10 June, 2016

Review – Total War: Warhammer

The Old World may have been blasted to oblivion in one timeline, but the End Times have yet to pass in Total Waaagh: Warhammer, here’s our review!

Review – Total War: Warhammer


Total War: Warhammer


Total War: Warhammer is not the videogame rendition of the Warhammer Fantasy Battles table top game. It is a Total War game first and foremost; gameplay spilt between the turn-based campaign and real-time battles. And to speak generally for a moment, it is in terms of fully realised mechanics, faction differentiation, and battle flow, the best Total War game. Not perfect, naturally. And if you want historical authenticity, a grounded conflict of bygone eras, Warhammer isn’t the place for that – no surprises there, but as one of the Total War series’ defining traits it is worth bearing in mind.

Featuring just four playable factions (races) in the campaign; the Empire, Vampire Counts, Orcs, and Dwarves, Total War player may fear this will limit the strategic scope of the game, while Warhammer fans may lament the absence of their faction of choice. A quick aside; the Chaos Warriors faction was an early adopter bonus, now paid downloadable content, and a limited Bretonnian roster is available in skirmish and multiplayer.

Both are of course, perfectly valid responses, however the differences between the factions are considerable and I believe bold. This is perhaps best expressed by the Vampire Counts, who have no ranged units at all, or the Dwarves, who have no cavalry. They both have flying units though; Vargheists and Gyrocopters respectively. The Vampires can raise the dead, who are quietly literally fearless – though not unbreakable – and the Dwarves, having long ago mined the Old World, can use the underway to bypass emery armies or difficult terrain – on the campaign map.

Review – Total War: Warhammer vampire campaign

The Empire’s unit roster is most akin to a traditional Total War faction, with sword and spear infantry, ranged infantry, heavy cavalry, skirmishers, and artillery. They also field a diverse array of heroes; wizards of three schools, witch hunters, warriors priests, and captains of the Empire. Though I admit, the Steam Tank is decidedly less traditional than dudes with swords and hammers.

Lords and heroes are individuals on the campaign map and in battles, with individual levelling and gear progression. They are overhauled generals and agents respectively, from past Total War titles; they are the heart of Total War: Warhammer.

Many of the lords and heroes can direct the winds of magic; necromancers raise the dead, Bright wizards unleash gouts of flame, and so on. The magic system is broad and diverse – manifesting as rune for the Dwarves – and though it cannot win a battle alone, careful application and management of one’s magical reserves, can tip individual clashes in your favour. Free up a unit here or there and you suddenly have a means of surrounding and potentially overcoming a superior enemy. Like just about all aspects of the gameplay that I encountered, the magic system is well balanced and fully integrated.

Review – Total War: Warhammer magic

Heroes, like agents can perform acts of harassment, assassination, and the like. They differ however, in that they can accompany armies into battle, where they become powerful warriors capable of holding off entire units single handily. Lords are similar in many respects, but they lead armies, rather than perform clandestine actions. There are also unique legendary lords, each faction has a couple lifted straight from the Warhammer tomes, figures like; Karl Franz, Grimgor Ironhide, and so on.

These legendary lords have discreet stories; mission lines culminating in quest battles. The latter are not unlike historical battle from previous entries, these appear on the campaign map however. Moreover, historical battles were made challenging by the pre-set army rosters, in quest battles you command whatever you bring along. Naturally, I unwittingly over prepare, and so any tension the marginally scripted fights are intended to impose is lost, for they do not scale.

Review – Total War: Warhammer siege

It is through these quests, and campaign events surrounding the impending End Times, that Total War: Warhammer conducts its explicit storytelling. While I respected similar attempts in previous Total War games and expansions, Attila’s The Last Roman specifically, they have yet to improve. Alone that’s disappointing, but in the context of Warhammer it is truly problematic.

Warhammer is a world of stories; told on the table top, through the innumerable novels or source books, or in videogames. Total War: Warhammer demonstrates that it understands this fact, I suspect it also understand that its attempts at explicit narrative are pitiful; blurbs, not stories.  And so it attempts to leverage emergent storytelling, the lifeblood of its table top parent.

Review – Total War: Warhammer battle

The most effective strategy games in this storytelling arena are the ones whose systems consciously support and encourage the player to weave their own yearn. Like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, or better still, XCOM 2, with nameable, customisable, and eminently killable squad members. Total War: Warhammer takes steps in this direction; a greater focus on lords and heroes, actual characters, with player determined progression and outfitting. It also allows you to rename not only these characters, but individual units.

Suddenly my great weapon-wielding Chosen are not just Chaos Warriors, but Sigvald the Magnificent’s resplendent honour guard. Blessed by their lord and the Reveller, Slaanesh! Except they’re not, are they? They are still Chosen; they look no different than any other unit. They are certainly not Chosen of the Prince of Desire, wearing drab greys and matted furs.

Review – Total War: Warhammer sigvald

Chaos and its four patron gods are really only the most obvious symptom of a greater failure. They are paid only lip service, in description text and campaign events. Pick Khorne and receive a leadership bonus for the next three turns, side with Tzeencht and your heroes will gain more experience – or other similarly unimposing faction buffs. The Chaos gods are not merely an element of the Warhammer lore, they may not be shoved into appendices, nor relegated to footnotes. They are Chaos, and Chaos is the evil of the Warhammer world. Evil transcending time, space, and matter. Evil in its purest forms.

Orcs are violent yes, but there’s an element of whimsy there, animalistic misguidance. Vampires suck the blood of mortals sure, but did Nagash not realise it is better to oppose Chaos rather than submit to it? As I said, this is but a manifestation of the true problem, which is that Total War: Warhammer fails to understand that my warriors are nothing like yours.

Whether playing in the campaign, multiplayer, or skirmish, you play as ‘The Empire’, or ‘The Orcs’, and so forth. That Sigvald’s warriors are no different than Archaon’s is troublesome, for Sigvald’s banner is not that of Chaos Undivided. That my soldiers, regardless of faction, will always be the same as yours, is sacrilege. An affront to Warhammer. 

Review – Total War: Warhammer Orcs

It is about more than just customisation, it’s about emergent storytelling. When I paint a miniature, or even a whole unit, I build identity and connection, paint is but the medium. And when I see someone else’s miniature I can pick out details, painted or modelled, understand the colours. I get the taste, the flavour of a character, even though I know nothing about it, or likely its creator. As evidenced by the lords and heroes, and the surrounding mechanics, Total War: Warhammer is cognisant of this element of Warhammer, yet its efforts to invoke it are shallow.
Review – Total War: Warhammer 4/5 good

It is an excellent Total War game; the flow of battle sublime, the campaign rife with hardships. The magic systems, moreover the lords and heroes, do not only find a place within the battlefield mechanics, but carve one out bloodily, spectacularly. Never before have Total War armies been so different and unique, visually and in terms of unit types and capability. What’s more these varied unit types and rosters interact satisfyingly – everything feels powerful, everything is powerful, or at least appropriately so, as Warhammer demands. Total War: Warhammer takes steps to realise the essence of its source material; its propensity for storytelling. But the game goes only so far, and so the soul of Warhammer remains just beyond its reach.

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