The Lizardmen were always a fun race to command when playing tabletop Warhammer, but for some inexplicable reason, their inclusion as a launch race in Total War: Warhammer II didn't particularly raise our excitement for the game. That, however, is no longer the case, after we took control of them during a hands-on demo at Creative Assembly's offices in Horsham.
Just watching Kroq-Gar marching into battle, riding on the back of a fearsome-looking Carnosaur as it plodded in the wake of dozens of scaled warriors, was enough to instantly draw us into the moment. This is certainly one of the most eye-catching Warhammer armies to date. And then, when the two forces engaged, crashing together like a cold-blooded wave hitting a bristling metallic shore, the results, well, they were nothing short of spectacular.
Dinosaurs-with-magic is the elevator pitch for this Amazonian-inspired reptilian race, and it's apt. There were lizards of all shapes and sizes on display, from rank and file Saurus Warriors clutching more traditional melee weapons and dart-blowing Skinks designed to skirmish on the fringes of battle, to Kroq-Gar riding his magnificently terrible lizard through the heart of his enemy's battle line, supported by Stegadon artillery units firing "Aztec space lasers" from range, and ankylosaurus-like tanks that charge into packed groups of soldiers and thrash their clubbed tails left and right. It's so far removed from the ranks of uniformed Roman infantry that the studio is best known for, that it puts even more distance between CA's past historical works and this new fantasy-themed frontline.
There are, for each race, two possible starting factions, each one under the command of a new Legendary Lord. This means there are going to be eight potential places to start your campaign in Warhammer II, and the personalities and abilities of the eight Legendary Lords should differentiate the way they play beyond the units they command and the relative positives and negatives of the local geography where they start. This all-new map - which intersects with that of the original game and that will, after launch, get a second mega-campaign that utilises both - is a rough allegory of the Americas, with the Lizardmen playing the role of local residents, able to connect lay lines that enhance their powers when linked.
At the time of writing, there are three races confirmed. The Lizardmen that we so enjoyed playing with will be lining up against High Elves, Dark Elves, and a still unannounced fourth race. The general plot, which we've covered in more detail here, has all four races fighting over The Great Vortex, a brooding eyesore that dominates the skyline, a blackened tornado conjured by the Elves and which stops Chaos hordes from descending on Ulthuan. Of course, if you prefer, you can ignore much of the story and focus on more traditional map painting, but for those who enjoy plot twists and quest chains, it sounds like there's going to be plenty to do.
Ignoring for now the eye-catching animations of some of the heavy Lizardmen units, the thing that most impressed us during our look at Warhammer II was the way that CA is building even more narrative into their campaigns, and the multiple perspectives and different starting points here should provide variety for those who play through it multiple times. Each respective faction will be racing to take control of The Great Vortex, and each will have to complete a series of arcane objectives to claim the prize before the rest. Sandbox freedom is still important for the series, but increasing emphasis on narrative is giving this fantasy spin-off series much-needed personality.
Much of the personality comes from the races and their asymmetry. Once again CA has built unique armies with bespoke units, and in many respects, they look polar opposites. We only played the demo with the Lizardmen, but our High Elf opponents - complete with a dragon - looked and felt very different, even if we were only able to sample the pointy ends of their swords this time around. For now, the focus was very much on the Lizardmen.
The demo we played, a Quest battle plucked from Kroq-Gar's quest-chain, had two difficulty settings. Our mission was to march our reptilian force up the steps of an Aztec-like temple to the Fallen Gates, fighting back its elven defenders across three distinct layers of defence. During our first attempt, we easily secured the bridge at the base of the steps, before advancing up and through both sections of the opposing army. When playing on hard difficulty, the swollen ranks of the High Elf army and their elevated positions were much harder to displace, and our reinforcements weren't enough to punch through and secure our objective. Even the abilities of our general, who could both heal a unit of choice (always himself, in our case) and call down lightning strikes, weren't enough to turn the tide.
There were all sorts of interesting little narratives emerging on the battlefield. The battle between the elven dragon and our Carnosaur-riding general felt climactic; winged reinforcements in the form of Terradon Riders flew in towards the battle's end to provide flanking support; a new cooldown battle ability that let us drop units anywhere on the battlefield allowed us to both set up our own hammer and anvil traps and pull the enemy line out of shape with diversionary attacks before the larger force hit; elven mages on chariots clattered into and routed our flanks; heavy units charged into packed enemy battle lines and sent troops flying in every direction; and angered beasts went on an involuntary "rampage" on the battlefield, throwing a dash of unpredictability into the mix.
The battlefield looks busier and more spectacular than ever before, helped no end by cinematic camera angles in the build up to battle, gorgeous environments that host the action, and unit animations that look really, really good (we found ourselves replaying the demo and swooping in with the camera to check out the action from different perspectives).
We really liked Total War: Warhammer, and this sequel looks to be an improvement on what we've already seen, with even more story woven into the campaign, unique races (and, within those, Legendary Lords adding extra variety), new features across both the campaign map and in battle, and a plethora of general refinements. Emboldened by the feedback received from the first game, CA is returning with something that looks bigger and bolder and more narratively assured. As for the Lizardmen, they look and feel great, and this dino-themed army will no doubt be the first pick for plenty of players when they first sit down with the game when it launches on PC later this year.