Total War: Warhammer Review – Together, let us make WAAAGH!

TWWH_Magic_chs_metal_hounds_1463139106
The union of Total War and Warhammer has an air of inevitability to it. While Creative Assembly’s Total War has built itself on historical settings ranging from ancient Rome to the Napoleonic era, its epic land battles of giant formations of soldiers have always begged for a conversion into Games Workshop’s decidedly weird fantasy universe. Now that it’s finally here, expectations could hardly be higher – and by Sigmar, they’ve pulled it off.

Unique Races, Unique Campaigns
Review Notes

I played a pre-release version of the game on a PC with an i7-4790, 16 GB RAM, and an Nvidia GTX 970 GPU. I was able to play on Ultra settings without much trouble, apart from a repeating crash in the opening battle of the Empire campaign. Total War games are optimized for AMD architectures, though, and Nvidia is usually prompt about releasing game-ready drivers for their graphics cards by release dates. It’s not clear that the crash was a driver issue, but it did resolve when I temporarily dropped my graphics preset to Medium.

Further, my impressions are based on playing on Easy difficulty, per advice from Creative Assembly. They said their QA feedback has indicated that Normal is still a bit too punishing, so they are making some balancing changes that will be ready at the time of release.

Also, I was not able to experiment with the playable Chaos faction, which is offered as a pre-order and week-one purchase bonus, by press time.

Total War: Warhammer isn’t a reskin of Rome 2 or Attila – the game mechanics have been completely reworked to accommodate not only fantasy battle units, but also the fundamental differences between the races that make up the Warhammer Fantasy universe. Each race – the human Empire, the mountain-dwelling Dwarfs, the reclusive and evil Vampire Counts, and the warlike Greenskins – is a completely different experience, demanding its own distinct playstyle and strategies.  Beyond having unique sets of units to build armies from, the races all have defining gameplay mechanics shaped by Warhammer lore that drive their goals and methods.

For example, Greenskins – the blanket term for orcs and goblins – live for combat, represented by something Total War: Warhammer calls “fightiness.” Raise a Greenskin army’s fightiness by winning battles or by entering the “raidin’ camp” stance. If an army’s fightiness reaches a certain threshold, a WAAAGH! begins, and they’ll be joined by an AI-controlled ally battle group for the purposes of increased beatin’ an’ killin’.

The obvious jumping-in point for most will be the Empire, which offers familiar unit types (swords, spears, crossbows, cavalry) and a generalist approach to tech and trade. Legendary Lord (each race has two) Karl von Franz’ chief concern at the outset is uniting the fractured Empire of Man by forging a confederation with the independent Elector Counts either with the carrot or, often, the stick. Starting with this campaign will quickly introduce the game’s other races, and it’s a good way to get familiar with the changes the Warhammer edition introduces to the Rome 2-era Total War formula.

But you’ll soon want to try out the other factions, and each has its own story, its own goals, and its own means of achieving them in this crucial part of the Old World’s history, as the Chaos Lords marshal their forces to invade the mortal realm.

TWWH_Magic_vmp_wind_of_death_1463139107

On the Battlefield

Some of Total War: Warhammer’s freshest additions to the franchise are in the game’s real-time tactical battles. Previous Total War games, cleaving closely to history, have had a relatively limited palette of unit types – regional variations aside, you had your swords and spears, your missile troops, cavalry, and artillery.

Total War: Warhammer keeps these fundamental building blocks, but adds the over-the-top fantasy units that have made the franchise iconic – Greenskins bring towering giants and trolls to the fray, while the Vampire Counts can raise formations of skeletons mid-battle. There are magic users, steam-belching tanks, and plenty of things that explode.

Legendary Lords and heroes play a much larger role in Total War: Warhammer than generals have in past titles. They’ll earn magical gear and learn new skills and spells with experience, and they’ll take to the field independently with the strength of a full company of standard troops. Spellcasters like shamans and wizards can call upon the “Winds of Magic” to pull the powers of the gods onto the battlefield to devastating effect – although true to Warhammer, this is always a risky proposition.

Tactics no longer boil down to established rock, paper, scissors mechanics of classical-era war –flying units must be considered, and monstrous units that are only sensitive to special slayer units. The upshot of these new unit types is a much more complex – and often ridiculous – tactical game than Total War has ever before had on offer. Of course it’s still important to consider flanking, concealment, and high ground – but now there are chaos dragons and Gyrocopters to consider as well.

Certain steps have been taken to keep from overcomplicating matters. In the majority of battles, you will face off in identical rectangular deployment areas, much in the way the Warhammer tabletop game begins. This changes in certain scripted story missions, or if you’re assaulting or defending a walled settlement, in which case it’ll be a siege (with the usual battering rams and towers), but in no case will you find complex multi-phase city maps like Attila’s Constantinople or Rome.

This works in Total War: Warhammer’s favor, though. Combat encounters are faster – more reminiscent of the speedy Shogun 2 – and are more suited to the pitched, open-field slugfests that typify the tabletop game. And there are plenty of beautifully-detailed maps with rich and varied terrain to keep things from ever feeling dull or flat. While it’s still very much a Total War game, the tactical battles successfully capture the scope and silliness of Warhammer.

The design and detail of each unit is a testament to the fan-level attention to detail that’s gone into the game. From the billowy silk sleeves on the Empire’s light infantrymen to the glowing scythes of the Cairn wraiths, long-time fans will recognize tons of lovingly-crafted Warhammer models that almost look like hand-painted minis come to life.

I was able to try the online multiplayer skirmish mode with a member of the Creative Assembly team, and I’m happy to report that it works very well (despite my Greenskin warboss being killed by my adversary’s Vampire Count general in one-on-one combat, causing a cascade of routs in my remaining warband). So far, this is as close as it’s come to being able to play a Warhammer battle against an online opponent.

TWWH_Magic_vampire_female_spellcast_1463139107

Strategy and Story

Where the real-time battles have attempted to adapt tabletop wargaming rules to Total War, the game’s strategy layer pulls Warhammer’s rich and ever-developing lore into a turn-based empire builder. You’ll begin with a settlement or two and, depending on your selected race’s particular traits, set out to expand by force of arms, diplomatic skill, treachery, or a bit of each. Here is the game at its most Total War-esque, but care has been taken to make even the familiar game elements of the series feel at home in the Warhammer universe.

Warhammer’s Old World is recreated on the strategic map in high detail, and the mountain ranges, blasted wastes, and idyllic grasslands have the exaggerated feel of a high fantasy world. Nothing feels arbitrary though, and it’s clear that Creative Assembly has taken pains to pack as much official Warhammer lore into their map as they can, despite the somewhat disappointing omission of some of the system’s most iconic races, particularly Elves. (I don’t doubt, however, that this being a Total War title, that DLC expansions will add these at a later date.)

As you take over settlements, you’ll encounter other factions and have the opportunity to create trade partnerships or military truces. As in other Total War games, settlements can be upgraded with structures that provide increased income, military technology, or infrastructure. You’ll perform research that provides buffs to combat units or your empire’s ability to grow. Heroes – the new version of “Agents” – can be recruited to carry out subterfuge missions, but they can also be attached to armies to lend their skills to the battlefield.

Diplomacy is important, and you’ll usually want to keep abreast of international politics – who’s fighting whom, and (often more importantly) who will get mad at if you decide to take over territory are key considerations. Your standing with any given faction will depend on a wide variety of factors, and that results in a complex web of political relationships that make plotting your next move interesting and challenging.

(This is, delightfully, much less important while playing as the Greenskins, who don’t care what anyone thinks. The crucial thing for them is to keep fightin’ and lootin’. Have you ever heard of an orc embassy? I didn’t think so.)

Each faction has its own storyline, and you’ll periodically interact with that through quests, including some interested scripted battles. Usually, though, quests take the form of conquering a particular territory or adversary, forging an alliance, or building a key structure. And everyone will eventually have to deal with the eventual invasion of Chaos.

TWWH_Magic_emp_fire_skull_1463139106

Kinder, Gentler, but Dwarfier

As with any Total War game, there’s a lot going on in Total War: Warhammer. These games can be daunting to newcomers due to the firehose of information and decisions they throw at you, along with all the context of the chosen historical epoch.

Most of this complexity is still present in the jump to the Warhammer fantasy universe, but it’s been the most approachable Total War title I’ve played to date. Maybe it’s the aesthetic, or the UI design, or perhaps it’s detaching the series from the fall of Rome or feudal Japan – somehow, Total War: Warhammer feels easier to just pick up and start playing.

Certainly, Creative Assembly has learned some hard lessons about balancing and presentation – Rome 2 was a disaster on launch, and took about a year to become a playable game. But unlike Rome 2, the experiments made in Warhammer serve to enhance the experience and are balanced out by stripping out some systems and features that aren’t necessary in a fantasy setting.

Make no mistake, it still has a lot of the frustrating quirks of Total War: I’ve never quite understood how they decided on right clicks, left clicks, or hovering in menu navigation, and the combat controls still feel a bit sluggish and imprecise. But two very important factors come together in this entry that I think put it above the rest of the pack.

The first is a new level of mastery of design. With so many interlocking systems and simulations, Total War has always been a bit of a hodgepodge of disparate menu designs and unclear goals that have created a steep learning curve for beginners. With the transition to an ahistorical setting, Creative Assembly has taken the opportunity to rethink the entry process to their game, and it’s worked out pretty well.

The second factor, and I think this is crucial, is the unique sense of humor that fuels Warhammer’s appeal. It’s impossible – or wildly inappropriate – to make a funny game about the Hunnic invasions, and there’s value to the seriousness with which Attila and other Total War titles regard their subject matter. But Warhammer – with its goblin doom-divers sling-shotting each other into enemy formations, its backfiring magic spells, its heavy-metal-album-cover-grimdark prophesies, and its platoons of Mohawk-wearing dwarfs – is a chance to pull back from heavy simulation and focus on pure, goofy fun.

The transition from fantasy tabletop game to grand strategy videogame is by no means a seamless one, but I’m not convinced that’s possible, or even desirable. Total War: Warhammer may not appeal as much to the series’ history-inclined fanbase, and there are certainly nits to be picked, but it’s pretty close to ideal for someone (let’s not worry about names) who lost many hours as a teenager painting hordes of whimsical miniatures and has hoped since then to find someone to march them against.

I still feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface of this game, and when I’ve finished writing this, I’m going to go play more of it. Truly, Nurgle loves his children.

Final Verdict

9/10

Total War: Warhammer was developed by Creative Assembly and published by SEGA. It will be released May 24, 2016, for an MSRP of $59.99 USD. A review copy was provided by the publisher.