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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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage