Total War: Warhammer
At GDC 2016, I took a few hours to dive into an extended hands-on session with Creative Assembly’s upcoming Total War: Warhammer. During that time I had access to a chunk of the Vampire Counts Campaign and two massive, epic-scale battles with all the units ready to rock-and-roll from the start. While this doesn’t approach any kind of review-style methodology as I was only playing a carefully selected slice of the game, I’m comfortable saying this – It’s easily the most fun I’ve had playing a Total War title in nearly a decade. The decision to break out of the historically restrictive boxes and go full fantasy instead of being mired in axes, swords, and crude siege weaponry has been a massive boon in breathing new life into the franchise. Playing a few hours with the Vampire Counts was a strategic and flavorful experience.
First off, I had my qualms immediately resolved about the complexity outside the battlefield. Nothing has been dumbed down to facilitate the Warhammer universe. All of the standard upgrading off the field that the series is known for is present, including expansive tech trees that let you decide how to shape your armies. These options now take the powerful magic options you have access to into account as well, making your specializations and choices all that much more important when you head into war.
Tapping into the Warhammer IP allows for creation of completely disparate armies and factions. The Vampire Counts, for instance, have absolutely no ranged units at all. This is probably mindblowing from a strategy perspective, but it works. It seems absurd, especially given that you are on battlefields with incredibly powerful long range artillery hurling magic and missiles at your troops, but things are balanced in such a way that it all evens out in the end. With amazingly powerful units like flying Felbats and deadly hit-and-run dire wolves able to traverse the battlefield quickly, and a potentially everlasting army of the undead in zombies and skeletons, your massive numbers can overpower enemy forces quickly, especially with some magical backup.
As undead, you never have to worry about morale or leadership penalties, making you unbroken lines a terrifying prospect as other troops scatter and flee during your unwavering assaults. Now, that comes with a price – undead units are somewhat unstable to make up for their unbreakable will – but it’s a huge net positive when you’re taking your shambling soldiers into battle. Undead units cause fear in their enemies and make them easy to rattle and send scrambling off into the distance.
Leaders like the Vampire Counts’ Mannfred von Carstein bring a devastating array of powers into combat, including magic – something that initially feels very out of place in a Total War game, but ends up fitting right in given the Warhammer context. Everything from basic abilities like traditional buffs and debuffs that can make armies stronger or more vulnerable, direct damage spells that can shake up an opposing pile of troops, and yes of course, raising the dead. While it can only be used a few times each battle, raise the dead can pull dead right out of the ground to add to existing armies. Mannfred von Carstein can also use the spell in a pinch should he find himself out alone on the battlefield to raise a pocket army in a pinch to defend himself from a surprise attack.
Combat feels like a more interactive experience than prior titles, mostly due to the inclusion of magic. While you’re still always attempting to guard your flanks and keeping your units rolling to the right places, picking the right situations where your spells can make the most difference makes things feel more engaging than just making sure all your units are moving to and attacking the right places. Having access to heavy, fast-moving guerrilla units like dire wolves and felbats makes it so you always need to keep an eye on exactly what’s going on, or risk losing a drawn-out battle to opposing ranged (which you can easily pick apart and reduce to rubble by combining your massive melee hordes and crushing, fast assaults). The combination of heavy, plentiful melee and speedy damage troops make for a powerful punch that’s a joy to wield on the battlefield.
While I’m still excited for the next historical title, at this point I’m sold on the series taking a new approach to things and I’d be hard pressed to think of a franchise more worthy of getting the treatment over Warhammer. We’ll see how things shake out in May, but I’m quite pleased with the necromantic vampire slice of life I've seen so far.