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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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times