Despite the foreboding name, for years I’ve played every entry in the Total War series in much the same way I play its strategy game cousin Civilization. I putter around for fifty or so turns creating an empire—making sure my citizens are happy, investing in various cultural milestones, and just all-around building something where these entirely fictional people go “Oh wow, did you hear about that city? I wish I lived there instead of this miserable hellhole on the other side of the map.”
Not in Total War: Attila. This game gives no quarter. More than any other entry in the series, Total War: Attila is about...well, waging total war.
Et tu, Visigoths?
It’s 390 AD, there’s a grand party known as “The Fall of Rome,” and everyone’s invited. Even you. You just have to choose a side.
You can don your maroon and gold skirt and try to save Rome. Both the Western and Eastern Roman Empires are available, and the two are by far the biggest factions in the game. Like, enormous. Rome is a besieged shadow of its former glory, but it’s not going down without a fight—even if that fight is a bit like trying to steer the Titanic away from a glacier.
Then there’s the titular Attila and his Hunnic Empire, crossing the land on horseback and leaving destruction in its wake.
And then there are the various barbarian tribes, some on horseback, some on foot, but all looking for a piece of the ol’ Roman Empire. Everybody has to have some place they call home, even if it used to be someone else’s home instead. Out of some sort of blood loyalty, I signed on to lead the lowly Saxons. In 390 AD the Saxons haven’t even reached England yet. In fact, that’s your first goal.
Starting the game, I’ve got the Angles to the north, Romans to the south, Franks to the west, and jolly ol’ England a bit further west. And it’s here I find out what differentiates Attila from past Total War games. The game pops up a warning as soon as I start:
“They made ready for war,” it says. It’s my first campaign directive, with multiple factions gunning for me.
“Sounds good,” I think. I start my research queue with a military technology, Regional Defense Force. I build an Artisan in my city of Tulifurdum. I move my initial garrison of troops northward a bit to look menacing towards those damn Angles. I assign one cousin or another to govern Tulifurdum in my absence. And then, with the satisfied sigh of a ruler who is patiently guiding his men towards glory, I end my turn.
And all hell breaks loose.
Apparently I had a group of ships in the English Channel that I didn’t even know about. Said ships are immediately set upon by a Frankish fleet, wiped out in seconds.
Then the Angles march across the hills and attack the garrison I just moved northward, launching us into one of Total War’s real-time battles. I’m surprised to realize the “tiny garrison” I moved is actually a full army of about a thousand troops, and even more surprised to find we’re fighting in dense fog. I can’t see more than maybe thirty feet in any direction, which makes defending a small river crossing a bit of a tricky proposition.
Did I mention this is the first turn? I’ve literally started the game, taken a preliminary stab at empire building, and then clicked the game equivalent of “Okay.” And now I’m already in danger of losing.
So I did what any self-respecting Emperor would do—I took my ball and went home. Or, in less metaphorical terms, I started the whole game over.
This time I sent that lone ship aground and took over the town of Camulodunum, just north of London. When the Franks came and razed Camulodunum to the ground I built a second army, marched west, and razed their town to the ground. I waited until the Angles begged me for a peace treaty, and then took their city for my own instead.
In a bloody world, I covered myself in blood. I wasn’t the only one—each turn, notifications would pop up saying this-or-that faction was eliminated from the game. I crushed the Franks. I crushed the Angles. I set my sights on Rome.
Attila is not a friendly game. Creative Assembly’s maybe found the perfect setting for a series called “Total War”—a period of history that thrives on desolation and chaos. There’s none of the solemn statesmanship of Rome: Total War, the bureaucracy of Empire, the chivalry of Medieval, nor the honor of Shogun.
Attila is bloodlust, regardless of which faction you choose.
One last note: Make no mistake: This is a preview, and not a review. It’s fitting that Creative Assembly has decided to examine the fiery downfall of Rome with Attila because the fiery disaster of Rome II still burns somewhere not far behind us. I did notice some issues I’m hoping will get resolved before release—long AI turn lengths (upwards of twenty or thirty seconds at times), weird (sometimes unresponsive) enemy AI on the real-time battlefield, and some slowdown during the introductory cutscenes.
In other words, it’s a Total War game. But this is just a warning, not a condemnation (yet). It’s hardly fair or appropriate to judge a preview build on those concerns, not least because I’m not going to put in the time to finish an entire campaign in a preview build. We’ll see what the state of Total War: Attila is when the full game releases in February.