Everyone remembers their first. As the newest reviewer for OSP, I had hoped that my initiatory article into games journalism would have been something on a smaller scale. Instead, I was given the modest task of reviewing the second-biggest AAA title to drop last week. No pressure.
Total War: Warhammer is the long-awaited lovechild of Creative Assembly’s newest addition to the Total War franchise, set in the lore of Games Workshop’s iconic Warhammer series. As pioneers in their fields of turn-based strategy and tabletop war games, a collaboration of this magnitude sounds like the perfect storm of gameplay and characters that sell themselves. If anything, it left fans wondering what took them so long.
Before I dissect it, I should mention another first – until this game, I never got around to playing a turn-based strategy game. Ever. Part of it was how slow and boring I thought the genre would be, but mostly because I wouldn’t have the self-control to stop playing once I did. I ignored my fears of not making it past the tutorial only to receive a rigorous breakdown in bite-sized morsels. Although the tutorial is seamlessly integrated into the narrative, Creative Assembly provides a complete in-game guide rife with videos and well-written prose on the game’s numerous mechanics.
The campaign centers on the player picking one of four factions whose strengths and limitations cater to numerous play styles.
The Empire has a balanced roster of melee and missile (cannons, archers) soldiers with room for Steam Tanks and Wizards. However, they have a complicated political system where they have to unite numerous leaders (called Elector Counts) to serve under The Empire. As a result, their campaign is heavy on the game’s diplomacy system. The Empire’s main focus is to control the armies and leaderships of numerous Empire sub-sects. You can do this by buttering them up through generous offerings, obliterating who they’re at war against, or devastate their own armies and take them over by force. I opted for the latter and enjoyed the sadistic pleasure of taking over cities despite their diplomatic attempts at treaties and tidy sums of gold.
Dwarfs have strong economic fundamentals, but have costlier units. Their armies are small, and they do not have cavalry or magic units. They have technology that applies to civil and military structures, and even an intricate underground tunnel system. Dwarfs also have mandatory sub quests called “Grudges”, where the faction must take over cities, win battles, or ensure public order (a neat mechanic to measure political stability – can lead to rebellions if ignored!) to finish the campaign.
The Greenskinz faction best entertains the bloodthirsty pusher mentality: cheap units, good unit variety, and big armies. You must attack at every chance you can get and win your battles. Otherwise, you will cause political instability within your military. Those that choose this faction will also find themselves uniting Greenskin mobs that are at war with one another to create other large armies (aptly named WAAAGH!) for your fighting pleasure. This was the only faction I didn’t get around to playing, but whatever I could have said about it would not have topped Josh’s in-depth look into the faction. You can check out Josh’s video on our YouTube channel here.
Finally, the Vampire Counts rely on their magical prowess to raise ghastly platoons. Their sheer presence can cause fear in their enemies and political instability in their towns. Even though they do not have ranged weapons, their melee units are fast and their flying units are the best in the game. Units are also immune to panic, and their lords can cast spells to give them another edge. To top their bizarre play style off, they can resurrect fallen military units. I also found that they’re also a politically stable bunch – any time I tried to expand my empire into another province, I’d have a rebellion there in less than ten turns.
After you make the difficult choice of picking one faction, the goal is to meet a checklist of objectives. How many objectives you wish to fulfill is based on your desire to meet the short-term or long-term campaign victory. Irrespective of your skill level, these are not quick campaigns you can cram into a 6 hour sitting. Believe me, I tried – in my 200+ turn Vampire Counts play through on easy, I was nowhere close to decimating The Empire. Because there’s no sense of concrete progression in the form of a narrative, it’s easy to feel discouraged.
Other elements of the story come from random events that are either about surprise attacks (both for and against your faction) or scenarios where you must pick one of two options for rewards like more gold or political favor with your neighboring provinces. Aside from that, there are some dry and unrevealing cut scenes where your faction lord (leader) tries to inspire the troops before battle. If you’re looking for a gripping narrative where you want to have an emotional investment in a certain character or faction, this isn’t the anomaly you were looking for in the genre.
Rather than providing relatable characters and a wholesome narrative, the game exceeds expectations in its fluid mechanics on and off the battlefield. In every turn and decision, the mechanics become the story. It might just sound like one replaces another, but the game’s diplomatic elements and battles against lords or strongholds will leave you wanting to fight out the battles rather than skipping over them with the auto-solve feature.
The combat mechanics found on the battlefields of Total War: Warhammer are as beautiful as they are comprehensive. A pre-battle phase allows for you to arrange units in any way you see fit – have melee or missile units lead the way, instruct long range units to deplete their ammo by firing at whatever they can, or employ skirmish tactics to slow advancing enemy units. Battle tactics such as flanking will have a profound effect on the outcome, and strategies like charging the enemy will also have costs to unit fatigue. The AI of enemy factions know their strengths and play them well. Even on the easiest difficulty I was impressed by their ability to make alliances and attack smaller villages before they took on provincial capitals. You will get lost in the intricacies of every faction’s strategic potential and will only feel fulfilled once you’ve given each faction a go.
Heads-up displays and pop-up icons can be unobtrusive and add another layer of immersion. Though the battles can be long, there are options to speed it along or skip them altogether (if you have a high probability of winning). The textures and the models of the units were tastefully done and visually delicious – I just think that they missed an opportunity to do something better with the fighting animations.
As for the world outside of the real-time battle sequences, I found myself just as engaged in exploring new terrains with mobile armies (represented as large dwarfs). I cannot stress how large the map is. The attention to detail in creating diverse climates and areas is also worth mentioning, from picturesque medieval villages set in dense forests to the large brutish architecture of dwarf castles set high in the mountains. In the top left of the map, there’s even a Norse fishing village that looked too nice for me to raze. However, I was disappointed to see such a lack of detail in small environment pieces like the trees and grass.
The quality only worsened in the cut scenes. I distinctly remember dwarf armies looking like they had been created by cake artists – their colors looked matted, units were much more decrepit than their in-game counter parts, and armor sets looked cartoonishly ill-detailed.
The level-up system for leaders, technology trees, and city construction were straightforward and bountiful for the growth of your empire. While I found myself primarily focused on improving gold income and unlocking costly units, the only way to advance in your provincial developments is by catering to population growth for surplus points (used to upgrade the size of your castles or towns) and a positive public order rate. Depending on your faction, technology trees are different in terms of what they want to do and how you unlock them. For example, The Empire unlocks technologies based on the institutions they build while Dwarfs or Vampires have large expansive trees they can start from the beginning.
Even if you forgot about leveling something up, the system would remind you before ending your turn. It was a reassuring system that quelled most anxieties. As overwhelming as a turn felt, the system included a flurry of pop-up texts that were both informative and succinct. The game can get text-heavy from the get-go, so don’t be quick to dismiss the info bubbles.
The musical scores for this game were fine, but there was always this sinking feeling that I’ve heard the same medieval battle songs many times before. The sound effects, cues, and foley never sounded out of place. That’s not a harsh critique, as I’m sure there is a painstaking effort in implementing sound in games that often goes unappreciated. I see game sound effects as an art form that’s largely mentioned when done poorly and hardly praised when done well.
As the first title in its trilogy, Total War: Warhammer has established a commendable precedent and enabled my new found appreciation for the Total War franchise. I can’t help but appreciate a game whose genre exudes difficulty and high-level thinking that goes out of its way to break down the mechanics to make me feel competent. Its mechanics lend itself to a style that’s easy to learn, but difficult to master. The learning curve is quite steep, and at points I found myself looking up strategies on wikis to improve.
Even though I was picky about its graphical aspects, the game ran fine without issues in 60 FPS. Creative Assembly has not only been quick with its hotfixes, but also has a revered presence on the Total War subreddit.
I regret being so quick to dismiss the turn-based genre. With how many lucrative decisions I had to make in a turn, the only slow part about the game was my perception of time. I thought it was midnight, but it was actually three in the morning. I once said that it wasn’t my jam, and now I sit blissfully slathering bloody orc marmalade on many hours of my life.
Total War: Warhammer was reviewed on PC. The copy was given to us by the publisher.
Developer: Creative Assembly| Publisher: SEGA | Genres: Fantasy, RTS, Turn-Based | Platform: PC | PEGI/ESRB: 16/T | Release Date: May 24th, 2016