Total War: Warhammer (Review)

total warFor as long as there have been people with disturbingly intense stares, there have been calls for a Total War game set in the Warhammer universe. It makes sense – they are both (on computers and tables respectively) games of tactics, controlling massive armies in battle. Moreover, they’re both the top of their respective mediums – Games Workshop’s Warhammer is the preeminent tabletop strategy game, and the Total War series is one of the better regarded strategy franchises. 

There have been games set in the Warhammer universe before – the excellent Dawn of War, plus other, fun-but-not-brilliant offerings such as Bloodbowl. But teaming up with Creative Assembly, the team behind the Total War series, allows Games Workshop to tap directly into the (self-professedly) huge market of people who want to play Warhammer, but aren’t interested in meticulously painting goblin feet. The Total War games are highly regarded, they’re the right kind of strategy game for Warhammer, and they have a built-in audience. On the other side of the equation, Creative Assembly gets to benefit from the tabletop audience, and gets to put mechanically-jawed orc warlords in their game. It’s an intelligent business move by both companies, and it’s been being suggested for at least ten years.

I don’t, I should establish, play tabletop Warhammer. I can’t speak for how accurate the games stays to the original. But I have played all the Total War games, and I’m a fan of the Warhammer universe as a fictional setting, if not an aficionado of the game itself. It’s a great setting – all of the most exciting bits of human history mashed together, plus magic (plus space, sometimes) and topped off with comically over-sized weapons. How could anyone not love it? I got the game a couple of days after it came out. I meant to wait until more reviews came in, but I got impatient instead. Again, it combines two franchises that I really like.

The game works as Total War games do – you choose a faction in warring world, and attempt to gain supremacy over your rivals. The gameplay has two distinct phases – the campaign map, in which you build cities and raise armies, and the actual battles, in which you control your armies in the field. What sets this game apart from the rest of the series is the variety of factions available.

Instead of choosing between (mostly similar) Scythians and Romans, or Scots and Venetians, Total War: Warhammer gives you the choice between humans, orcs, dwarves, vampires, and – with the first DLC – the ravening hordes of Chaos. Each of these factions is distinct from all the others, with a wide variety of units and different tactical strengths. The dwarves have a lot of artillery, the vampires are focused on close combat. Each faction genuinely feels different to play, which is a great strength of the game – five separate campaigns will feel like that, rather than just palette-swapped clones.

Every faction acts on the same map, but it’s more complicated than that. Dwarves and orcs can’t occupy human or vampire settlements, and vice versa. They can sack them, but not control them. Chaos hordes don’t claim settlements at all – they are migratory and predatory hordes. Even movement varies – dwarves and orcs can move through the underway, travelling across the world through secret tunnels. All of this makes the map seem crowded and alive without actually being too cluttered.

Total War games have always had generals, but now they have a larger role. Lords lead armies, but they are also some of your strongest units, gaining magical equipment and ever more fearsome powers. Previous Total War games were more realistic, yes, with fragile generals who directed rather than brawled, but this game is realistic to a fantasy world – there are heroes, and they can change the tide of battle. Units can be struck down by fireballs, drained of life by vampires. The dead can surge upwards from the ground at a necromancer’s word, changing the course of a battle.

One thing I was looking forward too with some excitement and more trepidation was the variety of units, particularly the larger ones. I wasn’t sure how tactics and formations would work when some of the units were ten times the size of others, or had far too many legs. I worried that their inclusion would be cosmetic only – large trolls would function just like pikemen, but with a bigger model. That’s not the case – you still have your spear walls, but now they can be disrupted in all sorts of fascinating ways;an undead monstrosity can crash down in the middle of a unit, scattering soldiers left and right, or a giant’s club can send goblins flying a significant distance. It’s scary when it happens to you, and fun when you do it to someone else. I’m a big fan of hordes of shrieking bats, personally, picking off units who stray from the protection of the main army.

So far, I’m really enjoying it. I’ve played for a while as every faction, though I haven’t yet gone for a full campaign as anyone. It’s polished, having seemingly learnt the lessons from a clunky and confusing Rome II: Total War. It’s a polished and easily-playable Total War game, and it’s got the scale and spectacle and tone of the Warhammer universe. It’s a really good combination, and if you’re interested in either franchise, I’d definitely recommend it.

I do have a couple of quibbles though – not negatives, but things that I’d like to see. It is a polished game, but it does seem as though the variety of units distracts from the fact that some traditional functions are missing – I’d like the option of fire arrows, or square formations, and I can’t find them. It’s possible I’ve missed them, but it does seem as though some functionality from previous games hasn’t made it across. Of course, lots and lots of new stuff has been added – I’d just like even more options, if that’s possible.

Along the same lines, more variety in lords/heroes would be nice. Each faction has a couple of legendary leaders, and the ability to recruit more pedestrian heroes as well. These leaders do all tend to be the same – large men with large weapons. Obviously, some of that is flavour – you aren’t going to get anyone with a small weapon. But I’d be interested in seeing how it altered things if, say, one of the legendary dwarven heroes carried a musket, or a legendary goblin could lead the greenskin armies. In addition, some women would be nice. Yes, I get that it’s set in a fantasy world, and that social rules can be assumed. But if one faction is vampires, where’s my Blood Countess equivalent? You can get a female vampire as an agent, but I want to conquer the lands of the living in the name of an axe-wielding Bathory. I’m not saying that every faction should have a balance of sexes, or that everyone needs a ranged hero. But for several factions, such things would fit the fluff, and provide interesting choices. At the moment, a lot of the heroes are very similar to each other, and they don’t need to be.

There’s supposed to be a lot of DLC coming at some point, so hopefully my quibbles will be resolved. Supposedly, the DLC will not just be new units, but also new heroes (with accompanying quests) and even more factions. I’m hoping that they add the Skaven, and more Tzeentch-ian things. Despoiling the world as the avatar of Chaos undivided is fine, but I’d like to corrupt it slowly sometimes, or release thousands of screaming ratmen from the tunnels.

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