In 2015 Creative Assembly celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Total War series of turn-based/tactical strategy games. A few days later it officially announced the upcoming release of its latest Total War title, Total War: Warhammer. For the past few years Creative Assembly and its current publisher Sega had been teasing the development of a Warhammer title in partnership with Games Workshop, the producers of the Warhammer Fantasy tabletop battle game. Finally fans were formally introduced to one of the most ambitious strategy projects of the decade and the first Total War game to not take place in a historical setting.
Total War: Warhammer is rooted in the revised Total War formula that had been fully developed in Total War: Rome II and its Total War: Attila standalone expansion. Regions of the game’s world map are divided into provinces, which are further divided into two to four territories each containing a single settlement with one of these settlements serving as the provincial capital. The settlements generate income, provide build slots for the construction of economic and military buildings, and list provincial statistics for growth and public order. Armies are led by a general unit, termed “Lords” in Warhammer, and each have a distance they can move each turn and various stances they can enter to generate effects on the strategic world map or the tactical battle map.
Other mechanics also remain in their traditional forms, such as the interaction of agents, now called “Heroes”, with armies, provinces, and other agents. Heroes retain the ability to be embedded into an army to provide a passive buff and to gain experience over time. Settlements include a garrison of troops that don’t count towards army upkeep and cannot be ordered away from the settlement’s control zone. Certain terrain types hinder movement or cause attrition damage to armies moving through them.
Beyond these is where Warhammer’s unique nature and radical development noticeably change and improve the established Total War formulas. Warhammer features four playable factions which can be expanded to seven plus six minor factions with free and paid DLC. Each of these factions feature new racial mechanics as well as completely distinct unit and building rosters. The Dwarven faction can only settle in special settlements called “holds” and are notable for having no cavalry units but some of the strongest heavy infantry. Alternatively the Wood Elves can settle in any province on the map, but only construct outpost style settlements with a single build slot; elven units are also light and quick with the Wood Elf faction possessing more archer units than any other faction.
Faction armies also benefit from unique mechanics and traits. The Chaos Warriors, as a horde faction, have no permanent base and must conserve some of their movement each turn in order to encamp and construct horde buildings, but as a result can simply run away to avoid danger to their faction. By contrast the Vampire Counts’ undead armies decay when outside specifically designated undead territory unless the level of vampiric corruption is high enough in the province they are invading, but at the same time areas of high corruption provide increased healing for undead units and cause attrition damage to armies of living units.
How all these unique factions mesh together and balance out is one of the primary design triumphs of Warhammer. Players are no longer promised the balance set of units and counter units from previous Total War titles; now faction compatibility depends on the player’s ability to utilize a faction’s existing units properly. An army designed to deal with monsters and heavy infantry will struggle against opponents fielding artillery and quick ranged units, yet each faction possesses the units and strategies to deal with both.
The units in each army are one of the two primary components of flavor, the other being faction mechanics, that enriches overall gameplay and are also one of the reasons Warhammer has a strong custom battle and multiplayer scene even within the Total War series. In previous titles it was not uncommon for a majority of factions to possess slightly altered unit rosters from a single template. In Warhammer the differences are so distinct that some preferred strategies from previous games aren’t even possible now.
Hero units are also a noticeable change, and improvement, from previous agent systems. When embedded in an army, heroes actually become powerful units with their own special abilities and combat statistics. They still provide passive benefits to the army they are embedded in but their true strength is revealed on the tactical battle map. Embedded heroes take up one of the twenty slots available for army composition, but the loss is rarely felt as only the lord units possesses more raw power and potential in combat.
Heroes, and lords, are also the medium for a completely new mechanic in Total War: magic. Heroes and lords with the spellcaster trait can learn magic spells as they level up. These spells are utilized in tactical combat and use a power reserve system dependent on the Winds of Magic mechanic, a constantly shifting pattern of strong and weak power reserves that covers the strategic map and changes the amount of power reserve available for tactical battles in the different regions. The magic system in Warhammer is another great design triumph as the new mechanic is woven seamlessly into the game. Spells are intuitive, easy to manage, and for the most part powerful enough to warrant their continual use but not so powerful as to break game balance. Each faction also possesses its own variations of spellcaster heroes and lords. The spells available to these units are determined by the magic lore of that unit and not all lores are available to each faction. Except for certain legendary characters, each spellcaster has only one lore.
Legendary lords take the mechanics of lords and heroes even further. These units are similar to generic lords of their respective faction, but feature unique appearances, voice acting, unique unit upgrades, and even unique mounts for tactical battles. Legendary lords can not be permanently killed, if they fall in battle they remain wounded for several turns then become available for recruitment once again. These special lords can be used in custom battles, but it’s in the grand campaign where their power and potential truly shine.
When choosing a faction for the campaign the player also chooses which legendary lord they would like to be the faction leader. Each of these lords brings its own command bonus and set of starting units. The other legendary lords are made available for recruitment when the player completes specific tasks like constructing special buildings or conquering certain cities. Throughout the campaign players are given objectives from a quest chain tied to a unique item for each legendary lord they control. These quests are optional and if completed allow the player to fight a special quest battle against pre-determined enemies using only the relevant legendary lord’s army. If the player is victorious, that lord gets the corresponding unique item permanently.
Many more subtle yet flavorful improvements populate the grand campaign and custom battle experience. The grand campaign itself can occupy many hours of gameplay per faction and with up to seven distinct experiences it makes Warhammer’s replay value one of the highest for Total War games of the decade. Even players dissatisfied with a faction’s campaign style can still enjoy its army roster in custom battles.
Multiplayer continues the Total War conventions of competitive custom battles and a co-operative grand campaign, both of which are stable and viable even on lower internet connections. The unique factions break up the metagame to a greater degree than any previous title. A competitive grand campaign between two players was also introduced, differing from coop in that the players are not linked by an unbreakable military alliance and do not share objectives. The players can still ally over the course of the campaign but need not even encounter each other if their faction objectives don’t call for it. This is a strength in that it gives players a great degree of freedom to interact with the AI and each other, but also a weakness in that the potential lack of interaction takes most of the enjoyment of the multiplayer experience away from overall gameplay.
Total War: Warhammer, is truly the crowning achievement for the Total War franchise and perhaps the greatest title of the series since Rome: Total War. It demands the most stringent graphics requirements of any Total War game, but is perfectly enjoyable on lower graphic settings and playable without error on systems that meet the minimum requirements. The game over-relies on DLC content and Creative Assembly rightly took a lot of heat from the gaming community for its overuse of the sales gimmick, yet with the DLC Warhammer becomes a masterful work of game design that can be enjoyed by gamers of any level including those who have never picked up a Total War title before. The gaming community deserved a cross-title compilation like this for decades and now that its finally here it’s a must for any strategy gamer.