From the time that Creative Assembly released Rome II, it seemed like the developer had lost its way. Each Total War game (we’re pretending that Stormrise never existed, and the Sonic games don’t count) had built on the one before it, adding more complexity, more features, and a deeper strategic and tactical experience. Rome II, though, was a technical and to be honest, a strategic mess. Maybe there were too many changes to the formula, too fast, but for most long-term fans, it was a hard title to come back from.
Warhammer, based on the franchise of the same name from Games Workshop, seemed like a great idea, and once again, it seemed as though Creative couldn’t fail to deliver an amazing experience, but – despite early positive coverage – it again disappointed. It just seemed too big, too expansive, lacking the aim and focus of earlier games, focusing instead on gee-whiz units and monsters, and an overly animated strategic map.
But someone at Creative was paying attention. In Warhammer II, each misstep of the previous game seems to have been actively addressed. The world you’re fighting over is big, but not so much so that the scope overwhelms. Battles once again seem more firmly rooted in their place on the strategic map, and the campaign is held together by a much tighter narrative that gives you much more of a reason to keep playing towards the endgame other than merely getting bigger and not being stomped by Chaos.
Warhammer II focuses in on four new playable races, with all the playable races from the first game making an appearance as possible enemies or allies. The High Elves are arguably the most ‘historical’ of the races – their focus on spear-armed infantry and steady lines of archers makes them feel similar to many medieval armies. Their rather pointier, kinkier cousins, the Dark Elves, are generally more murderous, with early units like armoured-bikini-wearing Witch Elves delivering a lot of character. Then you’ve got the Lizardmen, who, despite being giant two-legged reptiles with dreams of domination, borrow a lot from Aztec and Mayan cultures in terms of look and iconography. Oh, and they’re lead by giant, flat, floating arch-mage frogs, so there’s that, too.
Finally, there are the Skaven, a race that no one believes actually exists, as they are largely subterranean/very far away. These are arcane rat-things, focusing on harnessing the power of raw chaos to power massive war-engines, create giant mutant creatures, and generally be five kinds of chittering, swarming evil.
But for the first part of the game, you’re likely only going to be facing your own people, as you weld your nation of elves, skinks, or vermin into a force to be reckoned with. You can simply invade your neighbours (politics in Warhammer is nothing if not blunt), but you can also use diplomacy to form a Federation – the effect is the same, but you feel much better about it. In Warhammer, this happened too quickly, making your expansion seem out of control, but the pacing of when your friends will like you enough to wear your colours in Warhammer II feels much more satisfying.
More satisfying still is the game’s plot, which sees everyone working toward starting and completing five rituals to control the Great Vortex, a swirling magical tornado that keeps too much chaos from flooding the world. Each of the rituals takes certain resources to begin, takes ten turns to complete, and will absolutely draw the ire of local chaos armies. But each also brings ever-building bonuses to your people. It’s nice to have a goal that isn’t just world domination, and while invading other factions to disrupt their own mystical efforts is perfectly valid, so is simply focusing on defence.
And wiping out pirate factions, ‘cause those guys are just big jerks.
The improved pacing extends to the ever-spectacular tactical battles, too. Clashes between units have a weight to them now, meaning you can spend less time watching units break, and more time making sure you’re moving your units where they need to be – this lets you build up your own tactical doctrine pretty easily, without the game punishing you for trying to be a little creative. Heroes and Lords are spectacularly useful, but there are units that can counter and even wound or kill them, and some of the monstrous units are downright scary.
Warhammer II’s not perfect – auto-resolving battles can still be a random crap-shoot, and our code has crashed a couple of times, but I’ve not felt so invested in a Total War campaign in years, possibly not since my own problematic fave, Napoleon. The gameplay is rich, rewarding, and full of interesting opportunities to make friends and annihilate entire peoples. It looks better than ever, too, and the soundtracking is definitely praiseworthy, sounding like something you’d expect from The Lord of the Rings.
Like my Lord Tyrion returning from the conquest of Tiranoc, Total War is back, and triumphant.