When I was in San Francisco last month and by chance had an invite to visit SEGA’s office to see what Creative Assembly was up to on the Total War franchise, I was stoked. Until they told me in the waiting room that the presentation would only be on the campaign map. As an avid 4X strategy player I couldn’t fathom a full presentation on an overview map and related campaign lasting longer than 10 minutes before becoming a tear jerkingly boring tutorial of ‘this button brings up your advisers.’ Not to mention with Total War: Warhammer‘s already revealed and insanely impressive RTS battling system, I figured corners would have to be cut elsewhere to have the game ready by its launch date. Well after an hour later of Tyler and myself nerding out on Warhammer lore and asking just what each of those little buttons did, I can say this game may be more than just another cash in on the Games Workshop money assembly line. No in fact Total War: Warhammer is shaping up to be a revolution of the 4X genre that will set new standards in what we expect of story driven strategy gaming going forward.
To kick things off, yes Warhammer enthusiasts are going to be thrilled by this. An ex-lore master from Games Workshop is on staff and making sure that the campaign map is an authentic representation of a massive chunk of the Warhammer fantasy universe. Yet despite its immense size (it took the driver over couple minutes to scroll from the southern pirate coast at Tilea to the tainted rocky northern wastes that shelter the Chaos Legion. Here’s a visual representation:
In a continent shaped roughly like clashing Europe and Middle Earth together, all your favorite Warhammer stories of the old world are brought to life in one coherent campaign driven world. Wissenland, the Zombie Swamps, the orcish Badlands and Border Princes, the endlessly stretching mountain ranges of the dwarves, Stirland, Talabecland, Estalia, Averland, Blightwater… the list of iconic locations goes on. What’s more, despite the sheer size of the map, each location is hand crafted in beautiful quality to represent the local culture, and geography of the land. This isn’t just a pretty picture though as battles that take place in each location will reflect a zoomed in version of what it looks like on the actual campaign map instead of the canned generated maps we’ve come to expect after so many years of strategy games!
The Waaagh!!! of War
To save time, our demo kicked off 89 turns into the terrible reign of Grimgar Ironhide, a Greenskin roughly the size of a double decker tour bus with an impatient personality to match the riders of such a bus. Alongside Grimgar was a stack of true doom besieging the deep Dwarven mountains of Karaz-A-Karak. The besieging system when done with such overwhelming forces seems to have actually dwindled the health of the hunkered Dwarves down dramatically, so a simple auto-resolve was all that was necessary to bring this ancient capital to heel.
Following Grimgar’s victory, we were given the four options to raze, settle, occupy and loot, or occupy. Occupy vs settle seemed to be the difference between converting the culture to your own vs puppet stating the poor shorties. The developers chose to Occupy and, to our great delight, the entire city of Karaz-A-Karak was converted into what I can only describe as a goblin rave party complete with massive iron symbols of the Waaagh hanging from the mountainside structures. The whole surrounding countryside changed with the settlement, making it clear that the influence of the Waaagh was spreading, instead of plotting some eyesore Greenskin settlement in a part of the world it was clear they didn’t belong to. I can’t stress enough how hard the art team is going on this game. Somewhere Warhammer nerds must be whipping them in a dark room demanding “moar authenticity, no sleep!”
Before I get off topic on the Waaagh though, it’s important to make note of armies and their unique stack of doom mechanics. Each army in the game will receive a moral-like system that must be maintained through your faction’s own chosen mechanics to keep your troops going strong when battle comes. For the Greenskins this moral is the Fightiness bar, and is increased through devastation, looting, and destruction. As such they have a war snowball effect where repeated victories will ensure more victories. However from multiple battles, your troops will eventually feel the pain of attrition and need to heal up. Healing up is bad news for your fightiness as the longer the Greenskins stay stagnant, the lower their bar goes. Should it drop down into the blue danger zone, your units may just start stabby stabby on each other to pass the boring hours in the day.
Now beyond rushing into combat you simply aren’t ready for, there were a couple mechanics previewed that can help at least maintain the fightiness level. For instance goblins can set up raid parties that send your troops out into the local countryside (not actually represented by units moving on the world map) to pillage. This is a fantastic source of both income and fightiness maintenance, and since the Greenskin’s economy is pretty shit to begin with, using your armies as income sources can help balance the board with those greedy money grubbing cave dwellers.
Should your campaign go so well that your fightiness hits the opposite side of the meter however, something quite magically happens. A true Waaagh!!! An AI controlled General with 20 unit stack of doom will arrive and shadow your victorious army, following very basic commands to help keep the Waaagh going as long as possible. For reference, this side stack of doom is powerful enough to crush most major city centers in a short number of turns, so its a HUGE deal. Especially when you consider your enemies are already reeling and on the defensive to have allowed you to build your fightiness meter up so high. Still keeping the push going is a delicate balancing act as if you drop below the threshold of your fightiness meter for even a turn, the Waaagh will break up, and your super army mighty find itself dangerously far behind enemy lines and outnumbered.
Generals/Warlords and Skills
Raising your generals throughout a campaign is as much of an RPG as a 4x strategy experience. Their list of stats for starters runs down an entire page, touching on armor, base moral, speed, melee attack, melee defense, ranged attack, ranged defense, weapon damage bonus, health, charge, and much much more. The level cap from other similar Total War games has been upped to 30, offering you 30 opportunities to customize each warlord to your liking. Levels of course come fast and furious at the start so you won’t need to wait long to get some fun toys to play with in your arsenal. There’s far far more than 30 skills/traits to acquire for each warlord, and every warlord has their own lore driven abilities so dedicated Warhammer fans should find plenty of replayability in trying out different builds. An example of this was shown with Azhag the Slaughterer, a unit capable of going from a physical damage dealer to comboing with dark magic should you choose that route in his skill tree.
An interesting note is that not all of these skills are measures of improvement in warfare, and some are in fact not actually skills at all. Should your borders be plenty secure, you can actually level up warlords with the intention of bolstering your economy through increased revenue, moral, or production. That won’t be the case for every blockhead, but knowing your warlord’s potential and building towards it to fit the current hole in your systems will be key to winning on harder difficulties I’m sure.
Sometimes your general might find them self in quite a pinch and the odds of victory are less than flattering. This is where another mechanic of the warlord comes in, in the form of war banners. This token like items are single use army buffs you can choose to activate on the pre-battle screen to give your army bonuses in hopes of shifting a fight in your favor. You’ll need to understand yourself and your foes to get the most use out of them, but they’re yet another stack of the ever growing pile of shinies that make this game seem so wonderful.
The other fascinating part of the skill tree is that, once you’re confident in your warlord of their stack of doom, you can invest skill points into unlocking their story missions. These pre-determined multi-part quest lines written by the ex-Games Workshop lore master himself will bring you greater insight into the Warhammer universe as you relive famous General’s greatest battles across the world map. These questlines will typically culminate in ultimate boss battle showdowns complete with voice acted battle introductions, and rewarding iconic armor/weapons/mounts unique to the Warlord in question. I can’t stress how cool of a system this is. It was totally unnecessary to make the game amazing, and must have required hundreds of hours of work to implement, but man seeing it in action is a real game changer for the 4x genre.
It Ain’t All Stabby Stabby
While clearly not the focus of the demo, we had a chance to catch a few glimpses of the economic and city management systems of Total War: Warhammer. Just like any proper 4x strategy game, you can expect to take part in individual city management including choosing production and regulating moral. A few exclusive Warhammer elements were present as well. For starters, buildings and technology are not parallel between factions, so you can expect to learn a whole new economic system to compensate each time you take up a new faction’s campaign. Let’s break down the glimpses of tech tree I did get to see:
The Greenskins tech tree is almost entirely military based. It’s branches simply represent specialization into certain military aspects. As you advance you’ll unlock new buildings that grant you new or improved version of existing units in your army. This seems great for early game rushes that keep building upon victories to keep your economy from sinking.
The dwarves have a very split tech tree that forces them down a path of civic development or military more akin to standard 4x tech trees. It’s sharp split though means you’ll likely have to balance yourself down both side of the trees unless you have a particularly high risk strategy in mind.
The Order side of humans on the other hand have a tech tree that actually evolves depending on which buildings you construct. Quite the opposite of how tech trees normally work. As such production and science will need to be balanced to maximize your power growth.
Unlike previous Total War games, you won’t be required to worry about managing your society through the changing of the seasons. There are still some sinister elements at play to keep you on your toes, even with the static world map and quest locations in mind. One that immediately drew my attention on the city menu was the Chaos and Vampire influence in a city. Both based in the north, these two factions cause trouble for their neighbors just be touching borders. Sure it’s not a 20 stack of doom Greenskin legion level of trouble, but I’m sure in the long run it may be just as crippling. No details were revealed on what this influence does to your cities however.
Random events are a thing as well so expect to keep an eye out for aggressive unit spawns, and perhaps maybe some natural disasters?
As you’d imagine with an hour of hands-on time with the game, there was much to see and remember. So here we’re going to touch on a few things that stood out as unusual for a 4X game.
Subterranean Tunnels: Goblins and Dwarves are aware of the ancient Underway and can make full use of it for infiltrating deep into enemy territory before making daring escapes. From the stance menu they can choose “Use Underway” to dig themselves into hidden passages to pop across vast distances in a small number of turns. There is an RNG based chance that hostile units in the area might intercept such movement, especially from larger stacks, which if done initiates subterranean battles to resolve the situation.
Attrition: While seasons are out, attrition remains a never ending battle. Effective supply trains and taking advantage of terrain will be key to keeping your armies healthy on long marches into hostile lands. As you’d expect, each realm specializes in fighting in their home terrain, so keeping an eye out for small blotches of your favored terrain in foreign lands can be key to resting between sieges. Unfavorably terrain can of course also slow your march as well, making choke point defense strategies all too viable here.
Objects of Power: Occasionally in your travels you may come across objects that influence the local region like the Tower of Bone or Winds of Magic. Knowing which units these impact and how much of an impact it will have on your overall fighting strength will separate good generals from the great.
Unique Abilities: While details were slim, it seems through the stance system there are some pretty cool abilities that will differentiate the factions. Greenskins for instance can purchase units while in enemy territory to bolster their numbers when gold is flowing freely. The farther from their own lands though, the more expensive unit acquisitions will become.
Deploy Hero: Similar to agents in Total War, special units in your stack called heroes can be deployed separately to influence their surroundings. Whether creating an aura of magical interference to weaken all magic, or messing with a rival’s city, these units bring far more to the war effort than a high stat unit in the RTS battles.
Finally the part I may have been most happy about, co-op! Online multiplayer was teased during the event in the forms of 2vsAI campaigns and 2vs2 competitive campaigns! If this game didn’t have enough replayability as is. All in all we were blown away by how much the Creative Assembly team has kept under wraps about this game and left the demo with even more questions than we had prior. There’s still plenty of secrets left to reveal, so keep an eye out as development news continues to get hammered out for Total War: Warhammer.