The Darkest of Ages
A good way to make something sit still for a long time is shake it up so egregiously that it’s left sitting there, dazed. Europe faced a similar situation at the ending of its Classical period, as the order that had begun to establish itself instead began, both in steady increments and sudden avalanches of chaos, to collapse. The peoples of Eastern Europe fled the growing might of the Hunnic Horde, smashing themselves desperately against the splintering walls of Rome.
The Total War series has picked out various times of interregnum and conquest from around the world, from Napoleon to the Sengoku Jidai; yet even for a series that thrives in settings of chaos and unstable potential, Attila’s descent into the Dark Ages is perhaps their most morbid, and certainly one of their most fascinating.
After the disappointing release of Attila’s much-hyped, much-awaited predecessor, Rome II, the Total War series had taken a hit in their reputation, which was still riding quite high from the enormous success of their last sequel, Shogun II. Many reviews out now compare Attila to Rome II, and rightly so: they feature much of the same map, and many of the same factions. Yet the difference is stark, and Attila, unique as it is, is viewed through the lens of Rome II’s flop.
The game’s playable factions are divided into several cultural groups: The Romans, divided into the dwindling East and utterly collapsing West empires; the Norse (Day One DLC only, of course), who find their lands growing increasingly useless in the rapidly cooling period of Europe; The Huns, who wander in landless hordes, hungry and armed to the teeth, and must constantly watch their back for the dozens of subjugated, furious peoples left in their wake; the Gothic Kingdoms, who must raze their homes, salt their fields, and pack up everything in the hopes that if they run far enough west, there will be food and shelter; the Germanic Kingdoms, who must keep one eye on their civic situation as it is flooded by hungry, foreign-talking refugees, and the other on the desperate, marching hordes from the east; and the Iranian Sassanids, who must constantly beat back the Eastern Romans while hoping that the Huns never look south.
All in all, it’s a remarkably desperate situation, carefully designed to bite you in the ass at any end. This is a huge step away from the surprisingly flat Europa of Rome II, and it’s not the only change. Much of the awful UI that made everything happen in a tiny window at the bottom of the screen has been revamped, allowing the player to navigate information with less squinting. Unfortunately, there are still a million menus to navigate in understanding one’s faction and provinces, but most of these are helpfully explained by the advisor. It would’ve been nice if the well-adjustable camera controls had been explained or even listed in the key mapping menu, but hey, at least those controls are there.
Attila is made up of strong setting and bold experimentation, woven well into the gameplay and a little sloppily into the UI, and executed into one of the dirtiest, most desperate Grand Strategy games I’ve ever played. It may not be easy, but the advisors are explicative and helpful, and the journey through the dark is memorable.