At EGX 2014, the next Total War game was announced, much to the surprise of many since The Creative Assembly were only just on the cusp of launching Alien Isolation at the time. We speak with Lead Artist Pawel Wojs and Senior Battle Designer Simon Mann, to get some more insight on just what direction the series is taking us.
One Hit Pixel: So Total War: Attila then! A new setting. How long has it been in the works for?
Simon: We started pretty much as soon as we’d finished Total War: Rome II.
What made you decide to pick that era?
Pawel: It’s a wonderful continuation of the story of Rome. Rome II was an epic period of 300 years of crazy empire building. It felt fitting to end that chapter and begin anew with the dawn of the dark age.
Simon: We’re 400 years after the events of Rome II, in a setting that isn’t well known. It’s the beginning of the early dark ages which not a lot of people have background knowledge of.
I have to admit, I haven’t! So could you please set the scene for us?
Simon: It’s the beginning of the dark ages, which sees the world dramatically change in major ways. There’s a lot of natural turmoil, so for example the climate is changing hugely, a feature we’re trying to push. The world is getting colder, the snow is slowly encroaching towards Europe. There’s devolution happening too, where people are moving away from cities to the countryside. The Roman Empire is so watered down by others settling in their lands that it’s almost unrecognisable.
Pawel: Because of the climate change, people from the north are slowly moving south, but you also have forces including the Huns pushing the Roman Empire further and further back. You have the Western Roman Empire, which used to be what we know as the Roman Empire, now crumbling at the edges, unable to maintain its borders and under a lot of pressure. It’s a darker world, not the classical Roman Empire we know, but more medieval-like. Then on the Eastern Roman Empire is a more wealthier, stronger side of the Roman Empire. It’s where the spirit of Roman Empire now resides. Then you have the Sasanid Empire, which is strong force and in its prime.
The only thing I know about the Hun era, was that Atilla got quite far West…
Simon: He made it into Gaul actually! He was a real celebrity of the time, with his empire stretching from the Stepsof Sepia up to the Roman Empire.
Pawel: He was the Alexander the Great of that period.
What drove you to choose Attila as the centrepiece for the game?
Pawel: It was an easy choice. He was the scourge of God. This is where the story of the four horsemen was born. He came to the Romans to bring the end of days. You cannot tackle this period without focusing on Attila.
Simon: He was cited as a catalyst for the things that went wrong for the Roman Empire. The Huns coming down from the East, pushing the Barbarians into Roman territory, like a grindstone. The Roman Empires are too big to deal with this amount of enemies at once, so it collapses down and Attila comes sweeping in. The Eastern Roman Empire basically had to pay him off, having lots of money to bargain with him.
Pawel: They would even hire him to fight some of their battles for them.
You seem to know quite a lot about the time period. How long did it take to research?
Pawel: A long time. Simon might be able to answer this better than I, as I’m an artist who only needs to worry about the pretty pictures, but we built a library of 70+ books that all the guys read through.
Simon: Indeed and this is something we continue doing to be honest. We’re all part-time historians here, interested in the history, architecture, etc.
Pawel: The architecture was particularly difficult to research. The time period wasn’t called the Dark Ages for nothing! We don’t know much about them, not much survived, and there’s lots of conflicting theories and stories. It’s a bit of a black hole between the Classical era and the Medieval times. It was definitely tricky to research the architecture and settlements – not too medieval but moving away from the classical.
Simon: I like the way we’ve got the ruins of the classic civilisation mixed in with this proto-medieval buildings. Wood buildings mixed with barbarian structure.
Pawel: Londinium is one of the battles on show and is an example of a Western Roman settlement.
Simon: We did a lot of research that we essentially had a full canvas. You don’t need to make up anything. As long as we can read as many books as we can, we can make more games!
I guess the important question is how will you translate the history from the books and research into the game itself? What processes are you going through in terms of developing the game so it is a true and accurate, historically fun to play.
Simon: They say all the best plans fall apart once they reach the field. Total War is a sandbox game where you can rewrite history, rather than strictly follow. One of the things we’re doing is have objectives for factions that are based on historical context. For example, the Saxons coming over to England and essentially founding the British people, so you could have one that says “conquer London”.
Pawel: So we set the stage and leave it up to you!
Simon: If players want to take the Saxon army and charge it down the Roman Empire, they can do!
So essentially you’re giving them the same situations that the rulers of the time would have faced at the time. That sounds fascinating!
Pawel: We set the start date, try to set the stage as closely as possible, building the missions into that sub-narrative, and then leave the player to decide the future. At this point the Romans were a Christian people, but you can choose to convert them back to the old ways and follow the old gods, or convert to another religion.
So there’s a lot of scope for the civilisation building aspect of the game?
Simon: We’ve also got the flip side of that the Western Roman Empire, we’ve talked about this a lot because we’re excited about their gameplay. It’s not the building aspect, but destroying game of removing settlements, scaling back and recomposing. You have to survive, you can’t just start invading.
Pawel: As Western Rome, your borders are vast but you don’t have the resources to maintain the territory you keep. You have to choose to give up territory, so you may choose to give up on Britain because you can’t maintain Britain and all your other locations held.
Total War is also about the combat, so how would the strategies of warfare at the time play into the combat mechanics in-game?
Pawel: So far we’ve only revealed the two Roman factions and the Saxons.
Simon: Our approach is to give each side its own identity that’s in line with their culture. I’m not sure if you’ve played the demo yet…
The queue for the booth was massive…
Simon: Really? I’ve been trapped up here the entire time!
Pawel: Oh yeah, It’s wrapping around the booth.
Obviously the reception has been phenomenal with many excited to see the new time setting. Sorry, you were saying about the combat?
Simon: Yes so, each faction is unique in their culture and army composition. The Saxons were all about the axe warriors at the time, so they had a lot of heavy infantry with axes running around.
They also have raider units who are cheaper than the discipline counterparts, but the downside is that if they’re in a settlement they will begin to loot and pillage the village. Maybe you didn’t want this, instead to take over the city, so you would need to repair that damage from the campaign map. It’s intertwined in a fascinating way.
With the Romans you have more organised troops that people aren’t used to, civilised barbarians essentially. They rely on technology, so the Ballistarii and crossbows we’ve added into the game.
Pawel: We will be revealing more as the months go on.
Am I right in thinking we may potentially get to play as the Huns?
Pawel: Who knows? The focus is on Attila as a big bad.
A looming threat.
Pawel: Exactly. As much as Total War: Attila is a sandbox game as always, we’ve got this overarching narrative that the end of days are upon us. The omens that come with the migrating tribes and fleeing people. Stories of a rider, winters are getting colder. People felt it was the end of days, so you know they’re coming but you don’t know when.
I now have to address the elephant in the room, which is the AI. Now I played a bit of Total War: Rome II at launch, which had its issues. So what safeguards are in place to ensure that Total War: Attila makes a good first impression?
Pawel: Have you played it recently?
Yes, it’s a lot better!
Pawel: So we’re constantly improving. One of the things in [Total War: Rome II] – Emperor Edition was to address the top issues and also constantly building on the solid foundation for AI. This framework we’re using for Attila. If you look at the battle on show, it isn’t a scripted battle, but a siege battle against real AI.
Simon: We’re always going to be able to continually improve it.
Pawel: It’s an insanely complex system. A lot of people take it for granted because a lot of RTS games are completely scripted. Whereas Total War has an artificial intelligence. We will be constantly working on the AI forever!
Simon: Personally, I’m quite happy with the new AI and where it is at the moment. It sometimes surprises me, doing things you don’t expect it to do. For example in the siege battle, I’ve had the AI come all the way around my settlement and attack from the other side!
Pawel: That happened to me once as well! I was locked in battle once and the enemy sent a task force to capture my capture point and I didn’t even notice it happening. I lost because I was unable to get my army back to tackle the issue!
With regards to hardware, is it running on the Total War: Rome II engine?
Pawel: Yes. Gone are the days where we would scrap the engine as soon as the development begins on a new game in the franchise. We can always build and improve, implementing new things. Essentially it’ a new version of the engine. We’ve got a new effects system to support it – improved reflections for example.
With the new AI behaviour and graphical capability, will we need to upgrade our PCs?
Pawel: We always try to support the widest range of systems as we can. We’re obviously in the high end, but we’re still optimising.
When will the game be out?
Pawel: 2015 for PC.
Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us about this fascinating time period and a fascinating sounding game. Hope to hear more about it soon!