Total War: Warhammer hands-on preview

The newest Total War game adds vampire counts, surprisingly great AI, and some interesting new faction mechanics.

It’s the sort of battle I expect to win in a Total War game. I’m playing as the Vampire Counts--the undead faction in Total War: Warhammer--and sending a medium-sized army to capture an enemy village as my main force licks its wounds. A slightly larger enemy force of renegade undead approaches. But I’ve played Total War enough to know that I can beat the enemy AI by setting up on high/forested ground, breaking up their attack and winning easily.

And so I set up a strong line of zombies and skeletons, my necromancer at the center, lending his support. The Vampire Counts don’t have any archer units, and I didn’t have any cavalry or flying units. My opponent did--a few units of bats and undead wolves, which was largely the difference between our two forces. And so they took their force and faced me directly with their equivalent infantry. Fine. All going to plan.

Then the wolves and bats moved out, divided evenly, and set up facing my flanks. Three units each, at 90 degree angles from the enemy army, forming a ‘U’ around me. I watched this with awe and horror, thinking simultaneously “that’s what I would do in this situation exactly” and “there is nothing I can do against this.” The AI shambled its infantry into mine. I had to commit my reserves to keep that battle winnable, and then sent in the bats and the hounds. The undead units in Total Warhammer don’t have morale in that they’ll break and run, but stress from external attacks literally causes them to fall apart. The bats swooping down from the sky literally caused my army to disintegrate in seconds!

For a long-time Total War player, this was like fucking Skynet waking up. This was goddamn terrifying.

And it was exciting. See, the Total War series has always had a major issue: its combination of turn-based strategy and epic real-time battles often promise fantastic emergent storytelling (the stories games encourage you to tell) but there’s always some obstacle in the way. The AI was too incompetent in Rome 1, Empire was too messy and ambitious, Shogun 2’s map too linear, and Rome 2 was just, well, bad. They’ve always been filled to the brim with potential, but spilled too much to realize it consistently. And with two of their last three major installments being poor (Empire and Rome 2) it certainly looked like the series was in a downswing (even if both games were partially salvaged by pseudo-expansions Napoleon and Attila).

Yet every time I’ve seen Total Warhammer (yes, even the Creative Assembly people call it that instead of the annoying corporate Total War: Warhammer, and so should we all) it’s bashed through my skepticism. First, a quest battle demonstrated they’d gotten rid of Rome 2’s anti-tactical combat scrums; then their campaign preview showed a commitment to creating distinct factions and campaigns.

Still, these were controlled setups, worthy of skepticism-- specifically-designed battle and a campaign map walkthrough. This time, however, two months before Total Warhammer’s May 24th release date, I was given the Vampire Counts campaign and the chance to just do what I wanted in it.

A Vampiric army awaits an enemy charge A Vampiric army awaits an enemy charge

And once again, I couldn’t find anything wrong. The random battles, like the one I described at the start, consistently felt right in a way that the series has struggled with. At the strategic level, I was put in an interesting spot, between all three other major factions (the Dwarves, human Empire, and orc and goblin Greenskins) but with a focus on cleaning up a vampire rebellion.

It was also tough, as I struggled to take the main enemy castle, while we traded villages back and forth. But the game also gave me an advantage, with my faction leader, the “Legendary Lord” Manfred von Karstein supported by an elite unit called a Varghulf. Initially they could single-handedly win battles--a good way to prevent a single bit of bad luck or a bad decision from causing immediate campaign loss for players. As I talked to one of the game’s writers, he noted that it was also a good way for Warhammer fans to feel like the characters they already knew were more powerful and relevant in the game world.

Despite my excitement, I still have two major points of concern with Total Warhammer. First, this game looks great-- too great. Creative Assembly has had issues in the past with pushing their games beyond what’s technically wise, such as in Rome 2, where pressing the “End Turn” button meant minutes of waiting for hundreds of different factions to think and make their moves, or just the pre-battle load times on, well, every single Total War ever. And there’s no way to know for sure until the game is out in the wild.

This incarnation of Total Warhammer is also only going to have four factions (five, with the pre-order bonus Chaos Warriors). Creative Assembly is getting ambitious with this game, dividing it into three different parts, which can be played on their own or plugged into one another for a huge grand campaign. So unlike previous games, with over a dozen different factions to choose from, there are going to be four. (This means factions like the various Elves, Ogres, Lizardmen, and so on will have to appear in future games.)

Now, this may yet work--one of the most fascinating things about the plans for Total Warhammer is just how different the factions are. As the Vampire Counts, for example, I needed to be constantly taking advantage of the ability to summon the dead of recent battles in order to maintain my armies, and my biggest battle loss occurred when I didn’t. (Another neat twist: the Total War series has long put markers on the map where major battles occurred--purely aesthetic for 15 years of TW games, until now when the Vampire Counts can summon extra units from these fights.)

The 'Raise Dead' mechanic lets Vampire Counts build big armies on the fly. The 'Raise Dead' mechanic lets Vampire Counts build big armies on the fly.

For my part, I’m most looking forward to the Dwarves. Not only do their smaller numbers of elite units appeal to my usual playstyle, but, as the developers explained to me, they also have an interesting campaign mechanic built around grudges. The Dwarves, in the Warhammer universe, all keep a book of grudges, and work to cross them off by fixing them or gaining revenge. In the game, this means that if you lose cities to the Orcs, for example, then until you gain those cities back, there’s going to be a drain on your empire.

Still, even with distinct differences in both unit types and campaign mechanics, four is by far the smallest number of different campaign options for a Total War game ever. (There are also some side effects, like that all of the factions shown are notably male, meaning I’m not sure if any women will appear in the game at all.) In order to maintain interest, Total Warhammer is going to have to have notable diversity within each campaign. From what I saw of the Vampire Counts’ placement on the map, this seems to be the case, but at the third campaign restart? At the thirteenth? It’s impossible to say.

But the both the technical concerns and the worry about diversity of campaigns are things that can only really be answered by the full game itself. Total War: Rome 2 was one of the most disappointing games of the past half-decade for me, but the fact that Total Warhammer has seemed to fix its biggest issues, while taking advantage of the Warhammer setting, has me shockingly excited for the full release. And the fact that its AI can actually beat me in a reasonably fair fight? It’s a frightening dark fantasy future, but I, for one, welcome our new Vampire Count overlords.