From a very young age I loved to read stories of massive battles in history, just the sheer scale of some of them blew my mind. As a kid, your mind runs wild just trying to visualize what that many people in one place looks like, and at the time it was something that I thought I was never going to get to see. It’s very rarely then that your dreams and imaginations as a child are turned into something real, yet that’s what Creative Assembly managed to achieve with the Total War series, and its sense of scale has only increased over the years.
And it’s because of this, because the series is unmatched in scale, because Creative Assembly is always ambitious, because I truly appreciate this series in a way that makes my heart flutter when I find any inkling of what might be coming next, that I’m writing this. Because unfortunately while this series does so much right, it also manages to do so much wrong.
Scale is an important aspect in any grand strategy game, but while most games attempt to achieve this through the sheer size of the map, Total War bucks the trend by fitting in to the club not only based on map size, but also number of units on display and the historical sweep of taking place over decades, if not entire centuries. Yes games like Europa and Hearts of Iron can dazzle us with numbers and facts that seem to include everything under the sun, but Total War is unique in its technical ability to display thousands of units on one screen. No matter what the game I have a deep respect for what the developer has managed to accomplish, but I seriously believe the staff at Creative Assembly must be mad geniuses. There is no other way to explain it, what they have managed to envision and then create is a marvel of game design.
While from a mechanical point this means you lose the finer management details of a traditional RTS like StarCraft or Age of Empires, it really doesn’t matter. Those games can stick with their small armies and precise movements, because there’s nothing quite as satisfying as moving 3000 men forward at one time and hearing the massive roar of their marching and the echoing sounds of the horns ordering them onward.
Atmospherically, the size of the armies is important but it’s only one aspect on a list of attributes that make the battles really feel like they’re happening. All the sights and sounds add together to create on overarching sense of reality, whether it be the city off in the distance in Medieval 2, the war horns blasting in Rome, or the banging of drums sounding the march in Empire. There’s nothing specific where you stop and say “this is what makes it feel real”, instead it’s all the little details that work together without overlapping one another.
This all requires an amount of work and development time equal on scale to the game itself. I can’t get my head around the idea that a team of people modelled everything I’m seeing on screen and wrote the code for the thousands of AI that are currently operating, it’s just insane. So before I say what I’m going to say next, I want it known that the guys at Creative Assembly have a much more difficult job than I do, and I have more respect for them than anyone knows. They’ve achieved something that many would have thought impossible 20 years ago, and that’s why it hurts to tell them that they’ve been letting us down recently. Criticizing from afar might be easy in comparison, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.
As I made very clear previously, creating the Total War games must be one of the most difficult jobs around. There is just so much to create, and such sophisticated AI to write, that I can’t even imagine how it’s all done. What I can say though, is that it is definitely never done on time. I have to think back to Medieval before I get to a Total War game that I would say was released in an adequate state. Rome 2, Empire, Shogun 2, Napoleon… none of them were in a finished state when they hit the shelves, all of them were riddled with bugs to a ridiculous level (in some cases game-crippling bugs which made them almost impossible to play). And yet it keeps happening every single time. This wasn’t a one-off with the bumpy release of Empire; instead, this is a trend that has been getting worse with each iteration.
I could easily (well more easily than this) forgive a one-off flop in an otherwise excellent franchise, but rather than that being the case I, along with many others if countless forum threads are anything to go by, have come to expect new Total War games to be broken on release. When Attila comes out in a few weeks’ time I will be absolutely shocked if it’s a technically sound game with very few bugs. Don’t misunderstand me here: I want more than anything for Attila to be awesome and for me to be able to tell you on day one that it’s a game worth having, because the setting looks perfect and some of the new mechanics they’re introducing are things I’ve been waiting a long time for. Seriously, who didn’t want the ability to just burn a city to the ground and completely destroy it?
I don’t know who’s truly to blame for the unfinished state that most recent games in the series have been released in: whether Creative Assembly is taking too long, or whether Sega doesn’t give them enough time and money to create a game that most wouldn’t even attempt. What I do know, is that it has to stop. Rome 2 was a mess on release. I had to leave it for a month as the developers rushed out patch after patch because so many things simply didn’t work. I don’t know how many chances Creative Assembly has left, because people aren’t going to keep making the mistake of buying games that are broken at release indefinitely; and yet if the Total War franchise were to end I wouldn’t quite know what to do with myself.
So as someone who loves you Creative Assembly, someone who has played hundreds if not thousands of hours of your games, I’m asking you to pick up your game. For yourself, for me, and for everyone else who has ever played a Total War game, it would be devastating to see you go, but if you keep down this road I honestly don’t know what else to expect.