Creative Assembly’s Total War (TW) series consistently delivers an enthralling product. Beginning in 1999 with Shogun: Total War, the franchise has improved with each iteration. Total War: Warhammer II is no exception to that general rule. Released on September 28, 2017, the game is the second title in a planned trilogy, and the new release meshes well with OnlySP’s hands-on preview from E3 2017. As Creative Assembly projects go, the newest installment is a typical creation by the developer, epitomizing the skills and talents the team has honed over almost two decades.
Returning with the developer’s Total War Engine 3 and Warscape graphics engine, TW: Warhammer II sports stunning visuals that improve upon the previous game’s already-impressive graphics. However, while 2016’s prequel possessed high-quality visuals, they infrequently interfered with the game’s performance. Conversely, TW: Warhammer II manages to not only upgrade last year’s graphics from high-quality to magnificent, but also maintains a smooth performance threshold, assuming players have a high-end GPU to support the game’s ultra setting.
The campaign map is beautifully designed, depicting a large variety of terrain in great detail. From towering mountains with valleys jutting between them to dense forests full of vibrant foliage, TW: Warhammer II’s sizable continent—Ulthuan—is colorful and diverse. Appearing alongside nature’s top-notch representations, sentient-made constructs bring the campaign map to life. Elven gates overlooking mountain passes act as vigilant sentinels that block access to any unallied faction. At the heart of Ulthuan is an azure, whirling vortex over which the game’s factions battle for control. The Vortex is both intimidating and epic to behold, serving as the heart of beauty around which the rest of the map’s aesthetics form.
The imagery is further enhanced when players engage in a skirmish, the layout determined by the area in which the fight initiates. When players choose to battle their enemies, the camera zooms in on the location of engagement before fading to a loading screen that leads to the appropriate terrain. When the clash loads, players can find themselves on a variety of landscapes, ranging from lush forests to hilly grasslands and damp marshes, all of which are wonderful sights to behold as two armies collide.
However, the nuances of those armies are somewhat disappointing. The crisp details of the units are nothing short of spectacular, and regiments appear realistic. Unfortunately, when players zoom in on their troops, they will find that each individual soldier is identical to the next within a squad’s ranks. As if cloned in a vat, troops of the same type show zero individuality, resulting in a colorful and menacing but unimaginative force. Regardless, this drawback can be overlooked when players get involved with the gameplay to lead their faction to victory.
TW: Warhammer II’s mechanics are not dissimilar to the game’s prequel or any other title in the overarching franchise. Nonetheless, Warhammer II’s gameplay feels much smoother than that of its predecessor. When ordering units to move in a battle, the responsiveness of the squads and their time to move seems improved over the previous title. Even the movement on the campaign map delivers a gratifying sense of advancement as armies and heroes progress towards their destinations. One satisfying nuance is the camera shake when players zoom in on their armies as they move across the field, resembling the ground quaking beneath the boots of massive forces marching across the land. However, some gameplay features are new to TW: Warhammer II.
Rites are one of the main innovations joining the Total War franchise. As factions increase in power and earn more assets (income, slaves, et cetera), rites become available to them. The more powerful the rite, the more it costs to perform. Each rite provides unique enhancements, such as improved public order within cities, reduction in military upkeep, and enhanced combat abilities for certain types of heroes (sorceresses, assassins, and others). As perks for each faction, rites provide more depth to TW: Warhammer II’s gameplay, providing players with bonuses to their armies and economy during the game’s lengthy campaign. Tactically, players can horde some parts of their income, such as slaves for the Dark Elf factions , until they need the extra boost from performing a rite to avert a crisis. Conversely, players can perform rites as soon as they are available. TW: Warhammer II allows gamers to play the way that best suits them, as different strategies work for different people.
Alongside rites, players will notice that each faction employs its own gameplay mechanics. For example, as mentioned earlier, slaves are used as a form of infrastructure for the Dark Elves. Slaves are acquired through capturing enemy troops during battles (done automatically as engagements unfold), and the captives are then divided amongst the Dark Elves’ cities. If a city is in need of more slaves, gamers can select an option to prioritize that city as a location to receive a higher percentage of captives after skirmishes conclude. Slaves are used as a labor force to build siege equipment prior to the invasion of a capital city. The more slaves the Dark Elves have, the more efficient building siege engines becomes. However, too many slaves can cause public order within settlements to deteriorate, potentially resulting in rebellions that gamers have to go out of their way to quell.
The High Elves, on the other hand, practice court intrigue as a means to boost the speed with which diplomatic relationships improve or deteriorate with other factions. The more the player practices intrigue with a specific faction, the more Influence (a diplomatic currency for the High Elves) intrigue costs. Using this feature is a great way to get other factions to confederate with the player’s empire sooner, giving the player control over more territory and expanding their empire without having to spread their armies too thinly.
When playing the Lizardmen, however, gamers would do well to keep a close eye on their cities, as the Lizardmen receive bonuses based on connected territories. The more territories that are connected, the better the bonuses players obtain. Note that the emphasis is on “connected” territories, not the amount of land owned overall. Moreover, winning battles gives Lizardmen access to special units, which are more experienced and powerful variations of normal units. Gamers who played TW: Warhammer will remember these types of units being available to every faction, as they were known as Units of Renown. When using these upgraded versions of regular soldiers, players will notice a minuscule difference in the overall quality of host army on the battlefield, often resulting in a few less casualties on the player’s side.
In terms of mechanics, the Skaven function similarly to armies in Total War: Rome II and Shogun II. When playing as this rodent species, players will notice that food stores are at the core of their empire’s stability. Three levels of food stores exist: low, normal, and plenty. Normal food stores mean that the Skaven forces are stable, offering no bonuses or hindrances to the player. However, if food stores are low, armies will suffer attrition and public order will decline within settlements. Conversely, plentiful food stores will offer bonuses to the Skaven. Additionally, players can opt to spend some of their food on starting a newly-captured settlement at a higher level, foregoing some of the waiting period for the population to grow before upgrading the city. Unfortunately, one major drawback to playing the Skaven is that this faction is especially reliant on overwhelming numbers to achieve victory in battle as opposed to fielding stronger units. Moreover, the Skaven are more susceptible to a decline in public order due to the natural corruption caused by the rodent species dwelling in cities, thus making maintaining stability within provinces more difficult and requiring the player to increase their micromanagement capabilities.
With each faction playing differently, and a wide variety of units within each empire, TW: Warhammer II offers a unique experience with each playthrough. However, the game is not without its drawbacks, such as the infrequent crashes to desktop before a cutscene, or the frustrating amount of time between turns during the campaign. The latter nuisance is unavoidable considering the large quantity of non-playable empires within the game, but even fast-forwarding the process of the AI’s movements can feel like an eternal wait until the player gets to enact their next set of strategies. Regardless, these minor kinks take little away from the overall experience, and can be overlooked in favor of the much-improved narrative implemented in this unfolding trilogy.
TW: Warhammer II’s story is one driven by magic and expediency. While each faction is part of the grand scheme to harness a giant vortex’s energy through the use of rituals, the details are individualized between the four races. The High Elves, a culture ripe with regality and nobility, wish to secure the Vortex to continue protecting the world from the forces of evil. The Dark Elves, a culture mired in deception and a vengeful lust for power, want nothing more than to control the Vortex to annihilate the High Elves and turn their attention to conquering the world. The Lizardmen, the oldest of the four races according to the game’s lore, wish to use the Vortex to regain control of the world that had been theirs before the other races drove them into the jungles. The Skaven, the ugliest yet most amusing race of the four, seek power for power’s sake, wishing to annihilate anyone who is not one of the rodent creatures.
The overarching story unfolds differently depending on the faction gamers choose, and the details are enthralling to watch when cutscenes are unfolding. The game’s narrator possesses an enrapturing voice that draws players in with ease, spinning a riveting tale told using four different narrative styles: The High Elves’ tale sounds celestial, regal; the Dark Elves’ is more menacing; the Lizardmen’s contains a deceptive fable; and the Skaven’s is rather jittery. Some of the wordplay is cheesy and cliché, but this tendency does not drag down the tale’s quality. TW: Warhammer II’s stories are a marked improvement over that of its predecessor, as TW: Warhammer’s narrative was underwhelming at best, relying more on mission objectives in the campaign than actual storytelling. The sequel seeks to remedy this lackluster element by providing more narrative. A happy balance was not quite found, but Creative Assembly made decent strides to that middle ground with this latest title.
Rounding out the mostly-solid details of TW: Warhammer II is the game’s sound effects and musical score. Combat provides a satisfying sense of immersion through voicework and battle machinations. Soldiers, commanders, and heroes yell, shout orders, and unleash battle cries fitting to each race; swords, spears, maces, and axes clang and slice through flesh just as arrows zip and thwack, and shields bash and clash. War engines, such as glaive-throwers and cannons, deliver a respective flinging or booming sound when they launch a projectile. These sound effects are not new to the Total War franchise, of course, and have been cemented in time and continued use as assets to the series; their implementation here serves to further remind fans that Creative Assembly knows how to pit players in the center of a bloody conflict. Furthermore, the game’s soundtrack gives gameplay that extra oomph to get blood pumping and adrenaline flowing. With an orchestral theme, the musical score is impactful and fitting, augmenting the game’s story and combat well.
As Total War games go, Warhammer II is a typical experience from Creative Assembly. Regardless, the game is exhilarating, allowing players to develop different playstyles. TW: Warhammer II is not cutting edge, but it does deliver some innovations to the franchise (i.e. the rituals, rites, and other mechanics), keeping the series fresh with a simultaneous sense of familiarity. Fans of strategy games and the Warhammer universe alike will find this newest iteration of Creative Assembly’s most beloved franchise an enjoyable, mentally-stimulating experience, especially once the rare crashes to desktop are fixed in future updates.
Etherborn Review — A Brief, Beautiful Defiance of Gravity
Indie developers in 2019 truly have the freedom to create the games they want. When Fig-funded game Etherborn reached its funding target, developer Altered Matter set out to craft a gravity-shifting puzzle platformer. Players sold on this concept have a lot to look forward to as Altered Matter has delivered on its promise. The mind-bending mechanics of Etherborn force players to approach the world from a new perspective amidst some stunning visual landscapes.
In Etherborn, the player takes control of a voiceless, newly-born being who follows a bodiless voice in search of meaning. Such a philosophical premise promises an experience that will answer key questions regarding self-identity and the quest for meaning. The answer plays into the age old cliche that we are born to create our own destiny. The game’s narrative discussions around these topics are disappointing, though they do demonstrate that the narrative is less important than the themes behind them.
One of the biggest frustrations with the story is that the language used complicated the simple message the developer was trying to tell. The soothing yet commanding tone of the omniscient voice would have been enough to carry along a more refined script that served the themes with clarity. Instead, Altered Matter opted to write something poetic by using lots of really big words that sound like they have lots of meaning, which instead detract from the actual meaning.
Etherborn has a linear structure that takes place across five distinct levels. The levels are completed by solving gravity-defying puzzles to collect light orbs that open the pathway forward. Once all levels are completed, a new game+ mode is unlocked, creating replayability through the additional challenge of new, well-hidden light orb locations. Including this game mode offers players a chance to enjoy a more difficult experience without an additional learning curve.
What sets Etherborn apart is the unique mechanic that underpins the gameplay. To traverse the landscape, players must jump and use ramps to change their perspective, turning walls into floors to move through the level. The opening level does an exceptional job of introducing the player to how this concept will be manipulated throughout the game. Controls in Etherborn are simple and intuitive, allowing for an experience that focuses the challenge purely within the design. Despite being able to run, the movement speed of the character seems sluggish for the most part, yet can be too fast for easy maneuverability in levels that require finesse to execute.
Etherborn is deeply beautiful. The soft hues and subtle colour palette create a truly ethereal experience that carries through until the final level where the tone shifts into something somewhat dark, yet utterly breathtaking. Skeletal bodies, frozen in time, dwarf the character to create a visual masterpiece that captivates the viewer. Accompanying the divine art direction is killer sound design that makes the world feel complete. The ambient music creates an atmosphere that indulges in the landscape it calls home in a way that elevates the experience.
The short length of Etherborn leaves players wanting more. In OnlySP’s preview of the game in 2018, the Alpha build contained the same five levels that are seen in the final game. Having spent so much time on these levels has meant the final product is highly polished yet disappointingly short. The gravity bending puzzles at play are so clever, well designed, and satisfying to complete that a lack of experimentation through more level designs to satiate the player’s hunger for more is disappointing.
The challenging gameplay, gorgeous sound design, and stunning aesthetics all make Etherborn a worthwhile experience, even for those not fond of puzzle-platformers. Every level demonstrates a craftsmanship that encourages the curiosity to think and engage with the world. Completing puzzles is satisfying, even if the length of the game is not. Some minor issues may crop up along the way, but Etherborn is still a clever, fun game that challenges players and their perspective of the world.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch. Also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
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