Creative Assembly have a chequered history at best as a game developer, even with the series they're best known for: the Total War strategy games. Their games have plenty of fans and have generally been well-received by games reviewers, but there’s another side to this. Go anywhere on the internet where their games are discussed and you’ll run into people who hold grudges about the poor implementation of phalanxes in Rome: Total War, or the AI’s total inability to cross oceans in Empire: Total War, a game about colonialism, or Rome 2 being a borderline unplayable mess for a full year and 14 separate patches. That’s just scratching the surface of complaints that fans have, a lot of them justified, but as with Paradox’s grand strategy games if people want to play this kind of thing then Total War is the only game series in town. This kind of thing, if you don’t know, is a turn-based grand strategy campaign map providing context for large-scale real-time battles, and usually in a historical setting. Until the announcement of Total War: Warhammer, that is, where Creative Assembly broke their historical bonds by setting their new game in Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy world. This caused much complaining from certain segments of the playerbase, as you might expect, and I have to admit being a little unsure myself.
You see, while I’m not unfamiliar with the various Warhammer tabletop games — I’m a 29-year-old man who grew up in the UK and plays a lot of video games, it’d be hard for me to avoid it — it never formed part of my childhood or adolescence in the same way it did for many of my peers. I was only vaguely aware of it as a teenager. I think I knew one boy who collected the miniatures and painted them up, and he presumably pined for someone else on the entire island of Lewis to get into it so he could play the tabletop wargame for which the miniatures existed. Even if I’d wanted to get into it, the extortionate pricing of the figures would have put it beyond my reach, so my terrible teenage nerd shame was Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, which at least had the virtue of being significantly cheaper. When Games Workshop got a bit freer with the licensing and video games started to appear more regularly, however, I did play and enjoy them.
Most notable among these was the real-time strategy game Dawn of War from the sci-fi Warhammer 40K setting, which has a kitchen sink approach to taking every sci-fi concept and mashing it all together in one big all-inclusive, deliberately bombastic and stupidly over the top setting. 40K has been well-served by video games since then, but when it comes to Warhammer Fantasy the offerings were a lot sparser, and I didn’t have the same familiarity with it. I assumed, in fact, that I wouldn’t particularly like any games in the Fantasy setting, because it looked on the face of it to be very generically Tolkienesque and nothing could put me off more. Still, I had enough goodwill for Creative Assembly and get enough enjoyment even from the weakest Total War offerings that I was willing to give this new one a shot, lacklustre setting or no, slightly dodgy track history or no. This was helped along by the CGI announcement trailer, which made it seem like there could be something interesting in there.
Total War: Warhammer was scheduled for release in May 2016. There was another strategy game out the same month, Paradox’s Stellaris, which I was significantly more excited for. I was sure that Stellaris would be the one with staying power, and that TW:W, like all the Total War games after Shogun 2, would prove a relatively brief distraction. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Stellaris is the game with fundamental flaws and omissions which may reach its potential after numerous updates but quickly got stale on release; TW:W is the one with staying power, which has stayed fresh with every update, which gave new life to a sometimes tired formula.
I’m a complete mark for historical settings and was originally drawn to the Total War games because of it. I remember playing Medieval: Total War on my 15th birthday and being overwhelmed with excitement when I was excommunicated by the Pope for warring with fellow Christians; one of those bits of strategy game design that married setting and mechanics perfectly. But for all of that, it feels like the move to a fantasy setting and particularly an established setting like Warhammer has finally let the Total War games reach their full potential. It feels like the game the series has been working towards for almost 20 years.
Total War games have always been about the spectacle of two armies clashing; now those armies can include giants and dragons and fireballs falling from the sky. Total War games have always encouraged you to get attached to your generals; now those generals have full RPG-style skill trees and equipment, even colour-coded for rarity according to the laws set down by the World of Warcraft Act (2005). Total War games have always tried to provide different experiences when playing as different factions; now each faction is completely different with unique mechanics and playstyle both in battle and on the campaign map. Total War games have always struggled to find a way to integrate the more scripted Historical Battles into the game properly; now, freed from history, they’re Quest Battles that become available in the main campaign once certain conditions are met and give rewards to the player for doing them.
The best Total War games have been the ones which managed to use the details of the historical setting for memorable gameplay elements (like excommunication), maintaining historical plausibility if not slavish accuracy. With Warhammer, the game finally has a setting which doesn’t require plausibility in all things. The setting is intended to be Every Fantasy Thing in the same way that 40K is Every Sci-Fi Thing, and the tabletop wargame plus the established lore make a perfect springboard for a lively, interesting, evolving world to play in.
The game even prompted me to look more into the setting, to the point where I genuinely like it now. Part of the attraction is the dark sense of humour and satire that permeates it, combined with a curious optimism that’s missing from the sci-fi 40K’s ‘grim darkness’, and played largely straight as a whole. The Empire (a faux-Germanic elective monarchy based off the historical Holy Roman Empire) is as much of a beacon of progressive enlightenment as is possible in a roughly early-modern setting, in comparison to its 40K equivalent the Imperium which is an oppressive religio-fascist hell society. The orcs and goblins may initially seem like standard Tolkien cast-offs but they draw at least as much inspiration from a parody of English football hooliganism as they do from Lord of the Rings, to the point where “’Ere We Go” is an orcish spell that boosts their attack power and they all speak in a kind of pidgin cockney. The Vampire Counts (from ‘Sylvania’, naturally) are what you’d expect from a bunch of Draculas leading armies of the undead, but there are repeated implications that the peasants may even be better off (if frequently terrified) in vampire-ruled territory than they are under the ultra-chivalrous Arthurian style feudal society of Bretonnia.
The fantasy world of Warhammer is one that was built up over decades by dozens of writers who often had contradictory ideas about tone, themes, all that good stuff. They also contradicted one another on the more mechanistic elements of the setting like ‘what events happen when’ and ‘how basic elements of it work’, so Creative Assembly have had quite a free hand to pick and choose all the bits they want for the game. This is especially the case since Games Workshop nuked the Warhammer Fantasy setting and replaced it with Age of Sigmar, filled with more easily trademarked names like ‘Orruks’ in place of Orcs and ‘Steamhead Duardin’ in place of Dwarfs. As business decisions go it’s a puzzling one, and it’s been written on very well by people more knowledgeable than I. But in effect it means that if you want to play Warhammer Fantasy, then Total War: Warhammer is where you get it.
What amazed me about the game is how all the separate pieces, even the most deliberately silly parody elements, combine to make a plausible and interesting fantasy world. Somehow, it all fits together, and key to this is how inclusion in an actual game with a contiguous game world and a solid, tangible geography. A faction based on satirising feudal repression by poking fun at Le Morte d’Arthur sounds ludicrous, but placed in context and showing how this society functions and relates to the other powers around it lends a concreteness to the entire endeavour. The eternal struggle of the Dwarfs and Orcs and Goblins becomes less abstract when you can actually see them tug-of-war back and forth over mountains and deserts. The apocalyptic threat of Chaos from the north feels a lot more like an actual event when it prompts the various human factions to bury the hatchet and come together to defeat it, and even more plausible when alliances fall apart and turn to backstabbing and opportunism once the existential threat is defeated and an ‘Age of Peace’ descends.
The landscape of this not-Earth is rendered in great detail and it even morphs and changes over the course of the game. On the campaign map, you can see tiny versions of these monstrous creatures circling over mountain ranges, or spot incy-wincy giant spiders lurking in deep forest. Dwarfen stronghold have mountain-spanning aqueducts and bridges above them, and if the Greenskins capture those strongholds instead the architecture gets festooned in crude watchtowers, spiked palisades and red-painted wooden idols. If the Wood Elves take a province, it often becomes noticeably greener as the forests — under Elven care — thrive and bloom. Some of the visual changes even have mechanical impact. Vampiric corruption turns regions grey and gloomy and dead. Chaos corruption leads to great fissures and lava cracks appearing, and even huge obsidian spikes piercing the terrain. High levels of corruption in a province will cause increasing amounts of attrition damage to any armies without affinity to it. Settlements can also be razed to the ground, leaving them in ruins and under nobody’s control until resettled — and battles taking place nearby will have visible smoking ruins in the distance. This kind of direct connection between the player’s actions and the world, often in the form of small touches that add up to a greater whole, sells it as a real place and an interesting one to exist in and oversee.
As you can see from the screenshots on this page, the game is a looker, and even more impressive in motion.There are numerous small touches that make it a delight to play and help bring it to life, the animators and artists clearly having a ball after so many games of strait-laced historicity. The undead factions’ skeleton warriors march in jerky lockstep in homage to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation, and can keep fighting when they’ve had limbs or even heads knocked off. The ambulatory trees of the Wood Elves’ forest spirits twitch and creak in a manner reminiscent of the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth. Their Wild Riders are mounted on deer rather than horses, and their peculiar prancing gait is a joy to see as they charge in. Watching a giant fight hundreds of men, sweeping his club around or even picking them up and biting their heads off, is grisly but impressive and exciting to watch, much like seeing two legendary lords mounted on dragons or griffons going at it in the air, circling and swooping and diving at each other.
The campaign map also features hundreds of events that can take place and give more flavour to a faction, from the generic — like one about your population being abducted mysteriously, which exists purely to tease the eventual addition of the Skaven rat-men to the game — to the incredibly specific, and often with a twist of humour as well. The Dwarfen Book of Grudges is particularly good for this kind of flavour, providing you with 'grudges' that are patently ridiculous but in keeping with the style of the game.
But the real triumph of the game is Creative Assembly’s commitment to expanding it. TW:W is planned as a three-game project, with the eventual aim of including every main faction and area from the fantasy setting. The first game released with 5 playable distinct factions; this is now up to 8, plus subfactions of those, and while a good chunk of the downloadable content has been paid, CA have also been about as generous with free content as any other developer I can think of. Every paid update has been accompanied by free additions of varying significance, and even if a player doesn’t buy the new factions to play as they’re still added to the campaign map as a new variable to play against or alongside. This has substantially changed how the game plays, keeping it fresh from month to month in a way that I didn’t at all expect.
Take the Empire, for instance. Their basic position is that you start with a single region, Altdorf, the capital of the empire, and have to first defeat some secessionists before deciding how you’re going to go about unifying the rest of the Empire — which is your long-term victory condition, not to take over the entire map or anything like that. As you expand — diplomatically or through conquest — you’ll come into conflict with the Vampire Counts in the east of the Empire, and be threatened by Norscan raiders from the north, demonic Viking types. Eventually the forces of Chaos will invade en masse, with Norscan support, burning all in their path, and if you defeat them you’ve basically won. Fairly simple formula, a campaign with a narrative arc to it.
Then the Beastmen were added to the game. Suddenly there are roaming herds of evil goat people intent on burning all human lands to the ground, and they’ve got a particular dislike for the Empire, so you have to take them into account (and even if wiped out there’s a chance that their herds will re-emerge to attack you). After that, new lords were added for both the Empire and the Vampire Counts, making the opposition you’ll face more dangerous even if you have more tools to deal with it. Then new dwarf and goblin subfactions were added in the mountains near the Empire, taking the place of existing factions but being more active and potentially powerful than the ones they replaced, so you have to consider the possibly more active goblin raids near your heartland too. A couple months after that, the Wood Elves were added in their forest across the mountains from you, and while they may not interfere there’s a possibility that they’ll range forth in strength and attack your soft underbelly.
Every update to the game has added new things which change the balance of power in specific regions and have a knock-on effect on the rest of the world. On top of that, there are no factions which always dominate – no real guaranteed superpowers. The world is wildly divergent each time you play it. You could play a campaign as the Empire every second month since May 2016 and your experience would have been substantially different each time. Especially with how distinct and individual the new added factions are, the impact of each update is much bigger than in previous Total War games, or indeed most strategy games I can think of — especially considering that all of the new content is added for free, and that purchasing the DLC is only required if you want to play as the new stuff.
The distinctness of the game’s factions isn’t just an empty marketing promise. Each one plays very differently from the rest, both on the campaign map and in battle. Most factions have at least some similar roles for their units, although true flexibility is the preserve of only a couple and some have intentionally gaping holes in the roster. For instance, the Dwarfs have no cavalry at all; the Vampire Counts have no ranged units; and the Wood Elves have no artillery. While most factions except the Dwarfs have access to magic, the schools of magic — or lores — available to each varies, with the Empire having the broadest selection but not necessarily the best.
The Vampire Counts are worth a closer look, because they exemplify how much Creative Assembly were willing to deviate from the Total War formula for this game. They completely bypass the usual Total War system where units lose morale, break, and flee. Instead, since their undead armies are magically animated, they will all fight to the undeath. In place of morale (or ‘leadership’ as this game puts it, in line with the tabletop Warhammer) they have a ‘binding’ attribute which, if it gets low enough, will prompt them first to crumble and then to disintegrate, which is generally the fate of an undead army that loses a battle. To make up for this potentially huge loss of troops, any large battle in a region adds to the number of corpses on the campaign map, a resource that only the Vampire Counts can exploit. The higher the number of corpses, the more units they can raise from the dead instantly, with no training time or training requirements. This allows for true hordes of undead, and as long as they have lords available they can always raise fresh armies to throw into the meatgrinder.
Since release, the developers have got better and better at making these divisions and distinctions even more stark and fitting for each faction. The newly-released Bretonnian factions have numerous unique systems on the campaign map, such as having to keep in mind whether their actions are chivalrous or not (tracking it with a number and campaign victory requiring a certain amount) and also having soft limits on the number of peasant troops they can have in their armies without suffering increasingly severe penalties due to the peasant economy being overstretched. While the initial 5 factions felt plenty distinct and memorable by themselves, the new factions have so much depth and appropriate atmosphere to them that I find myself hoping that CA continue to improve the core ones to bring them up to the same level.
One of the Total War series’ long-standing problems has been that almost none of the players ever bothered to finish a campaign, me included. I’ve played every Total War game since Medieval 1 in 2002 and I could count the number of campaigns I’d finished on the fingers of one hand, mostly in Shogun 2 which had achievable victory conditions. But all too often the victory conditions required a conquest of far too great a proportion of the world, or in the case of Total War Attila just requiring you to play the game for too long. At some point the campaigns lose most of their challenge and become a foregone conclusion or a chore; it’s just the nature of the beast, and something that Paradox’s grand strategy games suffer from too.
What TW: Warhammer does to combat this is to make ‘conquering the world’ not even be a relevant goal for you, no matter which faction you play as, and to give different victory conditions instead. An Empire campaign, as mentioned previously, simply requires them to own all the Empire provinces (or to be allied with those who do) and to defeat their natural enemies, the Vampire Counts and the forces of Chaos. The same basic formula applies to most of the factions: defeat their natural enemies, and take a specific selection of areas under their control.
But some of them buck this trend. The Beastmen are permanently tied to their roaming herds and can never settle; their objective isn’t to hold specific areas but instead to destroy the world of men, which unlocks a final semi-scripted battle where humanity makes a last stand against them. The newly-added Bretonnians simply have to gain a certain amount of ‘chivalry’ through their actions and then fight a final battle in an Errantry War, the setting’s equivalent of a crusade. This is simultaneously more achievable and more interesting than previous games’ victory conditions of ‘Conquer 50 provinces’, and in a shorter timeframe too. Even the long campaign victory conditions can be fulfilled in around 150-200 turns, which is long enough to be satisfying but short enough that it doesn’t become a chore. And on the flipside there’s no pressure to finish your campaigns this quickly. There are some soft time limits — you might want to get a specific conquest done before the Chaos Invasion arrives, for instance — but you can take as long as you want with the game, really, if you need to or simply want to. You can even keep playing after your campaign goals are met and victory is achieved, if you feel it’s going to be interesting.
Total War: Warhammer doesn’t get everything quite right, although every update has brought with it improvements to the core gameplay as well as adding new content. Confederating with AI factions can still saddle you with lords whose skill points have been assigned in a frankly baffling way. The original set of lords and heroes have are a mixed bag but some of them are significantly less interesting and useful than the ones added since release (although updates have added new attributes and rebalanced some skills, which has helped). The traits your lords and heroes can accrue are generally good but it does feel very odd when Grimgor Ironhide, greatest orc warboss ever, gets the traits ‘Likes Dwarfs’ and ‘Farmer’, as happened to me in one campaign. Diplomacy between factions has some frustrations too; it's probably better than it's been in any other Total War game, with quite a lot of transparency in why factions feel the way they do and more sensible alignments between them as a result of canny affinity/aversion modifiers. To an extent, though, this just makes the remaining frustrations more prominent, such as obscuring exactly why a faction is unwilling to confederate with you.
I’m also one of those people who think Total War games made a mistake when they switched from a Risk-style campaign map to a full 3D move-anywhere map, but for all that some of the irritations are still present in TW:W, the campaign map is probably the best it’s been now. Sieges have always been a weak point in Total War games with the exception of Shogun 2’s tiered Japanese castles, and the developers of this game were open about trying to make sieges something the AI could deal with while remaining fun and interesting. The approach settled on — to model only part of a fortification in a much larger city, with infinite-range defence towers to discourage camping outside until all ammunition is spent — is still not perfect, but it’s a worthy effort and always a spectacle.
Also, while the updates have almost all been of high quality and well worth getting and playing if you enjoy the game, there is one exception: the Warriors of Chaos faction which was free with pre-orders and for first-week buyers. This faction works perfectly well as a scripted late-game antagonist, invading the world with waves of scary high-end troops to fight, but actually playing as them is a bit of an exercise in frustration and, crucially, thematic disconnect. Playing as the apocalypse-bringing Warriors of Chaos should make the player feel empowered; what it actually does is make you feel more vulnerable than any of the other factions, as your hordes (combination armies and bases) have a hell of a job keeping any kind of offensive going once out of ‘friendly’ territory in the far north. Their unit roster is good and varied, their lords are fun, but the campaign gameplay is somewhere between miserable and a chore. The Beastmen faction does this horde gameplay much better, and it’s clear that the Warriors of Chaos haven’t had the same love poured into them that every other faction has. They’re likely to be a first pass at the idea, even, and there’s a good chance they’ll see significant revamping some time down the line. Until then, they’re the only faction in the game I recommend players steer clear of.
Performance-wise the game is leagues above other Total War games, particularly Rome 2 and Attila which were badly optimised messes that struggled even on powerful machines, and often looked worse than 2011’s Shogun 2 did while running twice as badly. This game, by contrast, can still be quite demanding but makes far better use of the hardware and runs significantly better than either of those did. My PC is pushing almost 3 years old now and was mid-range when I got it, and it runs TW:W very well indeed. The one thing that seems essential, though, is an SSD rather than an HDD — it shortens loading times by a huge amount.
Performance aside, Total War games have a reputation of being broken or at least in dire need of improvement by user modifications. Whether this reputation is generally deserved or not, Total War: Warhammer is perfectly good without a single mod installed. If you do want to mod it up, there are plenty of mods available, from cosmetic mods that add more unit variation to entire new faction mods, although the latter are of varying quality. The only mod I use personally is one to tone down the blood & gore slightly — not out of squeamishness, for over-the-top gore is quite fitting for the setting and the mod doesn't remove that, but to stop units being covered head-to-toe in red after 10 seconds of combat so that the beautiful texture and modelwork can still actually be seen. If a feature gets on your nerves there's likely to be a mod to change it somehow, so you can season the game to taste with modifications, although I recommend playing it as-is for a first campaign at least.
While the game isn’t inaccessible to new players — I’ve seen this first-hand where people who certainly aren’t strategy game old hands have loved it — it could do much better explaining some of its mechanics and hotkeys. It took me a few weeks to realise that there were newly-added commands in battle for moving groups around and maintaining formation, as well as being able to give attack-move orders. These commands are new for this game but the tutorials don’t mention them and I don’t think they’re documented in-game either; all of this could stand to be explained better. Similarly the general play ethos of certain factions could do with more explanation in-game, such as how Bretonnia’s ideal playstyle is to go on ranging crusades outside of Bretonnia’s borders to build goodwill then diplomatically confederating the rest of the kingdom — this is in contrast to the Empire where militarily bringing the various elector counts to heel is a perfectly valid strategy and won’t see you penalised like internecine Bretonnian wars do.
It’s still unclear what exactly the next step is for the game, and what form the expansions or sequels will take. Players have had a pretty good idea since launch, both from official statements by the developers and from a schedule of planned content, mined from the game’s own data files, but until the next instalment is properly announced we’ll be left speculating. But let’s pretend there’s no more Total War: Warhammer coming. Let’s pretend that this — the Old World Edition, and all the free and paid DLC available for it — is all there is. It’s a huge, expansive, involving game that is easily one of the best strategy games of recent years, one of the best Total War games, and one of the best Warhammer games too. That’s quite the hat trick for a developer that was prone to sloppiness for years. If you’re at all into this sort of game, or think you might enjoy it, you owe it to yourself to try. You might just fall under its spell.