First Thoughts – Total War: Warhammer is fantasy spliced with accessibility

The first handful of hours of Total War: Warhammer reap encouraging results for casual fans and newcomers alike.

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First Thoughts – Total War: Warhammer is fantasy spliced with accessibility

In the past, when describing a Total War game to someone, “accessible” and “user-friendly” weren’t exactly terms I’d use to paint a picture of the series. The Creative Assembly has unapologetically forged deep grand strategy games in the past, and it’s doubtlessly why the developer has such a strong fan base that keeps coming back for each new release.

For someone like me, who has the utmost respect for the franchise but also feels somewhat daunted by the time required to get the most out of the experience, I check in usually every other entry to see what’s changed. My last taste of Total War prior to Warhammer was Rome II, and while the tendency for Total War games to humble high-end PCs hasn’t changed, the combination of fantasy IP (Warhammer) and an apparent push for accessibility has mixed things up.

Total War: Warhammer is the first game in the series where I don’t feel as though I need to dedicate dozens of hours to cracking the intricacies of what’s going on. If ever there was a franchise that could do with some hardcore handholding, it’s this. And, refreshingly, for observers of the series who’ve been hesitant to jump in, Total War: Warhammer is likely the best place to start because of the depth of training, timely reminders, and end-of-turn notifications (with convenient hotlinks) to areas of attention you may have missed.

Despite the breadth of buttons across the UI, both on the turn-based tactical map (more so) and the real-time battle screens, it all feels a whole lot more straightforward, with little eye-catching notification icons that offer at-a-glance feedback for items that require attention. This was all particularly handy because I started out playing as the Empire faction, which plays quite differently to my hands-on time with the Vampire Counts prior to release.

Through a combination of overzealousness and lack of information about an early quest, I committed my main force to a mission that I had no hope of beating. While my primary army was outside of friendly lands, the opportunistic AI in charge of the local rebellion took it on themselves to raid a recently captured city and put me hopelessly on the back foot. Worst of all, I hadn’t saved in a few moves. I kept going for a while before deciding that continuing on the back foot probably wasn’t going to be enjoyable.

Despite losing a couple of hours of play time, I’m glad I rolled back. I felt a bit cheap, at first, before I realised that the AI on the tactical map reacts dynamically to my new tactics, even during those early campaign moves (which still felt like a tutorial, of sorts), which meant it played differently to what I’d anticipated. Several hours later, though, and I was trapped on the horns of a dilemma, which made for fantastically tense gameplay.

Y’see, to secure the region, I needed to conquer one more city. The trick was, the shattered remnants of the rebel armies I’d bested had understandably retreated to this last bastion. This was, of course, my own doing, and not just because of the run of victories I’d had against the rebel armies. I’d also forged or accepted treaties with almost every surrounding nation, which left the rebels little room for escape out of the region.

On top of this, I was a few short moves away from a rebellion in my captured cities because of the instability in the province, but also because my cities were defended by smaller armies, and I hadn’t built any structures to help to maintain public order. My only option to appease the citizens in the short-term to buy additional time, was to untick the taxation box (it’s been greatly simplified compared to what I remember from Total War games of old) to slightly improve their moods. But I was waging a war, and my army upkeep was high, so that wasn’t likely to happen.

The bigger catch, though, was that the turtling foes had me grossly outnumbered. Sure, one of those armies was a shadow of its former self, but one of the other armies was equal to my own, and the third was equivalent to about half of my forces. I clicked on the conveniently placed ‘quick save’ option and tested the ‘auto resolve battle’ option, already knowing the outcome: resounding defeat. I wasn’t about to roll back the save drastically again, so I reloaded the quick save and took on the manual battle option.

What followed was an incredibly satisfying battle that ebbed and flowed between victory and losing states. When the battle started, I was surrounded, but I’d also gambled for more favourable magic winds and won the gamble. I rushed my missile units up a hill to take advantage of the additional range it afforded, as the AI aggressively rushed its main force towards me.

When the main force got too close, I pulled the missile units back, charging in with a combination of swordsmen and spearmen. My cavalry was using the forest as cover, then smashed into the flank of the main force’s missile units as they attempted to thin out my army. My lord and a mage took on entire groups by themselves, as I activated their special abilities at timely moments to lay waste to nearby enemies or deter my own troops from routing.

The AI sent a smaller force past the hill in an attempt to meet up with the other army coming in behind me, but turned early when I started peppering them with missile fire. Just before they closed in on my missile units, I charged my solitary cavalry unit into their side with destructive results. At one point, I overcommitted my lord in an attempt to kill theirs, but it was a mistake. Had I not unlocked a mount for my lord, he would have died in battle, but I managed to get him away from certain death with a sliver of health.

In the end, I won a victory that was closer than I would have liked but, ultimately, better than the outcome I thought I’d be seeing. The rebel uprising was no more, and I was able to stabilise the civil unrest at -93 (at -100, the peasants revolt). This is exactly the kind of battle that I play Total War games for. In fairness, it’s a shame that the intricate village raiding of Rome II has disappeared from Warhammer; at least, as far as I can tell, all battles now take place in open areas, without the option to battle through besieged city streets.

In earlier games, I would have done the bare minimum on the tactical map to build bigger armies so I could rush back to the real-time battles, but for the first time ever, I’m digging deeper into the tactical map, exploring diplomatic options, and generally spending more time with strategic considerations than partaking in real-time battles.

It’s worth noting that I am having some performance issues. I have a GTX 980 with the latest drivers but, despite both the game and Nvidia Experience recommending the game for Ultra settings, it’s unplayable on those graphical settings. Even pulling it back to High fidelity results in sub-20fps. While this isn’t exactly the kind of game where I’d insist on a constant frame rate of 60fps or more, even Medium settings won’t stretch too far above 40fps. It’d be nice to have a split between tactical and real-time graphical settings, as the more intensive real-time battles could be tweaked separately from the less dynamic turn-based tactical map.

Total War: Warhammer also isn’t best played on a traditional HDD installation, either, as you can expect incredibly lengthy loading times. Switching over to the SSD makes for a more fluid experience, but I had to free up some space to make room for the 20GB installation.

Gripes aside, none of this was enough to stop me from sinking more than six hours into a game that I only intended on trying for around half of that time. I’ll be going back for more as soon as I can. From what I’ve seen of the gripes on Steam, where the game currently sits at a ‘mostly positive’ rating, the issues stem from technical woes, or fervent fans lamenting the watering-down of the series.

If you’re a hardcore Total War fan, it’s well worth reading some of these reviews, but for casual fans like me, or those who’ve always been interested but never tried, Total War: Warhammer is well worth taking for a spin.

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