtick of the game (that of raging barbarians overthrowing the decadent empire) and the fun of the thing as well. Coping with swapping out your fur hat and pilum for a special horse and cloak in order to get the right bonuses for what you've earmarked this general to do is kind of laborious. One of the beauties with the Total War series has been its gentle learning curve. Anyone can jump in, move a few armies around and kick a few butts without worrying too much about balancing every statistic in the book. While this is still true, sort of, it does feel that there is more required of a new player in terms of learning to play. I guess I had a similar take on this as Felix did when he reviewed Rome 2 – the consequences of my decisions were just a little confusing. One addition that I really did like was that each army has its own experience system described as ‘traditions’ for that band. If the band is wiped out and the leader is killed, and you create a new army with a fresh leader, you can name it after the old band and revive all of their military traditions - meaning you never really lose all of that army’s special skills.
We are pretty familiar with the amount of time TW games take once you click end turn. Attila is no different. Pop off and make some hot beverage later on during the wait, or invest in a super powerful CPU, to speed it up a little. The version I played was a late beta review copy, but my system certainly struggled. The encyclopedia (which opens a pop up window to their online resource and has always felt a little poorly-designed) took far too long to load every time you wanted to check out anything. Battle scenes often chugged for me as well, whether I set it on ultra (where the graphics are still rather plain) or medium-high, where I'd really expect to have been able to handle things fine. So make sure you have plenty of RAM and a reasonable GPU.
With time, and patience, there is plenty of familiar Total Warfare here. Out of the box Attila is a much more accomplished title than its predecessors. Expanding on the series and being more than just a straightforward re-skin of Rome 2, as some may think. Other than some crashes as a result of Alt-Tabbing and some bewilderingly long load times that made me hover uncertainly over the Ctrl-Alt-Del keys, there were no major bugs. Although I did feel that my CPU fans shouldn’t really have sounded like I was doing the vacuuming at CERN.
I have mixed feelings towards Attila and his marauding horse hordes. The game delivers an interesting and new use of the Total War mechanic, with nomadic units, but I also feel that its overall direction is losing some of the magic of the Total War series, which made me feel a little sad. Of course, the epic feel that makes Total War so much fun is still there, and there’s nothing like firing burning missiles into a Roman town just for the gleeful joy of destruction.
If this relatively obscure episode of history isn’t your thing but you’re jonesing for some Total War, of course, it shouldn’t be too long until the incredible sounding Total War: Warhammer shows up. Apart from that, at least we know that Creative Assembly has a bright future making sci-fi survival horrors.