In the original Total War: Shogun, I once watched a Kensai successfully defend a bridge against an entire brigade of enemy Samurai. In that moment the last vestiges of historical accuracy drained out of the series, never to return. It wasn’t a great loss: the franchise is still the best wedding of tactical and strategic layers ever to grace a computer. But given the emptiness of its historical settings, it makes sense that Total War has finally ditched any pretence of simulation with the entirely pretend Total War: Warhammer.
Not that the result has much in common with either piece of source material. As a veteran of both, I started out utterly confused after an inexcusably bad tutorial and lack of instruction material. Miniature gamers will discover that tried and tested tabletop tactics don’t work on these digital battlefields. Total War devotees, on the other hand, will find that while the mechanics are familiar, the vast diversity of new and bizarre units make the game play very differently to its predecessors.
The Empire faction, for example, generally sticks to the tradition of Total War. On the strategic screen, it can initiate diplomacy with rivals, making peace and trade deals and move troops around to conquer territory. In doing so, they need to be careful to leave themselves able to resupply damaged armies. Those armies are mostly composed of familiar infantry, cavalry and artillery archetypes.
Contrast this to the Vampire Counts. They have almost no diplomacy because everyone hates them. Conquering provinces involves first filling them with Vampiric corruption otherwise the local populace will rebel in sheer terror. Their armies of undead have no missile capacity, but instead rely on fast flying units, magic and monsters to crush enemy war machines. And they can make good their losses almost anywhere on the map by raising the corpses from the last battle.
Each army in the game, from the hyper-aggressive Orcs to the hyper-defensive Dwarfs and the horde-like Chaos, is similarly unique. That fills the interplay between each with further complexities. That Vampiric corruption? The Empire can fight against it with Witch Hunter heroes, but others may struggle. Orcs and Dwarfs, meanwhile, are natural enemies because the former can only occupy the underground settlements held by the latter.
Learning is a steep hill, which time will no doubt wear down with tutorials and guides and wikis. When you eventually reach the top, exhausted though you might be, you’ll pause to enjoy the magnificent view and notice that the climb has done you an awful lot of good because the enormous shake-up of working in numerous novel fantasy elements is exactly what the franchise needed.
You can sense it in almost every aspect of the game. Gone are the identikit late-game battles of similarly composed armies, probing each other for a lucky break. Here, success means considering and working with a plethora of possibilities. Beating an Orc army, with its horde of cheap, powerful troops, means working on their feeble leadership to make a couple of units rout and hoping the rest will follow. Breaking a Dwarf battle line with its terrifying teeth of war machines means leveraging their lack of manoeuvrability and magic against them. It’s thrilling stuff, with almost every battle a new tactical puzzle to solve.
The pause button gets far more of a workout than in previous titles as you stop the action to redirect troops, order flank attacks and ready spells from your wizards. When the grand melee is joined, however, the game starts to suffer from the same sense of confusion as its predecessors. With potentially several thousand troops on screen, it becomes very hard to tell who is fighting who, and what is flanking or being flanked by what. All your grand plans are squashed under a morass of struggling monster bodies. It might be realistic, but it can also be frustrating.
Yet when those several thousand troops can include Zombie Dragons, Giant Spiders and Chaos Trolls the result is an incredible visual spectacle. Watching the Total War engine render its mass battles has always been an impressive treat, but the addition of monsters and fantasy battlefields creates jaw dropping vistas. Spells explode and flying units zip around as colossal creatures wade through swarms of ranks and file troops. It’s worth setting up individual battles, both online and against the AI, just to see all the game’s animations in action.
The real meat of the game, however, lies in the campaign with the added strategic layer. Veterans of the series may feel this seems stripped back and simplified at first. Gone are the tax sliders and plethora of buildings in favour of a simple checkbox and easily understood upgrade trees. It’s an illusion, however. The sheer diversity of interplay between the factions, plus the addition of heroes who you can choose to embed to influence settlements instead of using them in war, means there’s still plenty of options to juggle. Too many, in fact, for a sensible tutorial.
Given how awful the learning curve is at the moment, it’s tempting to stall on this until various bloggers and vloggers have got on the case to smooth it out. Patches will come, prices may drop. Those who like a challenge may wish to take the plunge now and learn the hard way. Either way, if you have the slightest interest then this is not a game to miss. In bringing fantasy to Total War, Creative Assembly have made both the best Total War game and the best fantasy strategy game to date.