Feature Article

The Politics and Posturing of Total War: Attila

Here comes the Hun.

The life of a nomad is lonely and dangerous. This became clear during the hours I spent in the last week playing a pre-release version of Creative Assembly's upcoming strategy game Total War: Attila. Disappointingly, playing as the Huns was not a possibility in the preview version, but I wanted a taste of the migratory life, and thus decided I would lead the Ostrogoths to victory against the other cultures dominating the late fourth century. I knew little of the Ostrogoths, but a life without borders sounded terribly appealing.

What I didn't know is that by 395 AD, the year TW: Attila's grand campaign begins, the Huns had already subjugated the Ostrogoths. It was not an easy situation to inherit, particularly given how new the mechanics of migratory peoples was to Total War. I began as a horde, but I chose to settle quickly into an abandoned settlement and sent my two pre-existing armies out to conquer. Such settlements aren't blessed with full fertility, so I knew that I wouldn't be filling my food stores as quickly as I'd like, but I presumed my fledgling village might provide some sustenance for the years to come.

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The Huns were having none of it. My visions of exploiting the new Total War options of plundering and pillaging were obscured by a crushing truth: I wasn't ready to face my would-be oppressors. I selected the diplomacy tab and rang up Evaric, the leader of the Gepid tribe for no particular reason; I just figured I'd take a militant stance early, and chose technologies from my research tree that would support an aggressive approach. Alas, the Huns, who had been busying themselves harassing a nearby Eastern Roman city, broke away when one of my armies--known by the not-so-intimidating title "The Tree-Breakers"--journeyed too close. I was able to retreat the first time the Huns approached, but upon a second attack, I was forced to fight. It was a joy to return to the series' giant battlefields (I certainly wasn't going to auto-resolve a battle I had little chance of winning), but General Saphrax and his under-armored spearmen and bowmen were annihilated.

Meanwhile, I hadn't been feeding my populace. They were restless and lived in squalor; I'd done a poor job of giving them incomes and infrastructures. From my lone city a group of traitors rose, and I knew my chances of dominating the landscape were now too low for me to carry on. I tried to fill my coffers by demanding tributes from other civilizations via the diplomatic menu, but I had too few puppet states. My homeless armies were a horde once more, and while I could have established a camp anywhere I chose (using the stance menu), I abandoned my dreams of roaming the plains and razing towns. I needed a true empire, and the Sassanids seemed like a fine, fine choice.

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My time in charge of the Sassanids was a lot more comfortable, and gave me a chance to play with the game's other novel additions. One of them is the political system that governs factional power struggles. The goal: to maintain your ruling family's power and avoid the interference of nobles that seek to usurp it. None of the Sassanid nobility has gotten out of hand, so I have yet to put many of those options to use, though the idea of assassinating one of my provinces' governors has some dastardly appeal. Instead, I have busied myself assigning governorships to the grandees, securing loyalty from family members, and arranging marriages both within my faction and without. This is all very simple to accomplish once you grow accustomed to Total War: Attila's busy interface, though understanding exactly how these options affect your progress and potency doesn't come as easily. I have a handle on the basics at this point; I don't yet feel like the mastermind of a grand political plan just yet, however. I can manipulate the puppets, but I have yet to make them dance within the preview build's 40-turn limit.

I can certainly march with the best of them, however. My city of Nisibis was nestled within the Osroene province, which was also occupied by two Eastern Roman Empire settlements. Unrest broke out, a consequence of my failure to construct improvements that improved public order. (Instead of upgrading the village into a town, I had built stables, which have a detrimental effect on happiness levels.) And thus the first Sassanid Civil War began--and the first battle that I had a chance of emerging victorious ensued.

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Fortunately, I had kept my armies healthy and well-equipped in spite of my decision to choose mostly civil technology. The revolutionaries attacked Nisibis, but I had a good array of troops on hand, as well as three so-called deployables: a firepit and two sets of stakes, which you can place on the ground as defensive measures. I deployed those at the obvious chokepoints and braced for the assault. The prototypical Total War battle ensued, featuring over a thousand men locked in heated skirmishes. The rock-paper-scissors relationships between units are easy to understand, so as always, good positioning and battlefield management are what win battles. Well, that an bit of AI exploitation; the preview version of TW: Attila features many of the same AI troubles that previous games held. In this case, enemy troops were more than willing to stand in place while arrows rained on them from my archers and defensive towers. It was nice to win, but it didn't feel like a fair fight.

Another recurrent problem in Total War games is the array of performance problems and bugs that usually emerge. A preview build may not represent the final experience, but playing Total War: Attila was a sluggish affair, both on the strategic map and within battlegrounds. It also goes without saying that I was still invested, turn by turn, in the future of my empire, not a surprise in a series known for absorbing players for weeks, months, and years. As for the Huns, well, I didn't even encounter them during my time as the Sassanid. The Ostrogoths, on the other hand, are only a memory now--both in real life, and in my struggles to maintain my might in Total War: Attila. I wish your own empires all the best for when the game is fully released on February 17.

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Kevin VanOrd

Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.

Total War: Attila

Total War: Attila

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