Total War: Warhammer 3 is the Final Piece of a Decade’s Ambition

Creative Assembly doesn't fumble the ball at the end of this Blood Bowl.

When Total War: Warhammer was announced in 2015 and then released in 2016, it came with a set of promises and expectations, both implicit and explicit. That this would revitalize a Total War series then struggling to live up to its reputation. That it would encapsulate the entire Warhammer Fantasy world (or at least as much as made sense). That it would continue to innovate in the strategy genre. And that these things would all combine to make a “supergame,” of the sort that fans could play for years.

With the release of Total War: Warhammer III, marking a sort of ending to a trilogy that began during the Obama administration, it’s worth examining how the series has succeeded or failed at those promises, its overall place in gaming, and how the newly released Warhammer III fits in.

The Total War Experience

The Total War series has a simple, immediately appealing hook: There’s a moderately complex strategic layer where you take control of a nation, empire, or tribe, managing their economy and borders to some extent, but mostly molding their armies. (Or, in a generic description, it’s a combat-oriented grand strategy game). When those armies eventually fight, there’s an in-depth real-time tactical battle — more formation-based and slower-paced than an average RTS, but still aimed at being fast and accessible. Both sides of this equation tend to be top-quality graphically; if you want to watch armies clashing, and looking the best they possibly can while doing it, Total War is by far the leader.

This kind of division between the strategic (building buildings, moving armies, and managing taxes) with the tactical (positioning units and characters to make them fight) is quite common in games like XCOM, or other large-scale strategy titles like Civilization and Humankind. Those tend to pick one or the other to prioritize, however. Total War is unique in that it (usually) succeeded at making both sides of its games feel essential and fun.

About that “usually,” though. In 2016, the Total War franchise was at its arguable nadir. The series had established itself alongside Civilization and Starcraft — up on the peak of the strategy game universe with instant classics like Rome: Total War and the Medieval games. But a couple over-ambitious and buggy releases in Empire and Napoleon, as well as the disastrously messy Rome 2, severely damaged its reputation. (Shogun 2 was fantastic, though, and Attila did a yeoman’s job of salvaging what good was to be found in Rome 2‘s foundation.)

So, the first Total War: Warhammer release wound up being more of a relief for strategy game fans than anything else. At least initially. Aha! Here was a Total War where units had relevant formations, where campaigns moved at a brisk pace instead of bogging down, and where the setting was reinforced with top-tier sound, music, graphics, and animations. Thank goodness, Total War was back!

Total Warhammer III, on the other hand, comes out in a very different situation. The first two games in the series were successes. As was the sensational Total War: Three Kingdoms.  It’s to the point where this series is at its highest point ever. (If anything, the success is backfiring on developers Creative Assembly, whose bizarre decision to stop development on Three Kingdoms led to pretty major backlash.)

The dominant obligation for Warhammer III is simply: Don’t fuck up the end of the trilogy. And, spoiler alert, it doesn’t!

total war warhammer 3 review

The End of the Quest

One key focus of the Total Warhammer series has been to make its campaigns hit their climax at the end. A major problem for large-scale strategy games is that players will typically hit a point where they have already, functionally won the game halfway through. The rest of the campaign is then spent mopping up minor rivals. It’s realistic, in a sense — both World War II and the American Civil War hit their climaxes roughly halfway through — but it’s not terribly entertaining for someone playing a game.

So the Total War series has experimented with having that high point of danger and potential arrive at the actual end of the campaign. You win, roll credits. In Shogun 2, enough power for the player had the entire rest of Japan ally against them for an apocalyptic war; in Attila, a global cooling mechanic slowly lowered the amount of useful land in the campaign and forced conflict over the remaining land.

Warhammer I brilliantly adopted both of those with a massive invasion by the Chaos faction. This typically wiped out half of all cities on the map, forcing players to defend their core provinces, then battle over the scraps for a final victory. Warhammer II used a somewhat more scripted variation on the same idea: fulfilling quests triggered massive, localized Chaos invasions to fight off, culminating in a massive, explicitly designed battle against all other factions.

Warhammer III incorporates some aspects of this, but with a slightly stronger narrative bent. The premise is that a god is dying in a hidden part of the Realms of Chaos. In order to find him and heal (or exploit him), your faction has to gather a Demon Prince’s soul from each of the four realms of the Chaos Gods. This means that, every 30 turns or so, gateways to the Chaos Realms open all across the map. Players have to send their best army off to quest for one of those souls, while their other forces defend against invasion and corruption of the gates. Meanwhile, most of their rivals are all doing the same, which means conflicts over the race to each soul.

This has a few side effects, which are mostly positive. The big one is that there’s variety in the campaign: expansion and consolidation during normal play, defense and questing during the chaos gate phase, and rebuilding immediately after. This is very welcome in a long and occasionally repetitive Total War campaign! It also creates some interesting diplomatic situations, like when the player, seeing their ally about to get a soul they need, must break that alliance and take out the now-rival army.

It also works by, well, not being bad. Fantasy strategy games have long had a mild obsession with dual worlds — from the original Master of Magic on Those dual worlds are usually a distraction, and often one that hurts the games’ campaigns and/or interfaces. I was worried when I heard this was the plan for the third game in the Total Warhammer trilogy. To the point that I suspected the reason it took relatively long to develop was because Creative Assembly was figuring out how to implement a bad idea.

So I was, personally, quite happy with what actually benefited the strategic decision-making instead of hurting it. On the other hand, the idea of two central pillars to the campaign can cause problems when you get further ahead on one side than the other. In my first game as Cathay, I quickly consolidated my homeland and felt pretty safe, but missed an early chance at a Demon Soul. That’s why I found myself mostly fiddling around the map and waiting for the next Chaos Gate round, instead of feeling any major sense of urgency.

This decision also helps provide narrative strength to the game, which is a throughline across Total Warhammer III. Each of the four Chaos Realms has its own little narrative arc, described with scenery-chewing gusto by the game’s narrator, Sean Barrett. The narrator is even given his own little story, as the reason he helps the various factions is to free himself from a curse.

But the most initially noticeable increase to the narrative drive of Total Warhammer is a story-based tutorial that sets up the entire campaign. It’s the story of the corruption and fall of the character who becomes the playable Demon Prince faction, as well as the story of how the cracks in the Realms of Chaos that form the structure of the main campaign began appearing.

It’s difficult for me, someone who’s been playing Total War for over two decades, to judge as a tutorial. It’s certainly the most comprehensive attempt to both explain and guide new players into a Total War game, basically ever. Yet the game also recommends even expert players check it out for story purposes, and I found it about twice as long as it needed to be, while lacking in interesting choices. That said, Total Warhammer III is launching on Games Pass and likely to have thousands of brand-new players. Doing better than the usual strategy game introduction is essential.

total warhammer 3 review

The Ultimate Fantasy

The story of the tutorial and the campaign is also the story of the end of the world of Warhammer Fantasy. Along with that, the end of the Total War: Warhammer project is, in a sense, the ultimate representation of that world. More than that, because Warhammer Fantasy was designed to be a “full” fantasy universe — one that includes everything from dwarves and elves to minotaurs and ghouls, just with a slightly darker Warhammer tinge where there aren’t any purely good characters or factions.

But those things took time. The promise, upon release, was that every faction from the pre-End Times Army Books of the tabletop miniatures game would be available. But it was slow going. I remember recommending the Empire for people’s first campaigns, in the first game, primarily because they were the only faction that would consistently fight the four other races available at launch. But the list slowly expanded: Wood Elves and Bretonnia as expansions for the first game, four more races in the second game, which then got its own set of expansions, until there were only three left to release with Warhammer III: Daemons of Chaos, Ogre Kingdoms, and Chaos Dwarfs, the first two of which are released in Total Warhammer III. Although the Ogres are a day-one paid expansion.

Over the course of making the Total War: Warhammer series, however, Creative Assembly made a few discoveries. One of the most essential was that the Warhammer universe was malleable enough to let them make their own factions. With Norsca and the Vampire Coast expansions for the first two games, CA successfully added Chaos Vikings and undead pirates, both ridiculous and entertaining. They opened up various parts of the map and let mammoths charge into massed infantry formations, or ghost opera singers blast archers with literal haunting screams.

This became necessary for Total Warhammer III because, with only one conventional Army Book to adapt from (the Ogres), every other faction in the game at the start is some level of new or adapted. The Daemons of Chaos have been split into five different factions: one for each Chaos God, plus the “Demon Prince” from the intro campaign, who can pick and choose which aspects of the Daemons he wants to adapt. There are also two human factions, the Russian-style kingdom of Kislev, and the Chinese-style Empire of Cathay. The former has some background in existing Warhammer Fantasy products, but the latter was only hinted at in the old, Eurocentric lore until Creative Assembly built this game on a map of Eurasia. This included them as an essential part of the world.

Which leads to another core aspect of Total War: Warhammer: it’s a series that can improve upon the source material. The first game had zero factions led by women on release, no regular units with women, and only a couple hero units with any women’s voices in the game at all. (I like to joke that May 2016 might have been the last time it was possible for a major release to not include women at all in this way. It’s not really a “haha” joke.) That’s been improved upon, and by the time of Total Warhammer III, we’ve got a game filled with generic units featuring women’s voices, woman heroes, and the two human factions having female leaders.

It’s the racial diversity where Total Warhammer III is doing the most work, however. It has a pretty big hole to dig itself out of, with the history of Warhammer Fantasy being Eurocentrism incarnate. The center of the setting is the Empire, whose Emperor Karl Franz wields the titular warhammer and defends humanity against the hordes of corrupted pagan humans and monstrous inhuman enemies. This ends up with the older fantasy world trope where medieval Europe is human. Everything else pushing against it — the equivalents of the Mongols and Caliphate and Berbers and Nubians — have been turned into different, less-human races, like the Greenskins or the Skaven. This issue is reinforced by the way those inhuman races are given traits commonly used by white supremacists to describe other races, like capriciousness.

This makes Warhammer III‘s Cathay faction incredibly important. Its pseudo-China design makes it the first empire of people of color in the Warhammer Fantasy setting to actually be human. The design is solid, too, with it being the equivalent of the European Empire with its focus on varieties of disciplined human units. (If anything, I wanted more monstrous or otherwise fantastical units; at times I felt like I was taking a Total War: Three Kingdoms army into combat against mastodons and ogres.

There’s still a lot of work to do. The Egyptian-style undead Tomb Kings and pre-Columbian-style Lizardmen exist in place of having human cultures in the Warhammer equivalents of North Africa and South America, meaning there aren’t many Black human characters in the trilogy of games. Total Warhammer III also has traditional human empires in place of Russia and China, but the area between is dominated by the monstrous Ogres with Mongol-inspired facial hair and looks. Yet there are no humans along those lines.

total war warhammer 3 review

Maintaining Focus

It may be too much to ask for Warhammer Fantasy’s racial politics to be fully redeemed, but Creative Assembly is doing solid work at least making it better. There’s also room to grow on the map, which stretches from the equivalent of Germany to Western China, and north into the Chaos Wastes and Realms of Chaos. The map uses a clever distortion to achieve this; the Realms of Chaos are in the center-north while all the other parts of the map curve around, so they can all face the campaign’s focus.

Moreover, the map includes enough of the world that most of the existing Total Warhammer factions are potential rivals. The core of the Empire and Vampire Count lands serves as the southwestern focus of the map, and there are plenty of Greenskin and Skaven bands running around. Even a few Dwarf and Wood Elf factions and a little island Lizardman group you could miss if you don’t look closely enough. The only groups I didn’t see from the previous games were the Tomb Kings, Bretonnians, Vampire Coast, or the High and Dark Elves.

Unfortunately, while those groups are all there as potential rivals, they were not immediately playable. It would have been a nice little bonus for me, as an owner of Total War: Warhammer I, to be able to play as the Greenskin Azhag in the northern mountains. The campaign just doesn’t currently have any options like that.

I say “currently” because another major (and perhaps the most important) lesson learned by Creative Assembly across the making of this trilogy has been a focus on designing different factions and lords instead of merely different races. When Warhammer I was released, each of its five races had multiple different lords to play, but every one had the same starting location and faction traits.

As the series progressed, however, Creative Assembly added multiple different lords and factions within each race. The original Greenskins, for example, had the addition of Skarsnik far on the other side of the map. They could also only use Goblin units until he captured a specific city. Likewise, patches to the game moved Azhag from being simply an alternate lord to the generic Greenskin faction to being its own, separate group — far to the north with unique strategic problems and advantages.

The expansion release strategy also shifted much more towards Legendary Lord packs, which didn’t add new races, but did add far-flung and increasingly complicated new lords to play, even across different games, like the Bretonnians and Empire from the first game sending new colonial factions to the Total War: Warhammer II map.

These improvements in faction design are evident in the Total War: Warhammer III factions. To a certain extent.

Cathay has a Great Bastion against the forces of Chaos. The group has to be wary of defending it at certain intervals, while Daemonic teleportation allows them the ability to bypass the Bastion or the mountains of the central part of the map. On the other hand, almost no faction has any significant restriction on what they can and can’t do, which tended to breed the weirder and more enjoyable playable lords seen in previous games. Those have historically come in expansions and patches, though, to be fair.

One faction, however, does have that full weight of creativity behind it: the Daemon Prince who serves as the protagonist of the story. Because he is a newly corrupted member of the Chaos factions, he’s allowed to build both his armies and his body in the way that makes the most sense. With most every action he takes, he’s allowed to improve his standing with any of the four Chaos Gods, or Chaos overall, and each of those has its own benefits.

So he can build cities dedicated to Khorne, the most directly warlike of the Chaos God This allows him access to Khorne’s unit roster, but also allows him to pick different body parts, armor, and weapons, that may, for example, make him more powerful at charging into battle. Build up reputation with the more subtle Tzeetnch, on the other hand, and he can earn magical abilities. And, of course, the two could be combined so that the Daemon Prince becomes a powerful Tzeentchian spellcaster to back up a directly violent Khornite army. It’s all very clever. Nothing has really been done like it in any previous Total War game.

total warhammer 3 review

Smashing Action Figures Together

While at the strategic layer the factions may not feel unique, just yet, the army designs for each do have significant differences — a strength of the series overall and possibly Warhammer III’s most impressive feature. Especially considering how many of the factions are pulled from the same Daemons of Chaos source. The Daemon armies all look and play differently, with Tzeentch’s early-game Horror units melting enemy peasants with different-colored magic as a particular standout. The Ogres are also delicious fun; their size and girth allows almost all their units to have a satisfying charge.

More than that, a new Outpost system allows you to recruit units from your allies. That includes both your race and others. As a Cathay, for example, I was eventually able to give myself some of those monstrous units I’d been looking for by pulling from my Ogre allies. It’s a small change in practical terms, but aesthetically it does a lot for the feel of variety and diversity in the fantasy world.

The other major combat change is that settlement battles and sieges are beefier. Smaller settlements in particular now have more complex layouts; anything with defensive capabilities now has various towers and walls that players can use to coordinate their defense. The net effect of this is that actually taking over (or defending) towns and cities is a lot more intense and requires more time and effort than previous games. This is good for creating memorable, brutal battles, but some of those fights can take a looooong time for very minor strategic gains.

The armies and battles also, as ever, look great. At least they did, once I turned shadows off. I had major trouble distinguishing between units in the middle of combat because some aspect of the shadow system dampened any kind of color distinction between units. Once I got the settings right, though, I was in awe as ever at the collection of units and individuals colliding with one another in a Total War fight.

All these aspects combine to make Total War: Warhammer III a solid, if entirely expected conclusion to the series.

Well, it would if it actually was a conclusion. That’s a feral mammoth in the room, though — Warhammer III isn’t actually the end of the Total War: Warhammer project. Not even close.

What Comes After The End

See, the other promise when the series was announced was not just that all Warhammer Fantasy races would be playable. It was that all three games would combine maps and factions to create a fully playable world of Warhammer Fantasy in the Total War system. Total War: Warhammer III is the last piece of that puzzle, with the fantasy equivalent of Asia added to the first game’s Europe and West Asia, alongside the second game’s Americas and North Africa.

Total War: Warhammer II did combine the first two games into a mega-campaign called “Mortal Empires,” which, roughly, took the first game’s campaign centered around the Chaos invasion and added more more more more provinces and factions and races. Total Warhammer III has promised its own equivalent called “Immortal Empires,” combining every part of the Total War: Warhammer series into one of the biggest and most ambitious strategy games ever created. It’s just not part of this package yet.

I have high hopes for Immortal Empires as the apotheosis of fantasy strategy games. Or at least as a great capstone on a series I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing. But one key thing to remember is that Mortal Empires was actually… kind of disappointing. A massive promise that was never really, fully fulfilled. It was big, ungainly, and impossible to balance.

The Chaos invasion that worked out so brilliantly at consolidating the map but raising the stakes in Total Warhammer I never really clicked. Going through several iterations (including one that was hilariously bugged such that every Chaos army on the map turned toward the player and crossed any ocean to attack them). Also, the alliance of the “good” factions, your Empire and Dwarfs and High Elves, known colloquially as the “Order tide,” almost always took over and dominated the map relatively quickly. On the other hand, despite knowing these issues and getting some level of frustrated by them, the appeal of the Mortal Empires campaign meant I always chose that when loading a new game. I never actually did go back to the simpler, original Vortex campaign.

The addition of more Chaos factions and a different form of narrative climax in Total Warhammer III creates an opportunity to give Immortal Empires, whenever it comes, more structure. Plus the addition of “neutral” factions like the Ogres hopefully helps keep Order or Chaos from dominating campaigns too early.

Likewise, there’s room for Warhammer III to expand directly. The Chaos Dwarfs are the last remaining Army Book, so are essentially guaranteed. The equivalents of India, Japan, Southeast Asia and anything in the Pacific are also not on the map yet, with Nippon particularly seeming like an obvious expansion direction. Total War: Warhammer III is a successful conclusion to a massively important strategy game trilogy, yes, but it’s also a promise of more to come.