Total War: Warhammer brings refreshing changes to a series mired in its own legacy

Total War: Warhammer

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Total War needs a change. I didn't consciously realize it before I saw Total War: Warhammer last week, but now I'm sold. I don't think anyone would argue with me when I say the last amazing installment of Total War was 2011's Shogun 2, and the games that've followed since— Rome II and Attila—haven't held the same appeal. Which is a nice way of saying Rome II was trash.

Even Attila, which fixed many of Rome II's most egregious issues, felt more like "Another Total War" than a revelation. It's a series deep in the spinning-its-wheels part of its lifecycle.

But after seeing Total War: Warhammer last week, I think this might be just the refresh the series needed—even though it's more a spin-off than a proper Total War entry. (And yes, it's still a crime the game isn't titled Total Warhammer.)

New horizons

I didn't get hands-on with Total Warhammer, so everything I'm telling you here is based off a ten-minute demo of the upcoming fantasy strategy game and a chat with the developers. Fair warning. Furthermore, Creative Assembly isn't showing off the campaign map yet, so all I saw was one of its real-time fights.

That being said, holy bejeezus.

Total War: Warhammer

The Warhammer license brings so much to Total War. Part of Total War's issue (and this goes for Civilization also) is it's constrained by history. Humans are always human. Swords are swords. Spears are spears. Bows are bows. Cavalry is cavalry. Even special troops are variations on a theme. "Horse archers." "Hoplites."

It's like when you eat enough Taco Bell and you realize everything is literally the same six ingredients, prepared in different ways.

Warhammer removes the shackles of boring ol' history. It's not just "Total War in a new era." It's "Total War plus cavalry troops riding on the back of griffons." It's "Total War plus oh wow did that guy just summon an enormous ball of death out of the sky?" It's "Total War plus—wait, is that dude riding a dragon?"

Total War: Warhammer

He is.

It seems like there's plenty of lore-related stuff for Warhammer fans to love. The demo I saw, for instance, took place in Black Fire Pass, which Creative Assembly went to great lengths to explain to me is a very important location in Warhammer. And this is just the first of three planned Warhammer games, each packed with story. Hell, Creative Assembly even gave me an entire list of names and units I could drop into this preview—Emperor Karl Franz, Grimgor Ironhide, Luminark of Hysh, Reiksguard Knights, Goblin Doom Divers.

But that's not me, and I'm not going to pretend it is. I know almost nothing about Warhammer. I'm coming at this purely from the Total War side of things.

From that side, Total Warhammer seems like just the shot in the arm this series needs. By forcing Creative Assembly away from the infantry/cavalry/ranged/spears formula, it opens up an entire new game.

Total War: Warhammer

For instance, in my demo I saw the Empire sneak a group of cavalry around behind the Greenskin lines—a pretty standard maneuver for anyone who's played Total War more than a few hours. But what happened next? The Greenskins sent a Goblin Shaman over, who proceeded to summon a giant flaming ball of death that wiped out an entire unit of cavalry. (Referring to my handy crib sheet, I'm pretty sure this was "Curse of Da Bad Moon.")

Another example: Each army had flying units—a massive griffon for the Empire, a monstrous wyvern for the Greenskins. Getting harassed by archers behind a line of swordsmen? No need to break through the infantry's lines. Instead, send that wyvern crashing into the archers from above. We'll see how many arrows they can loose while they're being eaten.

Now both of these have drawbacks, of course. Creative Assembly explained to me that magic is fickle in Warhammer. It needs to build over the course of battle, and larger spells will take longer to build. Some spells, it's likely you'll only cast once in a battle (if that). They're meant to be devastating attacks that can turn the tide of a battle. And the units that wield magic are both fragile and borderline useless until magic builds up.

Do you take an extra legion of infantry into battle, or a single mage? That's the sort of choice you have to make.

Total War: Warhammer

As for winged units, they're also unique. Creative Assembly compared the ones we saw to shock cavalry—you can drop them in for a ton of damage, but if they get pinned down it's likely they'll die. And again, it's a single unit. You can field one of these massive wyverns (or some of the other monsters featured in my demo, like Giants or Arachnarok Spiders) for each legion of infantry/cavalry/archers you might take into battle otherwise. They're huge. They're powerful. But they're alone.

It's these sorts of additions that change the balance in Total Warhammer. How much? I don't know. As I said, I haven't gotten hands-on—and our demo was more of the "tightly-controlled unit showcase" variety than a true battle.

But compared to the incremental changes between Rome II and Attila? Between Shogun 2 and Rome II? This is huge.

Adding to the effect is the art style. I can imagine Creative Assembly's art crew breathing a huge sigh of relief—after years spent recreating various real-world locales, suddenly they're allowed to go wild and create towering cliffs flanked by lava waterfalls, enormous dwarven doorways, and the like.

Total War: Warhammer

And yet what I like most about Total Warhammer's art is how grounded it is. Most fantasy titles tend to skew cartoony. We get caricatures of orcs, caricatures of griffons. Total Warhammer looks like a Total War game—meaning it looks like it's trying to document real history, albeit one with orcs and griffons and giants.

Long story short: I like what I've seen. This is just a first demo, of course—and a very limited one, at that. Many of Rome II's greatest sins came on the campaign map, and until we see what we're dealing with on the 4X side of things I'm not prepared to wholeheartedly get behind this game. Creative Assembly did say some interesting things—for instance, that all four of the game's factions will play differently not just from a unit standpoint but from a behavior standpoint. That sounds great, but I'll need to see it in action before passing judgment.

My dream, however, is that Creative Assembly makes some major changes with Warhammer, learns what works, and brings those lessons back into the core Total War series—adhering to history, of course. Because Total War sure could use a shakeup.

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