My Visigoths have beaten the neighbouring Ostragoths with unusual ease. The Western Roman Empire has offered me a trade deal that probably helps me more than it does them. And the Huns, nomadic tribes united under the vicious but enigmatic Attila, ride closer to my borders every day.
Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here. This is the Prologue campaign of Total War: Attila, and it’s the most challenging and intimidating introduction I’ve ever encountered in a video game.
2015 is the fifteenth anniversary of The Creative Assembly’s prolific Total War series. The real-time strategy games sprawl over hundreds of years of history, and Attila represents the denouement, of sorts, for the time period represented in the beloved Rome: Total War, showcasing the decline of the Roman Empire after two previous installments chronicled its rise and glory.
Players control one of several civilizations, but my experience playing Civilization didn’t fully prepare me for what Total War had in store. Combat in Total War is far more complicated, with battles fought outside the overworld where the regular gameplay takes place. The hundreds of individually rendered soldiers look great on the screen – at least for those with a computer strong enough to render them – but I’m not sure if anything I’m doing affects the outcome.
So I begin where newcomers are generally supposed to start, with the Prologue campaign where you play as the Visigoths. My advisor, a bald old man with a screechy voice and an Emperor Palpatine hood, urges me to crush the Ostragoths on the battlefield. I click and order my entire army to smash the opposing forces. Hundreds of soldiers carrying weather-beaten spears shout with vigour and rout the enemy. I’ve won, with basically no effort of my own.
That will become a pattern. The opening hour is spent teaching me how to use the game’s interface, but I feel like I’m being strung along a pre-determined path (because I am) more than learning what all of the numbers and icons on the screen mean (because I don’t). A thick gold outline pulses around the part of the toolbar to show me what I should click on next, but things quickly fall apart when I’m not being guided through the menus. Other than following the A-to-B instructions, I have no idea what I’m looking at.
For the next three hours I summarily fail to meet my given objectives, and I’m never really sure what I did wrong or how to do better the next time. I capture another small settlement to the north of my current capital, but I cannot appoint a local governor because I don’t have enough social capital, a resource I was unaware of. I capture the next village via siege after crafting siege equipment, but even then I might have gone to battle too early because I only have siege towers and not the ladders and battering rams I had ordered.
Meanwhile, my advisor sternly warns me to placate the occupied city or else risk a revolt. I’m not sure which buildings can placate the masses, though, and the necessary technologies in the research tree appear to be a couple dozens turns away from being finished.
When a small rebel army does appear on the map, I’m not sure if it happened because I failed the previous requirement or if it was always a part of the mission, there to show me what would happen if I failed in a regular game.
While I stare at the screen bewildered and disoriented, the Huns arrive, their armies marked with four separate horsemen galloping across the green plains. One of them has arrived at another settlement of mine that I did not know existed. I’ve been ordered to pack up, turn nomadic, and flee to the Roman Empire to the south. All of the buildings I’ve built and the technologies I’ve researched have, in effect, been rendered useless. A ring of fire engulfs my lands and I have to run for the border.
My armies and cities are eliminated in short order with help from remnant Ostragoth armies I failed to destroy earlier on. “Chieftain, the enemy are upon us! Ready the men!” my advisor shouts in an impatient, frustrated tone.
The enemy, however, is four times my remaining strength. I hit the “Auto-Resolve conflict” button a half-dozen times because I don’t wish to see the humiliation play out in real time.
I’m three hours into Total War: Attila, and I have failed the tutorial.
Despite my sour experience, I can see what people like about Total War: Attila and the series in general. The game is clearly complex and rewarding for players willing to learn all of its gears and levers. The creators’ love of history is on display, an encyclopedia chronicling the lives of heroes and villains with painstakingly recreated historical scenarios.
But 15 years after its debut, it also seems that the developers have focused on current fans to the possible exclusion of newcomers. The prologue campaign doesn’t do enough to teach a complete neophyte how to make sense of the myriad systems involved in making sure your empire doesn’t crumble around you. Many players may not see why they should continue.
In a feature interview with games™ magazine, Attila producer Ross Manton gave a mixed answer to possible concerns about the Total War series’ accessibility.
“I think it’s people perceiving that the game is too complicated for them that’s the problem, more so than the game really being too complicated,” said Manton. “The complexity is more a marketing thing than anything else, because it really is very playable for anyone.”
It makes me wonder why the game’s marketing focuses on the complexity when the producer claims it’s not as hard as the advertising makes it out to be. If that’s the case, wouldn’t it make sense to emphasize accessibility somewhere in the ads?
Regardless of my reservations, it appears The Creative Assembly is doing perfectly fine. Many reviewers have praised Attila for its complexity and attention to detail, and those are worthy of positive feedback. But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s as uninterested in my first impressions as it is with my sub-cutting edge PC components.
Of course, a new trailer celebrating the series’ anniversary ends with a decidedly un-historical flourish, an unnatural purple light and a demonic, guttural growl. Will the series finally enter the world of orcs and elves, and give us the long-rumoured Total: Warhammer?
I guess I’ll take another go at Total War: Attila, if only to be ready for what comes next.