As a longtime lover of history and the RTS genre, the Total War franchise always seemed like it should’ve been a perfect fit for me, at least on paper. Warfare on a massive scale, with armies numbering in the thousands, and a robust metagame to accompany it always sounded appealing; however, every time I tried to dip my toes into the series I would quickly find myself overwhelmed by mountains of tutorial text, dozens of systems, and an expectation that I play with the same kind of strategy and troop formations that real-world generals would’ve used during that period. Had I decided during any of these brief stints with the franchise to double down and struggle through that initial barrier to entry for another 6 hours or so, I have no doubt that I would’ve been able to grasp it, but alas, the infinitely more approachable Supreme Commander was always a click away; I opted to satisfy my “massive armies killing one another” cravings there instead.
I know I’m not alone in this feeling, which is probably why the announcement of Total War: Warhammer piqued the interest of so many—myself included. Despite its strategically complex war-gaming roots, the Warhammer universe’s lore has a lot of gleefully silly underpinnings and over-the-top characters that make it infinitely more approachable than the historically dense settings Total War is traditionally known for. The addition of easy-to-understand fantasy armies and settings seemed like a great way to get new fans into the series and breathe new life into a formula that developer Creative Assembly has been adhering to for over a decade now.
So, is this the everyman’s Total War game?
Yes and no. The game is a pleasant mix of old mechanics and new, combining the tried-and-true realtime strategy system from previous games with a few great new additions like flying/giant units and spellcasting, and an improved metagame component. The metagame will still feel familiar if you’ve played previous Total War games (or Civilization, for that matter) in that you’re still managing cities and moving your armies around the map, but Creative Assembly were able to take advantage of Warhammer’s diverse factions to create an impressively replayable campaign mode where every race feels distinct to play—something that the other Total War games have never quite pulled off. Regrettably, the learning curve still feels only marginally improved compared to previous entries in the series and makes it hard to recommend to newcomers without some time on their hands.
Even as a player with some knowledge of how Total War games play, I found myself getting kicked to the curb pretty quickly after starting my first few campaigns—even on normal difficulty. Each faction has a couple of battles they absolutely have to fight at the beginning of a campaign, so the first few turns are generally pretty straightforward and do an okay job of introducing players to basic mechanics. After that though, you’re almost entirely on your own. Your advisor will pop in from time to time whenever a new system is introduced to give a super basic rundown of how it works—and if you’re screwing up or forgetting some aspect of managing your empire the game will at least try to steer you in the right direction—but it’s the little things the game doesn’t tell you, along with some of the more random elements of the campaign, that gave me the most trouble.
Take my second campaign, for example. Playing as the Dwarves, I was off to a great start: a couple of hours into a campaign I’d won multiple crushing victories and had a booming economy, so I started looking to expand my borders. I took a few turns to march my army northward into Greenskin territory to attack one of their cities when a couple of massive Greenskin armies suddenly marched within vision of my capital city, now about 7 turns away from the majority of my troops. Just like that, nearly 3 hours of play was gone (and I spent another frustrating hour after that struggling to find a play that would keep my cities from being totally wiped out to no avail), all because I hadn’t yet learned the importance of having multiple armies (particularly if you plan on venturing out into the wide world). A valuable learning experience, yes, but also a very frustrating one that cost me most of the time I had to play games on a particular day. For better or for worse, this rough learning curve seems to be unavoidable in a game with as much going on as Total War. While I will fully admit that the events I just described were my own fault and probably wouldn’t ever happen to a Total War veteran, there is also absolutely no way I could have known or expected the speed with which powerful enemies can show up at your doorstep in the early game without experiencing it firsthand. This kind of trial-and-error is why I still have reservations about recommending the game to newcomers, or at the very least feel that I owe them a warning. Despite the tutorials being the best they’ve ever been in TW and the ever-present in-game wiki (that all but the most experienced of players will be referring to often), penetrating Total War: Warhammer‘s complex inner workings and learning the strategies necessary for victory is still very time consuming.
All of that said, the learning curve is the only serious criticism of Total War: Warhammer I can give. The game is gorgeous, the battles are some of the best spectacle I’ve ever seen in any game, and the Warhammer-specific additions to the Total War formula easily make it my favorite in the franchise. Armies are now led by Lords, powerful units that can cast magic spells and be equipped with loot earned from winning battles, killing enemy lords, and completing objectives. The magic element is particularly interesting, as it encourages taking direct, constant control of your lord in order to cast spells, most of which are active abilities requiring a button press that can do everything from flinging gigantic fireballs into the midst of an enemy group to buffing all of the units surrounding the lord to allowing for a quick escape via a potion of speed. These new gameplay mechanics, coupled with the interesting mid- and late-game units like giants, gyrocopters, spider riders, and other Warhammer staples result in a Total War game that looks and feels completely different than anything Creative Assembly has ever made. Even the relatively boring human faction—which plays about as similarly to a standard Total War army as you can get—has to go up against enemies that incorporate these fantasy units, forcing players to learn new tactics in order to survive against the massive beasts the enemy will throw at them.
Each faction also has a unique set of victory conditions (some easier to achieve than others) that do a great job of making the metagame feel different for every race. Dwarves need to ally together and settle all of the outstanding grievances in their book of grudges (mostly by killing Greenskins, their mortal enemy); Humans can use a combination of force and diplomacy to unify the empire and eliminate the Vampire Counts; The Greenskins need to eliminate the Dwarves and bolster their economy through raiding; and the Vampire Counts must spread corruption and wipe out the human empire. I enjoyed my time with each of these factions, and considering the already extensive mod support, range of difficulties that can be selected, and the number of choices that make each playthrough unique, the amount of content included with Total War: Warhammer’s $60 buy-in is a fantastic deal for strategy fans.
Adding to the value proposition are multiplayer modes and fantastic mod support, along with the promise of extensive (although admittedly costly) DLC down the road that will add brand new factions and campaigns. Multiplayer isn’t really my cup of tea (getting my teeth kicked in by experienced players rarely is), but it’s nice that it’s there for players looking to take their Total War: Warhammer experience online. I obviously won’t assess mods or DLC as they aren’t a part of the core package, but the depth and longevity added by both are worth mentioning simply because they do a fantastic job of supplementing an already strong package.
Total War: Warhammer is already my favorite Total War game. Fantasy RTS games are a surprisingly rare thing these days, and this game does the genre proud in just about every way. Franchise newbies will probably have a rough few hours at the start, but it’s still technically the most approachable TW game ever made, and for once I can vouch that the experience waiting beyond those first few hours is incredibly rewarding and downright fun. Taking the few territories and troops you begin with and turning them into a massive empire that crushes its foes over the course of a campaign is generally a satisfying feeling, and being able to do that in a fantasy realm with monstrous creatures at your command only makes it that much nicer. With great visuals, improved performance, and a heavy amount of content rounding out the package, Total War: Warhammer is easily the best strategy game to come out in a long while.