Total War: Warhammer Review

Posted on 06/03 10:01 in | 0

The clumsily named Total War: Warhammer feels like the inevitable culmination of a sixteen year flirtation. Back in 2000, when series debut Shogun: Total War was getting positive reviews, the Warhammer-obsessed nerd in me saw a real-time battle tactics title informed by many of the stock rules of Games Workshop’s tabletop game. Shogun didn’t have any orcs, but it did encourage the use of terrain, flanking attacks, and incorporated unit morale as a key component; all features shared with Warhammer.

Not altogether surprising, then, that Total War: Warhammer largely feels like a natural union. Though thoroughly ahistorical, Warhammer’s Old World (now defunct in tabletop-land, since Games Workshop killed off their Fantasy Battle setting) slots fairly neatly into Total War’s usual campaign map structure. And while the number of playable factions here is reduced from the normal abundance of major and minor state powers, their distinct unit rosters and tactical asymmetry mean there’s still a great deal of variety to mess around with.

The four main players of Empire, Dwarfs, Orcs & Goblins and Vampire Counts (plus Chaos Undivided if you grabbed that DLC) are significantly different from one another; particularly on the battlefield, but also to varying degrees on the strategic map. Orcs need to constantly be finding new fights to prevent internal punch-ups and stabbings (a neat approximation of the tabletop’s Animosity rules), Vampires can instantly ‘recruit’ new troops by raising the dead (particularly at locations of previous, bloody battles), Dwarfs need to keep on top of avenging hilarious grudges, and so on. It’s a reduced set of factions, but they’re all unique, rather than the spectrum of choices from prior Total War games where differences would only really be found at the extremities.

Warhammer actually has many more races and factions to offer, of course. Some, like Bretonnia (who already feature in this game’s skirmish mode, and as a campaign AI) will very likely be free additions in future. Other areas, like the continent that houses High and Dark Elves, plus jungle-dwelling Lizardmen, will presumably either be introduced by large expansions or a pair of planned, StarCraft II-style sequels.

For now though, we’ve got the age-old Warhammer rivalries of Dwarfs vs Orcs, Humans vs themselves (and Orcs, and Vampires), Vampires vs the Concepts of Aging, and Chaos vs Everybody Who’s Still Alive. Your favourite race may not yet be included (yes, we all want Skaven), but Creative Assembly have done a fine job representing the ones who are present; both in terms of unit choices, and retaining the character of how each faction should play.

Indeed, the spirit and charming absurdities of the Warhammer tabletop game are evident throughout the game. This is a setting where huge misshapen beasts clash with ridiculously powerful heroes (something Total War hasn’t been a stranger to either), wizards and shaman entrap foes in magical nets, crush them with manifestations of an Orc god’s foot, or (in the case of the Vampires) just point at someone until they die. Odd contraptions like Empire Steam Tanks rumble across the battlefield, while Doomdivers (pretty much just a giant slingshot and a queue of demented goblins), and Dwarf flame cannons invoke terror in the rank and file commoners with spears who’d just like to live though this fight please.

The gleeful imbalance of all this variety may prove tricky to meaningfully police in multiplayer head-to-heads (time will tell there), but it’s magnificent to witness in single player.

Despite these radical departures from Creative Assembly’s usual historical fare, Total War: Warhammer translates to their real-time battlefields very smoothly. This is surely because, as mentioned in relation to the original Shogun, the rules of tabletop Warhammer have a lot in common with those already present in Total War. And because a lot of the joy of both games is found in marshalling little soldiers until they bash into one another. Unit morale, rear attacks, skirmishing tactics, and the emphasis on specialised weapon types for specific situations (halberds benefiting against larger creatures, or knights suffering against armour-piercing foes) are all shared features in one way or another. More nuanced aspects like undead units being immune to morale checks translate well too. In the tabletop version, they would take additional wounds in place of routing. Total War: Warhammer’s Vampire Count units start to crumble and decay more quickly when losing in combat.

This version of Total War also has some of the more impressive battle AI seen to date. It’s unlikely to shock you with new tricks once you’ve learned its basic repertoire, but it’s consistent in its attempts to both break your main infantry lines at weak spots and continuously flank with fast cavalry (or faction equivalents like war hounds). The main failings in open battle are an unwillingness to advance when artillery is part of its army (even when seriously outmatched in a long-range slogging match) and, arguably, too much perfection when micro-managing skirmishing cavalry troops. Though the latter is more a persistent annoyance than a serious flaw.

During sieges, a perennial point of ambition and anguish for the Total War series, it doesn’t hold up quite so well. In what I suspect was an effort to avoid precisely these sorts of problems, siege battles in Total War: Warhammer take place against a single city wall that bisects the map (or two walls that box the town into a corner), rather than depicting all four walls and allowing approaches from every side. This definitely seems to relieve some of the pressure on the AI, who now only have to defend one large wall and one internal capture point, but they’re still very vulnerable to just sitting, confused, on the ramparts while being shot to death by missile troops.

The campaign structure of Total War: Warhammer is also a departure from previous titles (Attila excluded) which tended to focus on painting the map the colour of your glorious nation. Here, factions can only expand into certain realms; Dwarfs don’t want to bother settling on the plains of the Empire, and Orcs are more keen on sacking Bretonnia than living there. More emphasis is placed on securing your immediate borders (every faction’s opening moves are basically nailing down a first province), and using diplomacy to either absorb territory through confederations or create military alliance buffers between yourself and hostile forces.

Diplomatic matters are a fairly single-track process in this game. If another power will give you the time of day (generally because you have a powerful military, recently helped in a war, or offered a fat bribe), then it’s mostly a matter of coaxing a line of increasingly chummy treaties out of them. In my Empire campaign, this worked relatively well, giving the impression that I was chipping away at wary Elector Counts, forcing me into demonstrations of strength and long-term reliability before they would enter into alliances or full confederation. However, other AI factions will sometimes act in rather bizarre ways, offering you decent sums of gold out of nowhere for doing practically nothing. And there’s a slightly odd negative diplomacy modifier in the game called ‘Great Power’ which seems to act entirely contrary to the main message of wowing the smaller factions with your prowess.

AI allies can actually be useful military aides in this game, as setting co-ordinated war targets for your friends (a feature that’s been in previous Total War games, but less reliably) will get them to mobilise on your behalf. This can prove most beneficial when the inevitable Chaos incursions begin to show up in the realm.

Chaos are the equivalent of Attila’s Hun faction, eventually showing up on your doorstep (especially if you’re playing as the Empire) with considerable force of arms and a collection of twisted beasts at their command. In my main campaign, the Chaos assault served to highlight some of the best and most irritating that Total War: Warhammer has to offer. All of my prior diplomatic and military efforts meant that the Empire and its allies were in a position of considerable strength to turn back the tide, and the fighting included one especially heroic town garrison standing firm against an army led by Sigvald the Magnificent (Chaos’ answer to Narcissus).

The epic conclusion to this series of already titanic clashes, though, were two or three of my army stacks forlornly chasing a lone Chaos Lord (Kholek) around the map. Total War: Warhammer’s campaign AI is unnerving good at abusing the Forced March movement stance to stay roughly two or three pixels away from the maximum range of your own armies. You can prevent this a bit through strategic placement (and things like the Ambush stance) designed to ‘catch’ enemy army stacks with your own, or get very lucky with an agent, but situations like Kholek legging it around the Old World like a naughty toddler trying to escape bath time are not uncommon.

To add a further dampener to the conclusion of my efforts, it seems Total War: Warhammer has no ending cinematics for any of its campaigns. This is a real shame, because all factions get a suitably impressive introductory clip.

Movement tricks are an example of the campaign AI being a little too robotically competent for its own good, but it otherwise manages to act in capable, if rather predictable, (you’ll learn the thresholds at which it’ll be prepared to commit to an attack) ways. There don’t seem to be any blatant failings like Rome 2’s early inability to generate AI armies will anything but low-level troop types.

It will, though, do its best to piss you right off by spamming high-level agents at you all the damn time. The issue here isn’t so much the AI’s aggressive use of assassination and unit harassment techniques (more aggressive AI in general is quite welcome), but that they’re able to level up agents with unnatural speed. Unless you’ve dedicated your life to training up some kind of super-assassin to deal with the waves of secret operatives being launched in your direction, there’s not much that can be done. And frankly, the resource (both in-game, and micro-management) investment in creating a top-level anti-agent may be more costly than just accepting a few losses and set-backs to enemy actions. The “No Aggressive AI Agents” mod is riding high on the Steam Workshop for a reason.

A much more positive aspect to agents in this game is their ability to join your armies on the fields of battle. When attached to an army stack, agents (be they wizards, Orc bosses, Wights, or whatever else) will show up and do their part in any military clashes. Like your Legendary Lords and other army generals, they can level up their skills across three broad trees (individual power, unit buffs, campaign map bonuses), wield magic items, and can be assigned followers for more bonuses. All good stuff.

Outside of the region colonisation restrictions, Total War: Warhammer has the welcome sandbox-type strategic freedom of prior games in the series. For those who fancy a bit of guidance, periodic missions will pop up to poke you in suggested directions (not always sensible ones), and each of the faction’s Legendary Lords have specific quests to optionally undertake in the name of pursuing magical item rewards. These are more narrative-heavy battles than the regular campaign clashes, reminiscent of the sort of scripted scenarios that showed up in older Warhammer games like Dark Omen. While the rewards don’t always seem quite worth the effort, the quest battles do a capable job drawing more character and flavour from the setting. They’re also all playable as stand-alone affairs outside the campaign.

Those of you who still have flashbacks to the performance state of Rome 2 at launch need not fear a repeat from Total War: Warhammer. Loading times for battles can be a little lengthy on an HDD, but AI turn times, and the game’s general stability (I’ve had no hard crashes in about 22 hours) are absolutely fine. Creative Assembly’s engine is still a demanding one though, especially on the CPU side; my i5-6600 / R9 380X combo can only manage 40-50 fps in battles on High settings, and gets closer to 40 on the campaign map. But this isn’t a title where a locked 60fps (or higher) is a complete necessity. It would be nice mind you, so hopefully the upcoming DirectX 12 update for the game will offer a boost. I’ll take a look at it in a future article when it shows up.

The improved functionality extends beyond the technical realm, but there is a nagging sense with Total War: Warhammer that Creative Assembly’s response to several of the series’ more awkward features has been to simply remove them (a more extreme version of what’s been done with sieges). Some of these decisions are unquestionably the correct ones; thank god they didn’t try to do boats again. But a couple of the other bits of streamlining are a little harder to accept. The lack of specific unit formation options (wedges for cavalry and so on) has been justified by the lack of such things in Warhammer tabletop. Except the tabletop game absolutely had a ‘spread out to avoid missile fire’ formation for skirmishers, so that doesn’t really wash as an excuse.

Province management has been simplified too, typified by the removal of any kind of ‘squalor’ penalty. I suspect most will be delighted to see the back of this, and it has been loosely replaced by the threat of creeping Chaos/Vampiric corruption. Public order still needs to be kept in line as well (though while there’s a rebellious consequence for letting it fall too low, there’s no obvious reward for keeping it sky high), and juggling where to construct your top-tier unit buildings for maximum efficiency can still be pretty intellectually taxing. But as long as you don’t go crazy with army upkeep, or completely ignore corruption, the economy will quite happily take care of itself without much strategic intervention on the player’s part. The effect is an economic layer which can feel a bit too straightforward, though the return of a dedicated building chain information button to the UI is definitely something to celebrate.

Despite its shortcomings, Total War: Warhammer is probably the most outright enjoyable title since the early, innovative days of Shogun or Medieval. Divestment from the historical shackles, it seems, has proved quite liberating.

The Old World setting feeds some terrific faction diversity, and the inevitable Chaos incursion provides the game with a more interesting, tighter structure than the usual ‘conquer everything’ colour-blobbing. Being able to actually wrap up a Total War campaign in 15-20 hours does wonders for incentivising full play-throughs, rather than an endless succession of faltering starts. It’s a slight shame than the end game scenario winds up being quite similar for all four main factions, but thanks to a fairly capable (or slightly random) campaign AI, the late-game map will be patterned with rather different alliances and rivalries every time. The majority of issues with this entry are long-term echoes that the series has yet to shake off; AI blind spots, too much high-level agent spamming, and an inability to provide a tougher challenge without just giving the AI gigantic bonuses in every single area.

These are things Total War has struggled to overcome for years, and may continue to do so for the immediate future. That said, this title is in a vastly superior technical state to Rome 2 at launch, and is a contender with Shogun 2 for the most robust launch of the series. All of which translates to a pretty solid Total War game with a few near-intrinsic flaws, and a title that’s a treat for the older school fans of Warhammer tabletop’s fantasy grandeur and inherent, tongue-in-cheek silliness.

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