Sequels can be hard to pull off. Books, movies, and games all ride on the hopes and dreams of fans that are looking for something bigger and better than the original. I am happy to say that for this fan, Total War: Warhammer 2 (TW2) has largely pulled the whole sequel thing off. Or to put it another way, if I saw a dinosaur eating someone in the parking lot, or a giant toad man kill my friends with a spell my first response wouldn’t be to run – I’d probably be saying “Summon the Elector Counts” and looking for a Steam Tank to commandeer.
There is so much to this game that I think the best place to start is at the beginning. In May of 2016, Creative Assembly (CA) released Total War: Warhammer (TW1). This was the first of three planned Warhammer Fantasy Battle titles to take the rich “Tolkien-inspired” fantasy world that Games Workshop has created, and place it within the Total War formula. TW1 was a commercial success that kept me occupied for hundreds of hours. A handful of DLCs later, and we finally come to the first full-fledged sequel: TW2. As much as I enjoyed the original game with its many different races, the newest iteration is far more than an expansion – it is a confident step forward by CA that takes everything the original game did well and improves upon it. The four new races, the massive and unique campaign map, as well as the reworked and new features are enough to justify this title being sold as a full blown sequel. But enough of an introduction, let’s jump in and see what the excitement is all about.
The New World
Total War: Warhammer took place in the “Old World” in what could be closely associated with Eurasia with small parts of the Middle and Far East. TW2 mostly takes place in what is deemed the “New World” on the continents of Lustria, Nagaroth, and Ulthuan. The world map created by Games Workshop mostly resembles the geography of our own with a few big differences. For example Ulthuan, the High Elves homeland is a giant island in the middle of the ocean. The new world takes us to entirely new territory, the geographic equivalents of North and South America, Africa, and some giant island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean that doesn’t even exist.
The differences move far beyond actually having various mountain ranges to control or a multitude of continents to conquer. Just as the New World is historically associated with unknown discoveries, adventure, and treasure hunts, this same feeling has been captured by the minute-to-minute gameplay in TW2. For one, you now have the ability to explore ruined cities and coastal shipwrecks that are scattered around the map. Unfortunately, the treasure hunting mechanic is cool in theory but stumbles in its execution.
Once you start a treasure hunt, you’re given four narrative options like, “you find a chained up demon lord” or a “room full of lost treasures.” The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any link between your choice and the outcome. It feels like you click something and roll the dice to see if you come up with an item or leave empty handed. This system forces players to either explore for treasure and wait a turn to colonize, or go ahead and start your settlement as you can only do one per turn. The treasures found in shipwrecks are much more profitable as it gives players a lump of cash (sometimes a Scrooge McDuck money bin-sized lump), a randomized buff, and you just have to move to it so it doesn’t eat up an armies turn.
The outcomes seem varied but I appreciate that, unlike the treasure hunting in settlements, I have a general idea of the type of buff I can select. The system seems like a missed opportunity but that is to be expected, I suppose, in the age of generic goodie huts.
While the treasure system is easily forgettable, the real star of the new world is the map. Wow, does it look amazing! There was something about the map in the original game that was on the verge of looking gorgeous, but as time wore on it looked less and less appealing. However, the Lustrian jungles, the elven island of Ulthuan, and even the desert areas of Araby are visual treats to behold. The battle maps also look less washed out than they did in TW1, especially the snow covered regions. The game showcases colorful High Elf cities and wretched Skaven dens that demonstrate off just how much the engine and the visuals have matured. TW2 does recommend a slightly better GPU than its predecessor and the spectacle of battle pays off if you have the hardware to crank the settings to the max.
The centerpiece of the game is the single player Vortex Campaign complete with, you guessed it, a giant vortex floating over the High Elves’ home of Ulthuan. This spinning maelstrom was created by the High Elves to keep the forces of Chaos at bay. Your faction-based objectives are far more than just slight variations of the same thing. Depending on which race you play, your objective in relation to the Vortex can range from honorable to sinister. For example, the High Elves seek to bolster the Vortex but the Skaven want to siphon its energy to bring forth their giant rat god. CA has added small animated shorts to reward the player for each successfully completed step of the five rituals required for victory. With this focus on an end goal, the campaign gives players a narrative to run with.
While some players may enjoy the sandbox or the paint-the-map-your-color approach, (which you can still pursue with ease) I enjoy the change of pace and narrative thrust the Vortex Campaign offers. I will avoid any possible spoilers but these short movies aren’t just a pat on the back as you check a box – they actually progress a story that I found to be deeper than expected at first glance.
The narrative is a definite plus, but the actual mechanic itself is fairly basic in practice. Collect X number of shards/ritual pieces/etc. to complete step one. Collect more for step two, and so on. Upon reaching these predetermined thresholds, players are required to protect three semi-randomized cities from randomly spawning Chaos death armies and intervention armies summoned by the A.I. empires for 10 turns. The Chaos death armies are pains in the you-know-what that appear magically. Intervention armies come in three sizes which automatically spawn at an empire’s capital city for a steep price. The largest army size may look somewhat threatening, but it never truly amounts to a real threat if you are prepared. Since you control when a ritual begins, and you can see which three cities you will have to protect, you can place your armies in defensive positions ahead of time.
The mechanic is cool in theory, but is easy to exploit. Even if the mechanics of the rituals themselves were changed, the Chaos death armies and their ability to spawn almost anywhere are at odds with the narrative of the campaign. What good are the special High Elf gates that guard the exterior of Ulthuan if these armies somehow show up in the heart of your territory? Because the enemy seems to possess teleportation technology, players are forced to build walls in every settlement so an enemy lord doesn’t make a beeline for soft economic targets and avoid the ritual city they are supposed to focus on. I wasn’t a fan of the “stop the death ball” Chaos mechanic from the first game, and the implementation in TW2 isn’t much better. The Chaos faction only serves to disrupt my world conquest, and their spawning is a classic example of allowing the A.I. to “cheat to compete.” In spite of these shortcomings, I still find myself enjoying the Vortex campaign whether I pursue the final victory or just kill everyone and ignore the ritual.
That’s right, you can play the Vortex Campaign and ignore the vortex completely.While this may sound strange if the A.I. completes the final step of their ritual, you can teleport your main army to a final battle which, if you win, stops the enemy from achieving their win condition. While it’s nice to have this kind of safety net, it definitely undercuts the actual threat of losing. Creating a loss condition that feels fair can be difficult, but if it is correctly balanced it can create an enjoyable sense of urgency and keep multiple playthroughs fresh (looking at you XCOM 2).
So while not without flaws, it is nice to have something beyond the typical “conquer 50 settlements” to win. These missteps certainly didn’t prevent me from enjoying the Vortex Campaign immensely, but the bright spots could have shone all the brighter with a little more polish on the campaign A.I. I do appreciate Creative Assembly trying something new with the campaign as getting out of their comfort zone is what has made the Warhammer games amazing so far. But when you swing, sometimes you miss.
With over 75 hours in the Vortex Campaign alone, I still haven’t beaten it with two of the four factions. Unfortunately, “next turn” span is common as you acquire enough resources for the final ritual, much like technological victories in traditional 4X games. I have played every legendary lord available at launch with some restarts, but I am honestly not sure if I will ever go back and finish the campaign since the Mortal Empires add-on (the combined map of both games) has been released. Only time will tell how the Vortex campaign fares with players overall.
New and Improved
The Vortex Campaign design itself is rather so-so, but thankfully the new world is not entirely defined by the campaign. There are some great pockets of old world races around the map, from the Vampire Coast in eastern Lustria, to the Bretonnian crusaders controlling some of Araby’s desert territories until their true masters rise (I’m assuming the big empty spot is where the Tomb Kings will be added). There are some rather stalwart dwarven strongholds and the undead factions often come out fairly strong in the mid game.
Empires from TW1 show up as minor factions in the sequel and can end up becoming quite strong in the late game. It’s a great feature that provides some variety; you aren’t always fighting the four new races in TW2 over and over again. I found that the playthroughs in the southern parts of the map were always more interesting as the race and enemy diversity was always changing. However, move to the north and you’ll have giant blobs of either High Elves or Dark Elves every time.
In addition to these minor empires, rogue armies with very unorthodox unit compositions will appear on the map from time to time. I’ve seen armies consisting mostly of monsters such as trolls, vargheists, and squigs while other armies fielded the combined forces of Empire flagellants fighting alongside black orcs. I wish players could try some of these crazy compositions and secretly hope this is a subtle hint at the Dogs of War faction DLC in the future. While these roving armies have no city, they can take a metropolis by force. In one game, a minor army eventually controlled six or seven settlements. More than anything, they serve to mix up battles and reinforce the feeling of the unknown that sticks out far more in TW2 than it ever did in the original.
Anyone familiar with TW1 should remember the fact that races were only allowed to settle land favorable to their kind. You wouldn’t, for example, see Dwarf settlements sprawl into the green lowlands of Men or the Vampire Counts. Well that whole system, with its pros and cons, has been completely tossed out the window in favor of a climate system.
What this boils down to is two specific things. First, you can now conquer every single settlement – no land is safe from your conquest! Second, each settlement is assigned a climate type that is either favorable or unfavorable to each specific race. Settle the cold mountains as Lizardmen, for example, and your settlements will have decreased production rates. The negatives are strong enough to encourage prioritizing prefered climates over conquering any old territory, but if you can afford to maintain some settlements with penalties you can still go for unlimited conquest. It’s a smart move that doesn’t completely sacrifice ideas already in place and ends up giving players more freedom, which isn’t a bad thing.
The New Kids on the Block
TW2 wouldn’t be a true sequel without some awesome new races. Enter High Elves, Dark Elves, Lizardmen, and the Skaven. If there is one thing that unifies the design for each race, it would be the fact that CA is pushing the envelope with new ideas and gameplay mechanics based on Games Workshop lore. From a design perspective, we just keep getting further and further from the historical TW titles, and I am loving it.
In terms of aesthetics, each race continues to satisfy. The High Elves seem better and more beautiful than anything else. Playing them, you understand why they believe they are superior to everyone else. The Dark Elves are completely different from the other two Elvish races and bring a feeling of deadly, cold steel to the battle. Skaven are numberless and just keep coming with some of the most insane contraptions imaginable. Finally the Lizardmen look and feel like intelligent reptiles with awesome animations to boot! The TW1 series did a great job of making each race feel distinct (with the possible exception of Chaos and the Beastmen) and the tradition of unique play experiences continues here. Completely unexpectedly, some of the new races have soundly surpassed my old favorites: the Dwarfs and Vampire Counts. I don’t won’t break down every unit in detail here, but let me highlight some of my favorite aspects of each race.
The High Elves
I would say the High Elves make a great army for beginners since all their units can hold their own. They can field three types of dragons and also have some of the best archers in the game. Army composition is straightforward, beginner friendly, and their units each pack a punch. The Lorean Sea Guard unit is a lot of fun since they bring the Elves’ prowess with bows combined with shields and spears. Say goodbye to enemy cavalry maneuvering into your backline!
The High Elves generate influence through random events which players can choose to sacrifice for money/growth/etc. You can also spend influence to increase or decrease relations between any faction in the world, but I enjoy saving it up to buy better than normal lords to lead my armies. I have seen lords with 33% upkeep reductions or a 100% bonus to charge damage! Is this slightly overpowered? YES!. But it helps to create some unique character builds players wouldn’t normally experience. I mean, who doesn’t like the sound of a beefy chariot lord with extra charge damage?
The Dark Elves
On the flip side, the Dark Elves have a unique mechanic that centers on enslaving the population of conquered cities and defeated armies. These slaves increase the income from your settlements but at the cost of public disorder. At first I thought this would result in me babysitting provinces with armies to fight off the constant slave rebellions, but the lord’s skills and various buildings can help keep the unhappiness penalty largely in check.
Thankfully, players can alter the flow of slaves into provinces by either increasing the share they receive or stopping contributions all together. As your slaves do gradually die off, Dark Elves are constantly incentivized to bring death and mayhem at home and abroad. In terms of their units, I honestly thought I wouldn’t enjoy playing Dark Elves as the game already has two separate Elven races but I have been pleasantly surprised.
The Dark Elves’ repeater crossbow units are a ton of fun (and armor piercing) and have a lot of different tools at their disposal. Witch Elves can force a unit to rampage, effectively pinning it down as they attack in a blind fury nullifying calvary or other threats. While the Dark Elves lack the numerous dragon units that High Elves enjoy, hydras pack a punch and help sow terror through the enemy’s lines. Oh and one last thing: inflict enough casualties on the battlefield and your entire army will enjoy a buff called Murderous Prowess. This boosts your units’ vigor, leadership, and attack, and the army causes fear for a glorious two minutes! Think of it as a really deadly second wind that can give the Dark Elves that last push to victory that might be needed in a close battle.
But enough with Elves, let’s move on from the pointed ear folk to the, well, pointed everything of the Lizardmen. Their movement animations actually mimic what I image a bipedal lizard would look like and the various giant dinosaurs are fun to watch. This colorful and exotic race epitomizes the visual treat that a Total War game can be and is the gold standard in terms of aesthetics for any game in the series. But the Lizardmen are more than just a pretty (spiny) face; they will quite literally rip your army a new one.
Monsters are nothing new to the TW1 series, but stegadons (think a big triceratops) charging through the enemy’s lines are always something to be enjoyed. Aside from massive dinosaurs, the Temple Guard unit is a lot of fun to use as it is a halberd unit that also has a shield. The true star of the show though is Lord Mazdamundi whose look, sound, and spells make him my favorite legendary lord in this iteration of TW.
In terms of mechanics, Lizardmen units all rampage when they drop below 50% health. While this sounds cool it basically means the player loses control of the unit and they attack the closest enemy unit. Lizardmen players will spend a lot of time healing and trying to play around this mechanic since your tough line of infantry can quickly make a mess of your battle plan if you can’t control them. I know this mechanic may sound terrible but it hasn’t killed the experience for me and the Lizardmen are still my most played race so far.
Last, but certainly not least, we have the Skaven. I am glad that CA waited until the sequel to implement the Skaven because they are so different in terms of army size and strategy that CA needed to be comfortable enough to break from the traditional TW mold to do them right.
To start with, Skaven have a campaign mechanic that sounds boring but definitely isn’t. What is this mechanic you ask? Food. Skaven players must keep a close eye on the food consumption of their cities and armies. But if you have a surplus, you can summon more than nine additional lower tier units during a battle or boost your city’s level during colonization or conquest. Yes, you can literally conquer Altdorf and drop a tier five city on the same turn! Doing so would almost certainly deplete a large portion of your food reserves which bring with it some slight debuffs to your armies. But seeing a shiny level five settlement in one turn sure is addicting.
Aside from food, which I’m sure you now agree is a lot cooler than you initially thought, their units encourage trickery and wit to weasel out a victory against enemy troops that are usually superior. I’ve won sieges by sneaking my ranged units across unmanned walls, smashed doomwheels through stalwart Dwarf lines, and had more fun with warpstone fueled artillery than I thought possible.
Don’t worry, the Skaven are as endless as they are mischievous, and you can easily summon extra units from lords (plus some food) to essentially double an army’s unit count by the end of battle. Even though armies are limited by the default cap of 20 units, if you aren’t summoning at least half as many units during a battle, you aren’t doing it right! Skaven feel limitless and have given me ways to play TW unlike ever before.
Across the board, the new races are amazing. But CA didn’t stop with shiny new armies. Thankfully they went back and reworked the magic system. A common complaint with the first game was that magic lacked the spectacle of tearing up lines of troops. Instead, it was more effectively used as a system to buff or debuff units. In TW2 magic seems to pack more of a punch across the board (like that time my spellcaster had nearly 400 kills on his own) and you can now get far more use out of it.
Legendary Lords such as Teclis or Mazdamundi also have what are known as “bound spells.” These are, for all intents and purposes, character abilities that act as spells but which do not cost any magic to cast. And not only are they free spells, limited only by their cooldown, they will really ruin your opponent’s day. Mazdamundi’s Ruination of Cities spell sends out three random tendrils of power that erupt out of the ground and shred enemy units. It is a great way to implement more magic in the game. I only wish that high level spell casting heroes would have some kind of lesser bound spell, so they could select it as a talent and spread the magic around a bit more.
In terms of eye candy, another big improvement is the unit animations. Gone are the days of Lords swinging at the air instead of at one another. You can now literally watch two lords fighting in combat and interacting with each other. An example is when a dragon engages in combat with the hell pit abomination. The units attack and can throw one another as they are fighting. However, my favorite animation is when Lord Mazdamundi is fighting a hell pit abomination, which is actually lifted off the ground flailing before it’s dropped back to earth. It is small things like this that obviously took a good deal of time and effort on CA’s part that add that extra level of polish.
The biggest single gameplay mechanic added to each of the factions is the individual rites they can perform. Each one has four unique rites that can be performed every 20+ turns that provide unique heroes, boosts, and in some cases entire armies. For example, the Dark Elves can summon the Black Arks, giant floating ships able to recruit armies on the go. The Lizardmen, on the other hand, must perform a particular rite in order to recruit a single Slann Mage Priest. This is just one of the fun additions that show how the game continues to evolve and improve. It would be great to see some sort of rites system for the older races but only time will tell if we will be so fortunate.
Speaking of production values, the whole event and mission interface seems a little less cluttered. I think most of it is due to better looking artwork and how the side menu collapses down a bit more. It makes for a straightforward and easy to use UI that is improved over its predecessor. Another nice touch is saved games now automatically categorize themselves based on the Legendary Lord you are playing. Say goodbye to scrolling through endless saves to pick up that game you had going three weeks ago.
These are all small, but important, things that demonstrate how TW2 isn’t just a race pack expansion – it is new and improved on just about every level. The real crowning jewel though is something much larger: the Mortal Empires Campaign.
Mortal Empires Grand Campaign
When the developers were discussing the scope and plans for the TW series, I remember my excitement at hearing that each of their three main games would build on one another, growing the grand campaign map. I am happy to say that for the most part, my hopes for CA’s vision have paid off.
The Mortal Empires campaign combines the Old World and New World into one mega-map. What does this mean in terms of gameplay options? It means 35 Legendary Lords (soon to be 37 with the inclusion of Norsca), 117 starting factions, and just shy of 300 settlements to conquer. Calling the map massive would be an understatement. Six hours into my Dark Elf campaign, I zoomed out only to realize what was left to conquer still far surpassed what I had under my control.
While I have largely enjoyed the Mortal Empires map, it hasn’t been without some issues. The Chaos invasion now summons more Chaos factions that should ideally happen in separate parts of the map so that everyone gets a beating not just the poor Empire. The problem was the Chaos factions would literally beeline for the player, ignoring all A.I. empires on its way to what was almost always a crushing loss. I’m not sure if it was an A.I. oversight or a bug, but whatever the explanation, it made the experience close to unplayable for me until I simply modded Chaos out of the game completely. It was hardly an ideal situation (although I’ve always hated the chaos mechanic). While the most recent hotfix and following patch seem to have addressed the issue, it was a rough start.
Secondly, the lack of Norsca is understandable as CA explained they wanted to get Mortal Empires in people’s hands as quickly as possible. This also means that the Old World races don’t have the improved Legendary Lord skill tree. I won’t go into it at this point, but it does make some significant differences that leave these races lacking somewhat until the larger patch in the near future.
So a bit of a rough start yes, but it is getting better. There continue to be a few balancing issues with Dwarfs and some of the northern tribes, but with a mod or two, the experience is easily brought to a fair equilibrium. Now issues like this are on CA, but thankfully the modding community has stepped up to fix a few annoyances and I think the game should get credit for providing what is an experience that is close to perfect for someone who wants a massive world to conquer.
Thankfully, while I was terrified that load times would prevent any kind of enjoyable experience they actually aren’t that bad. The first 30 or so turns take a bit longer but, because this is Total War and those minor factions and races are absorbed into larger empires, the turn times don’t feel much different from playing a smaller campaign. However, until some of these minor empires get swallowed up, A.I. turn times can take a while, even with my i5-6600k CPU. So be warned! While the game can already be kind of GPU heavy, Mortal Empires demands a beefy CPU, as well, unless you want to spend as much time waiting for the next turn as you do playing.
A final note: I think the developers deserve some kudos for releasing the Mortal Empires map with the upcoming foundation update for free. Creating the map itself was more than a simple cut and paste, and they have taken the time to rework many old world units. They’ve added in breath attacks for dragons from the original game, tweaked units for balance, and even added new settlement buildings. The upcoming Reprisal Update revamps Legendary Lords from the original game and adds a few more tweaks to the old world. Then somewhere down the road Norsca will finally be implemented in the Mortal Empire map. There is a lot of changes coming down the pipeline for the combined map and while it is in its infancy it is nice to see CA giving it the continued support needed to make it more than simply acceptable. This, alongside the new focus on race DLCs, shows that CA is responding to fan feedback in some great ways. I understand that there will be paid races and DLC before TW2 is done, but I love to support developers when I feel like they are trying to meet fans halfway and providing some great content and support free of charge.
For me, TW2 has been a joy to experience. I have tried to lay out a few problems and concerns the game has, but with a few simple mods, I think anyone can customize the experience to something they will enjoy. For some people, I suppose, that may be an unforgivable sin. But for someone like myself who has clocked just over 350 hours with the first game, I know I’ll spend as much if not more time with this very competent sequel. TW2 knows what kind of game it is, plays to its strengths, and stays narrowly focused on what it does well to the overall benefit of the experience. While the new races are immensely fun to play, it is also nice to see gameplay mechanics across the board receive minor tweaks and reworks as the franchise matures. Whether you are playing the Vortex or the Mortal Empires campaign, there is a world out there to conquer and control that is bigger and better than ever.
Now I understand that size doesn’t directly correlate with a good product, especially within games. But I think it is safe to say that if someone enjoyed the first game, the sequel is a safe bet. The game has improved visually, the UI is cleaner and easier to read, and I can’t say enough times how much I am enjoying the new races. Again, if you are looking for an experience unlike anything you’ve played in any TW game before, give the Skaven a spin.
As big as this game feels, I am still a little dumbfounded as I imagine what it will entail as it continues to mature. I think it is safe to expect a few DLC races to get added to the mix and then we still have the entire 3rd game that I’m sure I’ll be writing about in a couple years. For someone such as myself, it feels like CA is doing a good job giving me the Warhammer sandbox of my dreams. With the expanding map I can sit and play any of over a dozen races for hours on end.
TL;DR: TW2 continues to improve the series by addressing specific weaknesses from its predecessor such as magic, honing the excellent gameplay even further. The Vortex Campaign feels fully developed and thankfully is anything other than a tacked on experience that expansion campaigns can fall victim to. While the Vortex Campaign isn’t perfect, it is a change of pace and gives players a new way to play the game. However, the real gem here are the four new races which do not disappoint. Whether you want more variety in multiplayer or just need a new race to conquer the now much larger world, TW2 will keep you happily fighting battle after battle for the foreseeable future.
You will like this game if:
- You are looking for a bigger and better version of TW1
- The idea of a larger campaign map is something you’d enjoy
- You are looking for new races to play that compliment the original game
You will NOT like this game if:
- You didn’t enjoy TW1 – there is nothing groundbreaking different from the original game
- You don’t have the proper hardware to run it – especially the Mortal Empires campaign
- You want to see legendary figures such as Lord Mazdamundi overpowered compared with other Lords, sorry everything has been balanced – he won’t be moving continents in this game
Dallin reviewed Total War: Warhammer 2 with a copy of the game he purchased himself and has played 110+ hours on an intel Core i5-6600k CPU (3.5GHz), 16GB RAM, nVidia GTX 1070