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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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