Creative Assembly has added a number of new features, and in doing so they've created a sandbox that's overflowing with possibilities. Once again a turn-based campaign played on a world map is complimented by real-time battles that take place in a variety of different locations. This time it's not just about the business of empire building, as climate change and a marauding army from the Steppes acts as the catalyst for huge upheaval across the continent. During the turn-based campaign, communities migrate to avoid long winters and sharp swords, leading to a dynamic shift across Europe as tribes relocate. One of Attila's great strengths is that while there are plenty of historical parallels, but there's still room for unexpected events to change the course of a campaign.
There's a nice blend of playable factions. The barbarian tribes, the Saxons and Franks, are challenging options that involve relocation and expansion. The migratory tribes, the Goths and Vandals, are also difficult to master thanks to the new horde mechanics (you can uproot your tribe until you find a new home, get different bonuses as you move them to their new kingdom, and there's added options as your army sacks/loots/razes the cities it meets along the way - indeed, a migrating tribe needs to live off the wealth of other factions by constantly fighting its way across the map), but like the barbarians they also offer opportunities for player expression on the world map. As is the way with Total War games, the player is given a starting point and then given the freedom rewrite history. You can follow events as they happened (for example, one objective when playing as the Visigoths is to sack Rome, or you can take the Vandals to North Africa), or go off on your own tangent and take history in an altogether more fantastical direction.
The Sassanids represent a gentler option thanks to their starting position, giving the player a steadier base to manage, plus a chance to ease into expansion. It's an excellent option for a Total War novice. The Huns and their horseback armies will be an attractive option for both new and existing players (although learning the nuances of a cavalry-heavy army can take a while). They offer destruction on a global scale and are formed of roving armies that sweep in and out of conflict. Playing as the Huns isn't about conquest in the traditional sense; it's more focused on sacking and looting enemy factions, or squeezing them for tribute.
Players can also control either the Eastern or Western Roman Empires. This is a nice option for a Rome II player who grew a fledgling nation into a hulking behemoth last time around, and who wants to continue that story by resisting the course of history and the advances of the Hunnic Empire. There's something here for every type of player; you can either control a swollen empire and keep it steady, or lead a small tribe to glory. Actually, leading a small tribe might not involve too much glory, and players may have to set their sights lower than that and aim for mere survival. It's easy to overreach in Attila, and twice we lost games because we tried to bite off more than we could chew.
The historical backdrop of turmoil keeps things interesting, and the dynamic sandbox offers plenty of surprises. With so many displaced tribes and with rising powers springing up across the continent, there's often an unexpected twist in the tail of any decision. On top of the empire building, Creative Assembly has bolted on a few new features to the turn-based element. Most notably there's increased emphasis on political intrigue and the struggle for power within each faction. They've tried to give your entourage a bit of personality via in-game events, but many of the decisions are so dry that it's hard to form a connection to the characters.
It's also a bit tricky to work out how the systems intersect. We never mismanaged any of our factions to the point of civil war, but that's a genuine possibility. The idea of adding more character to the political side of the game is a good one and one of which we approve, but it perhaps could have been delivered more succinctly. It's hard to invest in the characters when they're presented as just another menu to click through. There's certainly room for improvement here, and we're looking forward to seeing where CA take this in the future.
On the battlefield things are much as they ever were, but new tricks like dynamic fire, plus historically-relevant units, keeps the fighting fresh. There's a series of subtle changes and unit advances from Rome II that long-standing fans will appreciate; as always it seems that Creative Assembly has done their homework.
Sieges have been improved, and there's more options for players as they either attack or defend strongholds. Smaller towns now have the option to be more defensible, and with armies rolling through barricades and fighting over multiple capture points (some units are better at capturing than others); battling over cities and towns has definitely got more interesting thanks to the changes made.
There's also a greater ebb and flow in battle as troops rally much more easily than before. It's probably the most notable shift when considering the action on the battlefield. The fluctuating frontline does change the feel of a skirmish, it's less static than before, and there's more opportunities to pull things back from the brink. It's great when it works in your favour; when a unit that had broken returns to the fray and helps turn the tide. On the other hand it's annoying when a rallied enemy unit returns to haunt you. Such is war.
Campaign battles are supplemented by custom options, and like the online mode, players are able to spend a certain amount of points on units of their choosing, and then scrap it out against an enemy of their choice. There's historical scenarios to play through as well, and these preprepared battlefields take the player to sites across the game world where important battles took place at various points in history. On top of the versus online mode there's also a co-op campaign, although we didn't get to try this. Simply put, there's plenty to do.
By the time the second of our campaigns came to an abrupt end and we had embarked on a third, we had come to the inescapable conclusion that we liked Total War: Attila a lot. However, we're also beginning to think that CA might need to mix things up more in the future, rather than just layering new features on top of their existing framework. For the most part the new campaign mechanics compliment the old, but yet the campaign is starting to feel a little bloated in places. However, the underlying formula still works. The latest entry in the series is more focussed than Rome II, but there's also more room for satisfying emergent scenarios and unexpected twists and turns. Maybe not a step forward when compared to Rome II, Attila still stands as a worthy companion piece, and the scene is set nicely for whatever Creative Assembly does next...