The next time you have a creative project that you feel isn’t coming together quickly enough, I want you to remember that it took Creative Assembly 20 years of rigourous experimentation, honing the things that worked and pruning back the things that didn’t, to get their Total War series to the point where it’s damned near perfect.
I’m having trouble remembering the last time my expectations for a game were so thoroughly subverted. My anticipation was that Total War: Warhammer 2, released a mere 12 months after the original, would be little more than a glorified expansion pack. I expected it to be the same game I reviewed last year with a few new races the original didn’t cover, hustled out the gate in time for the holiday period.
I was not expecting Creative Assembly to have some sort of creative epiphany, releasing a game that delivers on almost every promise the Total War series has ever made.
It’s not perfect, let’s be clear. There’s always room for improvement, and the niggles here are better directed at the wider Total War series than any one game. Enemy forces still seem to prioritise attacking the player over any other aggro army on the map posing a threat. There’s the ongoing problem of Creative Assembly leaving some of the Warhammer universe’s coolest races out in order to release them as DLC later. Computer-controlled generals still suffer from moments of crippling indecision, but less than they usually do. You know what I mean? This is all stuff players have been moaning about for years.
Some returning fans, used to historic settings grounded in actual events and featuring real people, may find the flights of fancy inherent in Games Workshop’s Warhammer universe to be a bit hard to swallow at first blush. It’s high fantasy viewed through the lens of near total absurdism. It’s a world where everyone — everyone — is both backstabbed and the backstabber at some point in their lives. The lore reads like a fantasy version of the WWE, full of reversals of fortune, heels becoming faces, and the ever-present threat of moustache-twirling betrayal by a trusted ally.
For those who’ve waded into the Total War series before, you won’t be surprised to see that little has changed in terms of how complicated these games are to play. Navigating the game’s labyrinth of nested menus will be the first challenge new players have to overcome, even as they struggle to commit all of the game’s controls and systems to memory. If you can get your head around this organised chaos, however, you’ll find that all the stat-juggling and menu-hunting is tied to upgrading units and hero characters which, in turn, makes each new battle a little more interesting. And here, at last, is your game loop. Fight, win, upgrade, fight more.
One of the Total War series’ long-time faults has been that it hasn’t ever found a way to deal with the late-game slog. At a certain point in every Total War campaign, you will find that it’s become very difficult to lose. Even if you start to play fast and loose, throwing units away, they can be rapidly replaced which leads to the final missions feeling like they go out with a whimper rather than a bang. In the parlance of another popular RTS, you are the wielder of power overwhelming and through it, it is possible to end up obliterating your enemies without breaking a sweat. The game would try to keep you on your toes by throwing armies at you, trying to divide your forces or riling up breakaway territories. This approach isn’t necessarily fun, but it does feel a bit like the game has developed an arbitrary grudge and is taking it out on you.
It must be said, however, that this approach does kind of work within the bounds of the Warhammer setting. The original game had you constantly on the back foot against the mounting threat of Chaos and it made sense to find yourself constantly under siege in the late game. Warhammer 2 takes this a step further by introducing the Great Vortex, a swirling portal that devours magic like its going out of style. It’s been happily spinning away for a few millennia now but the Vortex is in need a bit of a tune up. Your job is bring the Vortex under your control and use its power for your own ends, or simply get it cranking again for the greater … I want to say “good” but that’s not really the right term. Conduct your dark work on the Vortex means hoovering up a ton of a resource specific to your chosen race, kicking of a ritual from a remote location and feeding it. During the ritual, the energies propelling the Vortex will be weakened and you’ll have a horde of Chaos streaming through the portal to ransack any site at which you are conducting your ritual.
I can hear long-time fans calling this mechanic out already. “This is just Civil Unrest with a fresh coat of paint!” they howl. You’re not wrong, it is extremely similar but it gives you a sense of real conflict escalation. It’ll keep you spry and will help you maintain your level of interest when the standard domination victory starts to feel a bit stale. Turtle strategists like me will be pleased to know that the Vortex allows you to be far pickier about your movements, throwing allies in the path of Chaos forces while you plunder the map for resources to keep that ritual going.
As with the original at launch, Total War: Warhammer 2 features a fairly slim faction roster with eight lords distributed between the game’s four available races — High Elves, Dark Elves, Lizardmen and Skaven rat-men. Where Warhammer 2 attempts to wring a bit of extra value out of its lean choice of armies is in making each distinct. Each carries their own clear personality and are easily-identifiable on the battlefield amongst the sometimes hundreds and hundreds of other units in play. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Warhammer 2‘s factions aren’t as impressive or iconic on paper as those that appeared in the original, but they do have a certain appeal if you’re willing to dig in far enough. It’s fun to overrun your foes as a part of the Skaven Vermintide and lay waste to enemy bases with Lizardmen riding goddamned dinosaurs. You may not be that impressed initially but these armies will worm their way into your heart.
The flyers though. Oh my god, the flyers. Feral Carnasaurs and Skaven Hell Pit Abominations and flippin’ Dragons. Honestly, they’re the best. Raining hell down upon your enemy’s front lines from above is a savage pleasure all its own.
The hook of these four races all trying to bring the Great Vortex under their control would probably have been enough to differentiate Warhammer 2 from its predecessor that I’d give it a pass. Thankfully, Creative Assembly have gone a step further with the introduction of new mechanics and options like unlockable army abilities (like the ability to spawn extremely inexpensive units behind your enemy), Rogue Armies that stagger about the map comprised of numerous races and, in what might be the game’s most significant hotfix, is the ability to send your forces anywhere you like (provided the area has a climate your race can deal with). This simple change totally removes one of the original’s strangest problems, a bizarre restriction on the territories available for conquering.
As mentioned earlier in this review, the game doesn’t end with the campaign and four races included in the base package. There is a veritable parade of DLC on the way, bringing new races and missions to players hungry for more. The big draw among these will be the Mortal Empires campaign update that will allow those who own both iterations of the game to access all of that content. I can’t wait to watch the AI crumble under the weight of all those factions. This is a move by Creative Assembly that I really can’t get behind enough. It reminds of Sonic 3 & Knuckles in a weird way — two separate games designed as part of a larger picture that, when combined, create something new. And Creative Assembly still aren’t done! When the inevitable Total War: Warhammer 3 finds its way to retail (presumably in 2018 if CR can stick to the same release pipeline), it will also feed into Mortal Empires. It’s bonkers and I love it.
For fans of the series, Total War: Warhammer 2 is as good as it gets. It is simultaneously the best version of their enduring strategy series Creative Assembly have ever made and a faithful representation of the Warhammer fantasy tabletop game. That is no mean feat. We’ll see you in twelve months for the next one.
Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Epic scale; Great unit design and animation; Thoughtful updates on original
Lowlights: Endgame slog still an issue; May not be enough content for some
Developer: Creative Assembly
Platforms: Windows PC
Available: September 28, 2017
Reviewed on Windows PC.