Total War: Attila – A Study in the Standalone Expansion

A standalone expansion is like an argument between a married couple:

A man sits down to dinner with his wife. She serves him up an eagerly anticipated meal he’s been waiting for. As she stands above him proud, she notices that he’s scowling.

“What’s wrong?” she asks him. “I did my best, I think it’s the best dinner I’ve ever made you!”

The man looks up at her, arms folded.

“I don’t like peas. Next time can you just keep the carrots?”

“But the meal is much nicer, don’t you think?” She pleads.

“Oh yes,” he agrees. “But I just wanted carrots. Next time just make sure its carrots.”

The next day she leans out of the kitchen: “I’m making your dinner with carrots this time!”

The man is happy (even though he’s had to eat two dinners) and so is the woman, even though she’ll experiment with her next meal and he’ll complain again.

For me it depends on the mash.

Such is life with Creative Assembly. The dev team behind one of the most successful real-time strategy series on the planet: Total War. Their legions of fans lapped up everything they released initially. Shogun, Medieval, Rome, all hailed as cornerstones in the genre. Many still count those among their top 5 games.

Medieval 2 came around to much celebration, too. It was also the first in the series to include an expansion – Medieval 2 Total War: Kingdoms.

“10GB for an expansion?!” fans cried. “What’s in this thing?”

The answer was a bucket load of content including four new campaign maps.

Fast forward past the bug-riddled Empire and the diamond-in-the-rough Shogun 2 and we get to Total War: Rome 2.

Without a doubt this had been the game every fan had been waiting for since Medieval 2. The hype train was heading full speed towards release, egged on by CA’s (admittedly) well thought out and inclusive behind-the-scenes previews.

Then something went wrong. What had been promised as a Total War game steeped in political action, intrigue, guile and clan and family-orientated conquest (seriously, compare what’s promised in the trailers to the release) arrived as a withered husk.

Previews of the game had shown a campaign based around promoting your family to glory, tailoring your generals and armies to suit your needs – giving them personalities and histories. What fans got was forgettable characters that could be replaced as soon as they died and a half-finished political system that barely worked.

Perhaps it was the early release date, no doubt clamped down by SEGA, who seem to solely rely on their dev studios to make up the losses they make on evermore awful Sonic games. Perhaps it was the pressure of emulating the original, which had been named as the best PC game of all time by PC Gamer, beating Half-Life and Half-Life 2.

The fans, which had been eating out of CA’s palm a few days prior, began to bite and snarl. The release of day one DLC only served to enhance their ire. The rallying point focused on the fact the family tree – a feature that had survived through all previous Total War games – was gone. The connection it created between a player and their avatar general was effectively gone.

Not even a joke, this is what the soldiers look like.

Despite a continued program of patches, which saw CA release fixes in large packs every two weeks, the damage had been done. Play the game now and it is a good (not great) RTS set in the ancient world. Compare it to release and it’s a shining ray of holy light gifted from God Himself.

Now CA has evidently decided to sweep everything under the carpet. Having prostrated themselves in front of fans again by updating the game to “Emperor Edition” for all existing customers, the studio has announced Total War: Attila.

Attila will be a standalone expansion in the same mould of Shogun 2’s “Fall of the Samurai” – Pushing the clock forward to implement a number of features the studio never got to try in their main game due to time constraints.

During its reveal there was an audible cheer when a screenshot showed the return of the family tree. Pandering to the fans, perhaps, but it does show CA are willing to take on board criticism and work on their flaws. Atilla proves to be everything Rome was not: family ties, political intrigue, and religious strife. It even introduces the option to raze and remove cities from the overworld map – an ambitious feature well liked by most fans.

Attila promises a realistic depiction of the dawn of the dark ages. Apparently you can’t play as the huns though…

People will always be divided by standalones. Is it a neat way to bridge the gap between old and new games or a shameless money grab. Perhaps it’s a way of testing new mechanics and features?

One should look no further than EA for a perfect example of how not to do this. Every tournament and World Cup they push out a standalone “World Cup” or “Euros” game – even if they released a game for that year. On top of that they expect people to pay £40 for a game that features just one mechanic (people still buy the damn things though).

I feel that if a studio is going to take the standalone route, they should ape CA in doing so. Essentially fans should feel like they get enough content for the amount of money they have spent. If you drop £20-40 on a game and get less than 10 hours then I don’t think you should be blamed for grabbing the proverbial pitchfork and taking to internet forums.

It’s down to the developers to decide. With rumours persisting of a Total War: Warhammer down the line for CA, the argument of whether they’re “selling out” will continue for some time to come it seems.

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