The Warhammer franchise has been cursed with a mixed history on the gaming scene. A long time has passed since the glorious times of Shadow of the Horned Rat in 1995, when we were content just because we could finally see our beloved Old World rendered on the screen of our old computers.
Since then, there have been quite a few games dedicated to Games Workshop’s franchises. Some have been minor hits, while others ended up as major misses despite the enormous potential of the franchise. My heart was broken when Warhammer Online landed with a mighty warcry, and then was snuffed into oblivion, while Mark of Chaos missed the mark of greatness.
While the Warhammer 40,000 franchise was much better served with the Dawn of War series, the fantasy version simply failed to find a game that could do justice to its complexity and flavor, until now.
As someone who played Warhammer since the tender age of eight, which would be roughly thirty years ago, I couldn’t be more elated to say that Games Workshop’s franchise has finally found its match.
The story of the game itself is simple, even if it unfolds in a world that is extremely complex, build in layers upon layers of games, novels and retcons.
Many nations are locked in endless war: the brave men of the Empire have been fighting enemies on all sides for centuries. The vampire counts grow in power almost as a dark mirror of their human neighbors. The dwarfs have fortified in their few remaining strongholds, planning to avenge their countless grudges and to retake their lost possessions. The greenskins… well, the greenskins just want to fight everything that moves and dares to breathe in their direction (or in whatever direction, really). The chivalrous nation of Bretonnia (which isn’t playable for now in the single player campaign, much to my chagrin) wields its power from the west, uncaring of who could be pulling their strings.
And then there are the chaos warriors (which are playable for free only if you purchase the game within the next week), and Chaos does what it says on the tin, aiming to devour the whole world in an orgy of death, blood and well… chaos.
As most Total War games, Warhammer: Total War is light on the narration, mostly allowing the player to write his own story through his deeds. This time around it does include narrative quest lines bound to your most prominent characters, but you can freely decide when, how and if to tackle them.
This is actually a boon, considering the current state of the Warhammer franchise on tabletop. There’s none of that End Times nonsense here, so you’re free to decide the destiny of your faction without the nefarious influence of Games Workshop’s increasingly weird and self-destructive ideas.
The game is set mostly in the Old World (which is basically the equivalent of Europe), extending as far north as Norsca and a bit of the Chaos Wastes and southwards to the Badlands, leaving farther areas like the Southlands, Ulthuan, Nagaroth and more to expansions or further games of the announced trilogy.
While the five playable races have been reproduced in great detail and depth, some compromises have been made in depicting the rest of the denizens of the Old World. At least Bretonnia (which is playable only in multiplayer and custom battles for now) has a limited roster representing pretty well its Arthurian flavor. That’s good, because as a dedicated Bretonnian player, if I saw them using copies of imperial units, I would have assaulted The Creative Assembly’s offices with a flamethrower.
While I couldn’t squeeze a confirmation out of the developers, everything seems to be set for the Bretonnian faction to become fully playable some time this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw them announced as a DLC soon enough.
On the other hand, other pretty relevant nations like Kislev, the Border Princes, Estalia and Tilea have been left as quite generic, and that’s a bit of a pity, especially for the followers of the Ice Queen, who dwell right in the way of chaos invasions, and actually play a rather relevant role in the game.
Other races like Wood Elves and Skaven are completely absent. The exclusion of the forest-dwelling pointy-ears (and of all elves, at that) is a bit strange, considering that they should be located smack-dab in the middle of the playable world. I guess one could justify their absence with their secrecy and overprotective territorial nature. The forest of Loren is just an impassable block of vegetation on the map.
The lack of any sign of the Skaven can be explained pretty much in the same way, considering that they dwell basically under the whole map, but they tend to make themselves scarce or to kill everything that breathes when their presence is about to be discovered. Hopefully (and most probably) the game will be expanded gradually to cover the gaps over the coming months and years.
The graphics aren’t too different from what previous Total War games got us used to, but this isn’t to say they’re bad. They’re actually rather spectacular if you keep in mind what they portray: the biggest battle I had fought so far in my time with the game was when a certain tough guy descended from the chaos wastes and came at me with an enormous army, only to be sent back packing with the lesson that he isn’t as though as he thought he was.
That epic battle caused almost 6,000 casualties, and every single one of those soldiers is rendered on the battlefield. While the level of detail of each isn’t certainly on the same level as games with a much smaller scale, the overall view is absolutely grandiose.
Things don’t really look bad even when you zoom all the way in, especially considering that The Creative Assembly went all out with animations and effects. Even thanks to the built-in replay feature, you’ll be able to freely choose whether to watch each battle from a bird-eye view, or from a boots-on-the-ground perspective side-by-side with your brave soldiers.
Battle environments are also beautiful, from stunning cities to eerie tomb-littered burial grounds, passing by ruins, deserts, canyons and more. While previous Total War games were stuck with the relative monotony of the real world, this is a fantasy game, and gave the developers plenty of chances to create charming vistas.
The biggest improvement from older Total War titles is probably performance: while the latest Attila brought a certain level of progress, most recent games of the franchise were plagued by rather weak optimization, especially at launch.
On the other hand, Total War: Warhammer is surprisingly smooth even with all the details cranked up to the maximum on a good but not exceptional rig powered by a GTX 970, that doesn’t really touch the top-end of hardware.
As a matter of fact, this is the most polished Total War game I have ever seen at release. I can’t say I encountered any major bugs, and if you played what came before, you know how this is a big change of pace.
Audio is also great, with solid voice acting intentionally pushed to overly dramatic levels, which is perfect for the stylized nature of the Warhammer world.
Sound effects are a good fit for the setting and its tone, and the sountrack is suitably epic, contributing to the atmosphere of a massive struggle for the destiny (or doom) of your whole race.
Gameplay will prove familiar to veterans of the franchise, split between turn-based strategy on the world map and real-time tactical gameplay when two armies collide.
Veterans of the franchise might find the number of playable factions (four plus one with the DLC, free for those who purchase the game in the first week) a bit limited, but appearances can be misleading: each faction plays in a massively different way. Not only its troops are completely unique, but the way they play on a strategic level is fully separate from the rest.
Their whole traits, building chains and even the way they unlock technology rersearch are completely different from one another, making playing each faction in the grand campaign almost a separate game in its own right.
For instance, if you play as the greenskins, you need to keep them satisfied, and to do so you have to make them fight. Fight and win enough and their “fightyness” value will get so big that a “Waaagh” (the greenskins’ rather naive idea of a holy war) will be called, granting a free army that will follow you around the map and help you slaughter your enemies.
On the other hand, playing as the dwarfs you’ll have to avenge your grudges. Every time someone even dares to throw a stone in your direction, your stout scribes will note it in the Dammaz Kron, the Great Book of Grudges. Of course you’ll have to wash those with blood, unless you want to see your public order drop.
Other races have their own unique mechanics, and you can select the Empire if you prefer something a bit more traditional, topped by massive artillery fire, devastating cavalry charges and… tanks. Yes. Tanks.
Strategy gameplay on the campaign map isn’t as complex as in the deepest strategy-only games out there like Hearts of Iron or even Civilization, but it comes with enough breadth and depth to be interesting and engaging.
Settlement management has been streamlined compared to some of the older games of the franchise, with buildings offering only advantages. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy or unchallenging, though, as every city has a very limited amount of slots, and you’ll need to do some good thinking ahead if you want to maximize both your revenue and your armies without finding yourself having to waste turns demolishing that temple that seemed a great idea an hour before, but it really wasn’t.
What’s most encouraging is that this is the first time in which the AI actually manages to make me feel challenged in a Total War game without having to crank difficulty to the maximum level (which just means giving it unfair management and building advantages). In previous titles of the series, you’d see the enemy making absolutely asinine choices, and this is definitely more rare here.
The level of difficulty is bolstered by having to deal with chaos and vampiric corruption (or the lack of thereof if you play vampire counts, while chaos warriors have to deal with the additional challenge of being a nomadic race), prompting players to have to pay much more attention to public order and to where they walk their armies.
It’s really refreshing to finally feel hard-pressed in a Total War game, having to make difficult choices and at times even sacrifices to ensure longer-term benefits.
Incidentally, each race can only settle into areas that are considered suitable for its survival. This means that, for instance, the Empire can’t take for itself the mountains belonging to the dwarfs. While this can seem a strange design choice, it has a beneficial effect inmitigating the “snowball effect” common in the franchise and in most strategy games.
In this kind of titles, once you start acquiring land and power, you get stronger and stronger until it snowballs and you become unstoppable, basically making campaigns boring after a while. Having your conquest options limited doesn’t completely remove this issue, but it dampens it significantly.
As your supply lines get thinner and thinner and you’re forced to walk long distances to recover your losses, it gets harder and harder to completely remove every threat on the map, and it certainly takes longer. Even in the late game, there will most likely be large nations ready to challenge your power.
If you dislike this kind of setting, don’t worry, as a mod has already been released, allowing you to conquer every available settlement. I have to say that I was personally iffy on it, but the effects in game actually turned me into a believer. I am still going to try the mod, but I’m inclined to think that this is a good design choice in the long run.
Diplomacy seems to be slightly improved since the latest Total War games, at least in the field of decision-making. Personally, I would still like to see the return of options like gifting regions to AI allies, but at least they seem to act in a more logical way now.
An interesting design choice has been made for the starting conditions of each race. If you start as the Empire, for instance, you won’t control the whole Empire: your story will begin just after the election of Karl Franz, with most provinces splintered and some even hostile to his raise to power. Pacifying your own lands will be the first objective, and you’ll have to decide if to use war or to appease your neighbors enough to tempt them into a confederation.
This involves the additional bonus of more gameplay variety, because you won’t just be fighting different races, but also your own people.
Speaking of fighting, when your army meets an enemy on the field, the action will be moved to the battle map, where you’ll have to control your armies in real time, unit by unit. While things can get very hectic due to the large amount of soldiers that you can end up controlling, it’s definitely less twitchy than your usual EPM-driven real-time strategy game, even thanks to the option to slow down time and give orders with the game paused. This definitely fits my personal preference, and it’s certainly more accessible for those who are new to the genre or prefer a slower pace.
Fans of the Total War series will find battles pretty familiar, but there are very relevant changes.
Speaking of familiar elements, it’s very important to know both your army and the enemy. Different units are more or less effective against certain types of adversaries, and keeping firmly in mind those traits can turn the tide of battle in your favor.
Seeing an enormous giant charge your puny men can be frightening, but a good Imperial general will keep his cool and simply direct a unit of Halberdiers to meet the threat (if he wasn’t already obliterated by massed artillery fire). With their weapons effective against large creatures, they will be a match for the lumbering attacker, or they will at least manage to pin him down until you can send your most powerful characters to deal with him.
Micromanagement of standard units has been slightly simplified: for instance abilities like shield or spear walls are not present in Total War: Warhammer, or better, similar effects will be applied automatically in the right conditions. Spear infantry will brace on its own if charged when it’s stationary, removing the need to babysit them.
This doesn’t mean that the amount of overall micromanagement you have to do has been reduced, though. It has simply been shifted to your generals and heroes. This time around even your agents on the campaign map will fight by your side as powerful heroes in battle, and those, alongside your generals, have a large amount of abilities that have to be activated at the right time.
Progression for these special characters has been considerably improved in its depth, and you’ll be able to see them grow from relatively powerful warriors to walking war machines in their own right. Alternatively, you can sacrifice sheer battle prowess to turn them into better provincial administrators, spies, assassins and more.
Since we’re playing in a fantasy world, we also get wizards and magicians of all sorts, with several lores of magic that vary by race in accessibility. Their progression is similar to other heroes, but they also get spells to use in battle.
There are several kinds of spells, including buffs, debuffs, direct damage, bombardment and vortex attacks and more. Contrary to my early expectations, attack magic isn’t at all overpowered. As a matter of fact, I found it slightly underpowered compared to its visual feedback.
When you see a giant comet dropping on the heads of your enemies, you expect it to leave nothing but corpses. While it deals significant damage, it’s not as devastating as the effect suggests, and as I progressed through the game I found myself relying less on flashy comets and fireballs and more on buff and debuff spells to make a whole enemy unit near helpless or one of mine much more powerful for a little while.
Magical resources are certainly not infinite, and you need to sprinkle your spells wisely using the limited power provided by the winds of magic, plus an additional reserve pool. This adds a further level of tactical micromanagement to the game. While I’m sure that some fans of historical battles will shudder at the thought, it’s a lot of fun to play.
Even further depth is added by a range of mounts that can be unlocked for most characters (including flying ones, from pegasi to dragons), and and a vast array of magical items providing either buffs or further abilities and spells. Units can also be given magical banners that improve their battle performance.
Magical items are either earned (or lost) in battle, or gained via quest chains performed by your legendary lords (basically the leaders of your nation) and their armies. Those battles happen on special environments and with specific scripted events like the sudden appearance of enemy reinforcements from unexpected directions. They’re a a very pleasant change from the regular flow of the campaign, and can also be played outside of the campaign itself as stand-alone engagements.
The presence of powerful heroes on the battlefield certainly makes the already great battles of the Total War franchise even more interesting, with epic duels adding dramatic moments to what were often fun by slightly clinical proceedings in previous games.
They also add a further level of challenge due to their battle prowess. A legendary lord wielding an enormous axe unleashed right in the middle of your ranks can definitely mess out the best plan if not kept in check.
The same can be said about massive monsters like giants, enormous spiders and more. If you play a “good” race (air quotes are obligatory because no race is truly “good” in the Warhammer world), that doesn’t have that kind of large allies, seeing them charge your battle line adds to the excitement and drama, while using them as one of the “evil” factions is exhilarating.
I can definitely say that I found myself autoresolving battle a lot less in Total War: Warhammer than in previous games of the franchise, which says a lot on how fun they are.
Considering the average length of a campaign, and the replayability provided by the large gameplay differences between the playable races, there’s no doubt that Total War: Warhammer is a game coming with exceptional longevity, which in today’s market is definitely welcome.
The game also comes with its own multiplayer features. While stand-alone multiplayer battles are fun (and they let you play Bretonnia, which is great), the real crown jewel of the online suite should be the online campaign, that you can play with friends.
Admittedly, I didn’t have a chance to play the campaign in multiplayer due to lack of partners before the game’s release, but if previous Total War games and the quality of the single player campaign are any indication (and it’s basically the full single player campaign played with or against other human players) it has the potential to be an additional bundle of great fun.
Ultimately, Total War: Warhammer is without a doubt the best and most satisfying Warhammer experience ever released by the video gaming industry, and at the same time, it’s arguably the best game of the Total War franchise.
If you are a Total War fan or if you love strategy games, I can wholeheartedly recommend to give it a try, even if the shift away from a historical setting might make some frown. The gameplay, the flavor and charm of the setting, and the depth of options are definitely worth the effort to move a bit outside of the history comfort zone.
On the other hand, if you are a Warhammer fan, I guess you don’t really don’t need my recommendation. You’re most probably already playing the game and enjoying the hell out of it.