I think the idea of transplanting the Total War mechanics into Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy universe has been around almost exactly as long as Total War itself has. And for good reason since the tabletop version of Warhammer involves models grouped into units precisely as Total War’s are, and also has most of the same core mechanics like unit type counters, flank attacks and morale; it seems like it’s practically a 1:1 fit that would be very hard to screw up. What a lot of people forget, though, is that it’s been tried before, and the main reason nobody really remembers Mark of Chaos (apart from the perfect intro) is because it wasn’t very good. It is possible to do Warhammer with Total War-esque mechanics and fail, so the Creative Assembly’s job is doubly difficult: not only do they have to get the gameplay right, but they also have to redeem themselves after the fuckup of Rome 2 by releasing it in a state that’s playable at launch.
After 25 hours with Total War: Warhammer, I am pleased to report they’ve succeeded on both counts. Mostly, anyway.
First let’s dispense with the elephant in the room that tends to start trumpeting mournfully when it comes to modern Total War games: Rome 2 was an absolute disaster and fully deserved the kicking it got three years ago. It was a technical and mechanical mess from start to finish and for the most part didn’t even qualify as a fully functioning game on launch. Given that, I was somewhat astounded to discover that Total Warhammer is probably the most stable Total War game I have played. Ever. I haven’t had a single crash, framerates are smooth even with thousands of men on the screen at once, both the strategic and battle map AI works like a charm and is actually threatening (to be fair the strategic map AI gets a lot of help, but I’ll talk about that later), and they’ve even managed to cage the eternal bugbear that’s plagued every Total War since the original Rome: no longer do you have to have a book handy for when you hit the “End Turn” button, as the AI factions whip through their turns in a matter of seconds rather than a matter of minutes. They’ve had three years and one additional game (Attila) to work on the engine, but that work has paid off: it almost never got in the way of my enjoying the game, and for a Total War game that’s high praise indeed.
Total War: Warhammer is the first Total War game to completely depart from its historical settings to embrace a made-up fantasy one; this is a treat in several ways, as it lets the Creative Assembly’s designers do things they simply haven’t been able to do before as they were held back by pesky restrictions such as the real world not actually having any vampires or giant spiders in it, and it’s also pleasant to see the return of the classic Warhammer Fantasy setting after Games Workshop dropped a nuke on it several years back1. The particular part of the Warhammer setting that Total Warhammer picks for its campaign map is the Old World and surrounding territories, and the core of the Old World is the Empire, which is a fantasy version of the 15th century Holy Roman Empire; they don’t get any Landsknecht, but they do get Doppelsoldners (although they’re just called Greatswords here) complete with puffy hat, along with the best cavalry and artillery in the game. Surrounding the Empire are a bunch of other fantasy pastiches of historical and mythical civilizations: to the south-east there’s the Bretonnians, a faction based around the 12th century chivalric ideal of France spliced together with Arthurian legend; to the far south lie Tilea and Estalia, who are 14th century Italian city-states and medieval Spain respectively. To the north are a bunch of dick Viking northmen who just love to raid the Empire, and sandwiched between the Empire and the Chaos Wastes to the far north-east is Kislev, who are Poland + Russia circa Ivan the Terrible.
In Total Warhammer all of these factions — save for the Empire, which is a special case — are minor non-playable factions. Nevertheless they serve to provide a lot of flavour that I’ve found the strictly historical variants of Total War have lacked; with the possible exception of Medieval and the first Rome, most factions in Total War games are pretty much identical, with only a few special units to distinguish them from the competition. They certainly didn’t have anything like the character that the Warhammer races do; not all of them get their own unit trees (Bretonnia does, but the Norsemen use what looks like a variant of the Chaos units and Estalia simply steals the Empire’s) but their cities and provinces do at least have their own distinct appearances on the campaign map. It’s thanks largely to this that the campaign level of Warhammer avoids feeling like a simple reskin of Medieval or Rome despite this part of the game being the closest like-for-like matching between the two properties — the underlying mechanics are probably 90% Total War, but it still successfully captures the character of Warhammer.
This is massively helped along by an extremely clever thing Total Warhammer does: instead of giving you a choice between four indistinguishable Celtic factions or three identical Roman factions, it cuts the number of playable factions right down to just five. I’m a firm believer in the idea that a key part of good design is having the courage to cut features if they’re not working, since to retain them will merely dilute development effort; I’m also a firm believer that having 10+ playable factions in previous Total War games was a huge waste of time since most of them weren’t distinctive enough to merit separate playthroughs. The Warhammer universe certainly has enough races to support that approach if the CA had decided to do it again, but by choosing to limit their scope to the Old World they already cut out a couple of the more exotic factions like Lizardmen and Tomb Kings — as well as all variants of Elves, and the fact that it’s only just occurred to me now that they’re not in the game shows how much I missed them — and by making most of the factions in the Old World AI-only they’ve made a conscious decision to try and focus all of their effort on making the five that they do have as different as possible. That’s a decision that pays off in spades; usually I do just one or two playthroughs of a Total War game and then assume that I’ve seen most of what the game has to offer, but in Total Warhammer’s case I plan to eventually play all five because they each have their own distinctive playstyle and unit roster. And because these are different races rather than different nations those differences can be played up to the nines; instead of the enemy fielding a unit of cavalry that is identical to yours apart from wearing a slightly different pair of trousers, the enemy cavalry is instead a group of enraged green orcs on slavering warboars. Or classic medieval knights riding war gryphons. Or undead ghost horses. Doing this sort of thing properly takes a huge amount of time, which is why Total Warhammer’s choice to “only” have five playable factions is so smart: not only does it let them do it properly, but because they do it properly the replayability of the game is actually massively increased instead of the other way around.
So who are the playable races of Total Warhammer? Well, the “good” guys of the setting are the Empire and the Dwarfs. These are the races that, on the campaign map, play most like a traditional Total War faction; their gameplay is based around taking and holding settlements and teching up both your economy and your units. The Dwarfs occupy the mountain ranges to the south and south-west of the Empire and have the heaviest focus on economy and technology; their armies are completely without cavalry and their units don’t move very quickly, but they practically never break and even their missile troops have a reasonable level of close-combat ability. And because they are dwarfs they have a lot of missile troops; you can’t approach a dwarf battle line without exposing yourself to a massive gunline. Their actual close-combat troops are horrors to face, as a lot of them have specific traits that make them effective against precisely the sort of monstrous troop type that you’d hope would finally break their formation. It is possible to eventually break a Dwarf army, but you’re not going to manage it without paying an expensive price first. The Dwarfs form a natural barrier between the Empire and the Greenskin tribes (i.e. Orcs) further south, so the first hundred turns of a Dwarf game is probably going to be spent locked in a bitter war with their natural enemy.
The Empire themselves are an interesting-spin on bog-standard humans; they have the units you’d expect — swordsmen, spearmen, halberdiers, knights — as well as more specialised/powerful variants and war machines, but the Empire is more of a confederation of city-states than it is one monolithic entity and this is reflected on the campaign map: each of the 15-odd provinces of the Empire is split into its own sub-faction and the Empire starts the game in a state of civil war, so things can get pretty chaotic pretty quickly. If you’re playing the Empire you have to convince the other provinces to join with you — and the nice thing about this is that the victory conditions don’t care how you do it. You can try and conquer the entire thing, you can vassalise the other Empire lords or form military alliances with them, or — if you send them enough money first — you can send them an offer for Confederation, which if accepted will cause all of that lord’s provinces and armies to join you peacefully at the cost of a diplomatic penalty with any remaining Empire lords. The Empire has less of a focus on technology, and what technologies it does have are dependent on particular buildings existing in your provinces; the Empire’s thing is economy above all else, and if built right they can bring in truly ridiculous amounts of money if they can just unite the warring factions and smack down anyone trying to raid or sack their cities.
To the southeast of the Empire lies the twin provinces of Sylvania, which are home to the Vampire Counts: this isn’t quite your classic undead faction as they mostly rely on monstrous slavering bat-things to do most of their actual damage, with the zombies, skeletons etc being used as entirely disposable chaff to tie up enemy forces while you maneuver your damage dealers around into the enemy flanks or rear — zombie units do fuck all damage and will be lucky to get even a couple of kills in a fight, but if you field enough of them to cover the flanks (and because they’re so cheap you will be fielding enough of them) they’ll last long enough to let your other units do their thing. They’re basically the Peasants from Medieval, except made actually useful by two of the Vampire faction gimmicks. One is that undead units do not break. Ever. They’re soulless horrors animated by death magic, so they don’t have a proper morale value and therefore cannot be routed from the field. Instead their morale is used to gauge how strong the magic binding them together is; all of the things that would normally affect morale affect binding, and if an undead unit’s binding reaches critical levels they’ll start to crumble and disintegrate instead of running. This means that your cheap cannon fodder gets wiped out a lot but they’ll hold the line to the last zombie, and of course the nice thing about all of your troops being undead is that if you win the battle you’ve just created a big pool of new recruits; this is reflected in the other Vampire gimmick, which is their ability to immediately raise basic skeleton and zombie units without any build time — and if you do it at the site of a big battle and a commensurately large pile of corpses you get access to more advanced unit types.
Other units the Vampires have access to: ghouls, Grave Guard (essentially armoured skeletons that are actually good in a fight), ghost cavalry, Dire Wolves, and a lot of monstrous units, some of which fly. A word about monstrous units in Total Warhammer: every unit now has a displayed HP value, and instead of having 5000HP spread out amongst ninety spearmen the monsters have 5000-6000 HP concentrated into nine units – or just one. This makes them difficult to put down and they do a lot of damage (as well as often causing terror amongst units they’re facing) but they cost a lot in terms of upkeep and there’s a fair range of units that have specific Anti-Large traits such as the Empire Halberdiers, so it’s not a good idea to go all-in on monsters. Anyway, the final Vampire faction trait is that they spread Vampiric Corruption in territories they control. Vampiric Corruption is good for the Vampires and bad for everyone who isn’t the Vampires, as a high level of corruption will give any non-Vampire province a substantial penalty to Public Order, and raising the corruption level above 50% will also cause any mortal armies in that territory to suffer constant attrition. This means taking territories from the Vampires is super-difficult as even if you successfully storm a settlement you have to leave a large garrison force there to maintain order and purge the corruption, slowing down your advance. Unfortunately for the Vampires their Corruption works both ways; if the Vampires try to take a territory that has a low level of Vampiric Corruption it is them who will suffer the attrition and the public order penalty. This makes slow expansion the order of the day; you need to spend time raising the Corruption level of neighbouring provinces with agents and buildings before the undead hordes can move on.
I can’t speak much as to how the Orcs play; my playthroughs so far have been as the Empire and the Vampires, and so I haven’t had much contact with them. They seem to rely on strong characters and strength in numbers; their boar cavalry is also a massive pain the ass. As you’d expect, they’re advertised as having limited diplomacy and technology/economy options and they have to constantly fight other factions to maintain public order. Chaos on the other hand I have seen a lot of since they’re basically the big boss of the campaign. Chaos doesn’t have settlements and instead recycles the horde mechanic from Attila, where each army is a self-sufficient whole and can periodically encamp to replace losses and build new units. Since they have no use for settlements they’ll just raze any city they capture to the ground — in fact I’ve seen more city razings in Total Warhammer than I have every other Total War combined, since settlements now have a faction affinity. The Empire and Vampire Counts can take any “human” settlement (that includes humans under the thrall of the undead). The Dwarfs and the Orcs can take the underground settlements they both seem to love so much. However, Dwarfs cannot take and occupy Vampire Count settlements and vice versa; all they can do is sack them or raze them to the ground, which makes the latter the only effective way to put their economy behind permanently. The AI will raze any settlement it doesn’t have a use for. You’ll quickly find yourself doing it too, and the Old World soon begins to look like a complete wreck littered with burned-out ruins. Fortunately you can re-colonise a wrecked settlement if you’re of the right racial affinity, although you’ll have to rebuild it from scratch, and the AI will start to get in on this action in the late-game so things do get built back up again. It does smack of a slightly artificial way to get factions fighting their natural enemies over the settlements they can actually occupy — Orcs vs Dwarfs, Empire vs Vampire Counts — but it’s undeniably effective at doing that and promotes a lot of interesting tactical decisions as to how you extend your reach into territory that you can’t colonise. It’s also terrifying to see the northern cities gradually crumble under the Chaos advance — in neither of my games have I managed to meet Kislev, as Kislev has been put to the torch by the Chaos hordes long before I can get an army up there. You can gauge how well they’re doing just by looking at the wreckage through the fog of war.
As befits the setting, Total Warhammer is far more character driven than any previous Total War game. Each faction gets a Legendary Lord to lead it — for the Empire it’s Emperor Karl Franz, for the Vampires it’s Vampire Lord Mannfred von Carstein — each with their own unique skill tree and set of quests. These quests are essentially scripted battles against a tough opponent; if you win you get an appropriately awesome piece of equipment that you can attach to your Lord to boost his stats. Armies must now be led by a Lord, and while you can recruit bog standard Lords at any time they become increasingly more expensive in terms of upkeep; factor in the considerable costs of unit upkeep at the same time and you’ll find yourself only being able to support two armies at most at the start of the game, leading to lots of tricky decisions about where to commit your forces; as the Empire I was very aware that sending an army to Averheim would leave me wide open to invasion by my mortal enemies in Middenland, should they decide to choose that moment to attack, while my game as the Vampire Counts had me razing a string of Orcish strongholds to create a buffer zone that would let me expand north without worrying about having to watch my back too much. Each faction sports the usual array of agents, and one of the great changes Total Warhammer makes is that these characters will fight alongside the armies they’re embedded into as hero units. All named characters get their own skill tree and inventory, and so you end up with these rather nice groups of heroes leading armies throughout the campaign — my main Empire army was led by Karl Franz, an Empire Captain called Ulric the Stickler who had his skill points split into training/recruiting units and being a sick close combat machine, and Jimothius the Warrior Priest who was tagging along for his healing/anti-attrition skills. Embedded characters do take up a unit slot so you’re not getting anything for free, but they’re well worth the investment as long as you don’t go overboard.
Unfortunately while agents do have a lot of awesome points now they also bring me to the first negative one I have with the game: anything about them that’s been introduced to tie in with the new Warhammer mechanics is usually a good idea, but unfortunately they’ve been built on top of the Rome 2 agent system which was an absolute shitshow, and when you get down to it Total Warhammer is no different. All agents have 8-10 different abilities. Some of them are passive. Some of them are active. Some only work in enemy provinces. Some only work in your provinces. Crucially, a lot of them seem to overlap, meaning it’s not always clear as to why I want e.g. a Witch Hunter over a Warrior Priest. Certainly everyone can assassinate everyone else, which means a return to the bad old days where the only answer to enemy agents is to spam an equal or greater number of agents of your own at them. The computer is absolutely shameless about how it cheats with agents; it will spawn them into existence despite not having the buildings required to recruit them and it will use them every single turn it can despite each active ability use having a price tag attached to it. The base chance of e.g. a sabotage ability succeeding is actually quite low now, but that doesn’t matter to the AI; it’ll just try again and again until it works. Even if you send in agents specialised in assassination to clean out AI agents it’ll take several turns of trying as this only raises the odds of success to around 30-35% — and even if you succeed this will only provide temporary respite as that 35% chance is split into 5% chance of assassination, 30% chance of wounding. I gave up trying to manage them when my Witch Hunter assassin got outright killed by NPC agents he’d only been able to wound. I don’t know who at the Creative Assembly still thinks this is a fun system to deal with because I haven’t seen a single person who agrees with them; it’s really telling that one of the first mods to appear for Total Warhammer is an “only passive agent abilities” mod, and I’d say it’s absolutely required if you want to save yourself a ton of annoyance on the campaign map.
I have similar problems with the campaign map army AI, in that it will simply run away if it doesn’t think it can win a battle. Since all armies have the same movement range, this means that you’ll only catch them if you have multiple armies working together to pin them down or you get lucky with an Ambush action. This behaviour is bearable when you’re fighting a faction that has settlements you can take and destroy in lieu of killing the actual army, but it’s a huge problem when you’re fighting Chaos (who don’t have settlements) or one of the raiding Norsca factions whose settlements are really difficult to even get to, let alone destroy. They’ll spawn multiple stacks and make hit-and-run attacks to raze settlements and you just won’t be able to bring them to battle, especially since you probably don’t have all that many armies to commit to the task. It’s immensely frustrating to chase a single Skarland stack across the entire length of the Empire knowing that the moment you stop it’ll just turn around and beeline for any settlement it thinks is vulnerable. It might be the smartest way for the AI to play these factions, but it is most decidedly not fun.
The worst thing about this is that Chaos are allied with the Norsca factions and they coordinate their attacks in scripted waves that turn up every 20-odd turns past turn 40. Ordinarily this would throw an interesting spanner in the works as the world gradually bands together to fight the Chaos threat (as you get big diplomatic bonuses while the invasion in ongoing); in practice it works out to tying up most of your armies playing kiss chase across the northern wastelands. The one epic battle with Chaos I had was the final invasion wave against four full stacks led by named heroes; I repelled them with five stacks of my own in a titanic battle that ended up as a Pyrrhic Victory and shattered my armies, and it was only by merging the survivor units that I got enough unit cohesion to hunt down the fleeing remnants of the enemy before they regrouped. I wish the entire invasion had been like that, rather than this weird gamey bullshit the campaign map AI turns it into.
It’s so weird to me that so many good decisions could be made in adapting the Warhammer IP to fit Total War (and vice versa) and yet these stupid pain points — some of which have been around since Rome 2 — make it through into the finished product. There’s some definite flab in the rest of the game, sure, but nothing that’s quite as detrimental to my enjoyment as how the campaign map AI abuses the fact that it is an AI and has infinite patience for all of this fiddly bullshit that drives a human player nuts. Still, it’s not enough to stop me from calling this the best Total War since Fall of the Samurai, and the only reason it’s “since” instead of “ever” is because they’re doing very different things; Total Warhammer is carving out space in a whole new area for the series and it’s doing it really really well, albeit with a few bumps and niggles along the way. There’s a vast amount of stuff I just haven’t talked about because this review is already at 4000 words, but I think probably the best compliment I can pay Total Warhammer is this: after I completed the campaign objectives as the Empire I kept on playing. I never do that with strategy games, but I did it here because I felt like there was still more to do and see in the game. I hadn’t been to Bretonnia. Hadn’t really fought the Greenskins. Wanted to battle my way into the snowy wastes of the north and burn all of the fucking Norsca settlements to the ground in revenge for all the hassle they gave me. And once I am done with the Empire game there’s still the Vampire Counts game to finish and the Dwarfs and Orcs to tackle. Each of them will show me a whole different facet of the game; 25 hours in and I’ve barely scratched the surface. That’s the Total War I know and (used to) love; flabby in some places and decidedly uneven in others, but engrossing nevertheless and something that scratches the strategic itch in a way that nothing else really can.
- If you don’t follow this sort of thing: flagging sales of the fantasy variant of Warhammer (at least in comparison to its sci-fi cousin Warhammer 40k) caused Games Workshop to reboot the setting by essentially blowing everything up and killing everyone in it. Since the old setting was chock-full of thirty years of gothic character and the new setting reads like really bad fanfiction about a bunch of faceless robo-men, this went down about as well as you’d expect with the players. Still, I can’t complain too much; I don’t think there’s anyone who believes Games Workshop would have given the green light to Total Warhammer if they still sold models for the old setting, as they’d see it as competition. ↩