Total War: Warhammer brings heroes and monsters to battle

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If there’s one thing that’s striking about Total War: Warhammer, it’s impact. The way Empire handgunners scatter when a Wyvern glides into them. The way that Orc Boyz Waaagh and leap apelike as they charge into the enemy ranks, filled with irrepressible energy. The way that Demigryph Knights bound like birds as they overrun howling Savage Orc Boar Boyz. The way that a Goblin Doom Diver gibbers as it ploughs into the ground head first, almost incidentally crushing a line of spearmen. It’s got an unreal energy unlike any previous Total War game, but exactly like I always imagined Warhammer: Fantasy Battle.

The Battle of Blackfire Pass is the subject of the demo The Creative Assembly showed me at their studio in rural Horsham. The Empire and Orcs & Goblins battle for control of a crucial lava-dotted canyon that’s traditionally the only thoroughfare between the two factions' kingdoms in Warhammer’s Old World. The battle type is new to Total War, but will be familiar to players of Endless Legend—it’s a quest battle. Every character in your army has an chain of quests to follow that unlock new items, abilities and mounts. Blackfire Pass is the final battle for the leader of the human faction, Emperor Karl Franz.

Win this fight and the Emperor gets to wield the legendary Hammer of Sigmar.

If the player chooses to pursue this chain and wins this fight, the Emperor gets to wield the legendary Hammer of Sigmar. But that’s a big ‘if’. Though the Empire has brought its finest troops and (more importantly) war machines and wizards, the Greenskin army dwarfs it.

Beyond the hard-as-nails Boyz, Savage Orcs and Black Orcs, and soft-as-jelly Goblins—variously mounted on boars, wolves, and spiders—the Greenskin army is notable for its wide range of monstrous units. Large units like Trolls do area attacks, leaping to smash Empire swordsmen aside or vomiting on them lugubriously. Giants pick up halberdiers and snack on them pensively, and the enormous Arachnarok spiders, topped by a small contingent of goblin archers, meander across the battlefield. The Empire’s more traditional cannons, Steam Tanks and rockets level swathes of the enemy but struggle against this onslaught.

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beyond men and orcs

Total War Warhammer Troll

Creative Assembly isn’t talking about the dwarf or undead armies yet, and definitely not the much-hinted at Chaos army. The most I could get out of Ian Roxburgh, Project Lead, was “There’s a smattering of other minor races, which we’re not talking about yet, but they occupy the world as well. There’s not just four different races and that’s all.”

“There’s a lot of work we’ve done on the animations, to make the combat seem more dynamic and responsive.” says Roxburgh. “The sheer amount of animations is huge—even down to the amount of different skeletons, 30 types as opposed to 5 or 6 in previous total war games.”

Just above the foot troops, Wyverns ridden by Orc Warbosses dogfight with Karl Franz and his Griffon, Deathclaw. This is the first time Total War has had flying creatures and though it’s fluid, it’s very much a work in progress—“Air-to-air is obviously something we’re still working on”, says Roxburgh.

There are orc Heroes on the ground too, like Grimgor Ironhide the troll-sized Black Orc general, and Witch Hunters and Warrior Priests on the Empire side. The real power lies with the shamans and wizards, who obliterate entire units, summoning giant feet or luminous moons to crush their enemies, or using delicate war machines like the Luminark of Hysh to topple giants. Indeed, the battle is ended by a Celestial Wizard calling down the Comet of Casandora to obliterate the field’s centre. Thankfully, the Winds of Magic that power spells are concentrated in certain areas and not others, and randomised before each battle, so that wizardly-dominance can’t be relied upon.

I've only seen battles in this alpha. The team tell the campaign map is more up-in-the-air. Here heroes and Lords appear as traditional Total War agents, with campaign-level powers—but attach them to an army, and they’ll appear in battle. Be careful though, while named heroes like Karl Franz only ever get injured in battle, your newly levelled-up Wizard Lord can just die.

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Some traditional Total War elements—city-building, diplomacy, unit-building—will work the normal way, for the Empire at least. Other campaign elements are unique to Warhammer and unique to each faction. For example, the Greenskins will have their own system of Waaagh, which pushes them on faster when they’re fighting but penalises them heavily for peace.

“You’ve got this balance between building up this momentum, keeping the battles going, keeping the Boyz excited, or suffering animosity.” say Roxburgh. Every faction is similarly differentiated. “We’re playing with each of the races like it’s an individual Total War game in its own right.” says Simon Mann, TW:W’s Battle Designer. “They are so diverse, we want to revel in that.”

Playing Warhammer this way should save hundreds of pounds in figures and hundreds of hours in painting—and crucially, it’s the easiest, quickest and best-looking way to play huge fantasy battles. That might be the reason it’s taken Games Workshop this long to approve it—but I’m betting they won’t regret it.