There was a good chunk of time there when the Total War series was one of the best things on the PC. Its combination of real-time battles and turn-based planning made it a lot of people's — mine included — perfect strategy game. Then along came Total War: Rome II. It wasn't a bad game by any means. But it had problems, enough to tarnish the series' reputation and knock it down a few pegs. Its launch was a mess, its AI stunk, its campaign map was an aimless sprawl and it was entirely lacking in the charm found in its predecessors Shogun 2 or Empire.
Rome II's first big expansion, Attila, had some neat ideas — like a barbarian faction that didn't need cities — but it still had too many of the core game's problems to make it worth investing dozens/hundreds of hours into.
Those missteps weren't enough to destroy the brand, but they did enough to dent my enthusiasm for the direction the series was taking, to the point where I've barely raised an eyebrow over the upcoming Total War: Warhammer.
Imagine my surprise, then, when on a whim I gave Rome II's final expansion a try and...quite liked it.
Set during the Dark Ages, and focusing on Charlemagne's expansion across France and Western Europe, Total War: ATTILA - Age of Charlemagne is as close to Total War: Medieval 3 as you're going to get for a while.
While it's unable to address some of the core problems with Rome II, like a messy (and pointless) political system and an overwhelming sense of drabness, it does manage to get one thing right: the game's focus.
One of Rome II's biggest problems was its size. While on paper a sprawling campaign map sounds great, in practice it made managing a large empire difficult, and the design of the Mediterranean map made traversing it a slog. The number of factions involved in the game also caused headaches, making load times between turns a massive pain.
Age of Charlemagne has a smaller map and less factions. While some will see this as a loss of value (counter-point: it's only $US15 [$21]), I see it as a way to regain something the Total War games have been missing since Shogun II: focus. A clearer set of objectives, a better idea of who you're up against and a more intimate map.
I'm also feeling the new factions. There are eight to choose from, and (understandably, given the time period) they're far closer to Medieval's roster than Rome's. They have even got new era-appropriate unit card designs that are just wonderful.
The last thing that's won me over — perhaps taking a cue from Crusader Kings II, another game which begins in the same era — is that you're now no longer bound to represent the faction you start with. Example: I started a game as the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, but after a few conquests was able to create the Kingdom of England and play as that instead. Total War games have long featured the ability to change a faction's name/flag (rebellions in Empire, for example, could lead to the creation of an 18th-century German state or an independent Scotland), but being able to build a new one from the bones of your enemies is cool.
Before I get too carried away with everything that I loved about Age of Charlemagne, it's worth pointing out that...this is about it. The map is still the same drab map, the family and political stuff is still garbage and the regional city management system implemented in Rome II still sucks. The fact this is only a $US15 [$21] expansion can also be seen in the corners cut: despite the massive advance in time, factions and units still have their ancient accents, and despite new icons for Dark Ages buildings, they're not new models on the actual game map.
But hey, nobody ever asked this expansion to be perfect. I don't think many expected it to even be OK. But by scaling back Rome II's over-ambitious gaze and throwing in a few interesting features, Creative Assembly have made sure that Rome II's disappointing chapter of the Total War saga ends on a much brighter note than it began.