Total War: Warhammer Review

  • First Released Apr 28, 2016
  • PC

More blood for the Blood God!

Screeching gears, rhythmic boot steps, and the soft crunch of fresh snow. These were the first notes of my invasion. I sought the Dwarfen capital of Karak Varn. The Dwarfs, hardy and resilient though they may be, were a thorn for my new allies, the green-skinned Orcs and goblins. I held my siege for weeks, and while my foes’ numbers dwindled, mine grew. After each clash, I wrenched the newly dead from the earth and added them to my fiendish, Vampire hordes. Siege engines ready, and carried yon by fresh Dwarfen zombies, I steeled my undead warriors for the final assault.

When the battle started, I surrounded my enemy's commander with Vargheists--monstrous, man-eating bats--and sent battering rams for the gates. But that wasn't enough, not nearly. Dwarfs are hardy. They rarely break ranks or flee in terror no matter how ferocious their opponent. I needed more. When the gates broke, I rushed in with ethereal cavalry, immune to normal weapons and equipped with scythes that bypassed even the sturdiest armor. In minutes, my ghastly corps had torn through Karak Varn's defenders. This was Warhammer, and this was Total War.

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The Total War series has, until now, balanced historical realism with strategic play. During campaigns (which you can play either alone or with others) you’ll refine your statecraft, research technology, and manage your economy to keep your armies well-supplied. All this takes place on a continent scaling political map detailing borders, important landmarks and troop detachments. Should two opposing forces meet, the game will pull in to show the skirmish. Here, you’ll micromanage movement and use battlefield tactics to out maneuver foes. Your decisions and political position throughout the game would have major effects on the sorts of troops and supplies you could field for any given battle. Warhammer, however, has always been about tactics, and for more than 30 years, it's been one of the most popular fantasy settings around, with a rich lore and vibrant tournament scene for its tabletop miniature game. Mixing the two raised a lot of questions about how Creative Assembly's attentiveness to historical detail would work with vampires, demons, and magic. But, the result is a sight to behold. Not only is it one of the most faithful adaptations of Warhammer's mythos, it is also far and away the best Total War has ever been.

That is, in no small part, due to the natural marriage of Warhammer as a setting and Total War's gameplay as a foundation. While troop movements and formations have always been an essential part of Total War, you were always playing with human beings as your pawns. That foundation in real-world history kept the series somewhat limited. Yes, it was a joy to see elite Celtic warriors square off against Caesar's legions, but there are only so many ways those fights can go.

Warhammer shakes that up in a big way. With the addition of irresponsibly large cannons, apparitions, gyrocopters, and powerful spells, the amount of time you need to spend learning what you and your foes can bring to bear on the battlefield is staggering. But it's worth it. Skirmishes are an artful dictation with two (or more) minds jockeying for control, prodding weak points, breaking lines, and exploiting new fronts of attack. These fights don't get old.

Total War: Warhammer is an interlocking network of smart decisions. Integrating the Warhammer universe with Total War's systems was the first of these.

Part of that comes from how distinct all of the main factions are. The Empire is a Roman-esque monolithic force. They're organized, effective generalists. Bretonnians, an Arthurian band of humans, use pegasi and holy lances to cleanse evil. The Greenskins pull from Warhammer's own brand of classic fantasy orcs and goblins. Silly, obnoxious, and blood-thirsty, they come with complex internal politics. If you're not waging enough war, measured by a stat called "fightiness," other factions will sprout and make with the killing that you haven't.

Vampire Counts are a genuine undead faction. They bolster their lines by draining life from others and reviving the dead from massive battles. They can swarm the field with countless warriors and can even raise more midway through a bout. In exchange, their units usually fall apart. They will never run in fear, though; instead, they crumble as their will to press on after death fades. Dwarfs are their opposite, with heavily armored and armed troops. They pull in staunch defenders that will hold a battle line long enough for their enemies to be ripped to shreds with machine guns and cannon fire.

Like its tabletop namesake, Total War: Warhammer balances these disparate forces well. Each faction has a bevy of gameplay options that mesh, but there is no one right way to play--leaning into their strengths and mixing it up with the occasional oddball tactic works here. That's supported with magic, which can turn the tide of all kinds of fights. From chasing down an opposing lord and sapping his life with a Vampiric curse to causing an enemy unit to chafe and itch, magic augments formations and movements and only ever broadens your scope of tactical choices.

Because most magic users are lords and heroes, this also means your leaders play a critical role in battle. They can often handle entire battalions on their own, and when you lose one, it's much more akin to losing a queen in chess than a beefed-up soldier. While protecting a lord was important in prior games, now it's vital, and maneuvers tend to reflect that. Because of their strength, it's advantageous to have them at or very near the front lines. So you're faced with a choice in how you protect the lord and maximize his potential without risking a loss.

That, in turn, influences your other choices. As the Vampires, do you want to take ethereal cavalry and press against enemy lines thereby leaving your often less-than-mobile lord undefended? Or, based on the spells you've taken to battle, will you charge in with your leader, summon a few squadrons of zombies to hold your foe, and sweep with your support units? Your choices are augmented and modified by everything else at play--such as the terrain, which you can use for surprise attacks--as well as the minutiae of your foe's plans. Everything matters, and every choice has an impact.

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Campaigns throw even more variables into that mix. Like previous Total War games, you can take command of a country and balance your strategies (economic, cultural, etc.) and your tactics (individual battles). Here things go from beautifully intricate to elaborate master stroke.

Each of the four major factions (that is Empire, Vampires, Greenskins, and Dwarfs) have their own campaigns with major battles, quests, and goals. Unlike previous Total War games where you'd have a smattering of small distinctions to separate each group, these races are distinct. Vampires are reviled by the living (for good reason) and have a hard time with diplomacy. To survive and remain stable, they have to poison and corrupt the land. Dwarfs and Greenskins can travel underground, and have constructed settlements that only they can capture.

The Empire is all about forming tight diplomatic bonds and working together with the other nations of men. Collectively, each of these groups is preparing for the coming Chaos--an absolute evil corrupting force that marches from the north. The Warriors of Chaos have some of the most powerful and devastating units. They also spread their own corrupting force, which can, on its own, cause rebellion and terror in living and unliving empires alike.

Again, each of these pieces works together and helps texture the overarching narrative. At first, these races push their own petty agenda. But as the Game of Thrones-y threat grows in the north, you can try to band together with the others and hold off the impending invasion. At the same time, you'll have proximal, race-dependent goals for victory, which strain how you'll manage these larger threats. Vampires, for example, not only have to help stop the Chaotic onslaught, but also conquer the Empire and spread their vampirism. And holding off one monstrous, powerful foe while chipping away at your so-called allies is no easy task. As the campaign progresses, you'll have to manage multiple conflicts on many fronts, putting your skills to the test.

Taken together, the campaign is brilliant insofar as it forces your hand and pushes you to take bigger risks, which, in turn, taxes your abilities as a tactician. As with many similar games, armies require upkeep, but in Total War: Warhammer, many of these are expensive. It's often more advantageous to build up rather than out. You can fortify and hold, but after a while, you'll need to start pushing back. Doing that means pulling soldiers away from your main settlements, opening up holes in your defenses that other races will be quick to exploit. Managing that conflict becomes a core concern in the late game, and it's a stellar way to test your mastery of your race's key traits.

The campaign is brilliant ... it forces your hand and pushes you to take bigger risks, which, in turn, taxes your abilities as a tactician

Total War: Warhammer is an interlocking network of smart decisions. Integrating the Warhammer universe with Total War's systems was the first. Massive battles are more challenging because of the addition of magic and flying units, which can flank and break battle lines if you're not attentive. New brands of artillery and different types of units are engaging and keep you changing up your approach. Total War: Warhammer has also seen a massive upgrade to its AI. Where before you might see a AI opponent rush you when you had strong defensive position, now the CPU will employ advanced flanking maneuvers, or use cavalry to pull away key defenders.

Audio design too has picked up an interesting overhaul. The Total War series has always had excellent sound effects that help sell the scope of its battles--especially with a base heavy system and a camera zoomed down to the troop level. But here it’s even more noteworthy because of the fantasy elements at play. We know what a Roman gladius striking a rawhide shield sounds like. We can create that sound here in the real-world. But what about Dwarfen organ guns? What about the off-kilter shuffle of Orcish armor? There’s no proper equivalent, and that goes for the Vampire Count's monstrosities and the demons that form the ranks of the Warriors of Chaos. In every case, these combatants sound glorious.

Everything here hasn't just been improved, it's been damn near mastered. Total War has always been about balance--between strategy and tactics, realism and engaging play. Warhammer's characters, its history, and its creativity is a shot in the arm for a series. My complaints from a few years ago with Total War II's camera still hold. When pulling the camera out to get a better view, you can’t go very far before the game switches to a full overhead view. That be somewhat troublesome and limit how much of any give battle you can see at once, but it’s a minor frustration.

When you're in the middle of a siege and you're coordinating an assault with a friend, Total War: Warhammer approaches perfection. You’ll be tested on all fronts and asked to manage complex battles with broad, nuanced outcomes. Every system and piece feeds into others, and your choices make all the difference. It's a triumph of real-time strategy design, and the best the Total War series has ever been.

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The Good

  • The Warhammer Universe meshes naturally with Total War's gameplay
  • New races and creatures provide radically different strategic and tactical options
  • Massive AI improvements
  • Stellar audio design

The Bad

  • Occasionally uncooperative camera

About the Author

Daniel Startkey's been a fan of the Total War series for years. He spent several days going through a full campaign with the Vampire counts and running through a few hours with the other races. He also ran a couple dozen skirmishes including several online multiplayer matches with the developers. He received a copy of the game from Sega for the purposes of this review.