Total War: Warhammer is a rich strategy game experience, appealing to both veterans and newcomers
gameplay 96 / story 90 / graphics 92 / sound 90
Total War: Warhammer (or, as I think many of us are referring to it, Total Warhammer) is a delicious melange of The Creative Assembly’s computer strategy game mechanics and the lore and factions of Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy franchise. The timing of this computer game’s release couldn’t be better, because the table-top progenitor has been effectively decommissioned. Of course, if Total War: Warhammer was awful or even mediocre, its existence would be of little solace to displaced Warhammer Fantasy fans. But thankfully, that is not the case.
The basic structure of the game, for those unfamiliar with the Total War franchise, resembles that of Heroes of Might and Magic (HoMM) and Age of Wonders (AoW). First, players engage in turn-based management of their burgeoning empire via a world-map interface. Here they assign production to cities in under their control, engage in diplomacy and trade with other factions, and maneuver armies and heroes for defense and conquest.
When combat is initiated, players descend into the second level of the game: large-scale real-time combat. This is where Total War: Warhammer (and the TW series in general) diverges most sharply from the HoMM and AoW take on strategy gaming. This is also where the Warhammer premise for this title really asserts itself. Because these real-time battles, at times reminiscent of the scale of the venerable Cossacks games, involve armies that are tangibly different from one-another (at the time of this writing, the playable factions are Chaos Warriors, Dwarfs, Greenskins, The Empire, and Vampire Counts. A new faction – Beastmen – will soon release).
This isn’t just a re-skin of a past TW title. The Dwarfs are a substantially different faction from Vampire Counts, the Vampire Counts are substantially different from Greenskins, and these races all inherent their marked strengths and weaknesses from the table-top game.
This is part of what makes this a good Warhammer video game, a distinct take on Total War, and what encourages you to experiment with deeper strategy. For example, Vampire Counts lack the ability to field a meaningful range-unit presence in battle. On the other hand, they have fearless, and fear-inspiring units. But these units literally begin to crumble when the leadership binding them to the land of the living is routed. Qualities like these mean you really need to think about how to engage an enemy with strong range units, fast units, and/or an ability to effectively target your leaders.
Likewise, Dwarfs (my favorite faction) must be very defensive. Their stumpy legs, but incredibly powerful melee and missile forces, encourage clever use of terrain to draw a more-numerous and mobile – but less robust – opponent into combat on your terms. Taken together, the unique characteristics of the armies in Total War: Warhammer add strategic variety that really strengthens the game, and I find it invigorating trying to not only master the best strategies for your race, but the strategies that are dependent on which opponent your forces are up against.
And it must be said – excellent visual variety comes with this package as well. The individual units are lovingly crafted, well-animated, and it is a joy to zoom in and watch them engage in brutal combat.
W H A T D O Y O U DO ?
I don’t think I can cover all of the game’s mechanics. But I can provide some orientation to how the game is structured and the main mechanics that need to be juggled.
On the campaign map, a typical turn involves
1) Evaluating your income. This is critical. Fielding armies costs money each turn (or an analogous statistic; Vampire Counts use Dark Magic). Upgrades to your cities also cost money and are necessary for expanding the types of units you can build along with gaining other administrative advantages. If you don’t have enough income, consider scaling back the size of your armies, building income-generating buildings, or waging bloody war – the spoils from defeating an army or looting a city can provide a huge boon to your coffers.
2) Evaluating your populace’s “happiness”. Instability in your region, a lack of corruption (if you are Vampire Counts), too much corruption (if you are not), a weak military presence, a lack of administrative structures… these are all factors that need to be monitored to avoid rebellion (which manifests as rogue armies appearing in your territory).
3) Evaluating your diplomatic standing and goals. Diplomacy is fairly simplistic in Total War: Warhammer – by and large it involves simple military treaties, initiating trade relationships for an income bonus, and coordinating war targets with military allies. There are a few variants on these options, but for the most part you will use diplomacy to stave off war with someone until you are ready, secure lucrative trade deals, and beg for mercy or help if your back is against a wall.
4) Army movement. There’s a little bit of Chess in this – you do not want to move all of your armies North if it means exposing a juicy belly of your empire to Greenskin invaders from the South. You don’t want to send an isolated army into hostile territory if you see multiple enemy armies positioned to descend on you at once. Total War: Warhammer’s AI is fairly competent in this regard – enemy armies actively avoid being tag-teamed by your armies, and actively pursue tag-teaming yours. They also seize geographic openings to sprint deep into an undefended stretch of your territory and wreak havoc. This same comment applies to the real-time combat – the enemy is pretty good at flanking you, and you can see it actively and aggressively rearranging its troops in response to your own flanking attempts.
This is pretty impressive coding work, although sometimes the AI inexplicably falls flat in this regard. Whether this is deliberate – aimed at throwing variety into the mix – or whether this is simply the AI buckling under the weight of the game’s complexity, I cannot say. It is infrequent enough to provide for a challenging single-player game (really – on Normal and up it is very easy to get overrun and destroyed until you figure out what you are doing. If you are new to Total War, expect to either start on Easy while you learn the ropes, or to be comfortable losing as you try to get your sea legs).
In real-time combat, there are many mechanics as well. These contribute to a deep strategic experience: there are distance and elevation mechanics affecting unit visibility, speed, and the range and efficacy of projectile units. There are charging bonuses. There is fatigue. There is morale and leadership (which can cripple your units when it fails). There is magic for some factions and units: drawing on a pool of magic determined by character stats and random luck (the Winds of Magic), characters can heal, boost unit morale, strike fear, increase resistance to damage, or cast various types of offensive spells on either individual or multiple enemy units. There are large flanking bonuses, which also carry over into running down fleeing troops.
All in all, there are too many mechanics to cover (did I mention attrition, unit healing, tress-passing penalties? Hero actions against territories and units? No?). For the purpose of this review, let it suffice to say that there is an incredibly deep and rewarding strategy experience to be had. Importantly, most of the mechanics work together extremely well. There were some quirks that were promptly fixed in the first patch, and there are probably more to address, but by and large it has been a smooth launch.
My biggest complaint with the mechanics is that due to the scale of the battles, it is very easy to lose control over how all of the mechanics are interacting once combat gets underway. When there are multiple armies and lords on the field, it simply isn’t possible to monitor and implement all the potential bonuses and spells with maximum efficiency. This means you will take losses that you know you could have avoided if you had been able to pause and micromanage every aspect of the battlefield (note: you can pause at lower difficulty levels). But this is an exercise in “letting go” that every general must surely face. Unfortunately, since the AI is imperfect, you can’t trust your troops to make the best decisions when your attention is elsewhere (sometimes they won’t even engage with an enemy in front of them once their last foe was defeated unless you tell them to…).
This brings me to…
Q U E S T I O N A B L E Q U A L I T I E S
- We’ve covered the AI. It is very good. About as good as I would expect, to be honest. But sometimes it lets you down, yielding a too-easy victory or resulting in units scratching themselves when lacking your guidance.
- We’ve covered the complexity of juggling the mechanics in combat. It’s largely a good and intended challenge rooted in the game’s design, but there are times – particularly when combined with small AI issues – where you may wish you either had less to worry about or had an ability to slow things down and sort everything out.
- Another combat-related complaint is that sieges are too simplistic. You cannot surround a city, even in cases where its position on the campaign map makes this an obvious option. The variety and strategic complexity of sieges would be dramatically improved by implementing this. As it stands, sieges comprise 1) waiting a couple of turns on the campaign map for wall/gate busting equipment to be built, 2) positioning your troops in what is an artificial corridor aimed at one wall of the city, and 3) engaging in normal combat with the only addition being a need to breach the wall.
- In online multiplayer, you are limited to two player campaign mode. I’ve read justifications for this in online forums (turns take too long, etc), but the fact is games like Age of Wonders 3 let you choose to subject yourself to that if you want it, and my friends and I definitely want it. Note: you can engage in custom standalone battles with more players.
- Perhaps the most glaring flaw in the game is not one of mechanics or quality. It is clear that the game was built for DLC, and in the short time since it has been released the Early Bird bonus race, Chaos Warriors, has already reverted to paid DLC, a DLC pack adding blood to combat has been introduced (c’mon, this should be free. No question about that), and a new race has already been announced for purchase (Beastmen). If you scrutinize the campaign map, there is clearly an artificial void where Wood Elves should be, so it seems extremely likely we will be paying for them soon as well. That being said, the game is a wholly fulfilling experience without any of these DLC. Given that there is EASILY $60 worth of fun in the base game, it is hard to dock too many points for this. But it remains a clear negative, especially when some of the DLC should probably be free and others could probably be bundled into a larger and more cost-vs-content friendly expansion pack.
I S I T W O R T H I T ?
There are some quirks with the game’s AI, and some balancing issues are being tweaked (a clear example early adopters could point to is the substantial improvement made to the Vampire Counts healing/resurrection spell Invocation of Nehek with the first patch).
- But this game’s mechanics are deep and the races are nuanced and distinct. This engenders thoughtful and strategic gameplay and encourages thinking several moves ahead both on the campaign map and on the battlefield.
- The graphics are quite good, especially for the scope of the game. It is surprisingly optimized. Mid-range PCs can max every setting at 1080p and still provide smooth gameplay in enormous battles (I am playing on a Skylake i5-6500, 8GB DDR4, a GTX 970, a 7200rpm WD HDD, and Windows 10 Pro).
- There is no meaningful story to the campaign mode, and the diplomatic options are deliberately straightforward. Any more fluff in these areas would get in the way of the tight, streamlined Warhammer-themed experience that this game delivers.
- The game is challenging in all the right ways. I don’t think I have experienced any negative outcomes that felt unfair. When I lose, it is because of my failings as a strategist, and when I win it can almost always be traced back to the good decisions that I have made.
- Perhaps most importantly, it is FUN. It’s difficult to attribute this to any one feature of the game, but it has that magic “just one more turn!” feeling to it. If you are a fan of strategy games, it is a distinct risk that you will find yourself looking up from your keyboard to discover it is 3AM on a work night, and your wife is in the bedroom filing divorce papers instead of sleeping.
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