Creative Assembly discovers a new world of story-driven campaign and fun factions.
As a series, Total War tends to give its best when building on an already established foundation. Napoleon surpassed Empire, Attila surpassed Rome 2. And so, in faithful fashion, has Total War: Warhammer 2 pushed beyond the original Total War Warhammer, creating the most fleshed-out and engrossing campaign this veteran strategy and tactics series has offered to date.
The standard trappings are all present in top form. A sprawling campaign map that’s possibly the best-looking one Creative Assembly’s artists have ever put together. Real-time battles with reasonably competent AI (not always a given for Total War) who seem to know how to play to each army’s strengths and weaknesses – if only in a pre-set, somewhat predictable way. You build cities and research tech to unlock new units and improve your economy and fighting capacity, with each of the new factions having a fairly innovative way of doing so.
Those factions are the headliners of this battle royale: four extremely distinct and fun to command armies that bring new ideas to the campaign and the real-time battles. The enigmatic Lizardmen (whom I’ve spent the most time with) have access to a combination of rampaging dinosaurs and highly potent magic to the field. Their mid- and high-tier units present interesting tactical considerations in each battle in the question of where and when to commit to the melee, since they’re prone to going into a rampage state and deciding they don’t need your stupid orders once they’re in the thick of it. On the campaign map, the Lizardmen are probably the least interesting of the four: maintaining the sprawling Geomantic Web that powers their highly powerful province edicts forces you to play wide, even while your major objectives contradictingly encourage you to circle the wagons and defend the core of your empire.
Watching the High Elves in action is like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.
The High Elves and their edgier Dark Elf cousins are about as far from reskins of one another as you can get, despite their shared heritage in the lore. High Elf armies fill a niche that none of the previous factions really could, with a focus on small, expensive units that each represent the very peak of discipline and martial excellence. Watching a unit of High Elf Swordmasters hold a charge is satisfyingly reminiscent of the prelude to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, with flashing swords cutting effortlessly through the varied horrors assailing their line. Their campaign mechanics mainly deal with Influence, a currency earned mainly through making choices in court intrigue events that can be spent to bolster or sabotage relations between any two factions. That provides a delightfully thematic avenue for the High Elves to start wars without ever firing an arrow. It’s the one area of diplomacy that the Total War series has gotten right lately.
It’s Good To Be Bad
High Elves don’t have much of a stomach for blood, though, and fight the hardest at the beginning of a battle before they’ve started to take casualties and get blood on their expensive cuirasses. Dark Elves, in stark contrast, become more deadly the more viscera has been spilled. They have a focus on wicked, frenzied units that evoke the sinister, un-Disneyfied versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In keeping with that cruel theme, they have a habit of taking slaves after each victory, who can either be put to work to improve your economy or sacrificed to gain bonuses – including the ability to summon floating cities called Black Arks that can move around the seas and recruit units.
Skaven are highly interesting to play, both as and against.
But the centerpiece of the whole operation are the Skaven, and they’re one of the most truly different factions I’ve ever handled in a Total War game. They’re not quite a horde, but also not quite a settled faction, inhabiting ruins that the enemy can only identify as settlements by sending an army to investigate them. This allows them to hide their most important strategic assets in plain sight, which makes Skaven highly interesting to play, both as and against. They also have a corruption mechanic similar to Vampires and Chaos, with the wrinkle that building it up too high hurts them just as much as their neighbors. Thus, you’re incentivized to get what you can out of a region and then ditch it when the rat poo reaches about waist-high, taking advantage of the Skaven ability to settle an empty ruin and build it immediately into a fully upgraded city by expending their unique Food resource. Their roster focuses on swarms of cheap units supported by powerful specialists like the hilarious and deadly Doomwheel, and is a great fit for players like me who normally have a hard time throwing lives away to get the job done. Somehow I don’t mind sending awful rat creatures to their doom.
New World, New Rules
When attempting to take full advantage of all these new faction mechanics, combined with the ability to explore ruins and shipwrecks, powerful rites that can be activated for strong temporary bonuses, and the overarching battle for control of the Vortex that determines victory, the amount of micromanagement can start to feel overwhelming. The theme of Warhammer 2’s campaign seems to be that you’ll never sit around hitting End Turn while waiting for buildings and armies to finish, which is an improvement from the lulls in the first game. But there was definitely an adjustment period where I had to learn that prioritizing a few things was a better idea than to try to play with all the shiny new toys at once.
The interface has also seen some major improvements, notably in the ability to zoom directly from the 3D campaign map to the strategic overview without having to open a separate menu. There’s still a lot of room for growth here, though. You still can’t initiate diplomacy by clicking on a faction’s cities or units, for instance. And diplomacy itself remains decidedly behind most other modern strategy games in its versatility: wars are still all-or-nothing affairs, an end to which can only be negotiated with an exchange of cash and each side keeping what they’ve captured. But Creative Assembly is on the right track, taking baby steps toward a decent diplomacy system.
As cool as the factions are, The Great Vortex campaign itself is this sequel’s greatest triumph. As the major factions race to complete rituals that represent distinct milestones on the path to victory – and sabotage one another in the process – the world grows more hectic and dangerous while new pieces of a simple but effective story with an interesting twist are revealed through well voiced and animated cinematics. Total War has always struggled to make the endgame interesting for powerful player empires, and while the Chaos Invasion in Total War: Warhammer was a decent attempt to correct this, the Vortex campaign’s increasing application of external pressure and tense, final set-piece battle make it look amateurish.
As an added bonus, you’re able to play against the original Total War: Warhammer factions in multiplayer and skirmishes if you own both games. There’s also a new multiplayer mode that allows free-for-all battles involving more than two teams, which fits great with the general chaos and mayhem of Warhammer. Just be warned that four, full-strength armies can require a beefy PC to keep up with – especially if the numerous Skaven are involved.