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:
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...
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.
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.
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.