Saturday, 4 April 2015

'Total War: Attila' - Tiresome

I have been a fan of the 'Total War' games since the first 'Shogun:Total War' released back in 1999.  Being both interested in history and the possible alternatives, epic games covering decades and even centuries, combining both battlefield and strategic levels have appealed to me.  However, as the years have progress, despite the increased sophistication and the improved graphics, I have become more and more frustrated with basic flaws in the games, despite all the different settings, that never seem to be resolved.  With the advent of 'Total War: Rome II' new problems were introduced which now seem to be adding to the growing list.  See my previous posting about Rome II for what I see as these tedious problems: 

I am still excited by a new 'Total War' game and pre-ordered the latest 'Total War: Attila' back in November 2014.  A flaw in downloading meant that until an update in March 2015, despite reporting the problem to Steam, I was unable to run it.  Once it was functioning I was keen to play.  The 'Barbarian Invasion' expansion (2005) to the original 'Rome Total War' (2004) featuring the late Western and Eastern Roman Empires and the migrating barbarian tribes was always a favourite of mine and so I was keen to play this updated version of that expansion for the 'Rome II' approach.

The game is certainly visually stunning.  However, some of this causes problems.  In 'Rome II', the different troop and building types are represented by symbolic images.  This makes it easy to distinguish between them.  With 'Attila' they are represented by my realistic images.  This makes it difficult to tell at a glance between similar units.  It is particularly a difficulty telling between the range of buildings many of which look pretty much the same.  It is important to tell, because unlike with 'Rome II' each province has to have sufficient food rather than this being the case right across your empire.  It also has to have a sufficient level of sanitation.  This can be hard when you only control part of a province because the rest is held by an enemy, an ally or has been made desolate.  Desolation is a new factor cause by barbarian tribes laying waste to a region.  It can be revived by colonisation if you can spare enough money.  

The key problem is that even if you have a good level of food supplies you will typically find one or more provinces starving leading to unrest.  You will also find that disease caused by a lack of baths or reservoirs is far more prevalent than in 'Rome II'.  Thus, as with 'Rome II' you find yourself incessantly fighting uprisings and pumping money into keeping people alive, leaving little for fighting off opponents or developing your empire.  This is one problem of recent Total War games, they end up becoming 'Total Management' because unless you load up modifications provided by amateurs you will find yourself simply struggling not to lose your empire to famine or uprising, even on the Easy setting.  These things did happen, but bear in mind the Byzantine Empire, what had been the Eastern Roman Empire, lasted until 1453CE, a thousand years after this game is set.

Many problems that were seen as early as 'Medieval 2 Total War' (2006) and have never been rectified.  One is catapults that move around the battlefield as fast as heavy infantry and, even in thick fog or when firing into a forest or up a steep hill, are able to hit your soldiers more precisely than laser-guided weapons of today.  In turn, your catapult weapons will miss the opponents despite firing repeatedly even at a static line across flat terrain with perfect visibility.  Ships will always hunt you down when you move at sea, covering hundreds of miles to be in the correct place, again something even challenging with modern technology.  

Another problem which has continued from 'Rome II' is in terms of towers in towns.  In small towns these are typically wooden structures.  The strength of them varies considerable between how they impact on AI (artificial intelligence - i.e. the one controlled by the computer) soldiers and how they impact on yours.  I have lost entire units trying to knock down a single tower because of the incessant arrows which fire into them as they march up and take so long to destroy it.  In contrast, an AI unit can march up to your towers receiving only 1-2 casualties and destroy it rapidly.  Thus it is far easier for the computer faction to take a town than it is for you to take even the same settlement.  Similarly you can only place barricades in largely ridiculous places that do little if nothing to protect your settlement, they simply hamper moving your troops around.  In contrast, when the AI is in charge of the town the barricades prove to be a genuine defence.  You can win, but your casualties will be far higher than for a computer driven faction taking the same place.

Armies even from factions which are not friendly will precisely co-ordinate so your defenders will face wave after wave of attackers.  Even if good at fighting on the defence you are strained when the third army in a row, twice your strength comes down the same road to get you in a single turn.  The AI player never makes mistakes and for some reason while you can not march past its armies and constantly seem to be just that little bit short of catching them, your opponent will always have the precise amount of movement necessary; can march right through your zone of control and in 'Attila' will often even fight you and march off and attack someone else or a different town in the same turn, all things you will be unable to do.  I cannot understand how a barbarian horde, i.e. consisting of the entire population including non-combatants, can march faster and farther than a trained Roman army.  A crucial difference is that, unless you are extremely lucky, your neighbouring armies do not support each other.  In contrast, the AI ones are always in perfect balance and you find some armies supporting more than one offensive, something I have never been able to achieve despite very careful positioning.

The big mistake that was added to these flaws in 'Rome II' was limiting the number of armies.  In 'Medieval 2 Total War' one useful function was that you could strengthen garrisons without need for a general.  Now you are limited to 16 armies and if you are trying to control an empire as large as the two Roman Empires or the Sassanid you find yourself struggling to get from one end of the empire to the other with enough force, exacerbated by the blocking zone of control problems noted above.  City garrisons are utterly pathetic, no matter how much you develop the buildings in a city.  Rebels even revolting slaves turn up with far more experienced soldiers and crucially soldiers equipped with better weapons and more advanced armour than you can even recruit in your empire, despite them coming from that empire.  Thus, some towns are lost almost on a constant basis.  You have to leave armies to garrison in case an opponent by-passes you as they very often can which again means no expansion of your own empire.

Another flaw which came with 'Rome II' and continues with Attila is disappearing units.  I accept there are issues about line of sight on a bumpy or forested terrain.  However, even on flat plains for some reason units disappear even when walking towards you.  The problem is that any soldiers you have sent marching towards them stop dead once the unit fades and do not resume their march if it reappears.  Similarly missile troops and catapults stop firing at it and again simply spectate if it reappears.  Yet, your opponent keeps firing incessantly and with great accuracy.  

Since 'Rome II' the default setting for marching an entire army on the battlefield is that it fans out.  This causes many to set off away from the enemy.  Similarly trying to congregate them back when they have chased off the opponent sees them heading in random directions.  The soldiers have no sense of self-preservation to turn and face an attacker or aid their fellow soldiers right next to them.  Control of units has deteriorated severely since the days of 'Medieval 2 Total War'.

All of these flaws mean that you need to be able to see into the future and amass soldiers in precisely the right location to see off an opponent.  You will incessantly have to be fighting for the smaller towns and villages as their defence is so feeble.  At times it seems that the AI will not let you hold a particular town and even opponents with a few and poor territories are able to field vast, well-equipped armies that outstrip anything your country can produce.  Now, a new element in 'Attila' is that if you start hiring mercenaries their prices rise so it even proves difficult to bring in supplementary forces quickly or put in ones suited to a local environment, especially as all your money is going into building local farms and water supplies rather than recruitment buildings.

The key problem with so many barbarian tribes is that they are incessant and it is easy to find yourself at war with fifteen to twenty factions.  They are not as hard to destroy as they were back in 'Barbarian Invasion', but there are simply so many bent of destroying everything.  As has long been the case, the diplomacy system is largely pointless.  You struggle to find anyone to trade with you let alone ally with you.  Allies simply drag you into more wars and yet rarely assist you.  Trade partners often remain hostile and break off trade at random leading to a sudden drop in income.  I emphasise that these problems are playing at the 'Easy' level by someone with 16 years' experience on these games.

The only improvements with 'Rome II' that are also seen in 'Attila' is with the agents.  These used to be really pathetic in 'Medieval 2 Total War' and could not be kept alive.  Now they stand a decent chance and I have managed to get at least one of each - Spy, Dignitary and Champion up to the top level.  They add to the game and the armies.  Though I note that the Merchant has not made an appearance, they lived such a short time it was simply a waste of cash.

I appreciate the effort that has gone into 'Attila' in terms of getting it looking great and historically accurate.  What is infuriating is the persistence of gameplay flaws which have now been in place for a decade and seem to be worsening.  In many ways, as I have noted before, Sega and Creative Assembly seem to be leaving enhancement up to the amateur developer community rather than actually resolving these themselves.  They have been stubborn in not addressing flaws that mean it can be tiresome playing when hard work and clever strategy is defeated by the great advantages the AI had with its armies.  What is worse is that such situations are anachronistic and it is a shame to find that your wonderful Roman legions are effectively coming up against 21st century armies.

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