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Take Your Fantasies To Extremes With Total War: Warhammer II's Free Laboratory Mode

Lab rats.

The Laboratory mode for Total War: Warhammer II is the kind of thing you get when you let developers just mess around. Ostensibly as a mode that shows the potential future capabilities of PC processing power – it’s being released as a freebie in partnership with Intel later this week – and the future of the Total War series as a whole, what it really does is let people dive in and mess around with ridiculous gameplay settings. It’s a lot of fun to mess around with.

When I asked why they were doing this, Al Bickham, CA’s Communications Manager replied, “I guess the answer is why not?” Oscar Andersson, Associate Designer added, “I remember when I was a Total War player – well, I still am a Total War player – from the start Total War was about achieving the fantasy, and I think scale is a really important part of that. To some degree we want to just push that fantasy further, getting closer to realistically sized armies of 20,000 men, and I think we’re at that point with technology that we can actually do that with some constraints.”

It’s quite understandably hived off from the rest of the game, appearing under the Battle section from the main menu, and the first thing that you’ll see is a warning. This isn’t necessarily going to meet the standard for performance and stability that the rest of the game does, letting you push the game engine far enough that performance will tank on practically anything, even the latest top tier Core i7 chips with six cores and twelve threads, and even then the game might simply decide it can’t handle it and crash.

You probably won’t read the warning though, or you’ll scoff in derision at Creative Assembly’s lack of faith in your gaming PC and dismiss it out of hand. Instead, you’ll click past it and get to examining and fiddling with the many sliders, while letting your imagination run wild with the possibilities on offer.

The easiest, lowest hanging fruit is to simply scale up the unit sizes by up to 10x – that is to say you multiply the number of individual troops in a regiment by 10 – instantly turning thousands of soldiers into tens of thousands. That might be just about manageable to a high end quad-core CPU with normal army sizes, and indeed that’s a manageable target with last year’s Core i7-7700K at stock clocks and an Nvidia GTX 1080. However, doing this with the large armies box checked and filled out, while also having more than two armies on the field; you’re just asking for the frame rate to drop into the teens or simply crash when loading, as we were able to do with six armies. They weren’t kidding with that warning.

Looking closer though, there’s a great mixture of flashy silliness and meaningful gameplay tweaks to be found in the 16 sliders The Laboratory offers. If you want to remove the shackles in place on your magic casters, you can boost the winds of magic, reduce the loading speed of artillery to give them a fighting chance against enlarged units, up the damage, and so on. There’s a lot of fine detail for the Total War obsessives who think they know better than the game designers at Creative Assembly – and honestly, I’m sure they’d love to discover that they’re wrong if it helps make their games better.

Al explained that “It lets people play around with the kind of things you’d have to mess around with at the code level, scaling the sizes of entities and things like that. It is just a bit of fun, and it’s going to be particularly interesting for us to see people putting up YouTube videos of what they’ve done and are there trends in that? Do people want to do a certain thing? Is it going to spark some serious discussion about the future of Total War and how we’re presenting battles?”

“You can play Laboratory mode and not scale your unit sizes,” Oscar added. “We built in sliders that just affect the pacing of battles. It allows our fanbase to play “what if?” scenarios, like what if damage was 80% lower? How would the battles play out?

“Part of our YouTube following involves doing these massive battles. The whole idea is to do long battle that’s big and more about epic cinematic visuals than the high intensity gameplay.”

Stepping toward the absurd, you can increase hero and monster entities in size by 250% so that their tower over the battlefield to a hilarious degree, turn blood splatter up and gravity down for ragdoll effects, and then send a herd of gigantic Lizardmen Stegadons into oversized hordes of rats, just sit back and watch the carnage unfold. The bodies really do fly quite a long way from when what you’ve turned into a veritable Giganotosaurus charges them, either landing in a delightful neat line.

That’s something appeals to Al and Oscar too. “It’s usually low gravity and massive monsters,” Al admitted he tends to mess around with. “I love sending a couple of Hellpit Abominations or something like that into a mass of infantry. That’s probably for me just as much about what I choose in my army and what my enemy is, based on those two sliders, and you fill the sky with flailing little guys, who can end up hitting the bounding box at the edge of the battlefield and just kind of sliding down into a pile of corpses that is growing there!”

“Personally, I just love pushing the blood amount up, reducing gravity to 10% and then using a Vortex spell,” Oscar revealed, to which Al quipped, “It’s like a blender! Claret everywhere!” On a more subdued note, Oscar continued, “I also like increasing the unit size so everything’s four or five times as big and then just playing regular battles. It’s really vanilla, but just bigger units. The scale can be kind of breathtaking.”

Perhaps my favourite was when I set a lonely High Elf hero Teclis into battle against hordes of Skaven to see how he’d fare. The one problem was that I had to send the Skaven into battle with a hero to lead them, who promptly got in range and performed a leaping attack that sent Teclis flying through the sky for what felt like a minute while I sat there laughing and calling people over to explain.

In reality, this is likely to just be a temporary curio for most people playing Total War: Warhammer II, a place that they can go to mess around, whether it’s pushing their PC to the limits or messing with the extremes of the game mechanics. However, in the right hands it does offer an interesting insight into Total War’s future, both when considering the third game in this fantasy trilogy and when looking to Creative Assembly’s next few historical games.

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