After the well-received and long-anticipated Total War: Warhammer, its sequel dropped on us rather sooner than we first expected. Apparently, Creative Assembly was so pleased with the original's reception, the decision to move straight onto this new Warhammer game trumped returning to a historical setting. This sequel involves a change of scenery and a swarm of new problems with pointy teeth and sticks, but while some things are different this time around, the mixture of turn-based strategy and lively RTS battles persists. The Total War formula, filtered through the lens of Warhammer Fantasy Battles, doesn't stray too far from the well-established setup that CA has been tweaking for almost twenty years.
The new Warhammer seems like a mixture of DLC and a full-fledged sequel. The main campaign is now more narrative-driven than before, with the Great Vortex becoming the focal point for all the four new races. Depending on their motivations, this quartet wants to somehow control the whirlpool to either save the new continents or rip the world open for their demon lords to conquer. All races have unique victory conditions, so it's not just eat or be eaten, although the Lizardmen would be fine with that, too. The New World campaign is set in areas from frosty peaks to barren wastelands and lush jungles, and it's markedly different from the original title's map. While we didn't get to try it out in the review version, these two giant land masses can be combined if you own both Warhammer games, with a smattering of factions vying for total and utter control.
The four new races are the Lizardmen; vermin-like Skaven; High Elves; and their more pointy/sadistic cousins, the Dark Elves, and all have their unique strengths to play for or against during the campaign, quick battles, and so forth. Lizardmen are in general big, stompy and horrible at maintaining their cool. They also command a large variety of monstrous dinosaur-like units who can jump on, maim, and/or eat lesser foes with ease, or have siege-engines mounted on top. In the heat of the battle, Lizardmen can lose their control and get enraged, so they're more like the blunt instruments of the Warhammer world. Lizardmen mages wield considerable power and can definitely put the hurt on enemy formations.
The Skaven race is all about numbers, as these hordes of vermin blanket the battlefield and can appear from nowhere, thanks to numerous skills like smoke bombs or Skaven tunnels. Not content just with easily replaceable cannon fodder, the rat-folk are also gifted engineers with cannons, warpfire throwers, and giant hamster wheels of doom at their disposal. Skaven don't feel like founding cities, either, so their campaign map progress is the life of a nomad. They might be the toughest bunch to manage due to low morale and sustainability, but they have the most unique units of all the four on their roster.
It's Warhammer, so of course you gotta have elves too. High Elves have a balanced selection of units with strong archers and flying units, and if their shields are shiny and ranks full, High Elves fight with increased vigour. Their dragon units are among the strongest in the game and can seriously ruin your day when flapping towards your troops over the horizon. Aside from that, they felt like the dullest and most standard choice of the bunch. Dark Elves have more of an edge to them with equally balanced troops, but with more melee power than their shinier kin. Dark Elves also revel in bloodlust, and might enter a frenzy, increasing their efficiency.
The real-time battles in the game remain the same, just with new units. There's sieges, ambushes, bitter last-ditch defences, and glorious overruns to be had with the massive scale Total War games are famous for. The maps have gotten a bit of an upgrade with more unique landmarks and contours to differentiate one field from another. Creative Assembly could be even more adventurous with them, though, and have more cliffsides, steep hills, and rampant rivers across the landscape. A few too many battles are fought on empty fields with just a bunch of trees and bushes for cover, and the battles themselves haven't changed much, as you're still able to pause the action to whip the frontlines back into shape. Forests are great for hiding units and fighting cavalry at, and spell use is still governed by the fickle Winds of Magic, limiting the destructive potential of wizards.
It's basically more of the same but with new dudes, so if you like the Total War series, you'll fit right in. The feel is almost a bit too samey, and blurs the line of sequel and big DLC further. Graphically, though, the game's almost identical to the original and the user interface could still use some serious rethinking unit and spell descriptions, as they seem to offer both too much and too little information in certain cases. Multiplayer worked without a hitch during our tests, and offers more new ways of surprising your opponent with weird unit rosters than ever before. Combining this with the Warhammer's races will offer a tremendous selection for those tight 1-on-1 battles.
Now to the tough part. Total War: Warhammer II is a solid release. The campaign is new and the clear "grand prize" makes it more goal-oriented, and each of the four races feels distinct in both look and feel, offering new tactics for the battlefield, however, everything else is basically the same as it was in the first game. The user interface and the overall structure has hardly changed at all, and Warhammer II feels like a standalone expansion, but the price-tag suggests something more. The time spent playing has been enjoyable, though, so if the tax on your financials isn't oppressive and one of the four races is your favourite Warhammer Fantasy Battle troupe of all time, you won't go wrong with this one. Total War's strategy and tactics combined with Warhammer's units and world still remains a match made in heaven.