Having spent several hours with the preview build of Total War: Attila, we still can't tell you how much we like the next game in the ongoing strategy series from Creative Assembly.
We do like it, we should probably get that out of the way first. It's a continuation of the work that the studio has done with, most recently, Total War: Rome II. It features an expansive map that encompasses the western world as it was around the time that the Roman empire stumbled and fell, collapsing as it did like a wall made of rickety plastic bricks being smashed down by a petulant child.
Playing the role of the petulant child is Attila the Hun. His horseback horde would sweep across the continent, displacing peoples, destroying all but the hardiest of societal structures, and generally shaking things up and sending the world on a different course through history. It was the time of Attila, and it was a time of great change.
That change manifests itself in the game in a variety of different ways. While much of base stays the same, there are a number of tweaks to the formula that have a fairly substantial impact on the overall experience. We played a 40-turn preview, in the process poking around and taking a few turns with a variety of different starting factions, before settling on the Ostrogoths for our playthrough.
It's hard to get a feel for how far-reaching the changes made by CA are because, when it comes to Total War, forty turns is but a drop in the ocean. We also couldn't play as the Huns, which will be an attractive option for those who grab this game at launch. Our preview was but a taste, a scene-setting introduction to the new game. As such it gave us a series of well signposted hints as to where the late game will go, but it didn't offer anything conclusive. There's still plenty of questions that need answering.
These answers mainly pertain to how the mid to late-game will play out. This is more scenario-driven than previous campaigns in the series, a fact exemplified by the fact that Attila acts as the series' first antagonist. As mentioned before, we played as the Ostrogoths, one of the migratory tribes that feature here, and the choices we made early on will surely have huge repercussions later on. There's other, similar tribes based nearby who've already been subjugated by the Huns, and one options is that we can stick around and liberate them and thereby try and dominate our starting region.
Alternatively we can migrate, taking our armies on a journey across Europe, plundering as we head off in search of somewhere new to call home (and razing cities to the ground as we pass through). With that being the plan it then became a question of where to go. In truth, the options felt a little overwhelming at the first pass, but no doubt this will work out well when playing subsequent campaigns. We opted to take our tribe to northern Italy and leach off the swollen empire, displacing the local Venetian population and using that as a base while we pillaged the surrounding area for resources.
The 40-turn limit proved to be a stumbling block, and the demo's looming end hung around our neck and restricted our options as we battled with new neighbours. There where, however, other options that would have yielded up different events. Alternatively we could have wandered into northern Europe, or gone further west, or stayed where we were. Attila was only born early on in the demo, and as such this very much felt like the quiet before the storm. No doubt it'll make for a different experience depending on what tribe you choose, and what you decide to do with them, when the Huns finally come to the fore.
There's a wealth of options when it comes to picking factions, and they go beyond geographical and unit/building options. Beyond the migratory tribes (that introduced us to the new Horde mechanics - whereby the army can set up camp, make improvements as you would any other faction, before reverting back to being an army and moving on) the player can also take control of either the Franks or Saxons. Doing so will let you play out this period of history from a very different vantage point, and the Saxons will surely be an exciting campaign for anyone with an interest in British history. The Huns will be another tempting option, or there'll be the opportunity to take control of either half of the Roman empire (the Western half that fell, or the Eastern part that endured in one form or another for an additional thousand years) and rewrite history that way. Lastly there's the Sassanids if you want to play through the period from yet another perspective. Given CA's habit of making additional factions available through DLC, we wouldn't be surprised to see even more options become available further down the line.
While this all has the undeniable stamp of Total War on it, it still manages to feel different from the previous games, and perhaps more akin to one of the more focused DLC campaigns, just played out on a much larger scale (though to call it DLC or an expansion probably wouldn't be doing it justice). As such, and as mentioned before, it's hard to grasp how this will all fit together, and whether the new structure will act as a help or a hinderance. In particular, there's the new weather systems that will bring a front of cold sweeping into the south, and that climate change will also play its part in shaping the experience. If it works out as clearly intended, it could make for one of, if not the most engaging Total War campaign to date.
Another change from Rome II sees Creative Assembly trying to add a bit more personality to the campaign, putting much greater emphasis on the power struggle going on behind the scenes between competing families and through in-house squabbling via the returning family trees. Pop-ups appear from time to time to tell you about various events that require your attention, and you must make decisions. These decisions have an impact, but it's very hard to gauge just how much at this point, as the numbers attached feel arbitrary as they come with very little context. There felt like a lack of information which in turn made choices feel uninformed. CA are trying to pull a trick akin to the one made in Crusader Kings II, which is a similarly dense experience, but what Paradox does exceptionally well that doesn't seem as obvious here is they offer more transparency in terms of the numbers being crunched in the background. At times it was hard to work out the significance of what was being asked of us, and it was equally unclear how to turn the tide when conspiratorial forces were raging against us.
The lack of clarity, in this shortened preview build at least, makes it really hard to tell whether these new events are integral or merely bolted on. If they're a fully-formed gameplay element, then either more detail will be need to be added to the UI, thus making decisions feel more informed, or we'll have to learn the importance of the different scenarios and their potential outcomes as we go via trial and error (we sincerely hope it's not the latter). If our choices end up having very little significance in the grand scheme of things, then surely they'll become a nuisance very quickly; just another box to click through as we prepare to hit the "End Turn" button at the conclusion of each round. We certainly hope that CA can find a nice balance here, as the turn-based part of the campaign is already very busy. It's encouraging that they're trying to do new things in this area, but we're also conscious that they might be trying to do too much, or even worse, that they might be trying to do something that simply doesn't fit in with everything else that they're doing.
At the end of the day we're open-minded, and hopeful. If CA can rub a bit more personality into the turn-based element in a way that's not too intrusive, then it's likely going to be a good thing. Again, it's hard to tell just how effective/ineffective these new features are from playing such a short introductory slice. All we can do is project our experience over a larger campaign, and we're loathe to that because this demo is just the start, and players will know that a late-game campaign is a vastly different experience. For more details on the overall features coming to the game, head to our earlier preview, which outlines many of details we're simply not able to comment on after playing this demo.
We've got this far, and we've not even mentioned the battles. If you've played Total War before then you know what to expect: large-scale real-time battles with hundreds/thousands of units, challenging terrain, and paper/scissor/stone tactics on a grand scale. There's dynamic fire that should spice things up some, but we've not really encountered it during this demo. Attila doesn't stray far from the established setup, but there are period-specific units to discover, and no doubt CA will have been tinkering here and there as they look for the perfect balance.
But will they get that perfect balance? That's the question on a lot of lips. Given the state that Rome II shipped in, there's good reason to be cautious with your optimism. We experienced one crash to desktop, and the load times between turns were long (not as long as they were in Rome II though, and it mainly chugged when the AI was working out what to do with the larger empires). Elsewhere it felt pretty solid, and we'll find out in mid-February whether Creative Assembly has used the time to good effect. We're optimistic, it must be said, although we're stopping short of getting really excited as we wait to find out how the new scenario and setup will change up the overall Total War experience, especially as it was when compared to the last outing, Rome II (which despite its technical shortcomings, we were big fans of).
For the reasons mentioned above and in our earlier preview, Total War: Attila has the potential to be the most exciting entry in the series to date. Creative Assembly are certainly taking a few risks with their next game, and frankly, we approve of this tactic. Rome II was a great game, but not without issues. If Attila realises its potential it might be able to offer a similar experience, but one that's been honed and improved, leaner but perhaps with greater focus and more impactful decisions. Our hours spent with the preview build have us wanting more, as much as they have thrown up a few questions, and we look forward to seeing more and getting some answers when the game launches on February 17.
There's some interesting genre entries planned for 2015, although we'll do well to better last year's output; 2014 was a great year for strategy with Civilization: Beyond Earth rubbing shoulders with Endless Legend and a variety of other interesting titles that launched alongside them.
Galactic Civilizations III is a standout title, and Chaos Reborn should also prove a tempting option for fans (especially nostalgic ones). Grand Ages: Medieval and Blitzkrieg 3 are both worth a shout, and Paradox are making a return with Hearts of Iron IV (which we're thoroughly looking forward to after CKII and EUIV).
Toy Soldiers: War Chest is another game with promise, while Mordheim: City of the Damned should emerge from Early Access at some point too (which should keep Warhammer fans happy). On top of all that, as is the way with strategy games, we can expect plenty of expansions to add to the games that we've already got. It looks like this year is going to be another good one for fans of the genre.
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