It took about ten minutes to get a handle on everything in Total War: Warhammer, and another ten before I was thoroughly enjoying myself. It's not perfect by any means, but I've finally found the Total War game of my dreams.
Total War: Shogun 2 has been sitting on my hard drive for the better part of three years. Problem is: I'm not a Total War fan, not by any stretch of the imagination. I grew up playing games like Heroes of Might and Magic 3 and Red Alert. I was on a sponsored team for StarCraft 2. If I want a dose of turn-based strategy, I'll turn to the stars with 4X games like Endless Space, Master of Orion or Alpha Centauri.
Coupled with its bugs, janky AI, dodgy performance and crashes, the Total War series simply hasn't appealed to me. But the idea of feudal Japan does. So I've kept Shogun 2 on my hard drive, even though I've tried and failed at least a dozen times over the last few years to fall in love with the formula.
Sometimes it's the hassle of building management; sometimes it's the absurdity of the AI. Sometimes it's been the refusal of units to behave the way I'd like. Sometimes it's all worked, and I've still not enjoyed myself.
So what was so different that made Warhammer work?
I had access to 30 turns of a regular campaign with Vampire Counts, as well as two specialist battles starring as the Vampire Count and the Empire. The latter was largely a chance to play with higher tech units, and another opportunity to watch the AI flail around.
The AI in combat was, in my few hours, limp. Two major battles turned comfortably in my favour after the computer refused to react to Mannfred von Carstien, leader of the vampiric forces, blasting air units out of the sky with spells. I wiped out two whole stacks and partially damaged a third before I got bored, although with more time I would have enjoyed seeing how much the AI could be exploited.
The AI's movements on the campaign map were far more problematic, although that was coupled by having to learn some of the new mechanics on the fly. One of those is vampiric corruption, a plague-like influence that spreads over the map.
Without turning the land around you to mildew and ash, the armies of the undead will begin to decay. The attrition rate is pretty stark, with my armies losing (at a guess) around 10% of their health each turn they weren't on corrupted ground.
The corruption demoralises enemies as well, upsetting the general populace which leads to riots and ultimately easier sieges. I didn't have enough time to fully destabilise the two dwarven settlements to the south of my starting location, although that didn't stop me from biting the bullet and ransacking their villages for fun.
What's cool about the corruption is that it makes sense. This is how the armies of the undead work. They don't do things cleanly, and they shouldn't handle like just another Total War faction.
Fun thing is, they don't. For one, the Vampire Counts don't have a ranged unit. They have some heavy-armoured brawlers and some of the game's strongest aerial units, but if you want to engage anything at range you'll need to lean on the spellcasting abilities of your wights, necromancers, banshees and vampires.
It extends to the interface as well. The undead's core currency is Dark Magic; armies can be recruited in normal Total War fashion, or you can sacrifice a turn of movement to raise an army of dead. It gives the Vampire Counts a very strong early-game presence, since you can fill your army with stacks of disposable zombies and skeletons.
And when I say early game, I mean really early. For the most part, skeletons and zombies are A-grade trash: they're slow, especially the latter, and they can get mopped up without too much trouble. They're really just a diversion, but if you can the amass a 3:1 or 4:1 unit advantage over your enemies it'll at least mitigate the crumbling factor.
Let's talk about crumbling for a second.
Undead armies, you see, don't have morale. They're undead. Of course they don't get happy or sad. But they can wither away like ash in the wind, if you allow them to get flanked.
It's actually quite easy to happen, especially with the zombies. And once the crumbling kicks in, your remaining troops start to vanish. It's like a hot knife going through butter — one second your troops were providing resistance, and the next they most certainly are not.
Apart from better positioning, you can mitigate some of this with well-timed spellcasting. The leader of the Vampire Counts starts with two spells. One is a basic damage dealer, Spirit Leech, while Invocation of Nehek can be used to repair and revive fallen undead units at the point of casting.
It won't restore a unit stack from near-oblivion to full health, but it's better than nothing. It also buys you time, which is important if you want to deploy absurd numbers of crappy units to tie up the enemy while your vargheists, dire wolves and varghulfs close the gap.
Put simply, I felt like I was playing with the hordes of undead, rather than a reskinned faction of samurai or barbarians. It's a clear sense of purpose, identity, and gameplay. And it's Warhammer. It's a combination of the things that I like, and some of the elements that I never felt Total War had.
The campaign map was also quite focused and tight. It's another one the reasons why I was more partial to Shogun 2 than the rest of the Total War series, because most of the games — like Medieval 2, Rome 2 and so forth — felt like the campaign map was a little out of control, too unwieldy to comfortably manage.
It also encourages the AI to play a more active role, simply because there's less space to quietly occupy. My campaign had some intriguing interactions with the Orc Greenskins, located off-screen to my east, and the neighbouring vampire lord on my immediate border. The vampire lord wanted to see whether I had the muster to truly lead the undead, while the Orcs had no interest in an alliance or a non-aggression pact.
With more time, or perhaps more careful diplomacy on my part, it would have been fun to wedge the Dwarves between the Greenskins and myself. It'd also be fun to do some more playthroughs to see how my unaffiliated vampire brethren would have responded if I'd been more cautious from the off, rather than the Starcraft-esque flurry of expansions that marked my first 10 turns.
But maybe, more than anything else, it's the fact Warhammer feels like the first proper use of the Games Workshop franchise in a strategy sense since Relic's Dawn of War games. There's an authenticity about how the Vampire Counts function. It's not just a Total War game, but a legitimate Warhammer game too, and a decent strategy one to boot.
Of course, there's always bugs. The game bombed to desktop once early on from the campaign map, and it's inconceivable that CA doesn't allow the default combat camera to be zoomed out to something more practical. But the experience was far less buggy than I expected, and the performance was perfectly acceptable — although unfortunately I didn't have enough time to check DXDiag on the test machine.
And I haven't even been able to touch on some of the cooler elements, like the upgrade paths and schools of magic. There's eight advanced spells if you're curious: Curse of Years, an area-effect hex that reduces melee attack, speed and ability recharge time; Wind of Death, a direct-damage spell; Vanhel’s Danse Macabre, a speed and melee attack boost to allies; a raise dead ability; Invocation of Nehek, which regens HP and resurrects any dead creature touched; and Gaze of Nagash, a straight magic missile spell.
I could go on and on. It'd be remiss to do so, however, without having a better idea of how Warhammer holds up in multiplayer, how janky the AI truly is, how consistent or inconsistent the performance is on my own rig and how unique to play the other races are.
But I'm keen to find out. I'm keen in a way that I haven't been for a Total War game, so much so that I've since deleted Shogun 2 from my hard drive. I don't want to see another Total War game — unless it has Warhammer in the title.
Total War: Warhammer launches for PC on May 25 in Australia and New Zealand, and is available now for US$60.