Mixing the world of Games Workshop’s Warhammer with the grand campaigning of Total War has felt so obvious for so long, that it’s a wonder Total War: Warhammer hadn’t been made sooner. It’s such a natural fit to blend these two together that the question isn’t whether or not it can work, but how well and how far Creative Assembly have adapted their renowned strategy series to fit with this fantasy world and wildly different races.
There’s a slight twinge of disappointment at there only being four main races for you to play as in the game – five if you count the Chaos Warriors that are an early purchase DLC bonus. However, with The Empire, Dwarfs, Greenskins and Vampire Counts to play as and Chaos as an ever-present foe, they’ve covered the main bases in a broad and varied fantasy universe. It’s a shame that High Elves aren’t included in the mix from the outset, but this is a strong core for Creative Assembly to build on.
There are fundamental differences that had to be represented here, from the Greenskins’ ceaseless desire for fighting to the Dwarfs’ shunning of magics and cavalry, or the insidious way in which the Vampire Counts spread their influence. The Empire will feel most familiar for those who’ve played previous Total War games.
It was with this campaign and Emperor Karl Franz’ efforts to unite the Elector Counts under his rule that I spent most of my time, but what strikes me is how it kept me on my toes and pulled me in several directions at once, rarely letting me settle for too long without some clear goal to aim for. As in most Total War games, the first order of business is to try and unite the various factions of The Empire and the rivals to my throne, whether through diplomacy and confederation or by putting them to the sword, but threats come from many angles.
No sooner was I feeling that I had a good handle on which Elector Count I needed to bring in line next, and I could start to see the fraying edges of my borders. To the East, the Vampire Counts had united under one banner and their heroes were wandering into my territory and spreading vampiric corruption. At the same time, Ostland and Ostermark were being ravaged by the first waves of an impending swarm of Chaos… and I was still being caught up in the bickering and squabbling of the other Human realms. Thank Sigmar that the Dwarfs were keeping the Greenskins at bay to the South!
The lore and history of the world manifests itself through the characters at the head of your empire, with a handful of quest battles that take key moments from their canonical history and brings them to life. These can be played separately, but during a campaign, they’ll manifest themselves as short chains of simplistic missions that lead toward a highlighted set piece battle. It’s a very effective way of bringing what were historical curios from previous Total War games into the main campaign, but in a way that’s still optional and can be tackled at your leisure, even if they do reward you some of the legendary weapons and items that your leader traditionally holds.
Lords and heroes are an extension of the generals and agents you had in previous games. They hold similar roles, but you’re now able to shape their progress and growth much more than before. The skill tree spreads across personal combat strength, area of influence buffs and abilities for use in battle, and their influence on the campaign map. That they actually appear and stand alone in battle is a major change, and from generals to magic wielders, they can help hold the line, swoop down into the fight on the back of wyvern, or be geared towards sabotaging rival factions and countering enemy heroes on the campaign map.
From The Empire’s point of view Vampiric and Chaos corruption are the real killers here, leaving a blight on your lands for a long time if not dealt with in a timely fashion, that will constantly drain your public order and potentially lead to uprisings. It can even mean that armies outside of towns and cities are subject to attrition even in your own territory, and it forced me to station my armies in those regions to try and keep the peace and lower that influence. These were then armies that I could then not rely on to wage wars or try to stave off the vast wave of Chaos that would eventually arrive from the North.
A lot of the game comes down to the battle between good and evil, which can make the game feel a little too straightforward. Even before the threat of Chaos mounted, I was being sent regular requests from Human and Dwarf regions for non-aggression pacts, trade partnership, alliances and military access. Each of these strengthened our relations, making the next in line more and more likely to happen. The only way to stall this natural progress seemed to be to confederate with another region, which significantly worsens relations with those still independent, and disproportionately so to waging war. This will have partly been down to difficulty and race – I was playing on Normal, while the Greenskins have fewer friends and still have Chaos as a threat – but it still feels like it could be tweaked and rebalanced prior to launch or soon after.
Though Creative Assembly have done a good job of sprinkling race-specific touches across the game, the underlying framework remains the same for all. All races have the same kind of overarching victory conditions, right down to having to keep Chaos in check, and though Greenskins have obedience instead of public order and Vampire Counts use dark magic instead of gold to fund their recruitment, they amount to the same thing. Vampires actually levy taxes to accrue this dark magic, and it’s a shame that there’s no Orc-ish way of describing non-aggression pacts in the diplomacy menus.
There are still some notable differences in how the campaign plays, such as how Greenskins are pushed to raid and loot in order to keep an army’s Fightiness level high and prevent infighting, how both Greenskins and Dwarfs can travel through underground tunnels, the Vampire’s ability to raise a number of cheap units without waiting a turn, and so on.
Thankfully, that’s all made up for by each race having a thoroughly individual presence on the field of battle. The Empire occupies a healthy middle ground, with powerful artillery, regiments, cavalry and the occasional mythical beast and magic wielder. Compared to this, the Dwarfs rely purely on foot soldiers backed by firearms and cannons, and generally being as tough as old boots.
It’s more more interesting on the evil side. Greenskins have the potential for huge numbers of goblins and War Boyz, but can also specialise and throw trolls, giants and huge spiders at the enemy. They’re generally quite “stoopid” – how else do you explain the Doom Diver Catapults? – and need strong leadership to stay in the fight, but can easily overwhelm a poorly prepared defence. The same is true of the Vampire Counts, but for very different reasons. They lack any artillery, relying instead on shuffling reanimated corpses that will fight until the bitter end or until they crumble into dust, flying beasts and monsters, and the odd odd bit of necromancy during battle.
It all makes for some fascinating battles, even if the AI can be terribly dumb at times. Playing against others online helped to show me how these races stack up against one another. Using The Empire, I found it very difficult to deal with both the weight of numbers of the Greenskins and their giants at the same time – giants feel overpowered in this review build – but the grittier defence of the Dwarfs and their specialisation felt better suited to tackling the specific threats. The Vampire Counts remain an oddity, but even without missile weapons or artillery, I saw just how effective their plethora of winged beasts and monsters could be at siege warfare.
Those touches of fantasy help add a lot more variety, and flying units excel at tying down cavalry or artillery – they’re like even more manoeuvrable cavalry in that sense. The flashiest addition comes from magic, though, with the potential for some huge, showstopping spells. There’s a lot of different magical disciplines spread across the races that can use them, ranging from more support oriented spellcasters to the more offensive. They can have a big impact, but are kept from being too powerful by only having a limited and finite amount of magic to draw upon in a battle, depending on how the strongly the winds of magic blow in that area.
The underground battles and new form of sieges provide interesting new twists, as well. Enemy units fade in and out of view when in the darkness of underground – a little too much for my liking, when I feel I should still have line of sight – while the sieges now give you a more focussed section of wall to assault, a little reminiscent of the huge battles from the Lord of the Rings films, especially with sending troops up walls on ladders. There’s still more than enough width to be able to pick your angle of attack and make for interesting and varied engagements, though.
With four strikingly different races, Creative Assembly have done a fantastic job in bringing the Warhammer tabletop game’s fantasy setting, variety and tactical trade-offs to life. Those thematic differences have also been infused into the campaign in several ways, but there’s perhaps a little too much common ground, and you can see the same fundamental framework beneath the surface. With plenty more races still to explore and stories to tell from this world, Total War: Warhammer does little to disappoint as this fantasy project is made reality.