Creative Assembly is gambling everything on Games Workshop - which means it must be a safe bet.
Knolek SunEater has really lived. He’s stood on mountaintops sucking up the lightning just because he could. He’s battled dragons and served the lords of Chaos since time immemorial. He’s twenty feet tall with six scaly limbs and electricity crackling from his eyes. He’s totally, totally what Warhammer Fantasy Battle is all about. But it turns out that all his history is no use if you send him charging on his own into the heart of a enemy Total War army. Against those odds, even Kholek Suneater turns and runs like a whipped hound.
Warhammer: Total War has almost landed. It’s been a long time coming. For a generation, Warhammer Fantasy Battle fans have dreamed that Creative Assembly would create a version of their Total War strategic wargame based on Games Workshop’s fantastical tabletop wargame. Lovers of miniatures are generally excited about this.
"The Vampire Counts behave differently from the other factions, growing slowly, and raising armies more cheaply where there are mass graves."
Meanwhile, given that the game adds flying creatures, giant monsters and devastating magic spells, the hardcore Total War community has been divided. Some veterans seem discombobulated that Creative Assembly has departed from its research-heavy historical wargames whilst others have embraced the variety and weirdness this is going to bring to the mechanically-stagnant series.
In less than a month, Warhammer: Total War will be out in the wild, and we’ll get to hear the complaints and gentle praise of both those sides. To get an inkling of what the game will be like, we headed down to Creative Assembly’s headquarters in the sleepy English town of Horsham to sample it and talked to the developers.
There are more than twenty factions in the tabletop game, but only five factions will be coming to this edition. They are Dwarfs, Vampire Counts, Greenskins, Empire, and Chaos (who are no longer a pre-order exclusive). Another faction - the Bretonnians, a knightly army reminiscent of Arthurian legend - are only playable in skirmishes, multiplayer and custom battles, and not the campaign. The other factions will come in DLC and in two more games, which will take Creative Assembly towards more than ten years continuous development work on the titles.
These factions meet in Total War’s classic RTS battles. Here players control each unit individually, ordering them around the field, micromanaging their special abilities, and trying to stop them running away. The lethal hero units here appear as special agents on the campaign map.
The meta-game is the campaign, which plugs into the battle engine. Success or failure in each feeds back, as Total War players will be familiar with. Each faction’s campaign has a different structure depending on their location, their distribution, their attitude and their history. For example, the dwarfs are a famously static bunch, buried for centuries under their home mountains, aiming only to recover their old fortifications from the Orcs and to cross out lines in their Great Book of Grudges - they’ve no interest in capturing the lands of their neighbours and friends, The Empire.
The Empire meanwhile starts as a small faction amongst many others, looking to unify the human peoples of the Old World against external threats. The Greenskins (Orcs and Goblins) start deep in the south and look to the lands of the Dwarfs and Empire for pillaging and conquering. The Vampire Counts start weak amongst the peoples of the Empire, seeking to quietly raise their undead armies before conquering all. And the brutal, heavily-armoured Warriors of Chaos start in the frozen north, and seek to conquer the entire world...
The factions are also highly asymmetric on the battlefield and the campaign map. The dwarfs are stolid and slow, with a variety of hardened infantry and gunpowder weaponry. The greenskins are strong and primitive, attacking en masse, and running away just as easily. The Vampire Count’s undead infantry are fragile and slow with no missile weapons but never run away, and come with a wide array of fast flying monsters. The Empire have good gunpowder weapons and knights, and an array of wizards. And Chaos just have a wide range of strong infantry and cavalry, monstrous Dragon Ogres, and horrible magic.
Getting hands-on with each faction in battle gave us just an inkling of the strategic possibilities available. The most vanilla faction is The Empire, a 15th century human fantasy army. They have an array of solid infantry, knights and wizards backed up by some solid artillery and the steam tank - basically a heavily armoured mobile cannon. They’re mostly second-rate at everything, but their ability to field combined forces means they have an answer to every threat, and are enjoyable tactically flexible.
On the campaign map, they need to gather the humans of the Empire together and win the vote to be Emperor, before they can turn outwards to the multiple threats of Chaos from the North, the Orcs from the south and the Vampires from inside.
The Vampire Counts had some wonderfully-overpowered units and heroes - A vampire wizard on a zombie dragon, anyone, or the Hexwraith ghost cavalry - but with a tendency to literally fall apart in battle, if they’re losing. Playing as them is a headlong rush towards the enemy - against dwarfs or in city sieges, you need to use your fast flying units to eliminate those missile threats so that your infantry and monsters can get close.
On the campaign map, the Vampires behave differently from the other factions, growing slowly, and raising armies more cheaply where there are mass graves (e.g. from recent battles). They start inside the Empire, so have to be super-careful not to get stomped down before they get going by the humans, but also get going quickly enough to be able to face off the forces of Chaos when they arrive.
The Dwarfs start in mountains abutting the Vampire territory. Like the Empire, they’ve got to unify the Dwarf holds, and attempt to recover fallen ones, but also weather the storm of Orcs from the south. Which is tricky, because both the Dwarves and Greenskins can travel underground, meaning battles can take place down there too. Getting ambushed underground is no fun.
"Playing as the Orcs and Goblins is a matter of hitting hard and fast, using every dirty trick, because if you don’t, your troops will start running away."
In battle, the dwarfs are frankly static. They have no magic, no cavalry and their flying gyrocopters are no match for other flying units. They do, however, have a unit of naked dwarf Slayers, specialised in killing big monsters. Playing as them, we were almost forced to set up a defensive position, bristling with guns and cannons, then surround it with expensive but tough and loyal dwarf infantry, and just hope they can weather anything thrown at them. Which they did.
The Orcs and Goblins, like the Empire, are hugely flexible. They’ve got tough Orc infantry and cavalry, a range of giant monsters, aggressive magic, and weak but tricksy goblins. All of whom are cowards. Playing as them was a matter of hitting hard and fast, using every dirty trick, because if you don’t, your troops will start running away. On the campaign, they form raiding armies to pillage the Empire and occupy Dwarf lands - the better they do, the more troops they get, making them behave like a Mongol Horde, just pushing on and on until defeated.
Chaos have some surface similarities to the Orcs - tough infantry and cavalry, and some really nasty monsters like Kholek SunEater, that Dragon Ogre general we mentioned earlier - but they hit harder, and mostly lack artillery or missile units. Playing as them isn’t subtle - we just had to get close to the enemy and chop them into bits, then deploy our horrible, horrible magic.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s in Total War: Warhammer here - we’ve not talked about the long tech trees, the strange magic system, and the many heroes for each faction. In less than a month, you’ll get to find out all this for yourself - but we just wanted to give you a taste of what’s coming.
Total War: Warhammer is due for release May 24.