Game Name: Total War: Warhammer (2016)
Developer: Creative Assembly (Total War has been *around* son. History-based warfare drips from their very walls…. and Alien: Isolation scurries their ducts.)
Platform: PC (reviewed on PC)
Categories: Multiplayer, Multi-Faction, Campaigns, Turn-Based Strategic Overworld, Pause-able Tactics Orchestration, Massive Battles, Gorefest (with DLC), Fantasy Horror, Board Game Adaptation
May Appeal To: tabletop gaming titans and miniatures collectors, those looking for an entry into the Warhammer world, eye candy sweet-tooths, Lord of the Rings insatiables, and anyone seeking chaotically organic war mongering.
May Repulse: tactile skirmishers looking for quick satisfaction, proud owners of blunting-edge PC technology, comrades whom fear the DLC onslaught, and those craving granular controls over troop positioning.
Comparable To: Total War in all its shapes and forms – this matches those games with the exception of historically accurate Japanese shoguns and muskets being replaced by magically deified fists slamming into the battlefield as volcanic brimstone peppers your throng of hulking, cannibalistic greenskins invading the Chaos Marches. Scale-wise, this is a string of Forged Alliance battles set on end and the overworld strikes me reminiscent of either ‘Disciples’ or ‘Heroes of Might and Magic’. Let’s throw a comparison to ‘Kingdom Under Fire’ out there as well – it’s pretty close.
Learning Curve: An introductory battle and short-term goals prep you for each race’s subtleties. I’d say you could grasp the rest in under a couple hours.
Game Length: 20 minutes per one-off battle, maybe 40 hours for a thorough campaign
Difficulty: Variable and adjustable. Naturally, starting positions and ticks make it harder.
Mastery: True mastery requires online competition, which I’m just not up for. There exists multiple game settings and factions to mix it up and I never unlocked all researches in a normal playthrough. Tactics, counters, and troop composition can always be improved.
Story: Undoubtedly, Warhammer has an intricate and diverse backstory for each of our five factions in this game (Dwarf, Empire, Greenskins, Chaos, and Vampire Counts), though it does a great job of obscuring whatever fiction has previously been delved and explored in other media. Flavor text, quotes, and the odd hint at such relationships between named characters in this timeless struggle merely spit shine the framework built solely around combat it seems – one of complete warfare, if you will.
Why, one might get the impression that these combatants knew not what illustrious architecture and works the others create; that chiseled halls of subterranean majesty or mammoth citadels in all their snowy glory were aligned into being for the rich bloodsport of “disembody your neighbor’s menagerie of pets” alone. Indeed, the breathtaking backdrops conflict subtly with the mindset required to outwit your foe’s head from their very shoulders. For that reason, I soon found myself unbuckling a notch on my belt, pushing the table forward, and saying, “Yes that’s quite enough warfare for me thank you very much. What do you have in the way of story?”
It’s there…. I can feel it. But alas, the paragraphs detailing why your chosen abomination is suitable for kicking ass and the buttery-smooth poetry describing the waves of Chaos invasion leaves me craving some good ol’ narrative. Get it elsewhere, I suppose.
Synopsis: Ubiquitous old human approaches selected faction. “Have at it”, he says in not so many words. You kill everyone with smug satisfaction; The End.
Presentation: Glorious. Foreboding wardrums beat your eardrums senseless and tribal whoops wallop the fanfare of either victory or shameful, devastating defeat to echo throughout the gloom. The bestial elements of friends’ and foes’ armies never looked so terrifyingly tangible, their animations, textures, design and mannerisms strikingly realized to the smallest detail. You zoom out to survey the battlefields’ pitfalls, issue orders, and then hit ‘K’ on your keyboard to hide the UI and watch it unfold from a troop’s eyes in spectacular slow motion. Pause as necessary to grab the desktop-worthy screenshots. (Pre-recorded cinematics look like crap compared to the shockwaves, fire, charges, and decapitations you see in standard battles.)
Unique Features: This has epic fantasy battles involving thousands of rendered units storming castle walls, hurling bombs, slicing throats, riding boars, casting scars of magic carnage, using flamethrowers, and flying through the air on skeletal steeds. You get the total package of managing provinces and construction bonuses on a simplified territory map, and the thrill of cobbling a force capable of collecting all the “teef” required to establish elevated posture over the rabble. This game can be played as an RTS or TBS. The de-emphasis of stat crunching and the simulation of corralled chaos through metrics involving Leadership, Morale, Fear, ‘Fightiness’, and others really lends a unique quality to the skirmishes and digs a gaping trench you fill with the personal hatred towards that particular enemy which just won’t submit to your will. The equipment loadout, levels, spells, and personal attendants you assign to *each* of your squad leaders or heroes (whom run around assassinating, sapping, and demoralizing willy-nilly) solidify a “relationship” you develop with the lieutenants in your conquest. In short, you actually become your vicarious empire and suffer and celebrate along with it.
Gameplay: Plan, tax, build, reconnoiter, plunder. Raise, engage, maneuver, charge, pillage. You manage 2-20 provinces that each have 2 or 3 cities spread across an obtusely shaped land plot with its own unique choke points. With crested banners representing your collaborative forces, you leapfrog a handful of these about the map and lure your opponents into overextending their jurisdiction, at which point you gang up and slam them with the most units possible. In many ways, this is like a board game with territories clearly defining places where your forces take attrition, what factors affect population growth/happiness, and what borders are friendly vs the type that are torn between the decision to eat your skull or merely fuck it. Navigating the overworld, trading coin for political favor, and rallying armies are pretty standard fare for this game type, though maneuvering your slipshod forces and whipping them into compliance among the strewn corpses of allies is another story.
On the battlefield, you don’t control individual creatures/creations with fine precision but have amorphous blobs stretching and melding with the first obstruction that crosses their paths. A) this behavior feels substantially more authentic than having a dozen troops with identical animation cycles hypnotically moving like a school of mackerel B) emulates the slight frustration assumedly evoked from barking general attack orders atop a hill, only to have them *mostly* interpreted in the manner intended. Getting your teeming masses to envelop engaged swarms, outflank approaching monsters, and protect uncommitted clouds of weaker units is definitely an art form in the Sun Tzu sense. Maintaining a semblance of control is indeed a separate challenge, as the Morality mechanic quite happily usurps your revoked authority in having 5 elite forces suddenly opt leadership from some shiny thing immediately off camera. Strategic Retreat!
First-time players may think the game unresponsive, when in reality it’s accounting for collision between units, the unit’s battle mode (such as Ranged Skirmish overruling your clicks), mobility/speed, the attack cycle, in-game effects the unit suffers, or even terrain. Quite often though, I had to hit ‘P’ multiple times to register a pause.
Additional Comments: There’s a lot of surface stuff involving light city building elements and diplomacy that reminds me squarely of other great games in the genre, though the enticement of controlling these bristling troops at this scale is really the main focus. Everything else is just bonus.
What I Liked: The graphics and sounds are feats to behold. The UI is simple, and the math used to calculate turns-per-change, metrics, and other stats are evident/present. I never used it, though I liked the idea of external wiki links on game concepts. As always, the battles are incredulously fantastic.
The nuances of the different races are also well-implemented, compelling, and you actually start to gain a sense of your faction’s worldview [maybe even adopt their traits]. To summarize their differences briefly:
Orks: Winning battles and raiding provinces gains you Fightiness per army. Once you hit a threshold, an influence-able army appears that effectively doubles your force. If you lose battles or sit idle for too many days, Fightiness drops and Orks get depressed about not maintaining a momentum of bashing skulls and generalized mayhem. It’s a razor’s edge.
Dwarves: They’re tough, know shortcuts through mountain passes, and share a trustworthy demeanor with kinfolk and outsiders, alike. Unfortunately, Dwarves record every infarction against them and give the player a set time to defeat a foe in combat, develop a new technology, or retake a lost settlement before grudge penalties incur.
Vampires: They can raise entire armies from the scattered bones of a previous battle without slowing down or leaving a March stance. They also don’t have ready allies, likely due to essential vampiric corruption which causes massive unhappiness in its absence from vampiric cities. They don’t have ranged units but use fear as an equalizer.
Empire: This is your ho-hum human type that is reasonably good at everything and doesn’t offer any particular weaknesses or strength. They do have a council member hierarchy which allows for bonus anointment regarding army leaders. Additionally, their starting position is smack dab in the map’s middle so diplomacy is required.
Chaos (DLC): They’re a horde that is neither tethered to nor able to control cities – which means money is gained from looting and healing is done in the field (they’re damn hard to heal). Additionally, Chaos can’t be within a certain distance of another army it controls or infighting occurs. Its units are considerably more powerful than other racial equivalents.
What I Disliked: I’ve sunk at least a hundred turns per faction and appreciated all of them except Chaos, which was a pre-order bonus. They’re also DLC so somebody out there probably bought this race and hates them like I do. Either Chaos didn’t suit my playstyle or I’m creating insurmountable troubles centered around A) the inability to heal quickly enough B) the infighting mechanic dissuading me from raping fortified settlements C) the maddening design decision that prevents looting FOLLOWED BY razing a city to the ground. (In some cases I had to spend two extra turns in rebuilding siege equipment for a previously-dead town and re-initiating the option to kill it.)
There are long load times. Also, since you’re commanding mini-blobs, there is some degree of disconnect between your commands and the result. This may dissuade some from micro-managing though it is quite possible to do so. During enemy turns, the game could have shown movement positions on a map – which arbitrarily zooms/rotates and muddles my spatial reasoning, leading to second-guessing what recent actions took place where. (Maybe an arrow or log would resolve the problem?)
Before each battle, a simple red/yellow slider exists for the purpose of estimating outcomes of pitched battles. Beware its lies. This slider is egregiously incorrect at times and it changes upon initiating a manual battle (or a manual battle proves how inaccurate the initial guess-timation is). Hit “Auto-resolve” when the yellow is 70%, only.
Furthermore, blood -which is often a menu checkbox in most games- is extraneous DLC here. And it’s implemented poorly. When selecting unit groups, the blood texture drenches their lower-left portrait a split second too late. Plus most units get obscenely/unrealistically soaked in less than 2 minutes of combat.
Glitches Experienced: There were scant few of these, but a scenario called upon me to choose either “Right the Wrong” or “Honor is All” with identical responses and benefits/detriments. (Which is uncannily familiar to real life decisions IMHO.)
This game crashed on me 5 times when I was trying to make a specific city/army exchange in the Underground stance. Looking back, this may have been due to unchecked memory usage though I curtailed that later by putting the option back (its resource greedy if you let it). Beyond that, only a small amount of mid-battle crashes occurred though it wasn’t prevalent enough to wreck my fun or put me in a state of Save Paranoia. You can’t save mid-battle by the way -feature or flaw.
Irritatingly, the game also harped on needing to update my drivers every time I booted up. Keep in mind that a manual search for newer ones yielded no such thing.
Hours I Played: 167 – enough for a completed campaign in each of the main factions and three fruitless endeavors with Chaos (I quit because they’re tedious)
My Personal Reaction: The Total War dressing suits Warhammer perfectly – it’s as if these two franchises were destined to forcefully rut and create some beautiful lovechild reeking of self-indulgently gratuitous fantasy violence in unrestrained portions. I don’t usually gush about visuals, but hot damn this sizzles! The TW formula is as good as ever here (I’ve been a fan through Shogun, Shogun 2, Rome, and Medieval 2) though this Warhammer theme is especially welcome and somehow manages to improve both gaming experiences simultaneously. *I also played Warhammer minis as Bretonnia back in the day, but suffered a lack of painted enemies and an abundance of cheaters.
Full-tilt, it’s just addictive and fun to play. The battle style is engrossing and it’s highly immersive to take charge in hammering out the path to pyrrhic victories without getting lost in a sea of minutiae. Complexity is usually my thing, though I’ve always held a special place in my heart for Creative Assembly’s meticulously rendered battle sequences. The fact that it faithfully represents its source material is just icing.
Despite not representing all playable factions this still feels like a full game -until Total Cost: Warhammer triples in value due to unreleased factions rounding out the stable of existing lore and love from the tabletop world. Indeed, this gaming experience is likely the start of quite the cash cow (if my profit-dar is still functioning properly).
Noob Tips: ‘K’ hides the UI for screenshots; ‘P’ is pause. When possible, keep your army flags in proximity on the overworld and learn the stances. Don’t underestimate population happiness and respond accordingly. Don’t play the Dwarves unless you want to get frustrated by their Book of Old Man Gripes. When in doubt of the strength assessment ranking, take manual control of battles to tip the odds. Despite appearances, heroes and leaders are the most important units you control. Buy strategic partnerships from your neighbors and recognize which settlements are colonizeable. Double-check those boundaries and ranges during movement – sometimes they blend within a province border and an action needs to be verified as taking one turn or two.
Depth and Replayability: Mid to High. I found a lot of pleasure replaying the campaign from a different faction, and they have solo/multiplayer battles if you don’t have time to commit to that. Many elite units can’t be produced until the latter half so you’re stuck with spear-wielding grunts often and battles will initially be “samey”. That could be a detractor.
Suggested Value: $60, The jury is out on whatever DLC comes our way though I’m apt to buy it all. $4 regarding blood visuals when it should have been an in-game toggle is Total Bullshit: Warhammer.
Where to Buy: Humble Bundle, Steam, https://www.totalwar.com, or at a physical retailer if you feel like experiencing the light of day before resigning yourself to a campaign.
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