The End Times have arrived. Chaos fanatics and abominations led by Archaon the Everchosen, the Three-Eyed King and favored son of Chaos, march ever-forward from the desolate North with a single goal set before them, to bring forth the end of the world in honor of the dark gods.
Entire nations of men have fallen, Orks have been wiped out from the world, and the only thing standing against the tides of darkness is an uneasy alliance between the mountain Dwarfs and the undead legions of Sylvania... or at least it would be if the damnable Dwarfs didn't decide this was prime time to exact revenge for a trade dispute that occurred ages ago!
As my innumerable hordes of the dead slowly shambled towards the final stronghold of the once proud Dwarfs I was left wondering if I should be angry the AI decided to essentially throw the entire campaign and condemn us all to eternal damnation, or genuinely impressed it managed to do exactly what the Dwarfs in Warhammer lore would do - seek revenge against anyone foolish enough to end up in their great Book of Grudges.
The Warhammer world is a strange place, a combination of everything Games Workshop thought would be cool and badass, all mixed up together and then seasoned with Tolkien's rendition of Middle Earth, and Lovecraft's cosmic monstrosities. What this insane amalgamation ended up resulting in is one of the most unique and interesting fantasy worlds I've ever experienced, a universe where your standard cliches are not only embraced, but instead taken to their very extreme.
In gameplay terms this means that unlike previous Total War games where every faction differed only slightly from their neighbors, the ones in Total War: Warhammer only share the broad strokes of warfare, with the specific details being unique to them alone.
The fools never stood a chance
The previously mentioned Dwarfs (and no, that's not a spelling mistake) base the entirety of their civilization on an impeccable sense of honor and duty, a pair of truly noble ideals they then decided to take too far. If you ever cross a Dwarf you can rest assured that your name and the entirety of your vile deed will be written in the blood of the High King himself into the Damaz Kron, the great Book of Grudges.
Since the Dwarf language contains no word for forgiveness this means that throughout the Dwarf campaign you will be oath-bound to exact revenge and retribution against any that dare insult the great Dwarf race. Crossing out the grudges, which is mostly done by beating the other side into a pulp, will net you favor among your citizens, while a full book of unanswered grudges will lead towards general unrest and perhaps even open rebellion against the clearly incompetent High King.
Due to the fickle nature of the Dwarfs I spent most of the campaign adopting a defensive playstyle as earning new enemies tends to be far more trouble than its worth, especially when you have plenty of grudges to settle back home, mostly against the constantly invading hordes of green-skinned barbarians.
The ambush probably should've focused on the Dwarfs with giant flamethrowers
The Orks on the other hand care very little for defense, and prefer to simply get into the next battle as soon as possible. This is represented in-game through the fightiness meter that increases as you win battles and crush your enemies, but decreases if you lose battles or hide behind walls like some sort of a Dwarf. In true Ork tradition, the more successful your Warboss is the more greenskins will start to rally behind him, usually resulting in a WAAAGH! - an unstoppable tide of flesh and blades that only cares about one thing and one thing only, fighting!
What this means is that instead of loosing troops as you constantly advance across the campaign map your numbers will slowly increase as long as you remain on the offense, eventually ending up with an entire army trailing your primary one, an army you don't have to pay in anything other than blood! Its not often that one gets to play a Total War game as a complete battle-hungry maniac, so the addition of Orks is definitely a welcome one.
The Vampire Counts, my personal favorite race, don't rely on such silly things as archery, artillery, or even taking good care of their front-line troops. What they have instead is a nearly endless sea of corpses to drown their enemies in. Zombies, skeletons, and skeletal zombie dogs all serve as cannon fodder to hide your more powerful units, the various monstrosities that have been forcefully risen from the grave, and a surprisingly effective and diverse set of spectral cavalry that will tear through the enemy's defenses with ease.
Unfortunately, the most unique part about the Vampire Counts, the ability to raise the dead when roaming around the world, did not pan out to be as exceptional as it sounds on first glance. This is mostly due to the fact that these units are still expensive, but also because you are only able to resurrect a couple of the strong ones after particularly devastating battles, battles that have most likely left you in such a poor shape that you need to return to the safety of your borders anyway.
Still, the Vampire Counts have plenty of things going for them, and sometimes just seeing the huge armies of flesh and bone slowly advance forward is enough to send opposing armies flee in terror. This is great for breaking formations during land-battles, but when it comes to castle sieges it can be downright devastating as defenders abandon their posts and allow the clumsy zombies to freely shamble up the massive walls.
The bleak gray walls of this cave serve as perfect camouflage for the ravenous dead
If you're up for a somewhat standard Total War experience, however, the Empire is there to provide exactly that. Their troops mostly consist of peasants with halberds, entire legions of crossbowmen, and naturally, noble knights riding upon steeds of war. That doesn't last for very long though, and soon enough realism will get thrown by wayside as you start to recruit massive siege tanks, magical catapults, missile launchers, and knights riding upon flightless Gryphons.
Mythical beasts aside, another big difference from previous Total War games is the inclusion of magic which can range from long-lasting defensive enhancements, to full on tornadoes made out of pure fire! The problem is that most of these offensive spells are nowhere near worth their mana costs as they do rather meek amounts of damage and tend to move about the battlefield in a random fashion. It makes sense from a lore perspective as the mortal races tend to have trouble understanding the Winds of Magic, but from a gameplay standpoint this means you'll mostly be spending your mana on efficient, but extremely boring offensive/defensive buffs.
The flaming tornado in action - completely missing everyone as usual
In a strange way the fact that most of these flashy spells are ineffective ended up being a great boon to me as I frequently struggle with resisting the temptation to ignore battlefield tactics in favor of zooming in up close and watching cavalry charges displace entire swaths of troops. Its an unfortunate reality of the genre that those playing the game seriously will only see tiny flags and health bars shake around the map, while those in it for the spectacle will probably lose all of their battles as they are highly likely to miss the skeletal dragon landing amidst their artillery. At least there's always the replay system for post-match gawking!
As for the battles themselves, they will instantly feel familiar to anyone that played a modern Total War game as many of the same unit archetypes are present in Warhammer as well, just wearing a different set of 'clothes'. What this means is that the battles are complex, exciting, and offer plenty of opportunities to carve your own victory out of certain defeat. One of my favorite moments from the campaign was when my already wounded army was attacked by two enemy heroes, something the in-game counter said was destined to be a decisive defeat. Instead of giving up I managed to make good use of forest cower and cavalry charges to not only survive, but almost wipe out one of my attackers, and then raise an even stronger army from their corpses!
They never saw it coming
The enemy AI, while clearly not brilliant, managed to offer me enough of a challenge on Normal difficulty that I never felt like I was just cruising towards a victory, a notion that continued untill the very end of the campaign when the forces of Chaos simply smashed through all of my defenses and brought about the age of boring to the world of Warhammer. I was warned when I started the campaign, however, that the normal difficulty was a bit overtuned pre-release, so you may want to go with some of the higher difficulty settings if you're a Total War veteran.
While I would love to say everything was perfect when it comes to combat, there are a couple of issues that required getting used to. The first one is the rather finicky camera controls that either don't zoom in as fast as you want, or end up flipping out all over the place when attempting to move around a battle. Thankfully, most of this can be corrected if you fiddle with the options menu, and I would recommend you do so if you plan to watch the battles play out from up-close.
The second issue is the that I frequently have no idea about what's even happening on the battlefield unless I go the tactical camera. This comes down to the fact that most of the units for some factions are completely black when looked at from above, so in a battle between Black Orks and skeletal swordsmen you would have a really tough time trying to tell which side is winning without looking up the health bars, which themselves could be covered by other health bars! I would like to see an option that gives your units an outline in the color of your choice, as otherwise you have to rely on the pause button far too often, and that is something I don't consider very fun.
Well... that sure is a pile of stuff, and believe me, the unit flags do NOT help here!
There's more to Total War: Warhammer than fighting, however, and it comes in the shape of the campaign map where you get to build up your forces, sabotage enemy defenses, gather allies, and then wage war against anyone that opposes you... wait a minute!
At the start of the campaign you will have to chose a Legendary Lord that will lead your empire to greatness. Depending on your choice your armies will be slightly more inclined towards a specific playstyle, but the most interesting thing about these Legendary Lords is how you get to personally witness their ascent to power through various quests. These quests will appear periodically on the campaign map and usually force you to bring your entire army into hostile territory, with the carrot being a magical artifact of great power. You will start the battle with your entire army at the ready, while the opposition will get a pre-built force that might just be vastly inferior, or completely overpowered depending on when you decide to undertake the quest.
I don't consider this too much of an issue since the quest battles have always managed to be entertaining, either because of the story, or because of the often tricky encounter design that might have you face off against overwhelming odds until your allies finally come to the rescue. The fact that you always get a lore-important item at the end of it also means that the stakes are adequately high, so even though it might just be another battle amidst hundreds it still feels fresh.
What doesn't feel fresh, and this is probably the biggest issue with Total War: Warhammer, is the fact that the end of the campaign is so repetitive. Almost every faction has the exact same goals: destroy two opposing nations and stop the Chaos invasion. No matter how you played through the entire game the final stretch will be a big climatic battle with Chaos, followed by a long and boring mop-up of all the factions that still remain on your checklist. Its a real shame because I truly enjoyed what the campaign had to offer, what with each race having their own special gimmick, so I do hope this is something the upcoming DLCs will expand upon.
The formations are set... we now only wait for the Dwarfs to arrive
As with previous Total War games you are capable of building up your cities in a variety of ways, with your expansion being mostly limited by your funding and the current level of civil unrest. While it might seem complicated at first the building process is about as dead-simple as it gets since the buildings all fall into obvious tiers such as: unit-producing buildings, income generators, trade good generators, prerequisites for bigger units, and so forth. Its not a bad system, but its clearly not the focus of Total War: Warhammer, so it is a bit underdeveloped compared to what you might expect from a strategy game.
Things get a lot more interesting in the research screen that allows you to either enable passive effects for specific heroes and units, or new and increasingly powerful magical abilities. Much like the city building system its not very complex, but it does offer you a far greater degree of choice when it comes to what exactly you want to specialize your nation in, whether that be combat, diplomacy, expansion, or any variation of those.
My capital in its early days
The final thing worth mentioning about the campaign is diplomacy, a sore spot in almost every Total War game, and unfortunately the same applies to Warhammer as well. Allied AI players will frequently decline your offers to go to war against a common enemy, only to then bring up a counter offer that requires both of you declaring war against a much more powerful enemy that lies somewhere far away. Worst of all, they will decline payment from you in order to wage a joint battle against Orkish invaders, only to then instantly turn around and pay you to do the very same thing! Its absolute madness!
The one good thing I can say is that I've had far more success navigating the political landscapes in Total War: Warhammer than in previous games, with my greatest success story being the fact that I've managed to actually convince one of my AI neighbors to join armies with me and fend off a common foe. Its moments like these when a couple of thousand zombies march in unison towards the enemy lines that make me glad I'm playing not just Total War, but one set in such a unique world as Warhammer given that the end result is often breathtaking.
So you're paying me to do exactly as I want? Oooookaaaay
The last, but not least are the technical aspects. You'll be glad to hear that unlike the launch version of Rome 2 Total War: Warhammer manages to be mostly bug-free, and the ones that do occur rarely result in the AI committing seppuku. Your millage may wary as Total War games can be notorious for their issues, but throughout my time with Warhammer I can't say I was ever so annoyed with bugs that I would find reason to complain about them.
The performance on the other hand might be an issue for a lot of people as Total War: Warhammer requires a hefty machine to run it on ultra, and despite me having a mid-high ranged gaming PC I haven't been able to even hold a stable 30 FPS during some of the bigger battles. In other words, if you don't have a beastly machine don't be surprised if you're 'forced' to downgrade some settings in order to keep a stable 60 FPS when things get heated up.
On the positive side, when you're looking at all the fighting up close the FPS tends to be fairly stable, so if you don't mind some dips while re-arranging your formations you will still be able to run Warhammer with all settings maxed out and all of the units looking as pretty as they can be. I did exactly this, and even though I occasionally dropped to as low as 20 FPS I still had no problems given that the drops mostly occur when all of the units are a small blurry spec on the horizon, so do keep that option in mind if you ever find yourself in a similar situation.
Total War: Warhammer is a crossover between two franchises I've enjoyed for many years now, and I'm delighted to say that it manages to be faithful to both sides, but most importantly, an actually enjoyable experience on its own. It has some clear flaws, especially when it comes to the generic campaign ending, terrible diplomacy system, and occasional performance woes, but even with all of that considered this is the most fun I've had with a Total War game.
The factions are unique, the units exciting, and the battles often a spectacle to behold, so I do hope the problems get ironed out through future patches and DLCs as this is a game I would love to keep coming back to for many years to come!