Just your archetypal evil horde, out for a rampage. Image: Creative Assembly
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In Total War: Attila, rampaging across Europe as the Huns is the most fun you can have

What sets this game apart is its perspective on the past: it’s not often you get to play as the Big Bad Nomad himself.

One of the great things about games in a historical setting is that they give you a reason to think about the problems faced by people way back when. Oddly enough in the case of Total War: Attila those problems seem to be somewhat familiar. The climate is changing, there are thousands of displaced people looking for new homes, the old established order could be losing its grip on the world and in the east a new and powerful enemy is advancing. It sounds less like the setting for a historical game and more like the running order for Newsnight.

In some ways this setting is fairly standard fare in games. Time and again we are told the world is a mess, threats are looming and somebody has to save the day. What sets Attila apart, however, isn’t the setting, it is the perspective. While such games typically cast you in the role of the defender of a beleaguered people, Attila takes a different route, encouraging you to play as the Big Bad Nomad himself, leading your forces across Europe and annihilating everything in your path.

This style of play is where the lion’s share of the new game features have been added, allowing you to play either as the completely nomadic Huns, whose armies serve the purpose of also being their towns, or as roaming peoples like the Visigoths and Vandals, who can settle down in towns for the long term if they want to, but can wander off again should they so choose.

Playing as the Huns is where Attila shines brightest. With no towns, just self-sufficient armies, the player is free to roam the map however they wish. Wandering around in this way offers two distinctive and new experiences to players, even those who are familiar with the series. The first of these is the archetypal evil horde, methodically outmanoeuvring, dissecting and destroying enemy armies, even when outnumbered, and then razing their cities to the ground.

Image: Creative Assembly

The second is the more interesting one and it is occurs when the other plan goes wrong. That’s when the wheels come off on the Big Bad Nomad Roadshow and you find your people living like hunted animals, pursued across the map by outraged enemies. As you evade pursuit with the Huns you will inevitably attract even more enemies, because nobody likes the Huns camping out on their doorstep. The ability of the Huns to move fast, regroup quickly and strike hard makes this kind of pursuit far from a passive affair. Other factions can also find themselves in this kind of a pickle, but only the Huns make it fun.

This is because typically Total War games are about owning provinces, you capture a town and that part of the map becomes yours. With the Huns in Attila this doesn’t necessarily have to happen, you can burn the town and move on, subjugate it, or just loot it. However it plays out you have no abiding connection to the area as you would more usually have in previous games. As such a chase across Europe can be all sorts of fun, rather than being simply the thing that happens right before you lose the game.

The direct contrast to playing as the Huns in Attila is to play as either of the Roman factions. The Eastern Empire is fairly well squared away, although they have the Sassanid Persians and the Huns to contend with. The Western Empire is vast, sprawling and largely undefended. The idea for the player here is to hold the empire together while streams of marauders pile in from all directions and provinces break off to rule themselves.

While Rome 2, understandably given the name, gloried in the Roman Empire, Attila revels in its destruction. The game offers no sympathy to the plight of Rome, its fall is not seen as being tragic in any way. If you’re a very good player you can stem the tide, but by and large to play as the Western Roman Empire is like choosing to attend a wedding as the cake.

In the north of Europe events in Attila take a turn for the chaotic. As the game progresses Europe is plunged deeper into a period of cold, which makes life tougher the further north you go, which in turn drives people south towards Roman territory. This drive south is also spurred by the Vikings and other northern nomadic groups who create havoc with constant raiding.

Image: Creative Assembly

What all this tends to create is a game that is far more dynamic than previous games in the series, one in which the old tactics don’t transfer across easily. You can’t simply hunker down and bide your time, because the weather will move you on, either directly or by flinging refugees at you. But that said simply rushing out won’t work either, because the enemy will batter you if you’re not cunning about it. To build up even a small nation of your own you have to duck and dive and fight fires constantly, making it much harder than previous iterations and much more work.

The general systems of the game have been smartened up too – the family and political machinations of your ruler now play a bigger part and diplomacy between factions is now more transparent. Even if it can be difficult to make much headway the game will at least tell you why the leaders of other tribes are acting like complete tools so much of the time. These improvements extend to the battles too. Units engage each other in combat properly without collapsing into big heaving blobs, and the fights are reasonably well balanced, not too quick but not too slow. The micromanagement of multiple commander special abilities that appeared in Rome 2 seems to have quietly slipped into the bin this time out, another gratifying change.

The presentation of the game has improved upon Rome 2 as well and the towns and villages in particular look stunning. More importantly the AI now knows how to navigate these places and so the visual spectacle can be enjoyed without grimacing at whatever stupidity the enemy units are engaged in. There are not a huge number of units available for armies, though it feels likely that more will come along, either through user-made modification or DLC. Those that are in the game look good, in a grubby, end-times sort of way. The all-women units that appeared in Rome 2 are gone, but their legacy remains, with many levy and irregular units now containing a smattering of female fighters amongst the men.

Total War: Attila is a brilliant return to form for a series that at one stage looked to be sinking. If you can find a few days free to shut yourself in and play the hell out of it, you’ll find it time well spent.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood