From the most hardcore to the most casual of PC gamers, the only way you haven’t at least heard about the Total War franchise is by living under a rock. Massive armies duking it out in wars spanning mankind’s history from the early Roman conquests to Napoleon’s grand campaign and everything in between. Now it’s time to kick it up into the high fantasy gear and visit one of my personal favorite fantasy worlds: Warhammer. With rich lore, unique factions and the first ever non-realistic setting in a Total War game, Creative Assembly definitely have their work cut out for them.
On the surface, not a lot has changed between Total War: Warhammer and previous Total War titles: you manage your empire in the turn-based half of the game, and fight real-time battles in the other. When not fighting, you manage your armies, recruit units, construct infrastructure and conduct research. You engage other factions in diplomacy and maybe a bit of underhanded espionage. Your heroes and leaders are still the backbone of your army, with their power increasing as they gain experience and learn new abilities. So far, this probably seems like your typical Total War game, doesn’t it? Well, things are about to get much more interesting.
Total War: Warhammer launches with four different races and a fifth one available as a DLC/Pre-order bonus. The “base” races are the Orcs, Empire, Dwarves and Vampire Counts, and the DLC honor is reserved to the forces of Chaos. If you’re even a little bit familiar with the Warhammer lore, you should be raising an eyebrow by now – each of the factions is drastically different from the others, and there’s no way they would play the same way. It’s not like in previous Total War titles where a re-skin and a couple special units could define a faction. The factions of Warhammer are a completely asymmetrical lot; every unit is different, resources are different, different factions employ different tactics and even rout differently when the tides turn against them.
Take for example the Vampire Counts, my currently most-played race. They have no range units whatsoever, which is a major drawback compared to all other races. Furthermore, when an undead troop breaks, it doesn’t flee – it just loses its will to exist and rapidly crumbles into dust. Of course they make up for it in other ways, like the ability to recruit practically anywhere in the world by raising skeletons, zombies and other pre-owned warriors in a snap. Usually cheaper than actually training them in town, too. There’s also the matter of utterly obliterating an enemy’s will to fight using literal nightmares in your army.
There is also Magic; capital-letter “make the enemy bleed from every orifice” Magic. Vampires happen to be very good at this kind of magic. It actually feels a bit overpowered to me right now, but I’ve successfully beaten an army of twice the size of my troop by clever maneuvering, using my Bats well and raising some zombies right at the enemy’s flank when the time was just right. Playing the Vampire Counts felt the most “Fantasy Total War” the game can get and the added mechanic of “Vampiric Corruption” felt a lot like the influence-type victories in previous Total War titles.
If the Vampires were a nice surprise filled with subtle tactics and clever unit use, Total Warhammer’s Orcs are actually exactly what I was expecting. Even the game’s advisor sums the Orcs up as a “Brutish race of savages that exist for the sole purpose of warfare”. They’re easily my second favorite race simply because of how their faction is designed to constantly be at war with everyone. The Orcs have a unique gauge to their troops, called “Fightiness”. In a nutshell, fighting Orcs are happy Orcs while not-fighting Orcs are in-fighting Orcs. Keeping your Fightiness up is how you maintain your army’s cohesion and keep it from deteriorating into a mess of carnage and flying limbs.
Orcs also constantly need to loot and pillage to support their armies – they can’t trade, their research tree is mostly made up of ways to hack enemies apart better and while the campaign start for Orcs isn’t easy, I found it to be a very rewarding faction to play. Where other races employ diplomacy, guile and strategy, Orcs employ choppas. Other races have subtlety, common sense and plans, Orcs have choppas. Other races fight for supremacy, control, Emperor and Country and Orcs, you guessed it, fight because they have choppas in-hand already. They do tick all the checkboxes for a more balanced faction – they have ranged units, cavalry, beasts and a bit of nasty Goblin magic that packs a surprising kick and again feels a bit overpowered. Still, Orcs are incredibly fun if all you want out of your faction is to carve a bloody swathe across the land.
Dwarves in Total Warhammer are what you would get if you were to take a legion of grumpy old men and give them all guns. Easily the best ranged fighters in the game, Dwarves make up for their lack of magic by simply filling everything full of holes before it gets close enough to be a threat. They have bombercraft, pistols, cannon and, of course, the famed Dwarven Vigor that can keep them fighting in full-force long after all other armies on the field barely have the strength to raise their weapons. Dwarves are your defensive army, with the fortitude of a solid stone wall as it slowly marches upon its enemies, raining barrage after barrage of bullets.
Naturally, these grumpy old men need a big grumpy book – The Book of Grudges. Yes, really. To keep your public order up, you need to make sure that no grudge goes unanswered – while other factions get missions and side-quests, Dwarves just get really upset about stuff. It’s your job as High King to keep your people happy, even if that means marching an army out to the middle of nowhere to kill some Orc that offended your great-great-great-grandfather. It was the first time in a Total War game where I was sure my empire will crumble because of a sweetroll, stolen several centuries ago.
Last and least are the Empire. I wish I could have something cool and exciting to talk about. Maybe a big grumpy book to joke about, but no. The Empire is mankind united(ish) as you step into the shoes of a young Emperor trying to consolidate his rule in the face of countless enemies without and within. Unproven both on the battlefield and the royal halls, playing the Empire is often a Game of Thrones as you try to balance everyone’s wishes against your well-being while appointing officials and hoping nobody stabs you in the back.
Playing the Empire feels like your cookie-cutter humans with a well-balanced jack-of-all-trades army. As a huge Warhammer nerd, this honestly doesn’t surprise me – humans were my least favorite faction when I played tabletop Warhammer 15 years ago and they’re the least interesting now – but hey, you get what you pay for. A well-balanced no-frills army that can successfully counter anything is probably the best thing to lead if you’re new to the genre or unfamiliar with the universe and lore. I just wish they had a bit more personality to them, because they do feel a bit bland to me.
Back when reviewed Total War: Attila, the previous Total War title, I pointed out how sieges were greatly improved but still a weak overall experience. Finally, in Warhammer, I can say without reservation that “Sieges work great”. Combining elements from previous Total War titles and across-the-board improvements, laying siege in Warhammer became fun. It begins with the same options we had in Attila: you can camp outside and let attrition take its toll on the enemy, or you can storm the gates. To storm the gates you need siege tools – purpose-built on the spot while you sit outside the enemy’s walls, planning the horrible things you’ll do to them once battle is over. When you finally storm the walls, your siege tools are already assigned to your units. All you need to do is drive that siege tower towards a wall, or that ram towards a gate, and just like that, your soldiers will do the rest. It all simply works, as intended, with zero frustration.
This being a PC game, I have to say a few things about graphics and performance. Playing on a GTX960 (which, granted, surpasses the game’s requirements quite a bit) I had a silky-smooth experience with all settings maxed out. A solid 60FPS across the board even when there were literally hundreds of entities on-screen, whacking at each other with axe and sword and spear. The various armies look beautiful, too, with a decent amount of graphical variation between individual soldiers. Granted, not every Goblin is a unique snowflake, but there is enough cosmetic differences between the lot of them to avoid the obvious repeat-same-soldier-120-times comparison. The battlefields themselves are also nicely rendered, with lush forests, rolling hills and beautiful towns. That’s obviously the “Before” picture, the “After” image is mostly dead people.
Total War: Warhammer is a huge game that’s best experienced by playing. After over 40 hours, I keep discovering new things to do and new tactics to explore – and that’s while focusing on playing mostly a single race. It’s not an easy game, with the difficulty following Attila’s example before it, but it is fair and once you fail a few times you’ll start getting the hang of things. Once you’re past the steep learning curve, though, it’s a rewarding game where you can plot, and scheme, and conquer, and destroy entire nations without fielding a single unit.Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.