The normal human response to the news that Creative Assembly (CA) are releasing yet another piece of downloadable content (DLC) for a Total War game is a combination of frustration and irritation. With a long and painful history of releasing DLC packs full of things that every single fan fervently wished had been included in the base game, this should in theory feel like yet another nail in the coffin. Oddly, though, I was looking forward to it.
Whilst CA have a long history of releasing pointless DLC packs where they release a handful of poorly reskinned units and a handful of factions, it appears recently that they might finally have taken the hint. In recent months, they have released two full new campaigns for Attila, and have finally stopped releasing pointless faction packs. This latest campaign, the Age of Charlemagne, added once again a distinctly medieval flavour to the series.
The campaign begins in 786AD, at the beginning of the reign of Charles the Great of the Frankish kingdom, better known as Charlemagne. You choose from one of 8 factions, and over the course of the campaign build it up to become the ruler of Europe. The factions range from the northern Spanish kingdom of Asturias to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex and the Avar Khaganate. Each faction plays differently, and as ever, have a number of semi-historically accurate troops at their disposal.
Each faction added to the campaign was built from scratch, and seems to fit quite nicely into the period itself. With a real emphasis on religious warfare and ensuring the primacy of your own religion, CA have clearly bothered to do their reading. The clash of Islam and Christianity in Spain takes careful management as without ensuring your religion is in the majority you face constant revolt from your angry populace.
As well, for the first 50 to 60 turns, all factions are reliant on levy troops, mainly armed with spears, reflecting nicely the fact the lack of standing armies in this period. It’s also worth noting that food is all but impossible to come by, severely limiting your expansion in the early campaign, forcing you to play tactically whenever possible to ensure that your citizens are not starving to death.
As ever, with any total war game, this utterly dissolves by the time you’ve won. The Kingdom of Asturias begins the campaign with a small army of levy spearmen, hemmed in by a number of Muslim nations, trapped in the north of Spain. Now, in 853 AD, a mere 67 years later, they have become the masters of Europe, a new Rome. The final Irish rebels have been crushed under the iron shod hooves of their royal knights and vast standing armies litter the map, ensuring that no one is either brave or stupid enough to consider rebelling against their rule. Charlemagne never had the opportunity to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope. By 809AD, the Papal States had fallen and Rome had been subsumed into the Empire of Asturias. The campaign is truly the realm for the insane and power hungry, and with the addition of some giggling as your armies overrun yet another hopeless band of peasants, it is for the most part a highly enjoyable experience.
One of the few actual problems with the new campaign is a new concept; war weariness. It introduces a system where if you are at war for too long, or suffer defeats in battle, then you face instability in your provinces. Whilst it is quite understandable that the population of your kingdom would get the tiniest bit irritated by incessant warfare meaning lots of taxation, there is very little information as to how it works. Unfortunately, there is no information in the game itself about how close you are to gaining war weariness and the UI fails miserably to enlighten us. It took me over 100 turns to discover how it worked. Since this was one of the centrepieces of the updated gameplay that CA wanted to show off, this really isn’t good enough.
On the other hand though, the expansion has been a lot of fun. I don’t normally finish a campaign on a Total War game; they are an epic marathon filled with slaughter and expansion, punctuated by bouts of panicked diplomacy. This time around though, I made an exception. Whilst there was quite a limited pool of units available to me, they each played in a highly different style, and the makeup of your army still managed to make a real difference to your likelihood of winning. At the same time, the AI threw in some tactical brilliance, and provided a real challenge at times. Sadly it lacked the aggression I hoped it would have, but nonetheless when you find 10,000 Franks marching across the battlefield towards your hopelessly outnumbered army trapped in a mountain pass you become incredibly glad of that fact.
The campaign map is as pretty as ever. Whilst at first it feels a little bright and colourful, even my significant other who rarely spares my gaming a glance commented on how beautiful the terrain appeared. Tactics are by no means confined to battlefields, and the decision to march your forces through the Alpine passes in the depths of winter has devastating consequences.
All in all, it is a well-crafted expansion. Whilst features are thin on the ground, it has been built to fit the period, and the struggle for dominance between the various cultures of Europe at the time. It’s the first time I’ve finished a Total War campaign in a long time, and the first time I’ve ever felt compelled to finish the job, crushing the entirety of Europe at the head of the armies of Asturia. Some factions are more fun than others, but the fact of the matter is that this is a campaign with character, and one that I would (and did) gladly pay for.