I was about 20 hours into my Dwarf campaign when I knew that Total War: Warhammer had its hooks in me and wasn’t letting go. That’s not a sideways way of saying that it took that long to get into the game; this is no Final Fantasy XIII where the consensus stands that it takes a full 30 hours to get the game to open up and “get good” so to speak. With it’s combination of tactical battles and Civilization like nation building, the need to play another turn was already strong, but it was at that point, when Thorim Grudgebearer, High King of the Dawi and the lead Lord of my armies, started making moves with me as his voice, that the game became something greater.
Let me set the scene. For the previous 20 hours, I had mostly been sticking to the southern lands, driving a great big ax and a couple of thousand crossbow quarrels into the heart of Greenskin, read Orks and Gobins, territory. The Dwarves, as a people, are stocky and strong, and they bring this philosophy into their armed conflicts, molding their armies into a kind of rock solid mass. Where other races, like humans or their monstrous counterparts the Vampire Lords, have options like cavalry units that can cross great swathes of battlefield to break the enemies lines, Dwarves have no such choices. Instead, they become a wall, with their infantry specializing in breaking charges, while Quarrelers, their version of crossbowmen, and Thunderers, same concept only armed with guns, reduce the enemy to a pile of stuck nothingness.
The Greenskins, on the other hand, are the polar opposite. Their armies are ruled by a stat called Fightiness, a scale on the side of their General’s portrait that measures how well the savage orks and goblins are kept in check. When fightiness dips to low, the army begins to suffer from attrition as they begin to fight each other. But, if the fightiness gets high enough a WAAAAAAAAH!, basically a brand new AI controlled army, is summoned, doubling the threat of the invading force immediately. This put my Dwarves in an interesting position; either turtle up and prepare for the fight to eventually come to me, or push southwards with what armies I had, and hope that Zhufbar, another dwarven clan and my closest ally, could hold the north against the Vampire Lords. I marched south.
Fast forward sometime and we arrive at the faithful moment. Continuing his romp in the southern lands, one of my Lords, Rorek, who has been so successful in his campaign that Total War assigned him the title of Ork Bane, has finally pinned the Greenskins down. Seeing a chance to help out a quickly fading Zhufbar, and also wipe the Greenskins completely out of the north, I march the Grudgebearer through the mountains, using the Dwarves ability to travel underground through the Underway, And then I see them. Coming south along the same path is a Chaos army.
The Chaos are a force of nature. Barbarians from the northern wastes who have given themselves completely over to the darker powers, They are monstrous, in both size and force, and they act against everyone on the map, and every major faction in the game has to deal with them during their campaign in order to be successful. My first act against them came in the mountains of Zhufbar, and they crashed, fully and completely, against the impenetrable force that was Thorim Grudgebearer.
But the thing that sent it over the edge happened on my approach to Zhufbar, when within a turn of rescuing them, the main Zhufbar force retreated back through my army. They ran. RAN. I was seething. My dwarves charged forward stepping in front of the Chaos army as they attacked the Zhufbar gates. I wrecked them. Destroyed them where they stood. And when the smoke cleared, I brought up the Diplomacy screen, and demanded, in no uncertain terms, that Zhufbar immediately place all their holdings under the High King. They acquiesced, like the dogs they are, and Zhufbar, both the province and the clan, were mine.
There are more stories, naturally, and I think that kind of open narrative is one of the best things that Total War: Warhammer has going for it. While I haven’t played the more historical entries of the series, this waltz through fantasy territory seems made for moments like those, in much the same way that Shadow of Mordor created its own mini-narratives. Much like Shadow, though, Warhammer doesn’t survive to make those narratives without a solid technical foundation.
My favorite part of that foundation is the differences between the four main factions. Despite the objective being functionally the same, how each faction goes about surviving, thriving, and eventually achieving victory is completely different. I mentioned Fightiness before when talking about the Greenskins, and it defines their style of play, forcing you to keep on the offensive more than anything else. On top of that, any technologies they are able to research, like expanding their armies to include larger beasts, are slow going since so much of their economy and identity is wrapped up in the physical act of fighting.
The Human Empire, on the other hand, is a web of bureaucrats, with government positions available to both Lords and Heroes. These positions not only grant various bonuses to the round by round running of the kingdom, but they also open up the Empire’s technology tree. Their position in the world, surrounded by other nations they hope to bring under the Emperor’s sway, also allows them to really play with Total War’s diplomatic options, as it’s not always a fight that needed to bring someone to your side.
Born from humans, the Vampire Lords are unique in that they rely on corrupting the very land beneath them to survive. Much like the Empire, the Lords (there are more than one, but the only one that really matters is the player controlled Manfred von Carstein) are also surrounded completely, with the Empire themselves on the north and the Zhufbar dwarves to the south, but unlike their more natural cousins, the Vampires have huge penalties to Diplomacy. They also have some interesting combat options, with the bulk of their forces being raised from the dead. Skeletons and zombies form the base of their armies, while more advanced Black Riders and ethereal Cairn Wraiths wreak havoc on frightened foes. All the strength on ground though is countered by a complete lack of missile units, which means they have to get up close to hurt you… a fact my dwarves exploited more than once.
Past the general army and the multitude of units available to fill, each faction has a set of three hero classes that can also be filled out. Outside of general flavor, they all function the same. Besides being another named unit outside of the army leading lords, they can also move freely about the map, and interact with the cities and armies of other factions. They gain experience just like Lords, and even come complete with their own sets of skills to level up. Access to Heroes comes as you develop your cities, with most lying in the top two tiers of buildings you have the ability to access.
Their placement means that more often than not, you’ll see the heroes of other factions before you have a decent grouping of your own. It wouldn’t be a huge deal, except that their head start results in a huge experience gap. If their only abilities were things like slowing down your army, or causing damage inside of cities, it would be super easy to ignore. Instead, you prime interaction with other heroes is through assassination, or their ability to wound/kill both your lords and your heroes. The chance they’re successful, as well as your chance of being successful, is all dependent on some wild background math and a fair amount of random… nonsense that always seems to go the AI’s direction.
Now, had I chosen another race to first to play through, perhaps I might not be so hard on the hero system. But I chose the Dwarves. And where the Empire has their little government, and the Greenskins have their Fightiness, Dwarves have a Book of Grudges. Every little slight is recorded in the Book of Grudges. If a faction attacks, it’s recorded and you need to attack back. If a hero assassinates or wounds a lord or hero, it’s recorded and you need to do the same thing. It’s a neat system, because depending on who you have as allies, the grudges you collect can force you to play in ways you wouldn’t in order to fulfill them.
Unless we’re dealing with heroes. Trying to successfully act against a level 19 Greenskin Big Boss with a level 5 Thane because the Big Boss killed the the level 14 Thane you had is an exercise in frustration. And then I got hit by a Chaos hero. And then wiped out the main Chaos force, driving them back into the wastes beyond my reach. And the grudge remained. THE GRUDGE REMAINED. So with no heroes worth their assassinating salt, I was forced to do the only thing a grudge holding dwarf could… send my armies north and wipe out every last barbarian alive. That, two hundred turns in, is where I left Thorin Grudgebearer.
Leaving that grudge unresolved, Total War: Warhammer is gorgeous in that way that real high fantasy tends to be. The overworld map, complete with all the moving pieces, is bright and easy to read. Areas like the Greenskin badlands, and the surrounding wastes, look just as dangerous to travel across as they are. Vampiric corruption renders the ground dark and ashy, and as it spreads to the surrounding provinces it begins to slowly turn the land against its owners. Chaos spreads from the cities they raze, splitting the earth like the destructive force of nature it is. Capital cities, like the High King’s own Karak Karan, or the Imperial Seat of Altdorf, expand out over their respective areas, with the former shining resplendently across an entire mountain side.
The battlefields are just as varied. Topography plays a huge part in ranged combat, and units can be hidden behind hills or within forested areas, allowing for all manner of tactics. Army setup is as easy as selecting a unit and dragging into the formation you want them, with all pre-battle planning happening instantly, while any troop moves during the battle play out in real time. I wish there were a few more options to allow for mass formation moves without having to drag in separate groups, but otherwise, it’s very easy to make what you see in your head happen in front of you. The actual battles themselves amaze as armies crash into each other. A charging cavalry blows through a line of soldiers like a strong wind, throwing bodies left and right. Giants slam and scoop, while a huge Arachnarok Spider, complete with a bevy of goblin riders, decimate entire armies (while just the thought of a spider that big asks why the dwarves haven’t figured out a way to just bomb the Greenskins from orbit). The examples could keep going, because every faction has a tremendous assortment of units with different forms and functions.
In fact, Total War: Warhammer’s variety and adaptability, in terms of units, narrative, or flat out technical function, is its greatest strength. By building on a strong foundation, it allows its players the freedom of determining their own destiny, with little in the way of flaws holding it back. Sure, I may have some grudges that may never be removed from the great book, but in the end, this is the best experience I’ve had, bar none, when it comes to real time strategy games.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!