Total War: Warhammer is the pinnacle of what Creative Assembly has been doing for over 17 years. But with orcs. That last bit is important. A lot of the appeal of this Total War is that you have monsters and wizards and spells and ogres and things that fly. You have stuff you never had in Total War. You do things with them that you never did in Total War. You capture elf strongholds and sneak through orc tunnels and stave off the taint of chaos corruption. You equip legendary magic items, level up various flavors of fireball spells, and build a reliquary so you can recruit ghost soldiers who ride on ghost horses. Queue up some waypoints for your dwarf gyrocopter to drop bombs on hapless minotaurs.
How can you go back to mere history after that? How can you go back to something as mundane as levies with nothing but a tunic, a spear, and a pair of sandals, whose most dramatic upgrade will be heavy armor and some sort of halberd?
Actually, the more pertinent question is “how can you not?”
Fantasy is a narrative crutch. It is almost always ridiculous, irrelevant, and juvenile. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Many of my favorite pastimes are at least two of those things. Some of them are all three. Making ingame avatars who look like Sarah Palin, for instance. I’m not proud. It’s really hard to get the red dress right.
Based on my limited knowledge of fantasy — I could be wrong, so you can correct me if I just haven’t read the right Elfstones of Shannara book — the genre is 99% frivolity. There is no story that isn’t more meaningful with things that do exist instead of things that don’t exist. The nonsense that litters fantasy, distancing it from meaning, supposedly makes it more exciting, more dramatic, more imaginative. It often works. Take Total War: Warhammer. Those orcs and elfs are pretty exciting. Who wouldn’t want to send a dwarf helicopter to drop bombs on minotaurs? It’s not every day you see a Battle of Five Armies.
Fantasy didn’t used to exist. It used to be non-fiction about the unknown. Dragons, woodfolk, mermaids, gods. They filled in the blanks that helped people make sense of what they didn’t understand. The ignorance about unicorns wasn’t willful, it was simply historical and technological. But now that we know these things don’t exist, now that they’ve fallen into the margins we call folklore, what’s the point of reliving that ignorance? What’s the point of playing what-if with dragons and faeries and magical doodads imbued with unimaginable power? Now that we have nuclear weapons, why bother with something so pedestrian as magic?
The answer, of course, is escapism. It’s far easier to slay a dragon than to enforce nuclear non-proliferation. So we imagine the easier and more manageable thing. We scoot everything into a genre that is intentionally less meaningful. It’s in the name itself. Right there, on the package. Fantasy. A word passed down through Middle English from the Greek word phantasia, which means a mental image, an idea, something that doesn’t actually exist, but is imagined.
This isn’t intended to be judgmental. I enjoy a bunch of orc and elfs as much as the next guy. I’ve seen that last hobbit movie several times and I can’t get enough of the silly thing. A dragon burning down a whole city. Stubby dwarfs riding pigs. Elfs riding reindeers. A sullen dwarf prince gone insane with greed. Legolas lightly defying the laws of physics on a crumbling tower. Gandalf beating the crap out of stuff. A mixed race love affair! The eagles! Oh, the eagles! Surely Tolkien understood that us Americans at the center of the world would thrill to see our national bird saving the day.
Total War: Warhammer is that same thrill. I don’t need to explain it to you. You’ve played it, right? If you haven’t, you should. You’re into videogames. You’re into artful realizations of fantasy. Total War: Warhammer is an amazing spectacle, and it’s state-of-the-art Total War, Creative Assembly marshalling their nearly 20 years of experience with this sort of thing, and it is without meaning, relevance, or much impact.
But when you go back into a Total War that has only the tunics, spears, and sandals, it feels markedly different, and not just because you can’t bomb things from a dwarf gyrocopter. It has a sense of weight. Of gravity. The pull of things that actually happened over the whimsical escape into things that will never happen. The heft was always in the historical Total War games, but you appreciate it all the more after being in elfland for a while. Yeah, there are humans in Total War: Warhammer, but they’re just vanilla to dwarf chocolate and elf strawberry. The humans in Total War: Attila, the last Total War before Creative Assembly went full fantasy, are grounded, real, maybe even relatable. Take the little speeches they give before a battle, when you’re setting up your formations, when you don’t have to worry about a dwarf gyrocopter’s waypoints, when the men are restlessly idle animating. They have the weight of context. A commander dehumanizing his opponent. Exhorting some sort of national pride. Not once mentioning Sneech or Corn or Tintinitus or any of those Warhammer gods. And when the men run into or away from battle — sometimes taking a long jog over detailed homesteads, farms, and vineyards — and they’re yelling and jostling and the image is somewhere in the cross section between spectators running onto a soccer field after a victory, a mob advancing on riot police, or a panicked crowd fleeing a nightclub fire. When they’re getting speared, not much differently than how it happens to orcs, there’s a different kind of relatability. These packed formations have the buzz, sway, swell, and heave of a thousand actual people doing the same thing, an energy more significant than any mere magic. You’ve felt it, right? Whether it’s a Nickelback concert, a Trump rally, a Baptist revival, an Obama speech, a football game, a sold-out Thursday midnight premiere. People rallying, surging, minds meeting shoulder to shoulder. Now imagine them all dying for it.
I’m not saying history is better. I’m just saying it matters. Fantasy doesn’t. Which is arguably the point. I used to wonder if Total War: Warhammer had obsoleted the early Total Wars. Now I just wonder how long it will hold up before I go back to agonizing over whether Attila or Shogun is my favorite.
Anyway — he writes, ten paragraphs later — this is supposed to be a review of the Last Roman DLC for Total War: Attila, which I’m pretty sure I like more than Shogun 2 (in a way, the cultural distance to Japanese history almost gives it an exotic quality not unlike fantasy). Much to my chagrin, I’ve really liked the Attila DLC rolled out to add playable factions and flesh them out with story beats. Cool idea that makes it hard to rail against the supposed injustice of DLC. But a self-contained microcampaign that zooms in on the map and picks up where the main game left off once Atilla’s work was done? That’s like making a Star Wars movie about some offshoot of the Empire after the events of Return of the Jedi.
Why would you play a microcampaign about a slightly later historical period? There’s just so much content in the main game. With all the playable factions in the grand campaign, with the sheer geographic sprawl from the far corner of the Arabian peninsula to the frozen top of Britain, with multiple playable factions within factions, with story beats for almost all of them, with so much content yet for me to explore, why would I jump into a smaller self-contained campaign?
That question is actually the answer to the question.
The grand campaign in Total War: Attila is just so big at this point. It’s so epic and expansive that huge swathes of it will never have anything to do with you. That’s world history. Always with its lack of focus, right? So of course you might want to slip into a snug little corner of history like the Last Roman or Age of Charlemagne campaigns, each available separately as $15 DLC.
But it’s important that you understand you’re not getting anything that applies to the main campaign. In fact, you’re leaving it behind by a century. Total War: Attila starts in 395. The Last Roman campaign picks up in 533. The Age of Charlemagne is then a couple hundred years after that. They are not related by anything other than coincidences of geography and a handful of holdout factions. You can’t bring your Hunnic Lancers into Last Roman or your bad-ass Roman Contrarii shock cavalry into Age of Charlemagne. But why would you? This isn’t Warhammer. Everything in here belongs in its particular corner of the world, to its specific slice of history.
And history has character. That’s how the Last Roman gets away with shrinking the world down to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The map includes the whole of Europe, including the Iberian peninsula, but only as the deep late-game territory off to the left. Gameplay-wise, this world is like one of those lake maps in Age of Empires, where everyone fights over a donut of land with a big body of water smack dab in the middle, drinking up all the real estate. You have to decide whether to fight clockwise or counterclockwise. In this case, it’s going to be counterclockwise.
The Roman empire has been divided and conquered, with the western half swallowed up by barbarians and the eastern half pushed back to Byzantium, but still absurdly calling itself Roman. That’s the grand event you played in the grand campaign. Previously, on Total War: Attila. So the focus of the Last Roman campaign is “now what?” The answer, controlled by the AI, is an emperor named Justinian, who has dug in at Constantinople nee Byzantium. He’ll have reforms named after him. He’ll move up the coast of Dalmatia. He’ll send an elite group of soldiers and a favorite general to recover North Africa. The empire strikes back. He’ll transition a rump of the defeated Roman empire into a new Christian Byzantine empire that sticks around for about a thousand years until the Islamic Ottomans take over.
Meanwhile, the folks who gobbled up the western half of the Roman empire have consolidated themselves into bona fide standalone factions with huge swathes of territory and not much by way of reasons to play them. The Franks, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths have gone from supporting players in the grand campaign to co-starring roles in The Last Roman campaign. They’re playable, but not top billed, because they’re pretty much hanging fire until Charlemagne. So top billing goes to Justinian’s expeditionary force in North Africa, just getting underway, basically attacking clockwise around the lake map, starting at the 5 o’clock position.
What makes The Last Roman special is how this expeditionary force plays. It is its own faction, led by a storied general named Belisarius. This mosaic of him is how we know he had feathered hair and wore lipstick:
Historically, he will scoop up cities in North Africa and then cut up the middle of the Mediterranean to take the Italian peninsula back from the Ostrogoths (Ostrogoths and Visigoths are Latin for “eastern” Goths and “western” Goths). Then he heads offmap to the east for a while, but you won’t do that part because the DLC map is too small.
Your expeditionary Romans can follow whatever route you like. The gameplay is mostly using stacks of doom to scoop up weakly defended territory. But when you capture a city, you don’t manage it yourself. Expeditionary armies don’t play city builders. Instead, you give the captured cities to Justinian. This leads to some awkward situations where you can’t get where you want to go because it’s someone else’s city in your way. “Dude, Justinian, I just now gave you that city and you’re not even gonna let me bivouac there? Seriously?” But you’ve got time to go around the long way if you have to. As you hand over the cities and the pesky business of governance, you’ll get free armies from time to time. More stacks of doom. It’s trivially easy to fight most battles with 40 units in play. Doublestacks of doom.
Belisarius’ Romans are a horde faction, which is a Total War gameplay convention where an army carries a city along with it. It builds its buildings, but packs them up to move and fight. Then it spends movement points to unpack them. Once it’s set up camp, it produces more or less like a regular city. The trick with these new Romans is that they can freely toggle between army and city. They don’t spend any movement points when they camp or decamp. You don’t have to choose between the mobility of an army or the productivity of a city. You get both. All you have to do is deal with the hassle of remembering to camp before hitting the end turn button. It’s a touch of micromanagement that involves a few clicks too many, but it seems like something Creative Assembly wasn’t prepared for. If they’d known their game would feature a faction that toggles the camp/uncamp command at the beginning and end of every turn, wouldn’t they have given us a hotkey? What’s more, the campaign doesn’t even explain this is what you have to do. I had to lose a few times by playing wrong before figuring out that, ah, right, I have to encamp each of my armies when I’m done moving them. Otherwise, their buildings don’t work and the armies are just standing around in the field generating bupkis for income.
To add a bit of a forking path to the campaign, you can choose to split off from Justinian. To go rogue. To keep the cities you liberate for yourself. To try to kickstart the old school Roman Empire. Screw you, Justinian, I liberated this city so I’m going to play it. At which point the campaign instantly transitions to a more conventional Total War scenario, with you pitted against a pissed off Byzantine Empire that doesn’t appreciate your obstreperous independence. Now your armies are no longer hordes. Now your city stuff happens only in cities. It’s a bit of a rude awakening. All those tent upgrades you bought? Gone. In their place, whatever single city you’re starting with. Your income was +3400. Now it’s -12,150. Your armies are all starving. You can only recruit basic spearmen and scout cavalry. Oops. Independence is hard.
Do you do this early on? Do you do it later? Do you do it at all? That’s the central gameplay gimmick in The Last Roman: to let you flex a single looming “what-if?” It gives The Last Roman the same thing that makes Shogun 2 and Attila special: a unique gameplay structure. Shogun 2 was about building up to the grand civil war when Japan split into two warring halves. Attila was about filling the vacuum left by the dying Roman Empire. It gave both games their own shape so they weren’t just Total War: Total Reskinning. The Last Roman also has its own shape.
I have no idea whether it’s historical. Did Belisarius ever consider settling down with an empire of his own? The story beats imply tension with Justinian, often because his wife is badgering him with passive-aggressive letters from home about something she wants that goes against the emperor’s agenda. Do I detect a touch of Lady Macbeth? But, really, it seems like a cool gimmick to give the DLC replay value. When do you start down the road of the separatist victory conditions instead of the loyalist victory conditions? It reminds me of the Civilization IV version of Colonization for posing the question “when do you declare independence from a dickish imperial overlord?”
Time passes more slowly in the Last Roman campaign. Instead of each turn being a season, each turn is a month. This means seasons are more persistent. Winter, which lasts more than just a turn, isn’t just a passing blip. It’s a chunk of turns. This can throw a weird ebb and flow into your food supply that you’ll basically address by building a couple of butcher’s tents until you don’t notice the ebb and flow. In theory, it’s nice to have seasons that matter, to potentially care about winter as much as a real general. In The Last Roman, it just means another butcher’s tent.
As far as I can tell, there aren’t any new assets in The Last Roman. The battlefields, the men, the citybuilding, they’re all identical to their counterparts from a few centuries earlier. I don’t mind. Rearranging ingredients is a viable way to make a different meal. And the Last Roman campaign is an edifying alternative to all that tasty Warhammer junk food.