Interview: Creative Assembly On Total War: Warhammer’s Vampire Counts, Heroes & Variety

There’s been a long build up to Total War: Warhammer, with Creative Assembly stepping out of their historical comfort zone and into the popular world of the fantasy tabletop world.

While it’s recognisably a Total War game, there’s also a lot of difference to be found, with four contrasting races to play as. After our hands on time with the Vampire Counts faction, we sat down to discuss the game with Ian Roxburgh, Project Lead, and Andy Hall, Lead Writer on the game.


TSA: You have a very familiar feeling opening to a campaign, where you have unite the various factions of your race and establish a foothold in the world before going on to domination. Was that a deliberate move to keep things easy to get into?

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Ian Roxburgh: Yeah, although you don’t have to confederate those factions in the beginning. If you want, you can go and stomp them with your armies and beat them up. So it’s still a very sandbox environment and probably the majority of people will say they want to fight those other vampire factions early on and spread out from there. But if you want to go the diplomatic route, that’s another option, and that’s pretty much what Total War is in a nutshell. You go about doing it how you want, you create your own story and how you go about things.

But yeah, we’ve consciously tried to keep things very controlled at the beginning for people who aren’t used to Total War. So, for example, you’ll only start with one region and expand out from there, and the prelude that we have tells a bit of narrative and helps you through it. You don’t have to do what it tells you, but you can get a few guidelines on where to go and what to do.

You’ll find that different races are more likely to be involved in diplomacy by default, because we wanted to make them very different. That’s the gameplay that will suit the Empire much more, where Greenskins, on the other hand, are more about going and stomping on others.

TSA: Caveman politics, in other words! [laughs]

Ian: [laughs] And that will work for you a lot more as well!

That’s part of creating that flavour that’s true to the races and the Warhammer world, but again, it’s a sandbox game, so you could be a bit more diplomatic as the Greenskins, you could confederate some of the minor factions and do it that way. It’s still down to the player, but the different races, the different features and the way we use the tech tree differently for each one will make it more likely and flavourful to play in a certain style.

We took a very early decision that we didn’t want to make everything feel generic again and feel the same. It would have been an easier route and easier to balance, but we wanted to embrace this idea that they’re not all just humans with slightly different variants, they are all very different. Dwarves, Orcs, Humans and Vampires are all entirely different constructs and we wanted to delve deep into what makes those races what they are.

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TSA: That’s an interesting point, I think. How much of the difference comes from drawing upon the lore and the background that’s been created by Games Workshop and how much is off your own initiative?

Ian: It’s very much a bit of both. There’s always an evolution of the Total War feature set that we’re making from one game to another anyway, but the very first thing we did on this project was just really getting to know those races. We tried to find the core of that race and tried to see where we could use existing features that are in the Total War toolbox and where we’d want to bring new features purely for that race, to realise the flavour from that IP in a way that makes for interesting new gameplay.

Sometimes a feature from a previous Total War game fits perfectly as is, and other times we want to mould it a bit. So it was a bit of both. We really wanted to draw from the lore of the race, but at the same time Total War features are always an evolving thing. To be honest, gameplay is king. We wouldn’t do something just for the sake of the IP, it’s because it works for the gameplay as well.

Andy Hall: A great example of what Ian’s talking about is if you have a decisive victory as a Vampire, a graveyard marker goes up and you can recruit from there.

TSA: My specialty has been the pyrrhic victories… [laughs]

Ian: One of the flavours with the vampires is that their units don’t rout, but they do crumble over time, so you tend to come out of a battle with less of your armies left. You tend to get a lot more pyrrhic victories and you’re taking more casualties, because instead of routing and being relatively intact if you didn’t then get charged down, you’re going to lose more units. But then you can recruit more and more quickly through the raise dead mechanic, so that’s another example of just a different flavour for how you might create your empire.

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TSA: Yeah, the crumbling feels like it’s putting a different spin on things. Yes, there have been point where my last few skeletons have crumbled before they could get back into the fight, but at the same time, I wouldn’t have had that option in the first place with humans who’d scarpered.

Ian: One thing I would say, as well, is that we’re working on the UI display for when they are crumbling, so it’s much more clear to the player when they’re suffering. There’s still some UI work to be done on that.

But it does create different gameplay, because you’re more sticky, because you can throw these units in knowing that they won’t rout, and if they start crumbling, you know you can beef them up and regenerate them with your spells.

You’re effectively creating what the tabletop game calls a tar pit. This mass of zombies can go in, and they’re not going to damage the enemy units much, but they’re going to hold them up for a period of time. Meanwhile, your flying creatures or your dire wolves can and go around back and flank them.

So there’s a different set of tools for each race to play the battles and there’s a massive amount of variety that you can use, even with the vampires, which are probably more restricted than most. As you start unlocking new unit types through the tech tree, then you start to get all sorts of different combinations coming in, but they’re much more about holding a line with your core troops and then buffing them up, and using your specialist troops to come around the sides, using your flying creatures on enemy cavalry.

It creates different combinations of gameplay that make you think differently, instead of just going, “Oh, it’s a Total War game. I’ll have an army with archers, spearmen, swordsmen and cavalry, I’ll form up in the same formation as I do in every Total War game.” You have to think of it differently, but if you really do want that, you can play as the Empire and you’ll have that kind of variety of units. If you want something that’s a bit more challenging and interesting, we have that as well.

Andy: It also shows the diversity of the spell lores. Not all the spell lores are blasty, blasty spells, but the lore of Vampires is very much about buffing. It will allow you to see skeletons that are about to crumble and you can give them a really good buff.

And they’ve got good blasty spells! [laughs]

Ian: Yeah, I find that playing as Vampires early on, I’m paying a lot more attention to what Manfred is doing, the winds of magic and when I can cast spells, because that’s a more central part of the gameplay.

TSA: I think a big part of the fun is just having these hero units on the battlefield, and also being able to have agents there as well. I had one alongside Manfred, wading into the fight and knocking people down. It’s a key visual ingredient as you zoom in.

Ian: Yeah, and again, that’s something that Total War’s not really done. I think with Mongol Invasion, the expansion pack for the first Shogun, we had individual entities as units, but have never done it since.

We wanted to embrace that, because the characters are a big part of Warhammer. So as well as having deeper skill trees and a lot more variety for what you can customise on your characters, we’ve made sure we didn’t have them age and then dying after 20 turns.

TSA: Well, that’s not so likely to happen for a Vampire! [laughs]

Ian: Well, for a Vampire, that wouldn’t work, but we want to make sure that when players get a new character and start building up levels, you have them to the end, so long as you don’t get them killed. That way, you develop an affinity toward them.

Then when you fight with them on the battlefield, they’re not just a really cool hero character stomping and looking cool, but you’ve actually specced them out. You’ve given them the sword that they’re using, you’ve decided they’ll have that special ability rather than the other ones, so again, you’ve got that connection.

Especially when you can rename them as well…

TSA: I found a Vampire with my own name, so I was just like, “Yeah, OK. Stefan von Drak can have an army…” [laughs]

Ian: [laughs] He will gain levels really well and do all the fighting!

Andy: [laughs] For the conditioned Warhammer players, though, the idea that they can literally bring their armies into the game by renaming units is a very simple feature, but it’s one of note, I think.

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TSA: The game does obviously have a more integral story in the background, but when it came to picking these particular characters to feature, have you tried to find a time where their stories overlap in a particular time period of Warhammer history?

Andy: This angles more toward the quest battles and the quest chains, which will tell a story about how Karl Franz or Grimgor gets a legendary piece of gear.

There’s also a kind of arcing narrative – I don’t want to call it a story – where you’ve got a sandbox game but want to bring in a narrative that doesn’t shackle you. This isn’t Uncharted and nothing’s on rails…

TSA: So, there’s no platforming sections?

Andy: [laughs] No, there’s no platforming sections!

I think we’ve got a nice balance between the sandbox which is in the player’s control, but also this arcing narrative thread and quite individual quest battles that you can, but don’t have to go on. They obviously climax in these really nicely crafted battles.

You’ll get a nice battle speech as well, not one of those pre-generated ones that takes certain sentences. These are properly crafted and performed by the actors, which refer to the battle you’re about to play and also the story that you’ve taken to get there.


Thanks to Ian and Andy for talking to us about Total War: Warhammer. Be sure to check out our hands on preview of our time with the Vampire Counts campaign, and keep an eye out for the game, which is releasing for PC on May 24th.

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