Total War: Warhammer Review
Total War breaks the shackles of history with good results
Total War: Warhammer marks a major milestone for the franchise. Ever since Shogun: Total War launched over fifteen years ago, the series has tackled a variety of historical periods over the past two millennia, with a focus on units and scenarios that kept things firmly grounded in reality. In a turn of events that fundamentally redefines what Total War can be, this latest edition sees the core formula that mixes turn-based strategy with real-time battles married to the decades-old Warhammer fantasy universe. The result is a polished and highly functional strategy title that sacrifices some strategic depth for the novelty of seeing Orcs, wizards and vampires mingling with more traditional Total War units. Your interest in the Warhammer universe and what aspects of Total War games appeal to you will be the deciding factors in whether or not this is a must-play entry in the long running series.
Dwarf Grudgebearers even bring their book of grudges into battle
With last year’s Total War: Attila, I was impressed by the many factors at play during the turn-based strategic campaign. Warhammer takes the opposite approach, boiling the formula down to its core. Religion, food, fertility, squalor and inner-faction politics as they existed previously have been removed entirely. You can no longer set tax-rates, but can only choose to either tax or not tax a region. The result is a game that feels much more approachable, but also shallower. Balancing all of these variables in Attila kept things interesting, and their absence is definitely noticeable here. Fortunately, some new mechanics are added that at least partially make up for this.
While there are only four playable factions in Warhammer, they are significantly more distinct from each other than typical Total War factions. The Empire, Orcs, Vampire Counts and Dwarfs all have discrete sets of units and unique mechanics that differentiate them beyond starting location and victory conditions. The Empire are probably the closest to a traditional faction; their increased focus on diplomacy frankly does not gel well with the game’s strengths, though they do get some fun magical abilities and powerful armored units later on.
The Dwarves have a ‘book of grudges’ that keeps track of any slights against your empire that need to be answered; for instance, a grudge might be initiated if another faction raids one of your territories, and resolved by your sacking one of their settlements. If you ignore too many grudges for too long, it will negatively impact your entire faction. The Orcs or ‘Greenskins’ are my personal favorite; all Orc armies must maintain a certain level of ‘Fightiness’ which is achieved by entering into battles with these armies or raiding enemy territory. If Fightiness drops too low, your troops will start fighting amongst themselves, causing attrition. This mechanic along with the Orcs' limited diplomatic options and variety of monstrous units like trolls, giants and huge spiders made them my favorite of the four factions to play. Both the Dwarves and Orcs can also go into a ‘tunnel under’ stance that lets them use underground passages to bypass mountains at the risk of being ambushed by enemy armies.
Finally, the Vampire Counts must spread Vampiric Corruption by building certain structures. Their armies will suffer attrition when traveling through areas free of this effect. Spreading corruption also results in a reduction of public order for your enemies, though if you are on the other end of Vampiric Corruption, there are buildings to counter its effects. Vampires' high-tier units are a sight to behold and can only really be damaged with magic, making for some fun battles against any foes lacking these abilities. In addition to the unique play styles, there is some loose narrative context granted to each faction’s campaign, with the occasional story mission popping up which usually involves fighting a battle that is a bit more heavily scripted than the usual Total War fare.
Hero units can hold their own in battle when grossly outnumbered
While the unique playstyle of each faction is great, and these narrative hooks and story missions help add a bit of variety and context, these elements do not make up for the amount of strategic variables removed. With fewer metrics for success, I found all of my campaigns went through stagnant stretches that crossed the line into tedium on a few occasions, especially as the Empire and Dwarves. There are relatively few building types, and once I figured out what functions they all performed, managing the likes of population happiness and vampiric corruption becomes rather trivial assuming you don’t expand too far too quickly.
That isn’t to say TW Warhammer is an easy game. The same devious, opportunistic AI that made Attila so exciting made it over intact, and you will need to pick your battles wisely, especially early on, if you want to survive. Just when you seem to have things under control, the forces of Chaos will begin to sweep across the map in a similar manner to the Mongolian Hordes in Attila. There was a bit of a lull in the mid-game for me as I was far more powerful than any nearby factions, but once the numerous and challenging armies of Chaos showed up, things got interesting again.
Another design decision in the campaign that might not go over well with some fans is the fact that each playable faction can only occupy settlements belonging to certain other factions. Not only will this prevent players who want to conquer the entire map from doing so, it can clash with other strategic aspects. For instance, as the Orcs, one of the victory conditions is to destroy the Empire faction. However, when it came time for me to deal with them, the Empire were on the other side of a bunch of hostile territories belonging to factions whose settlements I could not occupy. This made for a rather awkward situation, where I had to march my armies through enemy territory just to get to the faction I needed to destroy in order to win the campaign.
When it comes time to fight, the battles play out like you would expect: similar to previous games but with some awesome fantasy units thrown in. Some of the best moments in the game arrive when you unleash some new unit or beast onto the battlefield and watch it in action after you spent a bunch of turns and resources researching and recruiting it. The enemy AI perform well enough, and will prove a good challenge apart from the occasional stupid maneuver like attacking when they have the high ground.
You'll need to make some important choices as all factions, even the Orcs
All of the factions feel like they bring something unique to the battlefield as well. The Orcs will unleash giants and trolls that will chew through weaker groups of unsuspecting foes. The Dwarves have access to powerful firearms and flying units that can deal damage from the sky and fly off before taking too much damage. The Vampires don’t retreat when their morale is low, and will continue to fight to the death instead. Magic plays a significant role for both the Empire and the Vampires, allowing for significant buffs and damaging abilities; the Vampires can even raise the dead during a battle and reinforce their armies as they fall. However, the amount of magic that can be used during a battle depends on an ever-changing metric dubbed the ‘winds of magic’ so these abilities cannot be relied upon too heavily.
Another significant change is that generals and heroes now play a much bigger role on the battlefield. These are tough, powerful units who can single handedly turn the tide of a battle. Some are powerful melee fighters and can be thrown into a bunch of weaker enemy units to dish out damage. Others are wizards who can provide magical buffs to friendly units or call down devastating abilities on enemies. Certain factions can choose to mount heroes on beasts; being able to harass enemy archers with Griffin or Wyvern mounted hero can be a game-changer.
One dramatic alteration from the past two Total War games is that there are no longer settlement battles when capturing smaller towns or villages. Previously, these engagements would take place in villages without walls or gates, but still granting the defenders streets and archer towers to work with. Now, these battles simply take place out in the open with the settlement in the background, outside of the playable area. I personally missed these battles as they made for a good middle ground between sieges and open field battles, but the increased unit variety and the inclusion of magic keep things interesting enough that I didn’t miss them too much, especially in light of the new ‘subterranean’ battles that occur when a force is caught sneaking underground, and the more scripted story mission battles that pop up periodically. Naval battles have also been removed, and while I do miss the combined land/naval battles, skirmishes between ships were a weak point and their absence is a welcome one.
Multiplayer options are much the same as in recent Total War entries. Co-op and head to head campaigns work in much the same way as previous games and can be quite entertaining as you work together or against each other both on the campaign map and during battles. Units can be ‘gifted’ to teammates during co-op skirmishes so that you both control parts of the same army, while you can choose to take over control from the enemy AI during head-to-head encounters.
The Dwarves "tunnel under" stance is crucial in the mountains
The incredibly flexible custom battle system that lets you play with any combination of human and computer-controlled armies you please also returns. The more outlandish units introduced in TW Warhammer make this a particularly entertaining feature. There is a quick-battle option you can use for competitive matches without any computer controlled armies, but I had limited success using this, and found the server browser to be the better option when looking for multiplayer encounters. It would be nice to see the return of more robust competitive options akin to what Shogun 2 had, but I am beginning to give up hope these will ever return.
The past several Total War launches have been extremely hit or miss when it comes to technical issues. Fortunately, Warhammer is one of the good ones. I didn’t encounter any real technical problems in the twenty-plus hours I spent with the game. Loading times are quicker, and options to show AI activity mean you don’t need to sit through watching your allies moving all their armies around, which speeds up between-turn times significantly. Performance is also very good, better than Attila’s even, though I did experience a bit of slowdown on the mountainous region of the map and in large battles with a lot of magic, though with the amount of units and effects on screen, this is unsurprising.
The improved performance does come at a cost however; the visual quality seems to have taken a slight hit compared to the technically impressive Attila. The game still looks good, but the lighting seems a bit washed out, and weather effects in particular don’t look as good as before. Some mountain battles in particular have a snow effect that I found more distracting than atmospheric. It is possible that these sacrifices were made due to the more demanding effects that come with magic, however it is a shame that they didn’t leave the higher quality lighting and weather effects in place for those with super-powerful PCs. The audio is up to the standard of the series, with a brooding soundtrack that fits the Warhammer universe perfectly.
While I am happy to report that Total Warhammer is a polished and functional strategy game that retains the core aspects of the series while making good use of the license, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the deeper strategic options and settlement battles from Attila. As someone who is relatively indifferent towards the Warhammer universe, I found this game didn’t have the same addicting pull as the best Total War entries. However, I can see that being different for fans of Warhammer, and also think the simplified mechanics would make it a great entry point for new players. For myself, I will probably go back to Attila next time I feel the urge to conquer.