If you played PC strategy games during the mid-2000s, this (oddly named) song will bring back memories for you. Enjoy!
Creative Assembly has announced Total War: Attila, a sequel in all but name to 2005’s Rome: Barbarian Invasion. Eurogamer, IGN, and USGamer (amongst others) have previews up. (Update: I have added a gameplay video above – skip to 4:12. Hat tip to frogbeastegg.)
By way of background, the original Barbarian Invasion was my favourite Total War game until Empire and Shogun 2. If 99% of strategy games are about going from rags to riches, Barbarian Invasion (played as the Romans) was the exception: a game about staving off and ultimately reversing decline. The Western Roman Empire begins with an empty treasury, rioting cities, and mutinous generals – I remember looking at an FAQ, reading that I should have used a certain general to lead my counterattack, and then realising that guy had already rebelled. And after that, they still have the barbarians to worry about! By the time I stabilised the situation, stopped the Huns at the river crossings into Italy, and began my grand counterattack, I felt like a cross between Augustus and Diocletian. Even though I never finished that campaign – my hard drive died partway through – it remains one of the most memorable, unique experiences I’ve had with a strategy game.
Based on the previews, CA understands how much Barbarian Invasion relied on that apocalyptic mood. Here’s a particularly interesting comment from IGN – it suggests that the player must race to prepare for an endgame showdown:
A few turns after the start of the campaign in 395 AD, Attila will be born. Once he grows to adulthood, he’ll lead a nearly unstoppable army of Huns in a terrifying march to the west, steamrolling everyone in his way. Your job, as the ruler of one of the powers in his way, is to prepare your defenses and alliances in order to hold out as best you can or to divert Attila to your weaker neighbors.
Over the game’s 60 to 70 year campaign, which is played out in seasons, certain portents of doom will herald Attila’s coming. These portents coincide with a gradual shift in the snow line, which moves south, pushing Germanic tribes with it. It gets so bad, that some of the toughest towns in the north have three seasons of snow per year. Attila and his forces are not a faction in the traditional sense and can’t be played. They’re more like a force of nature that sweeps across the map, destroying and spoiling everything they touch…
For Attila to succeed, CA will have to avoid its traditional pitfalls – bugs, bad AI, late-game pacing, and sprawl. These problems ensnared Rome II — though from what I hear, a year’s worth of patches have finally turned it into a good game. There’s a lot of potential here… but time will tell if it can be realised.
(I’ve used the above painting before, during my interview with Jon Shafer about At the Gates. The time seemed ripe to haul it out again.)
How does a strategy game provide a satisfying late-game experience?
This, I think, is a two-pronged problem. Part 1 is avoiding the things that actively drag on the endgame: micromanagement (see my previous post) and the snowball problem, when someone – usually the human player in a single-player game – runs away with the game early on, turning the endgame into a tedious exercise in mopping up. In this post, though, I’ll focus on Part 2, which is the reverse: designing the game so that it builds to a tense climax, much like the traditional three-act plot.
Here, I think the highly open-ended nature of Paradox games works against them. In contrast, I can think of at least three games that set the player a clear victory condition that could only be triggered during the endgame: the Civilization series, Emperor of the Fading Suns, and Rome: Total War (if you played a Roman faction):