I have played an unhealthy amount of both Warhammer and Total War, but I wasn't quite prepared for my first encounter with Total War: Warhammer 3 (opens in new tab). Dragged out of bed early on a Monday morning, I found myself facing a gargantuan, seemingly endless horde of berserkers and daemons, along with a whole new type of battle that I had to get to grips with. Creative Assembly still has plenty of tricks up its sleeve.
Survival battles are an evolution of the quest battles introduced in the previous Warhammers, where you'll face a bespoke challenge on an extra fancy map. As the name suggests, you'll need to deal with relentless waves of enemies as you try to reach your goal, but thankfully you'll have a lot of help. Fortifications, reinforcements and buffs can all be summoned by spending supplies, earned through slaughter, giving you more things to manage, yes, but also more ways out of a scrape.
"These are very seminal moments in the narrative arc from the campaign game," says game director Ian Roxburgh. "They're all effectively boss battles, where you've gone through a chunk of gameplay and this is the final part towards completing that area in the campaign narrative. So they really fit that bill and give it that climactic moment, as well as just providing an awesome opportunity to look at the Chaos Realms in more detail."
With this survival battle demo comes our first proper look at Creative Assembly's take on the Realms of Chaos, specifically Khorne's neck of the woods. It's a burning red hellscape that looks extremely hostile and, as much as terrain can, very angry. This is in keeping with Khorne himself, a bad-tempered boy with a rage problem. It's not the sort of place you'd want to add to your kingdom, but it's probably the sort of place you'd want to wipe off the map.
Though new to Total War, this style of battle should be very familiar to RTS and tower defence players. There are discrete objectives, a simple economy to manage, death-dealing towers to erect and a battle that feels more like a journey filled with big moments rather than a huge pitched brawl. Doing this in a Total War is undeniably novel, but it doesn't feel alien. That makes juggling all the new features a bit easier.
I started off with a small but hardy force of Kislev's finest, with a nice mix of ranged, infantry and cavalry units led by Katarin, the Ice Queen of Kislev. It's an agile, mobile army which is great at harassing the enemy and picking them off. There are some handy hybrid units, too, which can be effective in melee when they've run out of ammo or need to deal with daemons who get a bit too close for comfort. After taking the first of three capture points, however, I was immediately able to start beefing that force up.
"Kislev generally will suit players who enjoy more of a defensive style of play," says senior game designer Oscar Andersson. "So if you like playing High Elves, I think Kislev will resonate with you quite well. You have very similar elements like you're very heavy on the skirmish gameplay, and you have a lot of hybrids that are both good at holding their ground, weakening the enemy and attritioning them as they come in towards you."
The most important detail, however, has got to be all of those bears. Not only can you field bear cavalry, you can summon huge elemental bears who will merrily squash any daemons in their path. Kislev also has access to a new type of magic, Lore of Ice, with a range of beneficial and offensive spells. I had a great deal of fun surprising charging enemies with my very chilly tricks.
The daemons were still pouring out of portals, so I didn't have much time to celebrate the capture of the first point or set up my defences. Thankfully, survival battles don't make you wait around. Recruits are summoned instantly near the capture point, and fortifications spring up in a matter of seconds. In moments, I had raised platforms for my archers, indomitable walls, artillery towers and a bunch of fresh recruits. At this stage only a handful of basic units were available, but otherwise my only limit was my wallet. Fortifications can only be plonked down in specific locations, but there are plenty of them. And they're not just available near the capture points; you can build towers that will pick off a lot of the enemy force long before they arrive.
Even when enemy units made it through my gauntlet of death, my troops made quick work of them. The Chaos god Khorne clearly wasn't sending his best, especially the ones who kept attacking my walls when there were huge gaps they could charge through. I was making plenty of mistakes, some of which I will blame on the fact that I was streaming the demo, which meant I had freezes and fuzzy picture quality to contend with, but none of that stopped Kislev from kicking serious ass. I wish I could say it was all down to skill, but the squishiness of my enemies probably had a lot to do with it.
Do you even lift, bro?
Survival enemies are much weaker than their regular counterparts. "It enables us to create a battle of a much bigger scale than a traditional Total War battle," says Roxburgh. "So you can create those moments where you've got 40 minutes or so of just waves of enemies coming in to really ham it up and create that climactic moment." And you get to look like a badass, slaughtering the lot of them. The challenge, instead, is managing the in-battle economy and dealing with the relentless tide. That means, even once you've moved on to another capture point, you still have to worry about what's happening behind you. If the enemy takes a point back, you have to go and deal with them, or you won't be able to summon the boss at the end.
As the battle progresses, the intensity ramps up, not just because there are more units fighting, but because the units become much more impressive. At the first capture point, you'll just be recruiting your basic warriors, but by the end you'll have everything at your disposal, and the same goes for your enemy. You get to make use of all the units and tricks that you've learned throughout the campaign, but it still eases you in. This is Total War at its most complex and chaotic, but there's an underlying structure that makes it feel manageable.
The time investment and level of micromanagement means that these survival battles are a bit tiring, but they're not common and you won't come across them randomly. These are fights that you build up to as you kill your way across the campaign map, right up to the doorstep of the Chaos gods. And if you're playing as one of the daemonic factions, you'll still have these survival battles when you take the fight to Kislev and Cathay. By making them boss battles that you have to earn, hopefully Creative Assembly will be able to preserve their novelty.
"We've taken the feedback from the previous games," says Roxburgh, "and a lot of people really like the kind of idea that we introduce more complexity to the endgame mechanics and gave you more than just conquer, conquer, conquer, to think about, and to link the narrative to that. So with Warhammer 3, we've just done that even more." Roxburgh emphasises that this is still a sandbox game where you can conquer to your heart's content, but there's also more of a clear story thread for you to follow, "a journey into the Chaos Realms", so you're not merely gobbling up territory. "It's an even more enhanced version of what we started doing in the Vortex campaign," he adds.
You'll also see elements from survival battles cropping up in other fights, including the new Domination multiplayer mode. "Domination battles are a new exciting way for us to get players started with multiplayer," says Andersson. "We wanted to shake up the formula of a traditional land battle and give players a chance to bring on reinforcements from their army pool and allow them to react to how the game is unfolding. And you're also fighting over capture points." There's at least one new battle type in singleplayer, too, adding minor settlement battles to Warhammer for the first time. These sit between full blown sieges and regular battles, and will apparently come with their own mechanics, including the ability to tackle the settlement from any angle rather than just a couple of locations.
There are still plenty of unanswered questions, like how the campaign will work now that conquest isn't the main objective, or how things like diplomacy and the economy will function when you've got all these unfriendly daemonic factions. I expect the team will have a few more surprises for us before launch. With Warhammer 3 it's Creative Assembly's last chance to play with Games Workshop's grim fantasy universe, at least for now, and it certainly sounds like it's using this final opportunity to go all out on the experiments. It's still ultimately Total War, but I expect this will be the most unusual one of the lot.