When I think of anything Warhammer, I am reminded of the countless Saturdays my dad and I spent loading up our car and driving a few towns over to play in Warhammer tabletop tournaments. It was a formative experience in my life that still influences my thinking to this day. When I heard that a full-on strategy game based on the Warhammer universe was coming to PC, all those memories immediately came flooding back.
Total War: Warhammer (why wasn’t it called Warhammer Total War!?), the 10th iteration of Creative Assembly’s long running Total War franchise, released May 24th of this year. Developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega. The signature feature of the series is its massive battles in which every soldier is rendered and players can zoom in to watch two soldiers fighting to the death surrounded by legions of combatants. Previous games covered historic periods, like the Roman Empire and the Shogunate era of Japan.
While the underlying gameplay direction may share many similarities, TW: Warhammer is the biggest departure from the standard Total War mechanics thus far. Maybe it’s the fact that there are now mighty wizards who can decimate swaths of troops on the battlefield with magic. Or maybe it’s because you are playing out a battle between Greenskins and Dwarves, and humans and the undead, all of whom play differently from Total War’s typical cookie-cutter factions. One thing is for certain: this is Total War like you have never seen it before.
Growing Your Empire
Whether you choose to start as a Greenskins warboss or a vampire prince, your initial moves will be humble as you’ll only control a very small piece of land surrounded by many potential enemies and uninhabitable territories. Furthermore, each race can only settle in certain locations, with Greenskin and Dwarven settlements being separate from Human and Undead (Vampire Count) settlements. This decision to limit where races can settle is largely based on the Warhammer lore. For example, the Empire isn’t going to start building large cities in the mountains just as the Dwarves wouldn’t be attracted to the plains of Bretonia. While habitable locations may vary, your armies are free to loot and pillage as they will. This change alters the strategy players will pursue for victory, but it doesn’t cut down on the best part of any Total War game: WAR!
I enjoyed how the settlement restrictions changed the flow of the grand campaigns, yet the overall management of territories and provinces is as lackluster as ever. Empire management offers no surprises for anyone who has played a Total War game. Each province consists of 2-4 territories. Control the entire province and you can issue an edict granting a small boost to tax output, unrest, etc.
The success of your mighty armies rests upon managing your empire in a smart and efficient manner. Sadly, this system is nothing more than a reskin from past TW games. Growth is the building block of your cities, which is needed in order to upgrade the level of a settlement. Upgrading a city allows for more building slots to be unlocked and a stronger garrison for defense. Your provincial capital can upgrade to a level 5 while any other territories max out as a level 3 settlement. This means the best buildings can only be built in capitals.
Because of the building limitations, I found that almost every city played the same. The only real difference that can be found is in settlement defense. If a town is on the fringe of my empire, investing in walls and a tougher garrison would make the difference between controlling the city or having it burned to the ground.
Something new in TW: Warhammer is corruption, which comes in two flavors. Chaos’s corruption influence grows gradually alongside the rise of chaos as a threat to the world and, more importantly, your citizens. It doesn’t matter where you are, the amount of chaotic corruption will gradually rise which feeds unhappiness and unrest. If left unchecked, chaos corruption can lead to a Chaos army spawning in your territory!
The Vampire Count’s corruption not only negatively affects other races but is required to prevent Vampires from crumbling – it is the magic that literally holds the undead together. On the flip side, high levels of corruption will cause other races’ armies to suffer attrition, which can be a nice defensive tool. It is a neat feature, but it isn’t always well implemented. While playing Vampire Counts I was sometimes frustrated by how slowly vampiric corruption spread (especially when compared to Chaos corruption) even though it is required for any kind of military success. It would be cool to see an additional ability like the “culture bomb” from Civilization V but either to add vampiric corruption or cleanse it for other races.
Better Warmongering Through Research
Research is one area that Creative Assembly did make some changes to, but could have pushed the envelope a bit farther. Each of the 5 races have research trees that are slightly different in terms of their layout but ultimately result in similar advancements. The Dwarf and Empire have the traditional two trees: one for military and one for empire improvements. Oddly, Empire techs are locked behind building prerequisites – players must erect specific structures in order to access the associated upgrades, like in an RTS game. In my experience this doesn’t seem to limit the Empire’s ability to compete in terms of research but I am still left asking what the point of such a decision was. The Vampires’ research is split into 4 smaller trees and the Greenskins have a cross-shaped research tree that branches from a single beginning point. The Chaos faction spends gold in ever increasing amounts to earn favor with the Dark Gods which unlocks a series of progressively stronger tech.
Although the research trees are laid out a little differently, the race techs don’t feel all that unique. Far too often I am researching something that will add 10% to a specific unit type’s attack or adding 5% to a specific type of income every turn. As the game stands currently, specialization isn’t the case and the research, while important, doesn’t seem to set two armies of the same race apart in any significant way. I wish Creative Assemble took more chances to mix up the formula and provide distinct advancements for the races instead of similar incremental bonuses.
Resources ‘R Us
Unfortunately, the entire resource generation system isn’t very intriguing, either. There is no reason to build more than one barracks (or equivalent) per province, so you will inevitably end up spamming each race’s default resource production ability. There are some variations between both resource buildings and overall settlement options between the races but I wish it dove deeper. Occasionally you will have the option to build a “resource” building such as a lumber mill or gem mine which adds to the resources available to trade and increases the income generated from trade. The appeal of trade is a good incentive to not kill all of your neighbors, especially those of the same race. If peaceful income generation isn’t enough, you can loot and occupy cities for a little extra or leave them in the original owner’s hands and simply pillage them for thousands of gold.
The Chaos faction settlements roam with their legendary lord – much in the same way as the nomadic cities in the recent Attila expansion. At first I thought Chaos would be strapped for cash but as my stack of doom developed I was sitting on a ridiculous sum of money. On the flip side, the Vampire Count’s income seems to be gimped when compared with anyone else. You don’t ever have a lot in terms of trade as there is only one other Vampire faction on the map and their buildings seem to produce less income compared to other races.
Heroes for hire?
Another way of growing your resource base and power is through heroes. A more interesting and newer feature is the addition of quests for your leader or legendary lord. Complete a series of quests in a chain and you’ll gain resources and unlock legendary weapons, such as the Starcrusher, which far outshine other items in the game. While they are quite powerful, sometimes the quests will require you to venture far beyond your realm to locations you can’t reach until late in the game – at which point you might be mopping up a few last enemies. It is too bad that in some cases you might get these weapons when you are already the de facto ruler of all.
With these unique items equipped, it isn’t uncommon to see legendary lords such as Grimgor Ironhide go toe to toe with 3 units of dwarf warriors, kill them all, and then go look for more victims. I can understand why some Total War purists may dislike just how powerful legendary lords are – and they can certainly be death machines. However, in terms of capturing the essence of these powerful figures from Warhammer lore perspective, Creative Assembly nailed it! Heroes in Warhammer are often incredibly powerful fighting units able to influence the outcome of battle all by themselves, and this is reflected in TW: Warhammer.
Heroes also take the place of agents from previous Total War games – and in theory are a fun idea. However, in actual game play they are broken. Take for example my legendary dwarf lord who spent most the game dead thanks to goblin assassinations, while my own mid-level heroes had a measly 4% chance of assassinating the weakest Greenskin lord. The first patch addressed these issues on lower difficulties, to some degree, but many players have resorted to Steam Workshop mods that disable enemy heroes entirely.
The Total War: Warhammer diplomacy system is a mixed bag. One of the best things is the values; they are displayed, categorized, and easy to understand. Far too many times in other games I am left scratching my head as to why relations continue to deteriorate as the exact reasons are hidden behind an invisible wall. Here, even if I sometimes feel as if relations should be improving rather than sinking, I can see the actual reasoning. The ability to create military and defensive alliances is alive and well, and the system even shows the likelihood of an ally joining your side if a conflict occurs. You can also mark armies or cities as targets for an ally to focus on. It’s all really nice, but in the end, rather bland.
Each of the races are unique from one another at the strategic level but especially on the battlefield. After playing the campaign for each race, their unique strengths and weaknesses have been fun to experience and gives the game more replayability than other Total War games. Most people would agree that the combat is the strongest aspect of the Total War games. In Total War: Warhammer this is no exception, and the racial differences are really highlighted when armies go to war!
Dwarfs never forget a grudge. As such, for every battle, settlement, or other loss you suffer, you will be given a mini-quest to avenge the grudge. These mini-quests help break up the game and give players little goals to work towards. In terms of their armies, the Dwarfs are a tough bunch. Even their basic warrior unit can take a beating. Upgrade to Longbeards or Hammers and pound your enemies flat while your Dwarfs remain as steady as a mountain. Dwarfs enjoy a wide array of missile units including stone throwers, cannons, more cannons, and the infamous quarrelers. Arguably the most potent (and perhaps overpowered unit), these crossbow-wielding dwarfs can clear ramparts and battlefields alike.
The Empire is the closest thing to a traditional Total War army, but even then that doesn’t say much. They have a unique feature where heroes and lords can be assigned to individual locations within the overall bureaucracy (the offices), granting them a number of bonuses. In terms of units, the Empire’s infantry seems a little squishier than some races. But they can field just about any type of unit, from spearmen or swordsmen to mounted pistoliers, mortars, demigryph cavalry, and a repeater cannon called the helblaster volley gun. Unlike the dwarfs, I actually found that my different armies were more specialized mainly because there is such variety available.
Oh the Vampire Counts – they take the cake for the most unique of all the factions. Using their dark magic, they can raise the dead of past battle to quickly refill troops in their armies – even when on the go! It is mechanics like this that make Total War: Warhammer an outright pleasure to play. The Vampire Count army has a mixture of cheaper disposable units (skeletons and zombies) and expensive tear-your-opponent-apart units (terrorgheists!). Many units will cause fear or terror, demoralizing enemies and making it hard for them to maintain a strong line. Couple this with the fact that Vampire Counts units lack leadership (instead they have magical binding that keeps units together), as long as your leader is not killed and their binding holds, undead units will continue to fight. When other races troops will flee if their leadership depletes the undead do not know such fear and as such will continue fighting until they prevail or the last of the unholy creatures falls.
They are a motley crew of angry beings that never stop fighting. Of all the races, they seem to have the most diversity, from small goblins, to orcs, trolls, and giants. There are night and forest goblins, regular and savage orcs, boar and wolf riders. And did I mention trolls? Greenskins are also the “horde” race in terms of sheer numbers and are amplified by Waaagh armies which will spawn in to join the fight on your side. Fight and win enough battles and your “fightiness” level will summon a fully controllable NPC army. The sheer number of Greenskins perfectly underlines just how perfect the union between Total War and Warhammer truly is.
The Chaos race epitomizes pure evil. Unable to build any cities, Chaos players will instead spend time roaming the known world pillaging and razing settlements they encounter. As mentioned earlier, Chaos lords operate much like nomads in Attila – a roaming city/army combination that works well for a race whose sole purpose is to bring about the end times. The Chaos have a mix of cheap marauder variants and the stronger more expensive array of monsters and demonic terrors. If all you want to do is watch the world burn, the Chaos are the perfect choice.
It is worth mentioning that the Chaos race was given for free as a pre-order or “week one” purchase incentive. They can now be purchased as a separate DLC for $7.99. Offering the race for free even a week after release made it accessible to those hesitant of a pre-order – but this option only arose in response to community backlash. I’m not one to see the issue with pre-order bonuses in general, and was more than happy to get a free race with a game I already planned on purchasing, but I can understand how this rubs some people the wrong way.
When it comes to eXterminating, few games shine as bright as Total War. There is nothing quite as satisfying as watching Emperor Karl Franz tear through the sky and smash into the heart of a unit of Chaos warriors. That is, unless you count that time I summoned 3 units of zombies beneath my opponent’s artillery, killing them in no time at all. Of course there was the time I surrounded the Dwarf King Thorgrim Grudgebearer with 3 Greenskin armies and washed over the dwarf lines like a green tide, leaving nothing behind. Basically, massive fantastical armies clashing are everything I could want, and Total War: Warhammer delivers!
One reason combat works so well is because Creative Assembly has not only taken chances by implementing new ideas, but they took the time to make the dynamics work. The first big change is the introduction of flying units. Bats, vargheists, dragons, you name it – the sky has never been so full, nor flanks so exposed. The fiercest of these beasts are great mounts individual lords can ride into battle, swooping in to attack then disengage. Paring such a powerful beast with an equally powerful Lord is just downright fun. The increased mobility as well as looking like a badass will tempt you to ignore the rest of the battle and watch a monster rip into the enemy.
The flying units change things up a bit, but magic is on an entirely different level. The magic system depends on a mana pool called the winds of magic. In each territory the “wind” blows at different levels which vary over time. This means that sometimes you will have access to a number of spells while other engagements will force you to choose one spell since that’s all the casting points you will have. It is a fun system that again screams Warhammer. I was worried that the magic system would unbalance the combat, but I’m relieved that it works quite well. There are some high tier spells that can deal significant damage to units, but I have found that snares or debuffs are sometimes just as powerful in the right situation.
At release there are 8 schools of magic available (which matches the schools in the 6th edition of Warhammer). Some, like the lore of death, are unique to the Vampire Counts, whereas the Waaagh school is exclusive to Greenskins. Spells are a collection of unit buffs, debuffs, vortexes (think area of effect) and single-targets. While the various schools of magic are not terribly unique, they do have their differences. Personally, the Greenskins take the cake, as orcish shamans can cast the foot of Gork spell which is essentially their God briefly appearing to step on their foes. Obviously this is new territory for Total War, but it is implemented well..
Dwarfs are the exception and don’t use magic in a traditional sense. Instead their runesmiths have a limited set of runes that affect troops, but provide limited options overall. Nevertheless, it works from both a lore standpoint and continues to underline the differences between the races.
One thing that hasn’t changed regarding combat, sadly, is the terrible games of tag on the strategic map. I can’t tell you how many turns I’ve wasted turns chasing a Chaos army around the map with an equally powerful band of Empire soldiers. Each “stack” has essentially the same movement, even with a perk to increase speed, and enemy armies can just switch to march and outdistance you. I personally would like to see army movement based on unit composition or changed in some way so that I don’t spend 10 turns chasing my enemy in circles. There just isn’t much in terms of strategy or enjoyment in chasing one army around turn after turn.
Siege battles have always been a little problematic in Total War games. A number of changes have helped increase my enjoyment and are overall fairly successful in this latest iteration. The first change is that instead of attacking any side of a city, attackers and defenders are both forced to engage on primarily one side of the wall. This has a few advantages, the most important being it seems to improve the A.I.’s ability to defend effectively.
The new mechanics also reduce the issue of never having enough men to cover all four sides of a city. So now all the action is funneled into a smaller, more action packed area. City walls are also much wider than before, allowing players to maneuver about the walls more easily and still engage in flanking attacks or other maneuvers during the siege.
Last, it seems easier to bring down walls or gates than in earlier Total War games. The inclusion of trolls, giants, incredibly powerful lords, countless types of cannons, and the traditional battering rams and siege towers mean walls have never been in so much danger. I don’t think this puts defenders at any more of a disadvantage than normal. One battle there were 4 or 5 massive holes in the west side of my walls, while my troops only just held the city through smart management of choke points, flanking, and one brave lord who managed to fight off a much larger Greenskin army. Sieges work for the same reason battles are so much fun in Total War: Warhammer – big armies filled with fantastical beasts and creatures.
Warhammer done right… Maybe?
There is no doubt that Total War: Warhammer is a beautiful game. The map is home to dwarven cities carved right into the mountains and corrupted lands where the undead dwell. If you have the right CPU and GPU this game can really push your system and looks gorgeous. Obviously, most of the “stress” will come from the beautifully rendered battles, which showcase a variety of locations and environments. Players can pan the camera around the battlefield and can see great keeps and a sprawling city beyond the area of engagement. Such set pieces help to progress the feel that you really are engaged in an epic struggle!
The audio within the game is likewise spot-on, both in terms of tone and quality. Certain battles will actually treat players to a unique pre-battle speech featuring their leader. Battle locations and the size of enemy forces are predetermined, but they add to the narrative of your particular race which is actually quite significant. Each race has an introductory video surrounding your legendary lord and your race which gives players (especially those not familiar with the Warhammer universe) a narrative to start the campaign off with. It is a neat addition and a smart move since there is so much in terms of lore Creative Assembly can pull from.
While they add to the narrative, perhaps the biggest roadblock in terms of replayability is the lack of alternate start zones. Each race will always start in the same zone and you can only choose between two leaders. It seems like an odd choice, especially since each grand campaign begins with a bunch of different factions within each race. I’m not sure why I have to always begin each game playing as Greenskins in the same location – simply moving my starting point could do so much for me in terms of varying the grand campaign.
More than anything, Total War: Warhammer is a respectable proof of concept. The TW series has, in my opinion, stagnated over the years. Sure it has always been fun to watch massive armies engage in a struggle to the death – but at the end of the day if it takes place in Japan, ancient Rome, or in the Napoleonic era, it still pretty much plays the same. I realize that such accusations might not sit right with some fans. But previous Total War games consisted of units of spearmen, archers, and mounted units with only minor stat differences compared to an opposing army consisting of the same basic unit types. For the very first time, Total War: Warhammer changes the formula by including races that actually have unique units, as well as differences in strengths and limitations both on and off the battlefield
Total War: Warhammer seems to be the best launch a Total War game has had in some time. Outside of some odd gameplay decisions (like heroes being helplessly broken at launch, army tag on the strategic map) I have had a very enjoyable and bug-free experience after more than 50 hours of gameplay. Where Creative Assembly took chances (introducing flying units, magic, very different but balanced armies) the game shines and makes me very excited for what the series may hold in the future. However, where they play it safe (diplomatic system, city and empire management) the game stumbles into the same old pitfalls. It feels like a game in transition – one foot in the past and one foot in the future. The base game is slated to receive two full expansions (with eight new races!), and it is my hope that the developers take even more risks to progress the series in bolder, newer directions.
Oliver’s Additional Perspective:
I have only been a Total War dabbler over the years – playing just a little bit of the original Shogun and a fleeting moment of Medieval 2. TW: Warhammer is the first game in the series I’ve really dug into. On the other hand, I am no stranger to the Warhammer tabletop games. So I was quite excited about these two long-running legacies colliding with one another. Thankfully, TW: Warhammer has been an immensely enjoyable experience for me.
For a long time, I’ve felt that 4X games have become needlessly fiddly when it comes to empire management, morphing into something overly complex and too focused on puzzle-like optimizations. In stark and refreshing contrast, TW: Warhammer’s “simpler” empire management mechanics boil off the fat and focus the player’s decisions around discrete, compelling options. Pressure from external threats, combined with very limited resources, means that every development decision feels important at a grand strategic level. So for me, the empire management mechanics are a breath of fresh air.
I am also impressed with the diplomatic system in the game – I did not realize how sophisticated diplomacy had become in the Total War series. I feel like the overall diplomatic experience beats out other recent 4X games by a good margin. Part of this is due to the system itself, which includes many options for diplomatic agreements (defensive alliances, various treaties, etc.) and relationship modifiers. These are coupled with great map overlays to help players visualize everything. And with so many factions in the mix (each race will consist of many separate sub-factions), the political situation can become very involved. This situation is made more engaging by an AI that keeps you on your toes. I’ve had factions backstab me or allies go to war with each other, asking me to choose a side. While some people might complain about this sort of “eccentric” behavior, I find it makes the game less predictable and far more interesting.
Overall, I found the game to be impeccably well-polished and executed. The attention to Warhammer lore is excellent, and finally seeing these huge, fantastical armies clash on the battlefield is a sight to behold. Both the tactical battles and strategic level gameplay provide a high dose of variety and interesting strategic conundrums. TW: Warhammer might not be a proper “4X game” – but it is the best 4X-like experience I’ve had in awhile.
TL;DR: Total War: Warhammer is a strong, new take on the Total War series. It is not perfect, but it adds some exciting elements and should get players excited for the future. Each of the five races handles and plays differently on the strategic map and in battle. The inclusion of flying units and magic provides a much needed dose of variety and gameplay systems the series sorely needed. While the grand campaign plays mechanically similar to previous Total War games, it is in the battles where the formula has been mixed up the most. Although empire management will feel disappointingly familiar, the game is a solid (and mostly bug-free!) entry in the franchise and a great launch point for future TW: Warhammer games. It looks and plays beautifully and conveys the lore and character of the Warhammer fantasy universe well. Any fan of TW or Warhammer should be able to sink many hours into it. While not perfect, Total War has never looked, felt, or played so good!
You might like this game if:
- You are a fan of the Warhammer universe, or the tabletop game, or both in terms of lore, aesthetics, and unit selection.
- You play Total War games for the battles!
- You’re looking for a fresh entry into the series that mixes up many traditional gameplay mechanics.
You might NOT like this game if:
- You’re looking for an overhaul of diplomacy or empire management from previous iterations in the series.
- You’re a Total War purist and are offended by the inclusion of magic, flying units, and powerful lords and monsters.
- You have no interest in the Warhammer universe or just aren’t a big fan of fantasy in general.
Kearon reviewed this game with a code he purchased himself and has played 60 hours on an i5-6600k cpu Radeon R9 270 2GB 16GB ram Windows 10.