It's a bold move, adding fantasy to what's traditionally a historical themed franchise. As luck would have it, The Creative Assembly knew what they were doing. The resulting Total War: Warhammer energises the series in an unprecedented fashion.
Total War is a veteran game series by any measurement. The first game (Shogun: Total War) came out back in 2000 and has since spawned nine more, with specific focus ranging from medieval era to gunpowder-based warfare. But never have they veered away from a strictly historical context. The tenth entry in the series changes this and much more. Games Workshop's popular Warhammer universe integrates smoothly and naturally into the dual-gameplay format of Total War. The campaign map is still full of war, strife and conquest, but now it comes with new mechanics. Tactical battles, with their hundreds or thousands of troops, get their share of innovations too, with magic and flying units changing the dynamic of the battlefield.
The first culture shock strikes as we start a new campaign. Previously players could choose between tens of different cultures (of which many were just slight variations of their neighbors), but now you only get four. The fifth wasn't available in the review version. Empire is the balanced option, offering pikes, swords and bows with a selection of cavalry (both horse and hippogriff) to boot. Magic comes in many forms, from the fireball-flinging Bright Wizard to the troop-boosting Celestial one. These heroes can move either with the army or independently, harassing enemies or sabotaging city defences. You also have a selection of more traditional hero units, like Witch Hunters and the like, who can assassinate commanders or wage war in hand-to-hand combat. The Empire also has access to Steam tanks, which can really ruin your day if you're on the receiving end of one of their attacks.
Orks are the race of choice for those fancying a wild and free lifestyle. They can amass a tremendous number of troops with low upkeep as long as you keep them fighting. Their tech tree is limited and aside from the funny Goblin Doom Diver, offers little in terms of siege warfare or flying units. Orks excel in close combat, but they do have a range of specialised units as well, from spider-riding archers to wolf-driven chariots. Their magic is powerful but unpredictable. If you can whip up a big enough army into WAAAGH, you get an extra computer-controlled "side army" of random troops to help. This army can contain some of the most powerful ork units in the game from giants to massive Arachnarok spiders. If the works troops are left standing around to defend, they'll quickly begin squabbling amongst themselves and suffer attrition penalties as a result.
Dwarfs (not dwarves, mind you) are the polar opposite to frenzied Orks. The lords of underground halls have a big technology tree with a selection of powerful cannons and even helicopters to employ. Dwarf units are expensive to train, but are hard to break on the battlefield. They also have no cavalry, which makes chasing retreating units pretty much impossible. Like Orks, they can travel underground on the campaign map to bypass obstacles. If caught by an enemy army, the resulting below ground battle will be fought to the death with no chance of surrender or fleeing. Travel the tunnels at your own peril.
The vampire-led undead are also unique on the campaign map and in battle. Their most heinous ability might be their vampiric corruption, which slowly spreads into nearby towns and cities. If you don't act quickly, a corrupted populace will first become discontent and then revolt, flipping the city to its new vampiric masters. Vampires also field possibly the most devastating range of magic spells and the ability to bring back the dead on command. Undead armies also reinforce themselves automatically on the campaign map. If the reinforcement happens on a famous battle site, the quality of the returning dead is improved.
But it's not all fine and dandy for the undead. Their morale is rebranded into "binding", which refers to the magical bond between the lord and his troops. If the bond weakens as a result of poor battle progress, the undead don't flee but instead simply turn to dust. Good luck trying to get them back up with a morale-boosting horn blow. The undead also have no ranged archer units.
The fifth race of Chaos is supposed to be free to pre-orders or for those who've bought the game within the first week after release. Unfortunately, they weren't available in the review version aside from quick battles and even there only for the AI to command. They're a force of nature during the campaign with a strong presence in the north, but we didn't get to play the campaign with these spiked warriors in black armour due to review copy restrictions. Chaos fields a similar corruption mechanic to vampires with destabilising effect on the nearby cities. The troops reflect those of the Empire or Bretons, albeit with deformed chaos units and iconic Chosen.
The Bretonnians are also in the campaign and quick play, but plans for controlling them during the former are unknown. Their style is very much influenced by the medieval knight tradition of France with focus on heavy cavalry. All the races are unique and full of personality, in stark contrast to some of the near carbon-copy troops of previous Total War games. They require different play-styles and tactics to be successful. It's then obvious that we're very excited about the prospect of (paid?) downloadable content with more races.
The campaign is better carved out than we've seen before, and has more fantasy elements such as missions to complete. The followers are still there, gathering around a successful general as previously, but you can also equip him with more varied gear to boost melee damage, leadership etc. or even give your leader some new abilities (like spells). The new Quest Battles offer more directed opportunities to duke it out against preset armies with the hopes of winning unique loot for your selected general. This loot might be a unique war axe or a flying mount, for example. You can select one of the two generals to lead your faction, each with their own Quest Battles and unique items.
Flying units are the biggest disruption to the age-old rock-paper-scissors formula. The empire gets Pegasus Knights and the general's griffon, both able to wreak havoc on enemy flying units or touch down to charge ground troops. Orcs are not that interested in the aerial combat, but one of their generals does get a nifty wyvern mount as a Quest Battle reward. Dwarfs rely on gyrocopters to rain down death and destruction from above. The undead have a wide assortment of flying units to close the gap of missing out on archers. They have weak bat swarms to harass siege engines or to scout as well as massive terrorgheists to decimate the opponent. These fear-inducing units can rout enemy units just with their presence.
Flying units open up the gameplay and the battlemap in a new way. Leaving archers and cannons alone is a risky proposition especially against a vampiric army. Generals can lead the battle from above, providing moral support in a hurry to the weary troops below. The ability to fling chain lightning off a Pegasus makes wizards a force to be reckoned with.
Spells and magic are something completely new to Total War. The developers have claimed that their impact should be felt, but not massively so. Even the most powerful and mana-consuming spells won't turn the tide on their own, but can nudge the fight to a certain outcome. The selection consists of direct-damage spells like fireballs or vortex-type magic, and they can boost troops or debuff them. Some are a sight to behold while others are symbolised by a glitter-effect around the unit and a somewhat boring percentage increase to certain attributes. You can also cast an enhanced version of a spell with an added mana cost and the possibility of backfire. As with the table-top, your mana pool is determined by the fickle winds of magic, so the effectiveness of your spellcasters varies from battle to battle. As game balance goes, magic plays second fiddle to troop quality and tactics. We could've handled a bit more potent spellcasting, but that's probably a feature to be added later via mod support.
As we've played several Total War preview, review and release builds, we're glad to say Warhammer is technically sound. It crashed only twice during the tens of hours of playing and even then on a highly specific situation where we zoomed in quickly during a battle with max speed setting on. The AI seems to react smarter to skirmishing tactics and doesn't allow itself to be bombed in a crater by way of long-range artillery. The internet will surely come up with effective offensive and defensive strategies, but nothing as catastrophic as Rome II's "Siege AI" came to pass. The game runs on High to Ultra settings on the review PC with no noticeable frame drops. Loading times between campaign map and battles were an issue at first with the game installed on a normal HDD, but evaporated as we moved the installation to an SSD. What felt like two-three minutes was reduced into a mere ten to fifteen seconds.
As per usual, this Total War is more detailed than the last. The units carry a lot more personality this time due to the Warhammer licence and its broad selection of units to choose from. It's no longer a squabble between 29 variations of sword+shield troops. Voice acting is also more prominent with soldiers muttering and shouting in response to your commands. The goblin squads are especially hilarious. Actors carry out their roles with the overblown grandeur that we've come to expect from a Warhammer title. The game has a huge selection of maps and landscapes to do battle on, ranging from snow-peaked mountains to dwarfen halls deep underground. Many of them are sadly rather devoid of obstacles and major features within the playable areas. Tactics are often elevated by a suitable map with natural bottlenecks, archer positions, and forests to hide in.
The biggest oversight in the graphics department is the complete lack of blood (and gore). The decision is probably due to age rating, but has a surprisingly large impact on the "feel" of the battle during closeups. If a giant bites a halberdier in half, we expect to see a bit of red to come out. The animations are all there, but the omission of blood makes everything look a bit off. There's bound to be a Blood & Gore update at some point and we sincerely hope it's a free one.
We've very much enjoyed the ease with which Warhammer has been introduced to Total War. It has revitalised the slightly worn series in the right places, but without damaging the core gameplay. Total War: Warhammer is still Total War, so veterans don't need to fret about flying units or magic destroying 16 years of proud (simulated) military tradition. The review version was technically solid. The campaign difficulty was bit on the tougher end of the spectrum, with early aggression from all sides, but that's something Creative Assembly has said they're looking into for the final release version. If the remaining content is patched in for the final release and CA doesn't break the game with it, we're going to get one splendid Total War game straight out the gate.