There had been nothing to suggest anything more exciting than a half-hour presentation about the next DLC campaign for Total War: Rome II, but as we sat down we soon realised there was much more to this press event. What followed was four hours of a slow and steady stream of jaw-dropping revelations.
Total War: Attila would not, as we had previously thought, be an expansion to Total War: Rome II. Despite its obvious similarities to Barbarian Invasion, the expansion to Rome: Total War, The Creative Assembly had something completely different planned. In about fifteen minutes we went from "It's gotta be a new DLC campaign" to "A major expansion, perhaps?" to "Okay, but it will be the same type of game, much like Napoleon and Empire: Total War". And there our minds remained for another fifteen minutes, while the communications manager Al Bickham did his best to make himself heard over the crisp munching Dutch journalists.
Over three hundred years have passed since the Total War: Rome II campaign end date, and darkness has descended on Europe. Literally, as someone had accidentally lowered the brightness of the projector in the conference room, and the short trailer Al Bickham shows us is doing too good a job of illustrating why the period after the fall of the Roman Empire is referred to as "The Dark Ages". Dystopian video clips accompanied by a menacing monologue, by none other than Attila himself, and it soon dawns on us that the Total War series finally got its first antagonist.
Al Bickham explains that the year is 395 AD and the Roman Empire has just split into an eastern and a western empire after decades of internal and external strife. In the north, the Goths sharpen their axes and whispers from the east speak of the Huns and Alans. The Western Roman Empire faced civil war and even in the more stable Eastern Roman Empire, problems are rife. Progressively longer and colder winters usher in the northerners, and diseases ravage the lands. A young, nervous British colleague works up the courage to raise his hand.
"Will this be like... Napoleon but for Rome II," he asks in a trembling voice, while three other journalists, just about to ask the same thing, lowers their hands in unison.
Al Bickham does not respond, at least not in our heavily dramatised and embellished recollection of the events, but turns around and nods to the mounted Centurion beside him, who with a crack of his whip summons ten blonde plebeians serving wine and grapes to distract us while he is booting up an early version of the game.
"The time difference between Rome II and Attila is greater than between Medieval II and Empire. It's the first days of the Dark Ages, and it differs both architecturally, culturally and militarily from before," explains one of the developers.
All previous concerns about recycled content, publisher conservatism or developer laziness are soon laid to rest, as we, over the next three hours, get to see and experience what promises to be exactly the kind of game The Creative Assembly needs to win back the favour of their audience after Total War: Rome II's mixed reception. For while Rome II was created with "bigger, prettier and more accessible" as key words, and managed to sell more than any previous Total War game, Total War: Attila is characterised by an increased depth and a raised difficulty level.
The Creative Assembly has decided to adopt the heavily debated theory that it was partly radical climate change that drove the northern nations down south on their inevitable collision course with the Roman empires. A permanent snow cover moving slowly southwards as the winters become progressively longer; a questionable decision from the point of view of authenticity, but a stroke of genius as far as the gaming experience goes. Longer winters not only mean reduced income and reduced food production, it also serves as a concrete motivation for both players and computer-controlled kingdoms to venture to warmer hunting grounds and thus simulate the actual course of history.
Migration brings both religious friction and all sorts of diseases, Total War: Attila intends to simulate this in more detail than any previous game in the series. The culture of Rome II is replaced with religion, and the familiar religious agents are reintroduced, but players will also be able to change the religion of their kingdom, if another religion's influence seems to take over, for instance, or if the bonus effects seem more enticing.
Less appealing are the different types of diseases that are promised. None are named, but just like religions, they have different characteristics and effects, which in turn will affect how quickly and in what ways they are spread and how it affects the city, army or character in question. It may be wise to suspend all trade with an affected country, or put a town in quarantine until it has recovered. In order to facilitate or further sabotage the player, they have also reinstated the "Squalor" system, which represents the health of a town.
It's all about conveying a sense of impending apocalypse, facing the inevitable invasion of the Huns. Attila and his people will not be playable, but The Creative Assembly seem rather pleased to build the series' first real antagonist by allowing the player to read the rumours of a growing kingdom in the east, and its mysterious, sinister leader before the final, inevitable clash. The developers on site were deliberately withholding details on the design of the Huns, and whether they happen to be made available to players at a later date in the form of downloadable content, but the decision not to make them playable still strikes us as odd.
In the short demonstration of the campaign map, we get a guided tour through the misfortunes of the Western Roman Empire. We spot a more comprehensive, flexible and informative user interface, a new map view with helpful new overlays, a Civilization-style technology tree, the return of the family tree and a less restrictive camera. Meanwhile Al Bickham tirelessly talks about a new system for visualising and sharing the history of the faction with the player, for example via posts on the game forum. What this means in concrete terms is still a bit foggy, but it probably means a whole lot of graphs.
So far it's hardly anything to raise the heart rates of the assembled members of the press, but Bickham completes his demonstration by showing one of the more spectacular new features in Total War: Attila, namely the ability to completely destroy a province. A player will at any time be able to choose to destroy a city and have its metropolitan area burn to the ground, leaving behind a completely devastated province with only a smoldering heaps of ruins. The city can be rebuilt, but it will take both time and money, and the province will be severely impaired for many years to come.
The lights are turned on, and we're ushered into the next room. Smiling game developers line the way, and the reason is two rows of computers, all prepared with a combat scenario to showcase some of the additions and changes made to the real-time combat.
"I must warn you," says Dom Starr, campaign designer for Rome II. "This battle is terribly difficult. You have about two hours, but do not worry if you can not do it even in the third or fourth attempt; most cannot beat it at all."
We're left in Dom Starr's helpful hands. After a quick overview of the battlefield, we understand what was meant by "terribly difficult". We control a small western Roman garrison in a war-torn city somewhere in Britain. They explain that the city looks as it does due to the besieging army of invading Saxons, and the longer a town is besieged the worse it will look on the battlefield.
Had it not been besieged at all, but attacked immediately, we would have been able to see civilians in the streets and squares abruptly interrupt their daily routines to either flee or, in rare cases, take up arms to help the defending forces. We have to settle with a mounted general unit, two medium units with spears, four slightly heavier swordsmen units, one scout cavalry unit, two units of crossbowmen and two wall mounted catapults. We're facing an army made up of twice as many units of all disciplines, and then some.
As we try and get a grip of the situation, fumbling with the keyboard in an attempt to open the improved overview map, Dom Starr spots us. He goes over the basics of how to deploy units, use abilities and what new features to look for. We should be careful as there is a new system for dynamic fire, allowing fire from a burning building, for example, to spread to adjacent buildings, trees or barricades, and thus burn down a whole neighborhood (or worse). Fires in a city leads to reduced morale for the defenders, and hefty repair costs to consider for whoever's left in control when the fighting is over. Given the four catapults outside my walls and enemy infantry equipped with torches, burning buildings appear inevitable. These torch-bearing units will set fire to all the buildings they pass regardless of whether their masters wish it or not.
We're also told we can deploy improvised barricades in a number of predetermined locations in the town. These act like little walls on which troops might be placed, but they can rather easily be destroyed by catapults as well as by melee units and fires. He is used to aiding newcomers and it shows, but we've long since stopped listening; a plan has been hatched. Trained fingers places barricades, preparing the cavalry for flanking their four catapults and cordoning off the main streets.
"Have you played a lot of Total War?" he asks.
"Some," we reply.
Dom moves on to help the other journalists, and we take stock of the battlefield. It features a much more detailed and realistic environment than in any previous Total War game. Farms line the many roads in and out of the city, and the town as well as the many adjacent villages look like they're actually inhabited. No reused elements of Total War: Rome II can be spotted, and it is with great excitement that we put our plan into action and begin the battle.
After five minutes, we hear the first expletive from the row across from me. The British writer who asked the question about Napoleon that was on everyone's lips has just lost. He gets a couple of additional pointers from Dom and tries again, but before long two more anguished screams are heard, this time from a couple of Dutch journalists. Those are the first of many expletives expressed as those around us bite the dust. But we soldier on.
And so it happens, just barely fifteen minutes into our two-hour shift started - Costly Victory. Half of my troops remain, and the enemies that are not lifeless beneath my exhausted crossbowmen are escaping through the torched remains of the city. We assume they must have exaggerated the difficulty of the scenario a little bit, and ask if we can play again.
It caused a little stir and Dom returns with Al and many of the developers we previously only met in passing. In retrospect, we recall this moment accompanied by confetti, trumpets and twenty jugglers, when they then told us that so far we're the only ones in the world to win the battle at the first time of asking (with the exception of the world's best Rome II player).
The remaining hours are shrouded in a conceited mist, my modesty lying forgotten among the vanquished Saxons corpses. Looking beyond the pride of our glory we're convinced that Total War: Attila corrects many of Rome II's most obvious shortcomings. The new depth is certainly enticing, but what state the game will be in when it is launched sometime in the next year is impossible to predict. The Creative Assembly have something of dark past in this regards, but we can live with bugs as long as that statue in our honour that they totally not jokingly promised to place somewhere in Rome is there.
Loading next content