I think the high point of playing Total War: Warhammer came when, on a whim and halfway through a climactic battle, I cut the game’s slow motion camera on as a horde of Chaos Warriors charged my Imperial gun line. I knew the enemy army had a giant in it, but hadn’t kept track of the beast until I zoomed in just in time to watch it catch a cannonball to the face and go tumbling down into the midst of the enemy formation. A formation that clashed seconds later with my own greatsword-wielding troops counter-charging past the cannons and arquebus. I hoped the enemy’s morale would break before mine.
In slow motion, it was a kind of tactical ballet. The same one we’ve seen refined over the years from the Total War games. You compose your army on the turn-based strategic level and leverage it to upend your opponent’s carefully composed army on the tactical, real-time level. This time, though, the refinements are all off-the-wall. They’re big picture madness induced by the game’s fantasy setting, something the designers clearly embraced. Unchained from history, the gamiest elements of Total War take the reigns.
At the beginning, though, the game is mostly familiar. You use troops like crossbowmen. Spearmen. Swordsmen. Sure, they might be green-skinned orcs and goblins or zombies, but the basics here are much the same as past Total War installments. That grounding rapidly erodes until you’re playing a new game. One about how to use your own fantastical tools very tactically to defeat your enemy’s.
The Warhammer Fantasy universe has always diverged from the high fantasy norm in a few key ways. It’s rooted in a world that’s more attached to the European 30 Years’ War than anything else. Gunpowder is common enough that armies have lots of guns, but this is fantasy, so we’ve got knights in plate armor and barded horses too. Add in vampires, dragons, dark gods, and the series’ satiric humor, and you have a unique mix that’s captivated gamers for a long while. You can tell that the writers and developers tried their best with the world, and there are lots of little touches and details to appreciate in the models and worlds. It’s not going to win any writing awards, or make the kind of awe-inspiring stories strategy games like Crusader Kings generate, but it does its job well enough that you won’t roll your eyes at it.
By the time you’re six or so hours into the game, you’re slinging rapid-firing nine barreled cannons on the field. Your general is riding a massive griffon and swooping down into the enemy army to snatch their general up in its claws. You’re precisely placing those cannons to counter enemy Troll formations, because trolls cause terror among your troops, and a cascade of fleeing swordsmen will spell doom for your army. You could upgrade your crossbowmen to handgunners, but should you? You’re going to be fighting vampires soon, with their undead armies, and their array of flying, bat-like horrors are much more easily stopped by the faster-firing crossbows, but their Black Knights won’t go down so easily without armor-piercing bullets.
This is all, of course, before we’re even talking about Giants, Wyverns, Dragons, and Steam Tanks. What I’m getting at is that the tactics are there, and they’re fun. They’ve got some depth, too, because between research and customizing your heroes and generals RPG-style, you have a lot of choices in how to play each faction. There are even challenges in the form of storyline quest battles, which force you into strange situations and odd map types in order to get a unique item or power for your heroes.
On the strategic level, however, it’s less than stunning. Though each of the four factions’ economies work a little differently, the basics are the same. You control various cities, each of which is part of a two-to-four city province. Each city levels up and grows over time, allowing you to fill its slots with new buildings. It’s a boring tree-centric expansion model that sees you simply building the better version of a previous structure at twice the price so you can make 50% more money.
By the end game, when you’ve got thirty or more cities, it’s a slog to decide what needs to be built in each and every one – or figure out how to build an economy that can support enough armies to defend it all. And make no mistake, this is not Civilization. The series is Total War , and expecting the world economy and mechanics to be geared around anything but fighting is a mistake.
Most strategy gamers are willing to put up with a certain level of tedium, and I’m no different. What I like here is that I felt the need to actually defend it all. There are enough other factions on the map that you’ll always have pissed someone off no matter who you’re playing. Allying with one faction to devour their enemy, then subsuming them via a diplomatic agreement is a really satisfying play to pull off.
Diplomacy is vital to survival. Unlike in some strategy games, where a few key alliances or a runaway leader system mean your giant empire can always crush those who are up against it, I never felt entirely secure in Total War : Warhammer. There was always a story event waiting to rear its ugly head and launch a sea invasion of my undefended flank. Or a neighbor making noise and raiding my provinces while I dealt with a real war half the world away.
That’s before you fiddle with the game’s clever faction-specific mechanics. Dwarves hold grudges: raids, battles fought, cities sacked. Only by wiping out your ledger of grudges can a Dwarven player actually achieve victory. The series’ football-hooligan based Orcs & Goblins – collectively referred to as Greenskins – have to keep their armies raiding and pillaging or they’ll start to suffer attrition due to infighting. Fight enough, and orcs from far and wide will flock to your banner. Vampires have to spread corruption and seed their progeny into human territories before attacking, because otherwise the lack of defiled ground will cause their armies to crumble into dust.
I experienced moments of genuine terror during my playthrough. Without spoiling anything, some truly apocalyptic shit goes down in the latter acts of the grand campaign. We’re talking “get Frodo and the ring because only a long shot is going to save us now” stuff. We’re talking “put aside your petty differences because our border dispute won’t matter if we’re all dead” stuff.
I was at a point where, having sunk twenty hours into a campaign on hard difficulty, I was despairing and cursing the developers’ names because This Was Profoundly Unfair and There’s No Way Anyone Could Win This. My economy crippled, half my cities torched, my armies in ruins, with men deserting because I couldn’t pay them, I desperately sacrificed my leader and his army in a suicide attack against the enemy general. I won. My plan had carried the day, the tide of darkness receded, and we got back to our border disputes.
It’s the feeling I play strategy games to feel. The satisfaction of a good plan, executed perfectly.
Not every fight is like that. Sometimes you play out a whole war just auto-resolving the fights – even the big fights – because you know you can’t win them on the battlefield, but the computer gives you really good odds when it plays against itself. You autoresolve a lot of annoying defenses where your hopelessly outnumbered men are cut down like wheat before a scythe. You feel bad about it and someone else writes the letters home to their parents.
But in my experience, every third defense really mattered. When my real armies were on the way and the enemy wouldn’t have time to recover from the losses it took, I played out the bitter defenses and last stands. I won’t forget the last stand of Count Wolfram the Scarred, who turned to me and joined his nation to mine out of desperation as three huge enemy armies besieged his capital city. I closed in, but I was too late. He was caught out in the open and his army died to a man. He died fleeing the field – run down by chaos hounds as big as horses. But his men fought hard, and died harder, taking an enemy and a half with them. They crippled the enemy’s ability to fight and my armies swept the rest of them off the face of the Old World. His city was saved.
Stories like that are the reason why I play strategy games.
For a series famous for its showstopping bugs and hard crashes, I saw almost none in my roughly 50 hours with the game. Even playing cooperative multiplayer for about eight hours, I only saw two desynchronizations requiring a reload (something the game handled itself) and one hard crash requiring a restart. That’s not to say there weren’t little bugs, or gripes, or texture errors and the like, but few of them persisted for more than a few seconds. Several of them are on a list of promised fixes from the developer before the game launches.
If you’re an old fan of the tabletop miniatures or just like the game world, Warhammer Fantasy has never looked more like itself on a computer than it does here. Total War ’s blocks of troops smacking into other blocks until someone runs away is precisely the kind of gameplay that fits with the style of Warhammer’s Old World. It’s just what you wanted, so buy it, play it, love it.
Jonathan Bolding is an American games writer and critic from North Carolina. He does not approve of going into the family crypt and raising your sister as a banshee when you need a new assassin. Follow him on Twitter @JonBolds.