One of the best things about Total War: Warhammer is that, in switching to a fantasy setting, Creative Assembly are able to really play around with and mix up the way their renowned strategy series plays out.
In particular, it allows for them to pick deeply contrasting races, so that playing a new campaign doesn’t simply feel like you’re fighting the same war from a different starting point. The Empire are the most traditional and hold a lot of similarities to real world medieval armies, albeit with the additions of mythical beasts and those who can wield magic to devastating effect.
By contrast, the Orcs are a more simplistic race that love to get up close and personal in a sea of green, while the engineering prowess of the Dwarves is brought to life alongside battles in their traditional underground dwellings. The Vampire Counts are rather different to all of these.
The fourth and final race to be unveiled for the main game – discounting the pre-order bonus Chaos Warriors – their focus on vampiric powers and necromancy makes for a startling shift. First and foremost, they lack any ranged units, meaning that your forces have to shuffle and shamble forth without anything to whittle the enemies down before they meet in combat.
Of course, that’s largely down to them being the undead – rigour mortis doesn’t exactly make archery easy. The vampire’s dark magics allow them to raise armies out of the ground and command them. It’s something that puts an interesting spin on how you recruit forces and build your empire.
Naturally, with necromancy in play, your forces will be made up of a lot of zombies and reanimated skeletons, but there are more than just shambling hordes. You have fell bats and winged humanoid vargheists who can be used to harass and tie up enemy cavalry, or dire wolves to act as their own cavalry and vargs to smash into the ranks of infantry.
Led by Manfred von Carstein and expanding from His home in Castle Drakenhof, your plans are naturally to try and spread you influence, and dominate the human Empire to the south, in particular. Naturally, there are plenty others who stand in your way, and you’ll most likely want to try to unify with the neighbouring Vampire Count factions, as well as push back the Greenskin and Dwarves nearby.
Of course, my brief time with the Vampire Counts didn’t exactly go to plan. I tend to struggle with Total War games as I acclimatise to them, and my early encounters didn’t go too favourably. In fact, the neighbouring Vampire decided that they wanted my land and declared war. Needless to say, I made little progress with enemies on all sides.
One strength of Total War: Warhammer is that your leaders and agents take a very active role in the world and in battle. In addition to being able to equip him with armour, weapons and items, Manfred has a deep skill tree that you can use to tailor his dark magic and abilities to suit your style of play. If facing humans, the Spirit Leech abilities are ideal for sapping morale in the face of undead hordes, but you can also bolster Manfred’s own combat abilities. Except that you’ll almost certainly want to be able to raise the dead and bolster your forces with his dark magics.
On the campaign map, the rules are similar to bolstering your forces with other races. You have to recruit from your own territory, and can produce only so many units per turn. You also have to march on corrupted land to avoid suffering attrition, and it’s through this blight that you can start to corrupt and disrupt the public order of your enemies. Vampires can raise more dead at will and add higher end units prior to a major battle, in a manner akin to hiring mercenaries. It’s really in battle that the ability comes into its own, as you’re able to raise a basic unit of undead and send them into battle.
It’s easy to see how crucial that can be in the middle of a close and bitterly fought battle. There are understandable limits on only being able to summon units twice during battle, within proximity of the summoner, but having that extra unit to tie up the enemy cavalry or using them to turn the opposition is a very useful trick to be able to pull out of a hat.
Summoned units only last until the end of the battle, but can be useful to combat the natural attrition that undead units face. Being dead, they naturally have no fear, no hopes, no dreams, no families – this depends on the freshness of the reanimated corpse, I guess – and so they can’t be demoralised and routed.
They do, however, suffer from crumbling. They have an advantage in terms of never running away from a fight against your wishes, but crumbling gradually saps their numbers as they march to and fro. On several occasions I wanted to send a weakened unit back into the fray, only to find that they’d returned to the ground by the time they got close. That feeds back into reducing the number of units that survive battle to fight another day, balancing the ease with which you can add to your ranks and their stubbornness in battle against the permanence of their demise.
All through its development, Creative Assembly have emphasised the ability to tell the stories of the major characters at the forefront of each race’s history. With a fantasy dominated by all out warfare between races, the lore is full of major showdowns and turning points, and these have been adapted and translated into set piece quest chains for Total War: Warhammer.
The style of Warhammer’s warfare has also led to a number of changes to this game’s sieges, which sound like they’ll be more cinematic and fitting for the universe. The siege maps you encounter will be more focused around a certain section of wall, with the streets behind widened to allow for more room to manoeuvre. Of course, you need to get past the wall, and to that end attackers can make use of ladders to scale the ramparts, albeit arriving at the top at a disadvantage to the defenders. Perhaps a more fitting method would be to use mythical beasts such as giants to saunter up to a gate and smash it open.
For a Warhammer or fantasy strategy fan, so many aspects of Total War: Warhammer will be like catnip. It feels like the strategy adaptation that Warhammer has wanted for the last decade, but most importantly, it seems as though Creative Assembly are really embracing and making the most of the Warhammer world that is now in their care.