Total War: Warhammer 2 is proof that in this day and age Alexander the Great need not have wept for lack of worlds to conquer. Strategy is one of the cornerstone genres of the modern gaming market and Creative Assembly is the studio responsible for developing some of, if not the, most critically acclaimed and fan favorite titles within the genre. It has been almost two decades since the company first released the original Shogun: Total War and the series has gone from strength to strength ever since. Although each successive entry has had its fair share of issues they have all garnered devoted followings by fans of each individual title as well as the series as a whole. It’s not hard to see why, as there is a surprising amount of fun and satisfaction to be derived from taking on the roles of some of the most famous military commanders or leaders through the ages and changing the course of global history one battle at a time. That’s the essential premise of all of the previous Total War titles and it’s proven to be irresistible to desktop generals everywhere.
Given the nature of the source material it only seemed logical for Games Workshop to license their Warhammer Fantasy IP for use in strategy computer games. There have been numerous such attempts over the years but fans (myself included) of probably the grimmest and darkest fantasy franchise on the planet have long cried out for Warhammer to get the Total War treatment. After countless rituals in the name of deities both benign and malevolent we finally got an answer to our prayers in May 2016 in the form of Total War: Warhammer. Whilst this departure from the formula of using historical settings with content as true-to-life as possible caused consternation for some of the established fan base, the freedom offered by a fantasy setting breathed new life into a game series that was starting to become a little stale. There are only so many times you can fight against slightly recolored versions of the same few civilizations before it becomes difficult to tell which game you’re actually playing.
So here we are a little over a year later and Total War: Warhammer 2 has just been released, and it’s clear that opting to develop a game so far outside the bounds of their usual niche subject matter has done nothing but good for the team at Creative Assembly. Once you’ve seen one testudo or phalanx, you’ve seen them all, and after so many years of reproducing factions and unit types of relative historical accuracy, it’s a testament to the inventiveness (or perhaps creative relief) of the development team that they have been able to bring to life distinct factions with very different play styles. As with the first game, Total War: Warhammer 2 features four factions drawn from the varied races of the Warhammer world.
Players have the option of waging their wars as the aloof and noble High Elves of the island paradise of Ulthuan; their vicious and sadistic fallen kin, the Dark Elves, who have been condemned to dwell in the frozen wastes of Naggaroth; the enigmatic Lizardmen, masters of the Lustrian jungles and last protectors of a civilization ancient beyond reckoning; or the repulsive and infinitely cunning Skaven, a horde of accursed rat-men so vile and evil that most citizens of the Warhammer world refuse to believe they even exist. Each of these races brings with them a plethora of exclusive benefits and drawbacks that are determined by their technology trees, unit selection and general gameplay mechanics. To offer further choice to the player, these races are split into 2 sub-factions with each corresponding legendary lord having either a melee or magic-focused skill set that caters to the preferences of those who favor either a more direct up-close and personal approach to combat or would rather engage their enemies from afar with devastating barrages of spells or projectiles.
Tyrion or Teclis command the High Elves, the faction most comparable to what most people would consider to be a traditional medieval style army. They are generally reliant on a strong cohort of ranged units supported by stalwart infantry and supplemented by a menagerie of dragons and magical beasts. This is an option that wasn’t really present in the previous game and is a very welcome addition for those who are looking for a more stable and reliable campaign experience in terms of economic and combat potential. Their vile kin, the appropriately named Dark Elves, utilize a similar army format but with more emphasis on vicious melee combatants trained to eviscerate the enemy as they cower under a hail of crossbow bolts. As either Malekith the Witch King or Morathi the Hag Queen, players have the option to recruit a combination of robust close quarters specialists supported by various beasts of war and masters of the macabre arcane arts.
Lizardmen under the stewardship of Lord Mazdamundi or Kroq-Gar are heavily dependent on unified ranks of indefatigable foot soldiers to keep the enemy pinned in place as magic using priests bombard them from afar and the flanks are assaulted by monstrous infantry combined with an array of dinosaurs (yes, you too can have your very own Chris Pratt Jurassic World moment.). The result is a style of warfare that is as indifferent and relentless as the laws of nature itself. Meanwhile under the guiding paws of Lord Skrolk or Queek Headtaker, representatives of Skaven clans Pestilens and Mors respectively, you control innumerable legions of disposable foot soldiers who only serve to suffer the brunt of any onslaught as demented wizards wielding techno-magic weaponry and festering plague-riddled zealots position themselves to annihilate friend and foe alike with rancid blasts of unholy power.
Such variety and flexibility of available army compositions makes itself most apparent on the battlefield, and Total War: Warhammer 2 delivers battle gameplay that is as good, if not better, than it has ever been before. The series secured its reputation with its simulation of combat between massed ranks of troops engaged in real time maneuvers directly controlled by the player, and even though there are a few kinks with the AI that have troubled these games since the very beginning, it’s never less than an absolute joy to watch as formations of High Elf soldiers clash in a desperate melee with hordes of scurrying Skaven, or to see gigantic, heavily-armored lizards smash into braced ranks of Dark Elf warriors. Each combat scenario plays out like the Battle of the Pelennor Fields from The Return of the King crossed with Jon Snow’s gut-wrenching face-off against the Bolton host in Game of Thrones, with a healthy dash of Army of Darkness added for flavor. The battles are chaotic, brutal, and glorious. Without question this is definitely a game of two halves and the strategic campaign gameplay in tandem with the micro-scale tactical warfare that takes place on the battle maps makes for a gaming experience that, thanks to the addition of Warhammer lore, is more compelling than ever.
The same quality and attention to detail that were lavished on the battles carry over onto the campaign map. From the tangled jungles of Lustria to the frozen crags of Naggaroth across a storm-wracked ocean to the verdant isle of Ulthuan and beyond to the mysterious depths of the South Lands, every region is distinct and uniquely embellished. Thematic authenticity was a key design concept for Total War: Warhammer and that is obviously the case for the sequel as well. Anyone with a fondness for Games Workshop’s creation will be thrilled to see some of the most feared and famous locations in the lore. They may not be depicted in precise detail but having such a vast and gorgeous depiction of one of the most popular fantasy worlds ever devised spread out before you to explore, and indeed conquer, is a joy to behold.
Every battle players fight as the leaders of the four factions is just a small part of a titanic struggle for control of the Vortex of Ulhuan, a swirling maelstrom of arcane energy that sits at the very heart of the High Elves’ domain. As the campaign progresses players will be tasked with performing a series of five sequential rituals, the completion of which will bring them closer to final victory. These rituals are not fire-and-forget events, as initiating one prompts unwanted attention in the form of multi-turn offenses that are launched against your cities. There are all manner of other obstacles put in place to try and prevent you from accomplishing your final goal. Rogue armies, random map events, rebellions as well as attacks from both major and minor factions that have their own agendas will do everything within their power to thwart your plans. For the most part how players decide to tackle the various challenges around them is largely up to them, and other than completing the rituals there is no set way to achieve the campaign win condition which means players can expand and organize their power base in whatever way they see fit. Naturally, the most efficient way of ensuring the compliance of the local population is to conquer them so that each province can be developed to open up more economic, technological and recruitment options. Diplomacy plays a role too, particularly for the High Elves who can use their faction specific influence mechanic to alter the course of relations between the various factions in order to either avoid or start wars.
Although it’s still true to say that this is a free-for-all sandbox style experience typical to what has been seen in previous games from this studio, there have been significant moves toward giving the Total War gameplay experience a more coherent structure. There are new additions to the campaign map such as treasures to find and locations to explore in both offshore locales and in the various ruined settlements that may or may not harbor lurking Skaven forces. When interacted with, these locations trigger mini-text events that, after a brief blurb, offer you a choice that could have either negative or positive effects for your faction. The rewards are never anything especially amazing, but they can be lucrative enough to make an effort to collect them as you march across the world. Throughout the campaign players will also be issued with a steady stream of quests and missions that tie directly into the personal goals of your individual chosen legendary lord as well as the factions as a whole. Completing these is by no means mandatory, but doing so offers rewards ranging from character buffs, traits, equipment, followers and even small but regular amounts of the ritual currency that your chosen faction requires to progress toward mastery of the Vortex.
The implementation of this guided structure within a more free-form environment makes for a much for substantial sense of purpose to the campaign that was often lost in the Old World setting of the first game. However, if I had one gripe with the vortex campaign, then it would be the muddled sense of pacing that characterizes the experience. There’s nothing wrong with using strongly objective driven elements to give a game a degree of dynamism and focus, but coupling them with the timed element of the rituals can give the impression of disjointed start-stop gameplay. Total War: Warhammer 2 alternates between periods of relative freedom, as you collect enough currency for the next ritual, explore the map and conquer or confederate other factions at your leisure, and the hectic intensity of the combat heavy ritual cycles which see you having to fight off ever-increasing numbers of enemy armies.
It’s not a major criticism but it does at times seem as if it would have been more appropriate to make the vortex more akin to the Realm of the Wood Elves and Call of the Beastmen DLC mini-campaigns that were added to the first game rather than the centerpiece of an entire game. Luckily, for players who already own the previous title, Creative Assembly plan to combine the original map with the new Vortex oriented one to create what has been dubbed the ‘Mortal Empires’ campaign. This will include slightly modified versions of every area available on both maps and all the races made available to date will be playable in one vast war for dominance of the Warhammer world. As a long time fan of Games Workshop and their unique brand of fantasy that’s an exciting prospect and should provide ample opportunity to lead my favorite races and characters to total and final triumph.
With Total War: Warhammer 2, Creative Assembly have done a sterling job of developing a game that appeals to fans of their own franchise, and enthusiasts of Games Workshop’s iconic intellectual property. When it comes to gaming I don’t think there could ever be a better match. The robust campaign and battle mechanics that the Total War series is renowned for is the perfect framework for Warhammer‘s rich and intricate lore. The end result is a title that is as engaging for the complexity of its gameplay as it is for its palpable thematic atmosphere. Less forgiving veterans of the Total War series should probably hold off for the next historical release slated for some point in 2018 because if the goblins and wizards of Total War: Warhammer were enough to put you off then you’ll probably not look kindly on fighting armies of plague-riddled rat-men or legions of dinosaur-riding sentient lizards.
For Warhammer fans that are new to this unique brand of simulated warfare then this is the perfect jumping-on point for the series, as it improves upon the first entry in every way and has no immediate connection to the first game, so you won’t be missing anything essential. The upcoming ‘Mortal Empires’ combined campaign map along with everything else that this unusually impressive sequel already has to offer makes for an absolute bargain, one that I doubt even the Chaos gods themselves could refuse.