This is not a review. There will be one, in depth, when I have had enough time with the game, but this is just my first impression after a weekend with it. Perhaps the most telling thing is that I had to tear myself away from Total War: Warhammer in order to submit this in time. It is big, it is fun, and it is a breath of fresh air for the Total War franchise.
Total War has always been separated into two main game modes: the tactical, turn-based campaign map, and the real-time battles. I will look at each individually, because they are distinct.
Rome 2 introduced a new style of campaign to the series. Gone were stand-alone settlements and having as many armies as you could afford. In their place were regions and limited armies under single generals. These changes brought about a more interesting tactical experience, but with family trees cut and the ability to spread your empire diminished, many players felt aggrieved. Total War: Warhammer continues in this same vein, however it finally makes it work through the introduction of characters.
I won’t go into detail yet about lords and heroes, and their uses tactically and in battle, but they offer something unique and personal to your armies. Alongside a generous leveling system and their significant combat prowess, these lords and heroes grow with your empire. You become attached to them, and suddenly your armies come to life. I’m on a personal quest for my first recruited lord (who I named Vorick the Hammer) to find him a warhammer befitting of his name. Combine this with your legendary lord’s quests and suddenly this empire building strategy game forms some narratives, and it is those that keep you coming back.
It is also a massive relief to no longer fight through Europe. Beyond that, the freedom afforded by a mythical universe means that the developers were not constrained by reality. The layout provides many more tactical positions for armies and settlements to take up than in previous titles. You can guard a mountain pass, or take a settlement to plug the gap between an ally and a merciless enemy. I found I was making more strategic choices about when and where I expanded, and my experience was all the better for it.
While I could find little fault with the campaign, there are some small issues with the real-time battles.
Battles are chaotic, fast and brutal. I found my units perished and fled slower than they did in Attila, however it is unlikely for even a large battle to last more than ten minutes. While this annoyed me in Attila, the smash-and-grab styled of battle really seems to suit the Warhammer universe, so I can’t really complain. I also can’t complain because field battles have become infinitely more interesting. While troop numbers still seem to carry the day mostly, the battles are won and lost not by the infantry, but by the intelligent and effective use of lords, magic and special units. Cavalry is brutal – perhaps more so than any of the previous titles – and magic is true tide-turner. AI feels vastly improved as well, so there’s not too much cheesing, just good honest fighting.
Unfortunately, siege battles have suffered. Not only are the majority of settlements without defenses, meaning fights to decide them take place on the field, but tactics and planning appear to have made way for brute force. Infantry may all scale the walls with ‘pocket ladders’ and the walls have been widened to allow more units to pour onto the defenses. An attacker trying to be patient will find their units overwhelmed and peppered by the towers and their ridiculous range. A defender hoping to use strategic chokepoints and archer support against a large force will find themselves overrun. Really, sieges don’t feel all that different from a field battle – there is just a wall in the way that most of your units can scale at will.
That being said, this game is the strongest Total War in some time. It releases tomorrow, May 24, and if you purchase within a week of that release you get Chaos as a free expansion. Ignoring all of the issues surrounding day one expansions, this game is seriously too good not to take up that offer. Keep an eye out for an in-depth review, coming by the end of the week.