Don Rowe dives back into the borderline-narcotic world of Total War: Warhammer, reviewing the second of three games in the series.
Ah McCain, they’ve done it again! Just when you were getting bored of the stupidly huge and successful Total War: Warhammer, strategy game powerhouse Creative Arts has only gone and dropped the second instalment of what is set to be a three-part series that just so happens to ALSO combine like an ultrabot in to one big old mega game. It’s bloody peak game out here!
And friends, this one is big. Like, buy this if you want something to do until Christmas…2019. After several days plowing away as the sadistic Dark Elves, one of four new and unique factions, I’m no closer to harnessing the dark magic of the vortex (read: winning) than I am to saving a deposit on a house in Auckland. But the time is well spent; Total War: Warhammer 2 has taken everything the first iteration of the series did well, refined it, shored up the few holes that really mattered, and introduced massively game-changing features without screwing it up.
Let’s start with the units. Oh, the units. I first became interested in the tabletop version of Warhammer back in my halcyon days of youth, wandering around the fetid depths of that Vagabond store by the bus depo in Hamilton. There was something about these tiny, immaculately detailed models that brought them to life, making imaginary battles with static models a realistic form of entertainment.
These tiny details were significant in that they hinted at a much larger backstory – an enemy’s skull fixed to a shield, a physical deformity, a particularly ferocious snarl – and every player’s army was totally different. While Total War: Warhammer doesn’t offer the same customisation opportunities, the spirit of the miniatures is there in spades. Except this time the miniatures are fucken animated dinosaurs, bro!
The in-game battles haven’t changed considerably from the first installment, unless you consider HYDRAS and a T-REX considerable. There are new lords, new spells, new hordes of anthropomorphic rat-men intent on wiping the living from the earth. There’s ample justification for making this a game of its own, rather than just a bit of DLC. All that is missing – and at this point I think it might be forever – is an abundance of meaningful terrain on which to fight.
Shogun 2, a Total War entry from 2011, is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the series thus far due in part to the truly beautiful landscapes on which battles take place. Valleys and ditches and copses of woodland and settlements and river crossings – all terrain features which impact the battle in terms of both tactics and strategy, bringing the experience much more in line with the considerations traditional commanders would have to make. Chokepoint battles go some way to alleviating this, but for the most part the battlefields remain either disappointingly sparse or impossibly cluttered.
That one caveat aside, this is a matter of quality and quantity, not either or. The map is beautifully rendered, with icy wastes giving way to desert tundra, leviathan-infested waters surrounding mysterious isles and OH YEAH a massive swirling vortex capable of unleashing untold chaos on the world – or preventing it. The four new factions (high elves, dark elves, lizardmen and skaven) all have narratives revolving around this vortex, but it’s significant for more tangible reasons too.
The vortex is a unprecedented evolution to the Total War formula, which has remained mostly unchanged in terms of win conditions and the overall tempo of a campaign since its first iteration. The endgame has always been a problem across the series, and across grand strategy games in general, because of a concept called snowballing; at a certain point in your campaign, the balance of power tips in such a way that victory becomes inevitable, and all that remains is clearing out the final pockets of resistance in a tortuously slow process akin to a cheap sparkler fizzing out, rather than an epic, Lord of the Rings 3 style, climax. This is particularly frustrating given you might have played several hundred hours for the reward of a banal slog. Total War: Warhammer 2 changes that all that with the introduction of the vortex.
The tl;dr of the vortex is that it’s essentially a giant sinkhole for draining magic from the world in an attempt to blast demons back to from whence they came and all that. Now it’s on the verge of collapsing, and the good guys really want to prevent that from happening while the bad guys want to harness the power in order to do more bad guy shit. Why this is significant in terms of gameplay is because each step that brings your faction closer to their goal creates more and increasingly difficult hurdles to overcome, meaning that the intensity of the TWW2 campaign never totally abates, and in fact ramps up. Previous entries into the Total War franchise approximated this with endgame events like the invasion of Attila the Hun in the endgame stages of Attila, but none have come close to the vortex campaign.
Each faction has their own lore-friendly way of achieving control of the vortex, but it should be said that they’re essentially reskins of the same concept – Dark Elves need to collect a certain number of scrolls, the Lizardmen need ancient plaques and so on. And there’s every chance opposing factions will reach their goals before you, military dominance or no, so the clock is ticking regardless.
With all that in mind, the idea that there is ANOTHER game to come, plus DLC, and then a combination of all three entries, is astounding. The final product will be a truly gigantic piece of work, with unparalleled complexity and a fully-fleshed world built around lore written and expanded on endlessly over the 30-odd years since Warhammer Fantasy Battles were first waged on the tabletop in 1983. But these games are the equivalent of Wizard’s chess to WFB’s vanilla chess, and at this point I am blimmin’ Ron Weasley.