The time of Charlemagne is an interesting period of history for those who enjoy such things. This was a king who united much of mainland Europe after years of the continent drifting through the dark ages following the stumble and fall of the (Western) Roman Empire. It's fertile ground for a strategy title, and there's plenty of potential conflict and several interesting factions to control.
Age of Charlemagne is a DLC expansion for Total War: Attila, a game that itself was a direct sequel (of sorts) to Total War: Rome II. Creative Assembly has carried on the overarching narrative of the era through to what can only be considered its conclusion, and we're not expecting more from this timeline until Medieval III makes an appearance at some point in the future, whenever that may be.
Charlemagne brings with it a handful of new units, a streamlined map, a bunch of factions to play around with, and a "war weariness" mechanic to give you something new to think about as your game progresses. If you're an avid Total War player then this expansion represents a lot of game and a couple of new twists, but for those waiting for CA to dip a toe in Medieval Europe once again, this probably won't sate your thirst for as long as you might like.
There's a bunch of new scenarios to play through, the biggest and most obvious being the titular campaign that sees the player take on the role of Charlemagne and (attempt to) unite Europe. The starting map has the Christian king's empire spread across what is now France and Germany, with his brother's kingdom sitting pretty much in the centre of it. There's enemies on all sides, and armies raiding your outlying cities from the off, and through this early hostility you need to unite your father's old empire, and then set about converting your neighbours to your religion.
There's a selection of other campaigns to tackle - our personal favourite being King Offa's attempt to forge England out of the various kingdoms of 8th century Britain. Like the main campaign - indeed, like all of those we had a look at - hostility beckons very early on, and it won't be long before there's an invading force knocking at your door. In this case there's battles with the Welsh and Irish kingdoms to your west, and much of the early game is spent fighting your neighbours and then quelling rebellions.
While the campaigns themselves each have their own merits, the streamlined map means there's less scope for expansion and long-term player expression when compared to Attila. In the end the new structure leaves them feeling more like focused scenarios rather than emergent campaigns played out on an expansive map. That's not necessarily a problem, and there's some that might argue that Rome II lacked this kind of focus, and for those players this expansion might well be a welcome change of pace.
There are still a few niggling issues that endure from Attila / Rome II, although perhaps it's unfair to expect these things be fixed here. The turn-based campaign still feels a little bloated, and the faction system that underpins this part of the game is still too vague and over-complicated for our liking. We love the idea of having characterful personalities playing out a narrative in the background of our story of conquest, but for our money CA hasn't quite nailed it yet and rather than giving us interesting decisions to make that enrich the player-driven narrative, at the moment it feels more like extra screens to click through before getting to the interesting bits.
Another campaign had us battling against Christians and Muslims in the area that would eventually come to be called Spain, and again we were at war from the first turn. Perhaps we shouldn't complain about their being too much war in a game called Total War, but with so much going on in the turn-based part of the game at times it can feel like we're being thrown into conflict too soon. With every new iteration bringing new or revised features, each time adding on top of what's already there - in this case the war weariness mechanic that has your citizens become increasingly restless the longer you're at war, especially when you're losing - perhaps in future there should be a touch more legroom afforded to this part of the game.
We're still of the mind that Total War needs a bit of a shake up if the series is going to continue to grow and flourish. That's not to say that we don't enjoy the game as it is now, we most certainly do, but we also believe that there's potential in the formula that's still to be realised. Our latest time spent with the series has only cemented this opinion. Obviously Total War: Warhammer is coming next year and that's going to be a massive change of pace for the franchise, but we also want to see a similar level of risk taking when the studio revisits historical conflict (it might take a while, don't forget they're also working on Halo Wars 2).
Having said all that we don't want to complain too much about issues that were never on the table to be fixed in this DLC, because Age of Charlemagne is a solid expansion to Attila, and it delivers hours of gameplay for anyone who wants to explore this period of history. It does a good job of drawing a line under Rome II and everything that has come since. And, at the end of the day, when it comes to mixing grand strategy and tactical combat, it's safe to say that there's still nobody that does it better than The Creative Assembly.
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