Total War: Warhammer: The Kotaku Review

I was so ready to hate this game.

Here, prior to last week, were my thoughts on Total War: Warhammer:

  • I did not have the best time with the last Total War game, Rome II, finding it to be a bloated, soulless affair that undid much of the good work Creative Assembly had done with Empire and Shogun.

  • The move to Warhammer's fantasy world was seemingly getting rid of a big part of Total War's appeal: the history. TW fans, myself included, go as nuts about a game's setting as they do the game itself, and seeing the series walk away from the real world was a blow.

  • This isn't even the good Warhammer. It's the dorky medieval one.

Yet here I am, the finished product in my hand, and I'm a changed man. My misgivings counted for nothing. This is the best Total War game in years, and I was a fool for fearing otherwise.

I was worried that moving away from history would pull the rug out from under the series. That without the context it had founded itself upon the game would feel lost. Instead, Total War has been set free. No longer bound to recreating real places and real people, Creative Assembly have been able to experiment like never before.

A lot stays the same, of course. This isn't a complete reinvention of the wheel. Warhammer is still very much a Total War game: you direct armies and an economy from a campaign map then, when the need arises, you switch to a 3D battlefield to take direct control over your forces.

That's a solid and successful formula, so best not mess with it. Which is why every Total War game since the original in 2000 has stuck with it, Creative Assembly taking each new game as a chance to rearrange the deckchairs, not the deck itself.

In the 2016 edition of the series, then, here are the best ways Warhammer's chairs have been arranged:

WORLD

One of Rome II's biggest problems was the world itself. Its map was too big, too boring, too unwieldy. Warhammer's world, while still large, feels a lot more intimate, its regions a lot more connected.

It also looks incredible. Warhammer's fictional environments mean that the corners of the map can look wildly different, creating not just added challenges in navigating them, but memorable flair (skulls carved from mountains, pools of lava, ancient Dwarf ruins) that let you instantly recognise where you are in the world, regardless of where the camera has panned.

The best part though, at least for me as someone sick of Total War's dependence on grinding out large territorial gains, is that the world map is quarantined between the factions. Humans can only occupy settlements belonging to other humans or the undead, Dwarfs can only do the same for dwarf and Orc townships, etc. This stops the map from becoming overwhelming, and also leads into a change of focus that I'll get to in a minute...

FACTIONS

While Total War games have long featured disparate factions — in Empire a regimented line of British soldiers could take on a rabble of pirates or stick-wielding tribesmen — Warhammer has really gone to town in making each major race in the game an entirely different proposition.

So not only does each faction get their own unique roster of units, but those units have very different skillsets (the undead's bats are useless against Orks but will scare humans shitless), meaning each game you play can end up requiring entirely different approaches, both strategically and tactically.

It's also just cool seeing all the weird and wonderful units march across a battlefield. Dwarf artillery, human knights, giants, zombies, the variety of looks you get on a battlefield in this game is a hoot.

STORY

Here's probably the single biggest introduction in this game, and the most successful: Warhammer has a story. I don't mean background, I don't mean a "when you win you are the winner of the world" kind of thing, I mean a tale that is told through actions on the campaign map and which can turn the entire game on its head.

I don't want to talk too specifically about it, since it's more fun to discover the meat of it for yourselves, but the way that the forces of Chaos introduce themselves while you're in the middle of other stuff is one of the neatest tricks I've ever seen in a strategy game.

A weird side-effect of drawing me into the story of my faction (I played my main review game as the Empire) and Games Workshop's lore itself is that I've grown a little fonder of Warhammer. I used to find it completely naff, but the way this game's tone comes across here — somewhere between Lord of the Rings' stiff upper lip and The Expendables oafish self-awareness — has almost won me over.


In addition to the big stuff, there have been loads of smart, cool fixes and tweaks to the game's other systems. The tech tree is cleaner. The balance between army size and the economy feels more refined. The hassles of naval travel are mostly gone, since so much of the map is land-locked. Even the battlefield AI, long the series' Achilles Heel, feels smarter. Not perfect. But smarter.

The way characters — your generals, agents and political leaders — are handled is also great. In previous games they have either been useless, annoying or irrelevant, but in keeping with Warhammer's history of a being game with cool little miniature people, here they're fun to have around and full of slots to equip them with magic swords and blessed armour. Oh, and because this game counts turns, not time (a key distinction), they don't grow old and die, meaning you can really get to know and love your best guys by the end of a game.

This all adds up to a game that, almost from start to end, is a challenge in the best sense of the word. Warhammer is always throwing something at you, whether it be a simple binary decision to make about the governance of your lands or grander strategic woes like trying to fight a war on two fronts, or even confronting the bigger narrative issues of the campaign. Yet you're rarely overwhelmed, or left feeling that it's all unfair. Instead, there's a sense that Creative Assembly have pulled off a miracle and got the balance just right, managing to create a strategy experience that remains interesting and active from your first tentative steps right through to your last battle. Not many PC strategy games, even the greats like Civilisation, can make that claim.

It's still a big map, but it never feels TOO big.

Before we get too carried away, mostly out of surprise at how much this has surpassed my expectations, know that this game isn't perfect. Strategic AI can still be a little too unpredictable, especially in diplomacy. Some of Total War's systems, like ransoming captives after a battle, is a weird fit for such a life-and-death fantasy struggle (paying ransom doesn't seem like official Chaos policy). And as much fun as the main story made the campaign, it doesn't always end as neatly as an action title would. My main Empire campaign, for example, ended not with a cataclysmic showdown against the forces of evil but with me moving into an empty castle ruin, which ticked over my "regions controlled" count and triggered a victory. Massive anti-climax.


Total War games have always been tough to love. In the past, they have always been about accepting the bad so you could enjoy the good. There was scale and joy to be had in combat, but the AI would suck and campaigns would become a grind. They looked amazing but would run like shit, etc.

Warhammer has cut away a lot of those negatives and given us a lot more to love, and it's almost shocking to survey the game once you realise that. For well over a decade fans of the series, myself included, have convinced ourselves that this was one of the finest strategy properties on the PC, so focused were we on what we loved from these unwieldy historic epics that we'd too easily forgive the games' countless faults and flaws.

But this? Is this how good a Total War game can be when it doesn't have to bend itself to the whims of history? Does freeing the studio to shift sliders and systems around to suit the game and not the past get us a better experience? Because if that's all it took to really light a fire under Total War then I take back everything I've ever said about wanting more games set in the dusty past. I'll douse the candles I've kept lit during my years-long vigil for a Victorian/Civil War Total War.

Make a Lord of the Rings version next if you have to. Then Conan. Then Game of Thrones. Then, I don't know, Krull. Whatever it takes to keep injecting that old strategy vs tactics formula with cool story quirks and fantastic magical powers, I hope Creative Assembly keep doing it, because Total War: Warhammer has been a blast.


Comments

    Its awesome...I have waited a long time for this..the last Total War I played was Medieval Total War.

      I've played most of the Total Wars... so the last one I played wasn't Medieval. But the last one I really enjoyed was Medieval.

      UNTIL NOW. This Warhammer entry is just about the best. (I still have a massive soft spot for the original Shogun, though.)

        Yes the original Shogun was a game changer.

          Frankly, it still holds up. The units balanced well with cost, replenishment, training, and tech trees worked intuitively well, and the aesthetics were gorgeous. That background music and ambience, the satisfying 'clonk' of moving wooden pieces, the as-yet-unmatched voice-acting from the narrator/advisor (who I just looked up: Togo Igawa; glad to see the guy was nominated for a BAFTA for his VA work!).

          I know by this point there's been more Total War games than not which use the more detailed, terrain-specific campaign-map navigation, but I actually preferred the plain-paper map with its stylized model pieces. Until now, with Warhammer.

            Could not have said it better myself. After a round or two of Warhammer I might just go back to Shogun.

    This isn’t even the good Warhammer. It’s the dorky medieval one.

    BURN THE WITCH!

    In all seriousness, Warhammer Fantasy is great as a pastiche of real world history and fantasy tropes just as Warhammer 40K is a great smorgasbord of sci-fi and overblown 80s violence. They're both stupid and silly but a tonne of fun and Total Warhammer captures the essence of the Old World fantastically while still having the same grim humour that's present in the war game. It's an excellent memorial for what Warhammer Fantasy used to be before Age of Sigmar.

    Last edited 26/05/16 10:33 am

      RIP Warhammer fantasy... :(

      GW should have held on to fantasy until this game was released - it's probably exactly what they needed to revive the system, rather than AoS...

        I still hope AoS is some weird alternate reality thing and the old Warhammer world still exists somewhere like in a grand comic multi-verse. One can only hope so hard though. :(

          Yeah wishful thinking there, buddy.

          Someday i hope GW will revert to the older game and make AoS a dream sequence.. maybe Karl Franz wakes up from a horrible dream that was AoS.. haha

        Long like the 9th age.

        http://www.the-ninth-age.com/

        Yeah, I'm still in mourning. It's not even like Age of Sigmar is even that bad, it's just...i dunno. It's not the same.

    Ohhhhh mannn... all the wants...
    All these positive reviews are killing me! haha

      I actually have the game sitting on my desk... But can't play it till I get my new computer built in a few weeks.

      Sigh :'(

        This would have been a day 1 for me, but i honestly don't know if my computer would run it.. so yeah.. it sucks haha

          I know what would happen if I ran it on this laptop, it would catch fire... Just a couple more weeks.

    Only managed to play a few hours of the campaign last night, but I am loving what I've seen so far. Hoping it holds its mojo later on and also in multiplayer.

    also this is the best launch for a Total War Game in a loooong time (even on a NVidia card its still running sweet. was a bit worried after hearing it was having issues, but butter smooth so far)

    I've never played any of the Total War games and know next to nothing about Warhammer other than admiring the cool figures.
    Would this game be suitable for a newbie like me?

      I'm in the same boat, although I know a little about Warhammer, but nothing about Total war and I can tell you it's fun and addictive, I'm at work and can't wait to get home and jump back in.

      However I will say that it's a very daunting game, you will ask yourself "WTF am I supposed to do here, and HTF does this work" a lot in the first hour or more. It seems like a very complex game but after a few hours, I think I am starting to figure out how it works, I'm building stuff, bringing in new leaders, making trade agreements with Armies and declaring war on others. I've wiped 1 faction out and taken his land, and filling up my Heroes armies with new units. Most of it has been guess work, I'm still fumbling my way through the actual battles and I feel like I my whole settlement could crumble any moment, but I'm learning as I go, I know I have sooo much more to learn but I'm really enjoying it so far.

      Each of the campaigns starts with a pretty intuitive tutorial system provided by an advisor telling you which steps to take and why you're taking them. Very forgiving and very useful to beginners and veterans alike.

      There are some quirks to the help information, though. It's not all perfect.
      They've basically integrated a web-browser type help documentation, so there's lag and delays whenever you try to load up in-depth help tips, and it references game mechanics and abilities/afflictions which it doesn't then link to or explain what those effects actually DO.

      However.

      If you click on troops, you can 'pin' their unit cards to the side of the screen, which allows you to hove the mouse over every single statistic or effect/ability, and THOSE have mouse-over tooltips which give intuitive and useful descriptions.

      So there's great, useful info there, but they don't exactly always put it where you'd expect it to be or find it useful. But once you know it's there? Smooth sailing thereafter.

      I'd say Shogun 2 is the easiest to learn but with the tutorial missions (not all lords have one) and the advisor throwing a campaign on easy and seeing what happens should be fine.

      YouTube and endless wikis are always there for any questions you may have.

      Thanks guys for the info.
      I might have a look at the game once it goes on sale. No rush to buy it straight away as my Pile of Shame is big enough as it is.

    Man, everyone is saying good things but do I really need to be playing 4 games at once? Seems a stretch.

      Only if you don't want to buy the Chaos Warrior faction later as additional DLC. It's free this week, I think. But it's unquestionably the best faction in the game. (In my totally unbiased, long-time chaos tabletop playing opinion).

        Making an entire faction the rough equivalent of a pre-order/ day one bonus doesn't make me want to give them money though.

          Oh yeah, totally. It's bullshit and shouldn't be encouraged or supported.

          It's also SOOO GOOOOD!

            Is it good for someone who doesn't know or particularly care about warhammer and couldn't get into Shogun 2 though?

              I couldn't get into Shogun 2, either. I preferred Shogun 1. Hm.

              Not sure I'm best suited to advise you on that. A great deal of my affection for the Chaos faction comes from the fact that they just totally nailed the unique feel of the Chaos faction from Warhammer (very small army of elite, near-unkillable, implacable evil men of the North). So metal.

              And it's so very different from all the other factions (they all have a base-building element geared around capturing towns - in Chaos, you do not capture towns, you raze them to the ground, denying them to everyone, and your main army is your only 'base' for tech upgrades).

              I guess it's not a vital faction to have; in every campaign game they're actually kicking around in the frozen, nearly-uninhabitable north, but don't descend to the south to threaten the world until late-game, where they appear as basically a game-changing challenge to throw a spanner in the works of your global domination, forcing you to look more closely at diplomacy than you might've been planning.

              The battles are intuitive, rock-paper-scissor stuff, mixed with typical positioning for flanking, etc. I think they were free to add a bunch of totally-breaking-with-history quality of life improvements, like making generals into mighty heroes who wear magical items which can turn the tide of battle etc. Stuff they couldn't really do with their real-world analogues.

              So it might be easier to get into than the other Total War games.

              Could always just buy on Steam, try it, then uninstall/refund if you're not hooked in the first hour.

    Might be on the list for when I finally get around to getting a new PC. Any word on DLC though? Hopefully they don't go the Rome 2 route of charging for individual factions. I do like the positivity around the game though. Even though I'm not in any way a Warhammer person I'm excited to play it. Hopefully it'll hold up to expectations as Medieval 2 was the last Total War I enjoyed considerably.

      I expect they probably will charge for factions. It's already locked in that they're going to charge for the Chaos faction once the introductory early-bird special is over.

      The races currently available are:

      * Vampire Counts
      * Greenskins
      * Empire
      * Dwarves
      * Chaos (which will be DLC after the first... week?)

      Un-used races:

      *Bretonnians
      *Wood Elves
      *High Elves
      *Dark Elves
      *Lizardmen
      *Skaven
      *Tomb Kings
      *Ogres (sort of - they're more like mercenaries)

        Here are my expectations for DLC race packs:

        - Bretonnians and Wood Elves first. Quite easy to tack them onto the world considering we've already got individual Bretonnian nobles/provinces and it'll be a good trial run of Elves as a whole.
        - Skaven. I imagine they'd have a super-charged version of the Dwarven tunnel ability and be able to pop up anywhere. Skavenblight is also sandwiched between Tilea and Estalia so can also fit on the current map.
        - Perhaps the Ogre Kingdoms and Chaos Dwarfs could be added but they would need to add in a lot of the Blasted Lands to the east which may not be possible.
        - Maybe the Tomb Kings but that would require a fair bit to add in all of that area. Maybe they could also add in Nagash as a second form of all-conquering evil to destroy the world.

        The Dark Elves, High Elves, and Lizardmen I can't see being added as small-scale DLC. I half expect that we'll get our Attila version of an expansion that adds those chunks of the world but keeps them completely separate to the main game. Maybe they'd also add naval combat but who really knows.

          i think it'll be done in xpacs. like elves introducing high wood dark, then a lustria one with lizardmen and skaven

        Bretonnians are already usable in custom battles. I would like to see Border Princes and Kislev too.

      See above post: Chaos Faction is basically a pre-order bonus. I'd expect more of the same going forward.

    Can someone confirm something for me, is the combat any good?

    What I mean is that in MTW2 the armies clash, and the front lines are clear and ebb and flow as the battle continues, until one gets worn down.

    In Rome 2 they changed the engine and armies just merged together into an ugly mass and two seconds later one side routs. It just wasn't epic.

      I think so? I didn't try Rome 2 so I have no idea how that was.

      Routing in TW:W is not really quick at all, outside of the Warhammer-specific 'terror' effects (so if you're playing Undead Vampire Counts against humans... maybe?). It's very unit-to-unit combat rather than army-to-army smashing into each other, with individual flanking units often able to easily disengage if they only have a couple troops engaged on the edges. I think the 'units stick to each other like glue' factor was the main reason you couldn't really maneuver much once your front-lines smooshed together.

      There's some really crazy variety to the units, and they all kind of 'behave' the way you would expect/want them to. Units seem to have been designed to handle at least some of that without folding immediately.

      Zombies are staggered and spread out for their unit cohesion and only mass together over time in a melee. They move slowly and are fairly resilient but low-damage. Chaos Warriors are stalwart and strong, hold their ranks pretty damn well, rarely breaking unless almost obliterated. And even when broken, they barely move 300m before regrouping, ready to charge back in.

      Heroes are absurd. They have powerful magical abilities which can break entire units, scatter a handful of elites, and I think they've boosted general unit-to-unit resilience to underscore the power of those abilities. Giant units will stomp around, swing squad-sized weapons through entire formations, knocking down what they don't kill, and those units will swarm around the ankles, stabbing and trying not to get stomped until one or the other succumbs or breaks.

      I've fought a lot of chaos vs chaos and it can get pretty damn epic. I feel like you 'get your money's worth' out of each unit engagement.

    The only TW game I've played is Shogun 2. And I couldn't get into it. Don't know if I just couldn't just wrap my head around how everything worked or not. But I only played it for a couple of hours.

    But I love Warhammer and this is the kind of game I'd love to play. But after Shogun 2, I'm not confident I could stick with it. Even though if anything will make me play a TW game, it's Warhammer

    This isn’t even the good Warhammer. It’s the dorky medieval one.You're a dork

    I was worried that moving away from history would pull the rug out from under the series. That without the context it had founded itself upon the game would feel lost. Instead, Total War has been set free.

    Can't say I entirely agree. What TW needed to "set it free" was a move into other historical periods. The sequels got very old and Rome TW2 was the last straw - rather than sequels to Medieval, Rome and Shogun, for me, what was needed was a TW Colonial or TW WW2 or TW WWI or TW Pike and Shotte (insert you historical poison).

    I'm also very much not liking the lack of military unit management. Hate the auto garrison idea. I enjoyed making that trade-off between garrisoning provinces and front line armies, and transferring units as needed around the globe to 'hot spots.' Though to be fair I have just started, transferring units way well be possible.

    Having said all that, I've been playing GW games for years and I'm having a really good time with it so far. It's a great addition to the TW stable.

    I simply don't agree with the below, if it's at the expense of more historical titles from new eras:

    Make a Lord of the Rings version next if you have to. Then Conan. Then Game of Thrones. Then, I don’t know, Krull. Whatever it takes to keep injecting that old strategy vs tactics formula with cool story quirks and fantastic magical powers, I hope Creative Assembly keep doing it, because Total War: Warhammer has been a blast.

    Last edited 27/05/16 9:41 am

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