In the beginning, there was war. So says Sigmar Heldenhammer, the patron god of the humans in the Warhammer universe. So too says Creative Assembly, which since the year 2000 has been revolutionising war gaming on PC gamer’s screens. Merging tabletop gaming’s most iconic franchise with the inventor of the battle simulator genre was an inspired decision. But it was not a surefire one. Warhammer and Total War share many obvious similarities, but also they also have crucial differences. Exposing Total War to the myth and majesty of the Warhammer world offers hardcore fans something new and exciting, but it also misses a golden opportunity to fix some of the systematic problems plaguing the series as a whole, and the opportunity to push the game’s real time battles in a more radical and inventive direction.
Total War: Warhammer fits the Total War mold. It is two games in one; a turn based meta-strategy game – in the tradition of Civilization or Crusader Kings – and a real time battle simulator, where you physically control the units and characters in your armies in order to outsmart, outwit and ultimately crush your foes. It’s a format that’s worked incredibly well for Total War’s previous incarnations as historical epics. But Creative Assembly was rapidly running out of history books to build their games around. Turning to Warhammer was a welcome move. Bringing in new characters, new threats, and new armies injects new life into a series that was starting to flag. But it is also locates a Total War game, for the first time, wholly in the realm of fiction, pushing the series further away from the realism that is its raison d'être.
This is most obvious in the way Total War: Warhammer’s campaign map operates. The most obvious new addition is the vast range of not only factions but races that inhabit the Warhammer world. From the Vampire Counts of the east, to the Dwarves of the Mountains, to the fractious factions of the human Empire, there is a much wider range of strategic options and personalities on the campaign map than in previous games. Creative Assembly has reflected these differences in the gameplay itself. For example, Dwarven cities can only be captured by Dwarves, roving bands of Orcs can’t trade with other races, and humans are their own worst enemies, and these additions add a level of strategic complexity that was starting to fall away in previous Total War titles. Gone are the days where your armies could simply rampage through the world occupying and or destroying rival cities. Now, there might be no point in attacking those pesky Dwarves to the south, so building alliances, entering into trade, and fostering diplomatic relations becomes much more important than in previous titles.
However, some old problems with the series’ turn-based gameplay still remain. For a start, the interface remains clunky and hard to use. This is a problem, because as your empire grows – and as engagements with rival armies become less important – you will be spending much of your time here. For veteran Total War gamers, the new interface will be broadly familiar. For new players enticed by the Warhammer pictures on the box, it will be a key frustration. Odd decisions have also been made about how to manage your world. Armies, for example, can only be raised after recruiting a Lord, and only cities can recruit Lords. When Lords are garrisoned inside cities they can purchase units at a discount, significantly increasing your ability to get a fighting force up and ready. But, for some inexplicable reason, Lords spawn outside their city, leading to many accidentally expensive armies – often at crucial strategic moments.
The in-game economy also remains difficult to manage. As in life, money is scarce and hard to come by. Due to the imbalance between the pace of the game’s strategic threats and the time it takes to get your money growing, many turns are spent hiring – and then firing – armies in an unintended micro-game named Warhammer: Total Accountant. This is made even more problematic by the poor diplomacy AI that has plagued previous titles. The AI still appears too formulaic and scripted, seeming to not acknowledge or learn from previous decisions you have made. This takes the gloss off an otherwise interesting and varied diplomatic experience, which, with its new mix of races and factions, does add significantly to the overall fun of the campaign. This is buttressed by a style of gameplay which, overall, Total War fans have come to love. The pavlovian desire to play one more turn is as much alive in Total War: Warhammer, as it was in Shogun or Rome.
But what is missing is a greater sense of majesty. From turn to turn, there is not much driving the campaigning experience forward. It is here where the tension between realism and fiction is most acute. What makes tabletop Warhammer so much fun is the lore and the myth that surrounds each character, each class, and even each unit on the field. Whenever the lovingly hand-painted Emperor Karl Franz led his Greatswords against Archaon the Everchosen and his Chaos Marauders, gamers were shown not just a meeting of armies but a meeting of myth. Despite having the right setting and the right names, this sense of story is buried behind Total War: Warhammer’s stat screens, city management menus, and advisory messages. Even a late game invasion from the Northern wastes of the rather small (but lore accurate) map does little to infuse the game’s campaign with that sense of grim dark terror that pervades the Warhammer universe and the thumbed pages of White Dwarf.
This lackluster feel is also evident in the game’s real time battles. While Creative Assembly has paid attention to the wealth of new units that the Warhammer universe offers, the battles play out like the Total War we are familiar with, rather than a PC reimagining of the tabletop game. This does not offer much new in the way of tactics from what we have seen before. A cannon is a cannon, there is no real difference if it’s Dwarven or Napoleonic. But a cannon is still a cannon, and they are damn fun to fire mercilessly at rampaging Greenskins. So even with its familiarity of format Total War: Warhammer’s battles are worthwhile, and on harder difficulty modes they present a real challenge.
While the look and feel of those battles are typical, the two crucial additions of magic and of new races creates welcome depth. With magic, Creative Assembly has managed to nicely tie together environmental effects in the campaign map with solid battle choices. Throughout the campaign map, the “winds of magic” will blow faster in some areas over others, changing as the turns tick over. This can have a big impact on the number of spells your spell casters can fire off, and the potency of each. Much like weather in previous titles, the winds of magic can be gambled with at the start of each battle, strengthening or lessening their effects. The addition of magic and spell casters (who sadly are special characters and are limited in number) greatly expand the tactical options available; a well-placed Shem’s Gaze fireball can turn the tide of any battle.
The greater variety of units and characters that can now be fielded in battle also drive forward the experience. While previous titles may have had horses with different colored flags, Total War: Warhammer infuses each battle with a heady mix of steampunk machinery, cannons, swords, beasts, or even giant spiders. But this is both a blessing and curse. While the units look different and create a more impressive battle-scape, they don’t behave in unconventional ways. This is a missed opportunity which highlights again the philosophical tension between a realistic battle simulator borne from historical books and a fictional fantasy world given flesh by the mind. The result is a Greenskin troll that behaves like an Assyrian elephant. This is a disappointment.
Creative Assembly’s collaboration with Warhammer boldly attempts to mix together two well-loved franchises. Fans of the Total War series and Warhammer as a tabletop game will definitely enjoy what it has to offer. But Creative Assembly’s ethos is rooted in the real, which clashes directly against Warhammer’s fantastical nature. After hours of playthrough, this battle is not resolved one way or the other. While it results in a game that is good, an opportunity has been missed to push the Total War series into new and unexplored territory. The Total War: Warhammer experience is fun and engaging, but one can only wonder what it might have become, had it been loosed from the chains of the possible.