I’ve been a Warhammer lover for years. Admittedly, my love of Games Workshop’s flagship tabletop games started when I saw a friend playing Dawn of War at the local scout hut, but from the hundreds and hundreds of hours I spent on that game came a true love for tabletop miniatures and the detail of GW’s worlds emerged. Though I started with the 40K setting in a video game, I soon looked into the “fantasy version” of the game.
In turn, I eventually came across Warhammer: Mark of Chaos (2006); another RTS based on the original Warhammer tabletop game – Warhammer Fantasy Battle – and so I had a gateway drug into that world too! – A dark, gritty fantasy setting, drawing inspiration from European history, Tolkien and Moorcock.
Whilst Mark of Chaos was a good general introduction to the setting, it received a lot of criticism from fans regarding its overall gameplay, its deviation from the setting and some pretty misleading marketing. It wasn’t massively successful and only received one sequel in 2008 before disappearing; since then, Warhammer seemed to disappear from the RTS scene, despite it being the most obvious genre for the setting. Yes, in recent year we’ve seen other Warhammer-based games; Blood Bowl, Warhammer Online, Mordheim and Vermintide, but none of them ever really felt like the tabletop game. None felt EPIC enough.
Then Warhammer: Total War appeared; and by god, I’m surprised no-one thought of it earlier. As you can imagine, rather than being its own complete gaming franchise like the celebrated Dawn of War, Warhammer: Total War is simply a Warhammer-themed entry in the Total War series; another celebrated British creation.
The Total War series combines turn-based strategy and empire management campaigns (similar to Civ,) with real-time tactical battle control. Set in various historical settings, from ancient Rome to the Napoleonic wars, the games are well known for quality tactical combat and a good use of setting and source material. If you ever saw the 2003/5 BBC show “Time Commanders,” you will be pretty much aware of what these games entail; in fact, the show itself used a version of Rome: Total War for its battles. The gameplay of the series involves a lot of military strategy and planning, with huge units of soldiers marching across battlefields; flanking, charging, knowing when NOT to charge, marching and breaking morale. Rather than focusing of single-unit micro and resource management, the tactical battles are more about planning and positioning using the troops you gather in the campaign to fight enemies.
At its heart, Total War: Warhammer takes the large-scale battles and fantasy setting of the tabletop game and slams it into the tried, tested and beautifully refined framework that Total War supplies. It theory, it’s a heavenly match, with all of the refined combat elements transitioning over to this entry perfectly. In terms of control and military strategy elements, this entry excels, as you would expect.
The biggest differences in TW: Warhammer are directly related to the new setting; unlike the real world, a fantasy setting relies heavily on fantastical elements. We’re talking monsters, a variety of humanoid races, the undead and magic, and with these come a variety of new effects and gameplay elements to change the status quo. Whilst the other TW games included a variety of different HUMAN cultures and races, they’ve had to severely modify several key elements of the game to accommodate the differences you would expect from monstrous factions.
The game itself ships with 4 factions, with an additional DLC faction available and more to come. The Empire and Dwarf factions play in a similar fashion to those you might see in previous TW games; large, mortal units of honed warriors who fight in a traditional way. In comparison, the Vampire Counts field a variety of monstrous and undead creatures; some of whom can re-return from the dead; and the Greenskin faction fields lots of different variations of green barbarians, trolls and giants, stomping around and destroying everything in sight. These additions, and the variations in their Campaign gameplay make for much more interesting adversaries and groups to play as than those which would easily fit into other TW games. As with all of the TW games, your aim is to control the entire map through either wars, diplomacy, or a combination of both. Being literal monsters, the aforementioned mechanically have a hard time with Diplomacy, and as such, use corruption and pure brute force to conquer the landscape. Magic is a completely new addition to the Total War formula, but it is well executed with a variety of interesting and powerful skills available to certain heroes and wizards. Whilst they aren’t battle-winning in their own right, magical abilities add an extra layer of strategy and difficulty to the combat; as does the addition of fast, flying creatures.
It’s good to see that Creative Assembly chose to stay faithful to the source material, and didn’t try to fit the different races into the same boxes; I mean seriously, the fact they realised that a Warhammer Greenskin would rather beat you to death with a smaller goblin than reason with you says a lot. Because of this obvious research, each race’s campaign and set of hero units is completely unique. The overarching mechanics are similar, but it’s the little twists and bits of fan-service that make all of the difference; such as a nod to Warhammer World’s infamous dwarven pub “Bugman’s Bar” through the grudge system. There are huge lashings of lore and love spilt all over Total War: Warhammer, and from the time I’ve spent with it, I feel it is definitely one of the better representations of the Warhammer Lore inside a video game that we’ve seen so far. My main concern is the actual size of the roster; the Warhammer Old World is a massive, sprawling land full of different races including Elves, Lizardmen and Skaven (Rats,) and frankly their absence is dearly felt. Granted, Bretonnians are playable in multiplayer, and Chaos is available as DLC, but realistically they should have included more races in the main game, playable in the campaign. I mean, the Chaos campaign being locked behind a paywall at all is scandalous, as Chaos is in the other racial campaigns anyway and should have been included regardless; but it is loud and clear to me that they intend to sell us a barrage of DLC in the form of the more interesting Warhammer races.
One thing worth noting is the difficulty of the game. Even on Easy, it’s no pushover if you’re a newbie to the TW series, and although the tutorial isn’t bad at helping you through your first 40/50 turns, I find that some of the advice feels insubstantial. I can’t help but feel they should have included a “SPOONFEED ME” mode for absolute beginners, to make that first game less daunting and the management and tactical elements a bit easier to absorb. It’s only a small gripe, but it would have been appreciated as an option for my first (lost) campaign, as it was only half-war through my second that I really started to understand the campaign mode’s intricacies. I’m still rubbish at the actual battles, FYI, but they’re damn fun and if you can outflank and manoeuvre you can struggle through the lowest difficulty setting. I have been reliably told by series veterans that the AI has been improved from Attila, and that it actually IS a difficult TW game, which made me feel less rubbish!
The game as a whole does indeed look breath-taking on high(er) settings. The Warhammer world has never quite come to life as much as it does here, with thousands of units appearing at a time and fighting for control. The sound design is also excellent, with battles mimicking the sounds I heard in my head over the tabletop pretty authentically.
There are some technical gripes; performance seems to be very variable, seemingly changing for no reason. It seems that half the time when I load it, it runs sub-30, whilst at others it flows like a dream. It’s very CPU intensive, which may cause a bottleneck for some. I’ve also seen a variable levels of bugs in the game, with borderless window mode feeling unplayable due to some flashing horizontal bars and other issues. It does seem to be mainly an NVIDIA problem though, and should be fixed soon, as with the incoming Direct X 12 patch we should hopefully see some improvements
My only other, and biggest gripe with the game is the name. Yes, I’m serious, because there was another name which would have been an obvious one for me which sounds cooler. I still maintain it should have been called Total Warhammer, even if there may have been copyrighted and branding issues, and I’m not backing down!
Jokes aside, Total War: Warhammer is an amazing game, even if its title is a mouthful. I can’t comment on the fact that it has been described by many as the best Total War game; as it’s my first, but I honestly think it’s the best Warhammer game that’s been released so far. Serving as a stellar example of both franchises, I can seriously see a lot of plastic models being sold over the next few months, and I can easily recommend it to both Total War and Warhammer fans alike, as long as they don’t mind the huge learning curve.