Game review – Total War: Warhammer offers action aplenty in a loving tribute
The marriage of fantasy table-top warfare with historical strategy simulation produces a diverse and exciting game
Total War: Warhammer
Warhammer is a range of tabletop strategy games; Total War is a series of historical battle simulations. Combining the two should have produced a black hole of nerdiness so unapproachable it would crush all mortals. Strangely, however, this is probably the most accessible each game has been for years.
Typically taking place over the surface of a continent, the Total War games have taken in medieval Europe, the Napoleonic era, the Roman world and the warring states era of Japan. Like the turn-based Civilization series, players control one faction, building settlements, researching new technologies and recruiting armies. When those armies clash on the campaign, players then control them in real-time battles against opposing factions and nations.
As the Sun Tzu-inspired name might imply, the Total War games are not for the fainthearted. They’re complex simulations where strategic civilisation management has to be combined with the tactical nous to win relatively realistic battles. Even if you have played them since the first game in 2000, you’ll still discover baffling new elements every time you dig in. They’re not just complex, they’re 16 years of aggregated complexity.
Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battles tabletop game, by contrast, is set in an elf, dwarf and goblin-rich universe that riffs heavily off Tolkien’s Middle Earth (or it was until they recently blew it all to hell with a 2015 reinvention – this game is set before that.) Save for the almost-forgotten Mighty Empires spin-off, Warhammer focuses on small-scale battles. Players buy, assemble and paint armies of small figurines, then take turns controlling them in tactical combat around polystyrene buildings and cardboard trees. It’s an expensive hobby, with some figures costing more than £1,000 , so it’s understandable that fans might crave a simulated version.
Integrating Warhammer brings an entirely different angle to Total War. Where before the focus was on replicating the armies and cultures of an era – making it realistic, for example, that the armies of the Huns would trigger the downfall of the Western Roman Empire – Warhammer brings gargantuan monsters, flying troops, powerful heroes and devastating magic.
So in this amalgamation, building-sized monsters such as Giants, Shaggoths or Arachnarok Spiders wade through enemy troops, sending them flying. Winged creatures battle mid-air or dive into vulnerable enemy formations. Heroes can turn the tide of battle by themselves. And at its best, the magic is more than overpowered artillery, summoning undead hordes or spinning vortices of death or just inspiring terror in their enemies.
These new elements are distributed unevenly across its five factions. One faction – the Vampire Counts – has no ranged weaponry, instead using flying creatures and hordes of zombies to absorb enemy firepower before they get into a melee. Another – the dwarfs – is slow and without magic, relying entirely on hardy soldiers and gunpowder weaponry to break the will of their opponents.
A third – the primitive Orcs & Goblins – has a wide range of cheap units and monsters with a tendency to run away at the first sign of trouble. The Chaos hordes, by contrast, have powerful, loyal and heavily armoured units without much ranged weaponry. And the human Empire has a bit of everything – knights, artillery, infantry – without being great at anything.
The variety of styles makes this feel like five Total War games in one – though all of them drag once you’ve established yourself and you slog on to hit each faction’s stringent victory conditions. Though interfactional diplomacy returns from earlier Total Wars, allowing alliances and trade partnerships, here it’s heavily changed. Only the Dwarfs and Humans don’t fundamentally loathe each other. Every other relationship starts with a major negative to negotiations, requiring many turns of diplomacy and bribery to even get on an even footing. It’s a good system, giving you the option to attempt peaceful interactions, and gives the excellent voice actors a chance to chew up the audio scenery, such as extras from the Hobbit.
Warhammer also brings narrative to the Total War world. There’s a larger story arc in the campaign, where the hordes of Chaos invade the world from the North, razing city after city, unless their faction leader is defeated in battle. The necessity to defeat them provides a welcome structure to the campaign and a pressing need for factions to work together. Each faction also has a pair of unkillable Legendary Lords, who each have their own set of quests to acquire their core magical items. These are story-, cutscene- and battle-heavy, requiring you to send heroes and armies on treks halfway across the world to fight handcrafted battles.
This is the most diverse and exciting the series has been in years. On our test machine, it was also more stable and faster than recent iterations. Total War: Warhammer has done the best it can do with the legacy Total War engine, and is also a loving tribute to Warhammer.