For The Love Of Total War

It’s 425 AD, and Europe is burning.

Everywhere you look, war rages.

Once great cities are gone, replaced by scarred, desolate lands.

Those that remain are fought over like bones amidst a pack of hungry dogs.

Some are aflame. Others are under siege, ready to fall.

The armies of Attila the Hun are looting Greece.

The Saxons and the Germanic Langobards are fighting a brutal war around what is now modern day Austria.

The Ostrogoth’s are locked in a deadly tussle with the Gaul’s and separatists from what was once the Western Roman Empire are trying to claw out an existence in Southern Spain.

The mighty empire of which they were once a part is gone. I know that because I just completed my conquest of Italy, and they were nowhere to be seen. Instead, I came across a couple of smaller factions – Italia, Septimania – who had carved out a piece of those fertile lands, and one faded superpower – Macedonia – desperately clinging on.

I achieved my conquest through a combination of guile and sheer brute force.

As a Viking lord, representing the Geats, my ancestral home is in Scandinavia, which I took over early, wiping out my Jute and Danish cousins as quickly as time and my growing economy would allow me to. Once their territories and resources were in my hands, I signed alliances with my southern neighbours, to protect myself whilst I turned my attention to Caledonia et Hibernia – now Scotland and Ireland – and the Celtic tribes.

I quickly overcame them, and headed south.

Having crossed Hadrian’s Wall (where I fought an almighty battle with the Caledonians) I found myself in a ten year quagmire spending blood and treasure on a seemingly unwinnable series of wars against local rebels who, at first, were impossible to pacify or fully conquer.

But I prevailed … and once I had, I turned my attention to mainland Europe … and then to dreaming of Rome.

This is Attila Total War, which before last year was the latest in the Total War series from Creative Assembly.

It was, then, their most ambitious title to date. Another game has been released since, but I’ll get to that later. For the moment let’s focus on barbarian Europe and what makes this particular game so compelling.

For a start it is fantastically playable, magnificently dark and complex enough to keep the most avid strategy fan hooked, although not so tough that it will scare away the newcomer.

The aim of a Total War title seems clear enough; conquest.

Bloody, ruthless conquest, and no other game series lets you play at Armchair General with this much detail and in such gory glory.

But before you ever see a battlefield, you are faced with the daunting (at first) task of maintaining your lands and your economy. Your forces (and your people) need to be housed, and fed, and catered to. You have to provide entertainment, culture and even religion.

Keeping them happy is easy in the early stages, but eventually you have to think about every new building that goes up; some increase the squalor, which makes disease a possibility. Others involve too great a consumption of resources like food. That, too, becomes a worry later.

Researching new technology helps, but it takes time to develop anything really hard-hitting.

Diplomacy is a must. You can negotiate with other factions, make alliances, demands, sign trade deals … and declare war.

The complexity is phenomenal, and could be intimidating for some.

But all of it is worth it when you put one of your kitted out armies onto the field.

That’s when you know you’re involved in something special.

The campaign takes place on a glorious 3D map of towns and cities and mountains and plains and forests and rivers. You move your armies around this map until they reach the enemy, and then you enter a battlefield reflecting your surroundings.

If you are in a mountain pass, that’s where you will fight. If you are on the edge of a town, you will see it in the distance. If you are sacking a city, you will have to scale or destroy the walls to capture the key points in it, and thus claim new lands.

With thousands of troops at your command and the enemy in your sights, you feel part of something big. Really big. Everything about the battles is, frankly, incredible; the sights of war, the sounds of it and (especially with the Blood and Gore downloadable content pack) the brutality of it really comes to life.

Weather rushes in, bringing driving rain, snow or even sand.

It effects weapons too; using flaming arrows and fire projectiles is a no-no in a downpour.

I’ve been playing Total War games for years, having bought every one of them since I was convinced enough by a review of Rome to give it a try. It was, and remains, a phenomenal game, with a richness no other strategy game I’d ever played had.

Since then, like every other player, I have been entranced by Medieval II and its spectacular add-on Kingdoms, been frustrated by the occasional brilliance but well documented faults of the staggeringly ambitious Empire (and it’s far more polished sequel-expansion Napoleon) and been delighted by the genius and design of Shogun 2 and its own add on pack Fall of The Samurai.

Rome 2 … well, Rome 2 we endured for the first year.

We endured it although it was a difficult experience, being launched badly flawed and in need of a lot of TLC.

A dozen patches and three campaign add-on’s later they released a massive free expansion involving the Roman Civil War between Caesar Octavian and his rivals, and with The Emperors Edition gave us a version of the game that we could finally really enjoy, if not outright love.

Indeed, Attila shipped with a number of the features fans thought Rome 2 was lacking, including the Family Tree, which puts you at the heart of a dynasty and makes the generals and statesman feel somehow more real.

Its absence from Rome 2 was one of the premier causes of complaint about that game, along with its hard to grasp politics system.

Some says it’s cosmetic; well the family tree in Attila just makes your generals and main characters feel more substantial, and you get attached to them quite easily, and often with shocking results.

When my family lost its eldest son in a bloody battle with the Danes, early in my current campaign, I put aside my economic expansion plans and built an army to hunt down every relative of their king and I massacred them all before sacking their capital city.

I burned it to the ground, rebuilding it after eradicating the bloodline completely.

This is what Total War does to you, and Attila does it better than any other title in the series.

Everything just looks and feels right with that game, as if the lessons of 15 years of making the series had all been learned and folded into this one.

And not only all the great features we came to know and love, but a host of brand new ones, such as the ability to play as a horde; literally a traveling circus of soldiers and citizens which doesn’t settle in one area with cities and towns like a traditional Total War game.

Horde factions move around uprooting the whole empire every turn, taking conquest on the road, looting and burning and killing as it goes, settling only when you find somewhere warm and safe from the cold that creeps south with every passing year of gameplay.

(Each turn in Total War Attila lasts 3 months. After some years, ice starts  to cover the north of the world … migration is essential, and that brings with it war.)

Are there negatives? Sure.

The game is graphics intensive to a fare-thee-well and you need a pretty decent rig to run it with all the eye candy maxed out.

It’s time consuming. Playing through one of the campaigns takes dedication and effort, sometimes weeks of three and four hour sessions to complete the major objectives.

The AI can be decidedly dumb at times too; more than once it has sacked cities rather than capture them, even when doing so would have exposed me to great danger.

Some fans complain that the AI also tends to raze settlements too much, leaving much of the map desolate … but that’s a matter of taste. I like the idea of it, and moving your armies into territory which has been reduced to rubble allows you to expand in a different way, resettling towns and cities with your soldiers. (It depletes your army and treasury enormously; some would say war is the cheaper – and easier – option, but I love that you have the choice.)

More pressing is the downloadable content gripe, one that’s frequently aired on the forums.

The game itself cost me £30 and before it was “finished” I’d spent that again (and the rest) on additional factions and the must-have “blood and gore” add-on.

The system, which was first used as far back as Empire, has become typical to the series (and I own every single piece of it), but this was the first game where several packs have been released so close to the date of the game’s official launch … and that’s made people question whether or not the base game provided value for money.

To me, the additional factions are always welcome, which is why I snapped them all up.

The chance to experience the game from a different corner of the map or to play as a different culture is not to be turned down lightly. In addition, there are several of those DLC packs which have added campaigns to the main game; the Charlemagne add-on for Attila is quite simply superb as it adds a ton of features to the base game.

Still it’s a contentious point, and one of many.

Those who think it is an excuse for games being released half finished, or simply born of greed, lean one way. Those of us who think the games could only have become so epic in scope in bit-by-bit releases are on the other. I think my side probably wins out, or the business model would have collapsed.

As a result of this, Rome 2’s game map, by the time it was done, stretched from Britain in the north to the sands of Africa and as far as Asia in the east. There were over 30 cultures and factions to play as and nearly 100 smaller states, controlled by the AI, to crush or subjugate.

Attila’s roster is just as impressive, and the map just as imposing. These are Grand games in every sense of the word; no other series gives you such a diverse range of options for replayability. These games – and it would be remiss to give a shout-out to Shogun 2, which takes place on a map of Imperial Japan and which many consider to be the finest game in the Total War series – are at the absolute apex of real time strategy titles.

There are moments playing them when they astound you.

And yet everything that had come before pales in comparison to the latest game in the Total War series, the one that brought it a slew of new fans and gave those of us who’ve been around from the start the greatest gaming experience many of us have ever had.

It’s Total War Warhammer, the first time this series has veered into fantasy.

Total War Warhammer is the finest game I’ve ever played, bar none.

I say this as a life-long strategy fan.

I was a Dungeons and Dragons nerd when it was still being played with books and dice. I turned my first snooker table into a battlefield (made of a Subbuteo pitch turned upside down and draped over books to represent hills) on which wars would be fought using figures from Hero Quest, Crossbows & Catapults and a host of other games. I bought the old Red Storm Rising and Hunt For Red October board games and filled a hardback diary with complicated rules and alternative scenarios for them. I got hooked on Dune when it came out, and then Command and Conquer. I spent a grand on a computer just so I could play Generals on release day. I bought another rig specifically to play Empire Total War and the one I’m currently writing this on was purchased in part because I wanted to see Attila played on full detail with nothing missing.

For all that, I told myself that Total War Warhammer held no affection for me.

Because I’d gotten to love the historical Total War games, even Rome 2, which grew on me as it got better and better. The way they let you re-write history is what keeps me coming back. I knew there was a lot of complicated lore attached to the Warhammer series which just sounded too convoluted by far. I knew too it combined swords and shields, magic, monsters and World War I and 2 style weapons, and that melee combat was often decided by overpowered hero units.

It sounded like a mish-mash which could not possibly work well.

I’d never gone in for the Warhammer table top games for all my love of the genre. The whole idea seemed like a stretch and there were things that, for all this rig can do, soundly technically unfeasible on anything but a supercomputer and I didn’t intend to buy one just to play it.

When it was released the reviews were so astounding – from the magazines and sites and from the fans, those who’d bought it – that I changed my position on the first day. It was all well and good watching sensational looking game footage on many of the videos, but I wanted to hear from those who had purchased it or actually played it and they seemed to love it.

So I paid the money, and got my copy. I played it for hours.

Everything about it was quality, and with the early fan modifications – which allowed players to conquer anywhere on the map, something that the game-makers had limited to support the lore – it is the most playable of all the games.

There were not so many factions as the other games; just five – the dwarves, Chaos, the Empire, Greenskins and the Vampire Counts – on release but that number now stands at seven with the inclusion of the Beastmen and, lately, the Wood Elves, not to mention that they’ve put in some sub-factions.

So now, the choices are there.

And what glorious choices they are.

Every faction plays differently. Each is fun in a different way. I have a particular affinity for the Vampire Counts, and those overpowered hero units I thought would be off-putting are one of the attractions; the VC have one of the most powerful in Vlad Von Carstein, a vampire lord who has numerous special abilities, including one that lets him place his entire army in the vanguard position, behind the enemy for ambush.

Other heroes have the ability to cast powerful battlefield spells, which is handy when enormous lumbering monster units come pounding towards you. The Empire don’t get the monsters – its spell-casters are the best – but they get tanks and cannons and rockets and men with guns. The dwarves can bring small helicopters into the fight, and utilise catapults and other siege weapons. The elves ranged units are deadly. The Greenskins get a little of everything, and tough, cheap units which can overwhelm the enemy. The VC gets no ranged units, but can muster bats and huge flying vampire creatures and dragons. They can turn the tide of any fight. They can “raise the dead” on the main map, enabling them to assemble entire armies from battlefield corpses.

The dwarf front-lines rarely crumble under pressure. The Empire has the best all round forces. The Beastmen specialise in hit-and-run war. The Greenskin tribes fight amongst themselves when they don’t have a war going on, but fight strongly on the battlefield. The Elves are incredible when they can utilise their archers from distance and you haven’t experienced true joy in a game until you’ve seen their deer-riders in battle. The Vampire units are amongst the weakest in the early game, but their late game units are terrifyingly strong. Mannfred, their faction leader, has incredible spell-casting abilities. Chaos has incredibly tough armies which emerge in the latter stage of the game, and it takes a lot to stop them.

I love this game. I love playing as all the factions and finding out what they can do. I love the erratic viciousness of the Greenskins, the hardy determination of the dwarves, the sophisticated armies of the Elves, the cruelty of the vampire forces, the creeping evil of Chaos and the steely pride of going the Empire and trying to save the world.

It is a remarkable accomplishment from the Creative Assembly team, and not only does it play brilliantly, but it looks gorgeous.

The game map lives and breathes.

The battle maps are glorious.

The combat itself is brutal, bloody and terrific.

And this is just the start; there are two sequels planned and although they’re going to be stand-alone games the plan is for them to join onto the main campaign from the first and create the biggest Total War game to date.

By the time it is completed every race in the Warhammer universe – more than 15 of them – with numerous sub-factions to choose from will be available. (Like many of the fans I’m eager to play as the Skaven, the humanoid rat race which I fully intend to conquer the world with.)

It is shaping up to be a masterpiece, to become one of the finest game experiences there is.

Some think this series let itself down with Rome 2; it was the game we were all waiting for and there was huge disappointment at how it turned out on launch. It was patched extensively – over a dozen times – after release, and they weren’t little fixes; the last one, which came with Empire Edition was enormous and transformative.

Rome 2 turned out to be a bit special after all, although it felt short of the greatness we’d hoped for.

But that’s greatness compared to other Total War games; a strategy fan playing it for the first time would be astounded at its depth and size.

They owed us big-time with Attila, and they delivered the goods, making a game that worked on almost every front.

But they went even further with Warhammer.

It was the game the genre was made for. It is an instant classic.

Creative Assembly have confirmed that the next mammoth historical title is in production right now.

They’ve gone from a small team to a huge gaming studio which is working on multiple projects at once; the Warhammer sequels are handled by one team, the new historical title is being worked on by another and they have separate teams working on smaller projects in the Total War universe, with many tasked to future downloadable content.

These games are must-have’s for anyone who likes the strategy genre.

But Warhammer will find a fan base far outside of that demographic and it deserves to.

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