Something special has blown in upon the winds of magic – armies carve bloody death while the total war series breathes new life.
As my Dwarfen slayer-king slew a gigantic creature of chaos, I sat triumphant. The chaos were driven from our lands, the empire reclaimed its northern provinces, and I felt a satisfaction I had never before felt in a Total War game. I had overcome many obstacles, spent many hours and battles giving my legendary lord the experience required, and faced down the worst a horde of overpowered chaos had to throw at me. I felt like I had won.
I’ve ‘won’ Total War games before. I’ve met the victory conditions, and I’ve painted the map a Brutii green in my time. But never before had my victory felt so earned, so rewarding, and so actually like a victory. For all the complaints about regional occupation, for all the frustrating battles and awful sieges, this was total war the way it should be.
This review may be late, but it is one after many hours of playing, and I plan to look at everything that made my Total War: Warhammer experience what it was.
Technically an aesthetically the game performs impeccably. The textures, lighting and particle effects are all amazing. I often found myself distracted by surprisingly detailed buildings, or marveling at the texture of the stones or trees. The fantasy genre gave Creative Assembly the license to go grand and outrageous, while still maintaining some sort of gritty reality. Different areas of the world feel distinct, but still part of the same universe, and there is a true sense of marvel as you pan through the craggy peaks of the Dwarfen holds, or the corrupted Vampiric lands.
The character modeling is where the graphics truly stand out. For a game where the majority of the time you are zoomed out and frantically clicking on yellow flags, the character models are incredibly detailed and impressive. From grotesque monster to glittering knight, each unit is superbly crafted and fits within the world. The variation in lords is another nice touch, adding variety to your armies. Often you will find yourself just looking at your rows of troops, each individually animated and mighty, and you are thankful you bought a powerful enough processor to deal with them all. Perhaps equally importantly, the game still looks nice on lower settings. Obviously it’s not the same as ultra setting, but the atmosphere remains even if you have to sacrifice quality for performance.
In terms of audio, there is nothing that stands out, but I mean that in the best possible sense. The voice acting, sound effects and score all work perfectly with the game and knit with the epic and the gritty. General speeches are reminiscent of the best from Rome: Total War, and magic crackles, fizzes or explodes in all the ways you want. The score is stirring, but does not draw attention away from your gameplay.
Finally, before moving on to the actual gameplay part of the review, I’ll touch on the UI. Very little has changed in this regard from the previous Total War, Attila. Most of what you would know, had you played that game, is basically in the same spot. Blocky flags and fluorescent triangles are commonplace on the battlefield. Quests, the mini map, tech trees all become very easy to use with a bit of practice and even a small effort to learn a few hotkeys makes battles go more smoothly. I did have a few minor issues, particularly in terms of selecting armies and settlements on the campaign map. Often, when I would click it would ignore my command or click on something else entirely. I still don’t even know if it’s better to select someone by their feet or their flag.
In terms of aesthetics and performance, Total War: Warhammer hits all the right notes, but nothing stands out.
Anyone even vaguely aware of Total War knows that the game is separated into two different game modes; the turn-based campaign map, and the real-time battles. I will look at these separately, starting with the campaign.
This is the best Total War campaign I have played to date. In fact, it is probably one of the best strategy game campaigns I have played. CA have taken their tried and true formula of empire building, diplomacy and nation crushing, and painted over it with rich lore, character and interest. Much of this can be attributed to the freedom from not being constricted by reality. Honestly, as much as I loved it, I got a bit sick of traipsing through Europe in Total War. To be sure, The Old World is so obviously Europe they barely bothered changing some names (Praag, Bretonnia) but given the new setting it really seemed like Creative Assembly felt compelled to create a campaign that stood out.
Initially I was hugely concerned to learn that there would only be four playable factions in Total War: Warhammer (Six if you count the Chaos DLC available for free up to a week after launch, and a free DLC coming late this year almost certainly making Bretonnia playable). It turns out there was nothing to fear, because in these four factions are found more variety and replayablity than any of the previous Total War games. Each of the factions play so differently, with such distinct strengths and weaknesses, that a new campaign is a completely new experience.
The empire is the closest you will get to a traditional Total War faction. They are human, surrounded by other human factions, and careful diplomacy is incredibly important for early survival. They have a well-rounded roster, including powerful artillery and cavalry, and always seem to be in the thick of the fighting.
By comparison, the dwarfs are defensive, slow, and reliant on stocky infantry and powerful artillery. Any enemy who slights them must be repaid in kind, and if too many grudges remain unsettled, your entire empire becomes restless and unsettled.
Greenskins – the orcs and goblins – must forever be at war, or else their armies will collapse in on themselves through infighting, while their fast and powerful infantry tear apart their foes.
The Vampire Counts fight with massive armies of the undead. They do not have morale, instead their armies crumble into dust when a battle begins to go sour. Not that that is a problem, because the Old World is littered with corpses to resurrect, and huge armies can be amassed at speed. They also spread their corruption, which kills enemies walking through their lands, but makes expanding difficult, for a vampiric army in untainted lands takes heavy attrition.
So while there are only six races (including Bretonnia and Chaos) the massive variability between them means that you will always have to find new tactics against new enemies, and once you finish a campaign there are three completely different experiences awaiting you. There are smaller kingdoms you can conquer, and if they are of your race you can incorporate them into your empire at a diplomatic penalty. In my dwarfen campaign I managed to conquer all of the dwarfen holds without ever being at war with my kin, while in my empire campaign, expansion was very much more by the sword. There are more ways to play the game now. Even the change to regional occupation (greenskins and dwarfs could not take human and vampire settlements, and vise versa) was not as much as a problem as I thought. I forged strong alliances with factions I could not conquer, and there were still plenty of enemies for me to fight. Honestly I really didn’t miss being able to conquer the whole world because the campaign has an inherent narrative that gives the game thrust, and gives you other, more tangible objectives than mindless empire expansion.
You see, the chaos, under the command or Archaon the Everchosen, are coming. Hordes from the north grow in power with every passing turn, and eventually come to destroy all you have worked to make. It is a true endgame, something that makes training your high-tier units worthwhile, something that makes alliances more than placating a faction so you can destroy them later. While I would have liked to see even more than this, it made my campaigns far more unforgettable.
The final, and for my mind most important, change made to campaigns was the introduction heroes, lords and legendary lords. The earlier Total Wars had family tree systems, where every male family member would host a unit of bodyguard, and this system was scrapped a few iterations ago. In its place were stand-alone armies under the rule of a single general. This formula has not worked until now, and it works because generals have character. Each army must be commanded by a lord – a powerful warrior who fights by himself – and as these lords progress they improve their battle prowess and their leadership. Heroes differ for each faction, but act as agents in the campaign map and powerful warriors or spell casters in combat. It not only works to give variety, but with the ability to change names, assign special equipment, and level them up, you become quite attached to some of them.
At the beginning of the campaign you select on legendary lord to be your faction leader (though the other may still join you later on) and he acts like any other lord, however he may embark on special missions for special equipment, making him even more deadly. These set quest battles were exciting and gave the developers a chance to show off their battlefield-crafting abilities.
While I really appreciated this system, I did feel that the difference between a level 1 and level 15 character was not enough. I really would have preferred they start weaker and become demi-gods with enough experience. Also, while I enjoyed the quest battles for the legendary lords, there was limited narrative for each, and even less tying it to the over-arching story. Even a few narrated cut scenes, perhaps showing the lord collect his amazing axe, would have made these stand out far more.
The real-time combat is as hectic as it is epic, however there are some problems, particularly with sieges.
One of the major benefits of Total War: Warhammer’s new roster of mythical warriors is that the old scissors-paper-rock formula of battle is completely redundant. Sure, swords still beat spears, which beat cavalry, which beats swords, but your army will need archers to deal with flying units, artillery to knock down great beasts and magic to cast buffs. There are so many variables, even amongst single factions, that a tactic might work one battle, but will completely fail the next. Battles feel alive.
Unfortunately, while exciting, battles are more often won by might rather than any sort of tactics. Strong infantry armies will crush your skirmishing army in moments, even if you place strategic units to hold them at bay. The only real tide-turners are the special abilities of your lords and heroes. A perfectly timed firestorm can destroy numbers and morale, but without a strong hero and a strong army, no amount of guile will carry the day. Which isn’t necessarily that bad. The AI in field battles is good. Not incredible, but they flank when they have faster units, charge when you have superior archers. There are very few cheesing options, and so every heroic victory feels earned.
Total War: Warhammer also makes great use of terrain in battles. Almost every field would have some form of hill to conquer or forest to hide in. The decisions you make positioning your army is almost as important as the decisions you make in combat, because once the battle is going there is very little time to readjust.
The real sticking point, and the reason I gave the game the score you’ve probably already glanced at, rather than a 9 or higher, is the siege combat.
Frankly, sieges are terrible.
Since the earliest Total War games, the slow and deliberate sieges have been a nice counterpoint to the more chaotic field battles. It was about holding the walls, falling back to strategic choke points, and knocking out important towers or artillery. Sieges in Total War: Warhammer are glorified field battles, except the AI is a little more stupid.
The first problem is that there are only ever one or two walls to attack, and they are completely straight. In the background is often an amazing, sprawling and beautifully crafted city, but you have to fight in a disappointing cookie-cutter city, where the battle is decided at the walls anyway. The reason that battles never spill into the streets is because they don’t have time to. Every infantry unit magically carries a set of ladders they appear to summon at will, which makes knocking down siege towers pointless. Plus, the defensive towers have ridiculous range, meaning a siege is almost always a rush onto the walls, a mosh, then one army breaking within five minutes. The defending army no longer regroups at the town centre either, so one chain-rout and it’s over. There is no tactical flexibility, no punching holes in the walls, no skirmishing in the streets, no sallying forth, no giving up the walls and firing archers, only death on the walls and at the gate. It’s disappointing, because defending sieges are my favourite thing in Total War, and as the campaign wore on I was relieved very few of the settlements actually had defenses.
And then there’s the AI. Defensively there’s not too much the AI can do wrong, but attacking they are horrible. And there are other problems. One particular siege battle I had portrayed every problem with sieges.
I was defending with the Dwarfs against two massive greenskin armies. I was outnumbered, but set most of my units to hold the walls and fire down as the enemy approached. This worked better than I was expecting, because the greenskins decided to attack in waves. Most were dead before they reached the walls, and those who made it quickly fled. That’s when things got stupid. The greenskins, instead of retreating down their ladders, retreated inside my city. Then, while most of my units were engaged, some of those retreating units stopped fleeing and captured my town centre, winning the battle before I could send reinforcements back. It honestly feels like sieges were and afterthought in this game. They were given simple layouts and wide walls to stop the AI from being stupid, but ruined what was fun about sieges in the first place.
In the end, I had an absolute blast playing Total War: Warhammer. I think I’ve already played it more than I did the previous two Total War titles combined. The campaign is the most fun and rewarding in the series to date, and a standout in the genre. Unfortunately, while fun, battles were not quite up to scratch. Field battle improvements and innovations outweighed the negatives, but sieges were more mosh pits than planned military maneuvers. It is a strategy game, not a charge and hope game, and I simply can’t look past these deficiencies, no matter how much I enjoyed the experience, and no matter how much I will continue to.