As I watch the Tzeentch forces bear down upon the fortress defended by Grand Cathay, I'm blown away by how different this Total War: Warhammer 3 battle looks compared to any I've seen before.
The Tzeentch, an eccentric demonic faction that worships the Lord of Change, are alluring with their psychedelic palettes of neon purples, blues and greens, brightening up the battlefield with colours from well beyond the typically earthy Warhammer spectrum.
Cathay, meanwhile, is the first faction ever depicted from Warhammer’s Far East, led by a dynasty of dragons capable of taking human form. Naturally, they’re analogous to Ancient China; amber sky lanterns, double-ended halberds, elegant armour adorned with robes and dragon imagery, and towering terracotta sentinels defending the Warhammer world’s answer to the Great Wall.
While the series has given us so much spectacle amid its infinite battles already, seeing this colourful demonic army raining blue and pink fire over the terracotta walls and ornate roofs of Cathay's fortress is something new.
My preview gave me a glimpse into the Tzeentch, but the main focus was on Cathay, a faction that's never had an army in tabletop Warhammer, never had an army book or codex, and is being expanded by Games Workshop in tandem with the development of Total War: Warhammer 3. It's testament to the series' success that they now get to see—and contribute to—an army as it's developed.
Game director Ian Roxburgh gives a little insight into this collaboration. "When you're actually seeing that process from the beginning and you're able to input into those chats early on it's a really rewarding experience for us, and something we've never done before. It's a compliment to the way our relationship with Games Workshop has developed over these eight years that there's enough mutual trust for us to work in this way together."
One key concept that Creative Assembly plucked straight from reality and turned into an in-game system is Yin and Yang—the Taoist belief that reality is shaped by opposing forces existing in constant complementary balance with each other. Both in battle and in the campaign, maintaining the harmony between Yin and Yang is critical for Cathay.
Buildings, technologies and units all tilt the balance towards Yin or Yang, and you'll need to be mindful when managing your economy and armies to gain those Harmony bonuses. In battle, the law of Yin is associated with the Moon Empress and affects mainly melee units, while Yang applies to ranged units, so keep these troops together to get those buffs.
Another benefit of Harmony is Spell Mastery, where the more of Cathay's spellcasters you have on the battlefield, the more powerful their spells become. While Cathay is by no means a magic-oriented faction, this gives them a little edge over enemies, whose magic usually draws from a single mana pool.
"With that Harmony mechanic, the Cathay army really does promote operating as a cohesive whole, formation-supporting each other mutually," says campaign designer James Whitston. "Same with the spellcasters—those two laws really chime in well with that."
The theme of balance is fitting for an army that, according to Whitston, is the crucial "Jack of all Trades" in a game that will otherwise feature some of the most out-there factions in the series.
"The Cathay are a great faction, particularly for newer players or those familiar with the Empire roster, because they cover all bases pretty well without necessarily excelling at some of the top-end stuff," says Whitston. "But they have got some amazing special units."
Back on the battlefield, the Tzeentch aerial forces make their move—flying purple stingrays called Screamers and Doom Knights, aerial cavalry that surfs through the skies aboard magically propelled hoverboards. They make quick work of the peasant troops manning the walls, though I rightly suspect that Cathay has more military tricks up its sleeve than these expendable farmers in sandals, rice hats and headbands.
The clear standouts are the two Legendary Lords, the Storm Dragon and Iron Dragons Miao Ying and Zhao Ming. These two children of the Celestial Dragon Emperor can switch at will in battle between human and dragon form. When my inner child asks the developers why one wouldn't keep them in dragon form all the time, it once again returns to the theme of Harmony.
"In human form, the Lords have massive Harmony amplifiers, but if you see a greater demon on the battlefield, then you'll probably want to attack it as a dragon," lead writer Andy Hall tells me. "You're going to lose a bit of Harmony, but you've got a big Dragon on the battlefield—there's a risk-reward strategy to it."
Not that these dragon-kin are wanting for power in human form. Once the Tzeentch breach the walls, I witness Miao Ying chew up a battalion of crab-clawed Forsaken using the Talons of Night—a vortex spell that summons giant scaled claws from the ground to stun enemies into oblivion.
Cathay starts to offer some aerial resistance, too, as squads of Crane Gunners—rocket-launcher snipers, essentially—start to pick off the daemons from their distant Sky Lanterns. Zhao Ming, meanwhile, transforms into a serpentine dragon, shooing away the Doom Knights descending on Cathay's deadly but fragile Sky Lanterns and Sky Junks.
The Grand Bastion, a towering fortress built by Cathay to keep the forces of Chaos at bay, is a beautiful showcase of the more layered, vertical city design in Total War: Warhammer 3. This new approach makes the part of the battle after a city's walls have been breached more strategic than ever before. As the Pink Horrors—Tzeentch's rather cute and expendable Boglin lookalikes—scamper through streets, they're picked off from the upper tiers of the city by cannon fire, while in other parts the attackers are redirected towards ambush points by buildable barricades.
And while the Minas Tirith-like layers of the Grand Bastion may be unique to Cathay, the developers tell me that all the factions in the game will benefit from the new siege mechanics and city designs. They couldn't, however, confirm whether this deeper town-planning will get retrofitted to the cities of existing series factions when they all come together for the final Mortal Empires campaign.
In adding Cathay to the game, Creative Assembly opens us up to a vast and previously unexplored part of the Warhammer map. Upon launch, the campaign will focus on the northern and western regions of Cathay, governed by Miao Ying and Zhao Ming respectively, but the empire—the biggest in Warhammer—is surrounded by intriguing unstoried territories.
Just to the east across the sea is Nippon, Warhammer's axiomatic equivalent to Japan. To the south, past the realm of the troublesome Monkey King, are the equally under-documented Kingdoms of Ind, where cat-faced beings and tiger-headed Beastmen are said to dwell amidst wealthy human cities. It leaves a lot of potential for DLC.
"When going further afield and into the stuff that hasn't been developed by Games Workshop until now we never say never, but when it comes to Nippon and Ind, that's not on the radar at the moment," Roxburgh tells me. "But certainly padding out the fringes around Cathay, there's plenty to come in the future there."
When I pry for information about whether the three other Cathay Dragon children—each governing their own province of the Empire—will feature down the line, Hall evades a direct answer by pointing out that there are "four missing Dragons as well." Cunning diversion, or redirection towards a subject more in line with what Creative Assembly are working on?
With the lore alluding to the possibility that some of the dragons may have been corrupted by Chaos, I couldn't help but wonder whether we could face a Game of Thrones-style scenario where the dragons return for the bad guys. And who wouldn't want to see a dragon sporting the colours of the Tzeentch, billowing pink fire upon the land like some synthwave nightmare.
Back at the Battle of the Grand Bastion, there's enough novelty to keep my mind from foraying too far into fan-theories. The Tzeentch's Exalted Lord of Change flies up to an upper layer of the city to take out some Cathay artillery, summoning one of the army's most powerful abilities, the Storm of Fire, to his aid. The camera tilts up to the skies where, high above the city and the floating pagodas gleaming in the golden sunset, a whirling neon vortex opens up, raining cyan splatters from the Chaos dimension down upon the city.
I never see the end of the battle, as the camera fades to black, but I see enough to (once again) be amazed at the series' enduring ability to evolve, dazzle and surprise five years on. And to think that all it took was a never-before-seen faction inspired by Ancient China and a lurid army of neon daemons.