Title: Total War: Warhammer II
Developer: Creative Assembly
Genre: Turn-based Strategy
Release Date: 09.28.2017
Hours Played: 75
When Sega, publisher of the famous turn-based strategy game series Total War, announced their partnership with Games Workshop back in 2012, I didn’t know how to feel. As an avid Total War series fan, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of Total War leaving the realm of realistic history for the realm of kitschy fantasy; and it wasn’t even Lord of the Rings! I knew nothing of Warhammer, so I was understandably skeptical. Upon its release in 2016, however, Total War: Warhammer proved to be a formidable entry in the Total War series. Warhammer II, released just last month, has improved on the first Warhammer in almost every conceivable way, making it not only one of the best Total War games ever, but one of the best strategy games of all time.
Warhammer II’s strongest aspect is faction-diversity, an area which previous Total War games have failed to make meaningful. There’s a limit to how unique a 13th century English knight can be when compared to a French knight of the same time period. You know two things that are really different though? Giant, man-eating Lizard people and disease-ridden Rat people. These two races, the Lizardmen and the Skaven, are accompanied by the High Elves and the Dark Elves, two groups that are more accessible and appealing for the average fantasy gamer. Each faction plays in a very different way with unique starting positions, unit diversity, and gameplay mechanics. As in the first game, each faction has its own Legendary Lord, a powerful leader who makes a huge difference in battle. Leveling up your Lords is one of the most satisfying aspects of Warhammer II.
All playable factions in Warhammer II share the common desire to manipulate the Vortex, a magical maelstrom, located on the continent of Ulthan, that siphons the influence of Chaos from the world. Chaos are the main antagonists of the Warhammer series; a nigh-unstoppable force of demons and monsters whose only wish is to destroy the world in the name of the Chaos Gods. At the start of the game, the Vortex has become unstable. The High Elves, who have guarded over the Vortex for centuries, now must seek to stabilize it, while the other groups seek to use its power for their own ends. Factions can influence the Vortex by conducting rituals at various points in the game. There are five rituals in all, and each time the player conducts a ritual, they attract the ire of their opponents. You can send intervention forces to stop rituals from completing, making things difficult for the instigating faction. The Vortex is the common thread that keeps all the disparate elements of the game together. It is the goal of each faction to win the Vortex race, and the game can only end when one group succeeds in fully bending the Vortex to their will.
Warhammer II’s faction-diversity also goes a long way into making politics more interesting. The first game felt like a step back from Total War: Attila in terms of politics and diplomacy, since the different races generally refused to engage in diplomatic talks with one another. In this game, however, we see a much greater variety of people (and Lizards?) all across the world map, which creates a sense of brotherhood between the races. The High Elves of Lothern can always count on their Loremaster brothers to back them up, and the Skaven Clan Pestilens can always rely on their fellow rodents to team up with them. The High Elves especially have an interesting political mechanic. The Elves can engage in court intrigue, using their influence to gain various benefits with the other Elven factions, ultimately working towards the confederation of all High Elf groups.
Despite the significant differences between them, each faction manages to feel viable. The Skaven have weaker, cannon-fodder units, but they are much cheaper to recruit and maintain than most High Elf units. Skaven succeed in battle through sheer force of numbers, while the Lizardmen often go into battle with much fewer, more powerful units. Assuming a battle starts on equal footing in terms of unit strength, each side has a chance to win if they execute their battle plan successfully. I haven’t had a chance to play versus other players yet, but I suspect that there isn’t one strategy that is significantly stronger than the rest in a competitive environment. In terms of the campaign itself, strength in battle is not the only thing that will determine your victory. Skaven can corrupt adjacent provinces, creating instability in their opponent’s lands. Lizardmen cause terror to their enemies, and can often rout them without actually overpowering them.
Another improvement over the first game is the design of the world map. This time around, the playing field consists of four large continents with distinct climates and with various islands dispersed throughout. This geographic diversity creates a far more varied gameplay experienced when compared to the first game, where most battles took place over one large land mass that was largely uniform. The scale of Warhammer II’s world is quite daunting, and as such, many factions might not ever meet each other in the field of battle. What motivation could the Dark Elves of Naggarond, located in the far northwestern reaches of the map, have for engaging with the Last Defenders in the far south-east? This is where Warhammer II’s unifying mechanic, the Vortex, comes into play.
Sound design is something I have always praised in the Total War series. Fantastic voice-acting, combined with a huge arsenal of subtle, recognizable sounds go a long way towards creating an immersive campaign experience. If you select a port city, for instance, you might hear the sound of waves carrying ships into port. You might hear the sound of hammers on nails if you choose to upgrade certain parts of your cities, and the sound of the cities themselves changes based on which race is being controlled. If you click an enemy agent, he might be liable to throw a few insults your way depending on your diplomatic relations. The sounds of battle in Warhammer II are perhaps most impressive of all. The sound of cavalry charging down a hill, or the sound of swords clanging against shields help you really get into the battle. Your men will let out cries of victory or defeat depending on how the battle is going; a case of sound reflecting and complimenting the dynamic nature of what is happening on screen.
Creative unit design is another way that Warhammer II sets itself apart from other Total War titles. There are giant dinosaurs, fittingly commanded by the Lizardmen, which tear into battle and rampage their way to victory. High Elf dragons and phoenixes are some of the most elite units in the game, and battle it out in the skies with other aerial units. The Skaven control a variety of rodents that all look equally devious and conniving, while also bringing the monstrous Hell Pit Abominations into the fray. The Dark Elves have great control over the seas with their armadas of Black Arcs, and they also control terrifying Hydras and Black Dragons. This huge variance in unit design creates a game that is rich with visual intrigue. You might find yourself pausing the game at various times just to get a good look at the elite Phoenix Guards or the Black Guards of Naggarond. Stylistically, however, the game seems slightly confused. It lacks the artistic uniformity of Lord of the Rings, and abandons any pretense of seriousness from the outset. The High Elves resemble the Elves of Middle-Earth, while the Greenskins look like brothers to the Orcs of the Warcraft universe, and the minions of Chaos look like extras in a 1980’s metal band music video. However, this is more a problem of the Warhammer universe in general rather than this game itself, so it wouldn’t be fitting to criticize this game too heavily for these flaws. Creative Assembly has done very well to create a coherent and player-friendly experience with such expansive source material.
The most exciting thing about Warhammer II is its potential. The game has yet to include any of the original races from the first game, or the Old-World factions. These will all be included in an upcoming DLC pack called The Mortal Empires. Dwarves, Humans, Vampires, Northern Barbarians and Wood Elves will join the battle for the Vortex, leading to even more faction diversity, and an even more intriguing and immersive campaign experience.
I’ve put just over 70 hours in the game since September, and I couldn’t be happier with my experience thus far. I’ve taken all the races out for a spin, and I’ve enjoyed each one more than the last. I believe this game has a great deal of replay value, since each campaign has the potential of turning out drastically different than the last. Lothern might rise up to lead the High Elf factions to victory in one campaign, but might fall to the invading forces of the Dark Elves in the next. Players in the steam community have also contributed a variety of mods that flesh out and improve the game experience very nicely, adding even more (free!) value to the game. Total War: Warhammer II is easily one of the best PC games of 2017, and one of the strongest titles in the Total War series since Shogun II.