Total War: Warhammer E3 impressions

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Why send a single writer to see the most hotly-anticipated strategy game on PC, when you could send two (with wildly differing background knowledge) instead. Hardware editor Wes Fenlon is a long-standing fan of the Total War series, whereas old man global editor-in-chief Tim Clark grew up playing Warhammer Fantasy Battle on a converted ping pong table in his bedroom. (And once got headbutted at a Games Day in the Birmingham NEC over a rules dispute, but that’s another story.)

At E3 they had the chance to see a choreographed demo of Total War: Warhammer, in which the Orc horde clashed with Karl Franz’s Empire forces. Here, Wes and Tim give their impressions of that in the form of a cosy fireside chat. Roll the brandy around ostentatiously in your glass and let’s begin…

Wes: I’m going to be a downer and start with the bad first: a scripted flythrough of a Total War battle, with perfectly constructed armies carrying out their coolest attacks right when the camera is on them, isn’t quite indicative of the experience of playing a Total War game. I would’ve loved to see the world map, politics, construction, planning… all the stuff that goes into making Total War a 4X series.

Okay, now that that little dose of reality is out of the way—my god, this looked cool. It’s the kind of perfect, dream franchise mash-up that makes so much sense it seemingly never happens. I could almost feel the liberated creativity bursting out of the artists and animators as they finally got to drop historically accurate archers and legionnaires for orcs and gryphons and goblins riding on really creepy spiders. I didn’t care about Warhammer as a setting before this demo, and I’m now really psyched for it as the playground for the next Total War.

Tim: Damn you, Wes, and damn your reality check. For me, seeing the camera zoom (okay, yes, suspiciously cinematically) over the warring armies was the realisation of the dream I’ve had since it sunk in that, no, I probably wasn’t ever actually going to finish painting the two dozen heavy cavalry which I’d persuaded mother to buy me for Christmas. I’ve waited patiently for over two decades to see a decent video game version of Warhammer Fantasy Battle, (hell I even sunk hours into Warhammer: Dark Omen), and given Creative Assembly’s heritage I’m confident that Total Warhammer is going to be a lot better than decent.

I think what I liked most about the demo we saw was the diversity of units on show. If I’d been making a shopping list of what a greenskin army ought to include, trolls, boar and wolf riders, a wild-eyed shaman, plus a giant boss on a wyvern would have all been high on the list. Maybe more importantly, the creature models are packed with detail and don’t feel too cartoony. I would place the art style between the colorfulness of World of Warcraft and the ‘realism’ of Shadow of Mordor. (I know orcs aren’t real. Stop ruining this.) I guess my concern, though, is whether coming in relatively cold to the series, I’m going to be overwhelmed by trying to manage an army of this size on the fly. Does it look significantly different to previous Total Wars in terms of systems? I guess magic is the major addition…

Wes: Magic and flying units are definitely both major additions, and I hope that flying units work much better than the clunky naval combat of Shogun 2 and Rome 2. I think they probably will—from what we saw, flying units can shift pretty seamlessly from the skies to the ground, landing amidst a unit of soldiers and tearing into them with close-ranged attacks, or swooping down and carrying some up into the sky for a gravity kill.

The animations of the Warhammer ground troops were absolutely packed with personality, and by their nature are more varied than the kinds of units you see in historical Total War games (which are basically Guy Walking or Guy Riding Horse). But I don’t think they’ll behave much differently. Controlling battles will still mainly about putting your troops into formations, with melee units up front, ranged units safe behind them, and cavalry sweeping in from the back or sides. The cavalry just happens to be riding on spiders and wolves, this time around.

The way magic comes into play is still the biggest question mark, I think. It looked really fun. What god’s giant foot did that Goblin shaman summon to flatten an entire unit of Empire troops? I was worried about the magic being overpowered, but according to Warhammer’s battle designer Simon Mann, those uber-powerful attacks will require pretty much your entire mana pool, so there’s a trade-off there. I think using magic will be similar to managing the special abilities of your heroes, much like generals in previous Total War games. And you can always pause combat to strategize if things get too intense.

Tim: I believe the giant green stamping foot in question belonged to Gork, one of the orcs twin gods (the other being Mork, though I’m unclear where Mindy fits into their religious hierarchy.) I’m not too worried about magic being OP at this point, because the strong suggestion is that wizards will be glass cannons who need to be hidden behind massed ranks of cannon fodder to keep safe. On the subject of cannons, I’m probably more curious about how the use of war machines will be balanced. The Empire forces had a couple of powerful Steam Tanks, plus a mobile platform-mounted magical death ray contraption. I remember in the tabletop game—well, in my case, ping pong table game—that long-range siege weapons were absolutely deadly and the source of much frustration for my opponents. Though I will add that that wasn’t what got me headbutted in Birmingham.

What did you make of the idea of the big heroes being immortal? It makes sense from a lore perspective—you can’t have Karl Franz getting skewered in the tutorial—but what can I expect from the lesser agent-style units. These sound like what I would’ve called ‘character models’: super powerful singleton units that roam the battlefield helping to swing the outcome. I’m slightly perturbed by the idea these guys will have complex unlockable skill trees, but if they die that progress gets lost. I suppose that’s equally the case in something like The Banner Saga or X-COM, but hoo boy is it going to sting when my favourite war boss gets sliced into verdant shish kebab by halberdiers. Is that not a big deal? Is it usually easy to acquire new agents?

Wes: Those “hero” units taking the place of Agents from past Total War games may actually be the most exciting feature for me. In Rome 2, for example, there were Spies, Champions, and Dignitaries, each with their own skill trees making them better at spreading unrest, assassination, buffing your army or debuffing your opponent’s. But at least when playing against the AI, agents became extremely tiresome. You needed a ton of them to counter the enemy agents crawling all over the map, and every time you killed one the AI would simply spawn a new one and send it over to harass you again. I’m hopeful that making them actual characters this time around will cut down on how obnoxious they are on the world map and make them more valuable.

Being able to bring them into combat certainly signifies they’ll be less disposable, and since they can die, the risk/reward trade-off must be really tantalizing. Basically, they better kick a lot of ass. In past Total War games, you never controlled single units (with the exception of boats)—even generals had a pack of a couple dozen bodyguards riding alongside them. So I’m excited to see how that works in Total War. Battles may require a bit more micromanagement, but that could end up being a fun change of pace from setting your army up properly and then letting it go to town.

I’m similarly looking forward to having your leaders be immortal, because it seems to fit the fantasy setting, and change for a series this long-running can be refreshing. The only thing I’m a bit worried about—and I guess this doesn’t make much sense considering how complex tabletop Warhammer probably is—is them simplifying the strategy layer of the game too much to prioritize battles. That might be a way to draw in Warhammer fans who’ve never played Total War before, but I want to control this fantasy world, not just do battle in it.

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Tim: I feel like, as a fan, once acclimatised I’ll actually relish the campaign mode stuff, particularly if it enables you to keep altering the construction of your army. For me, the juice in Fantasy Battle came from constructing your army in different ways to deal with different opponents. I’m a tiny bit disappointed that you won’t be able to tweak the appearance of the troops, to give an approximation of the painting process, but at the same time this is only Creative Assembly’s first swing of the bat at the licence, and the colour palette we saw looked really good. In fact I’m already jumping the musket and imagining how wood elves and the various chaos factions will eventually look.

Beyond the existing Warhammer fanbase, I think this game has the chance to be a real breakout for Creative Assembly. High fantasy is in the strongest place it’s been for years, thanks to a glut of great RPGs, and of course Game Of Thrones, so Total Warhammer could scratch that itch for a lot of people. Who doesn’t want to preside over massive battles in which dragons barbecue screaming farmhands that have been pressed into military service? The standout moment in the demo, for me, was seeing the Empire’s Demigryph Knights come charging out of the woods to plunge their lances into the orc scum. RIP ever wanting to play actual history again.

Wes: Hear, hear. That’s a great point about the fantasy setting giving this some breakout potential: I can see plenty of people being turned off from previous Total War games because the depth of the historical setting can be a bit intimidating. Maybe Warhammer carries its own baggage, as well, but this is the largest scale fantasy strategy game we’ve seen in years, and I think that really will excite people who like Game of Thrones and Dragon Age and Lord of the Rings. Personally, it made me realize how much I miss the world of Warcraft. But not World of Warcraft—the world Blizzard gave us in its RTS trilogy.

We saw a great variety of units in our brief demo of Total War, especially for the orc race. I hope the other two races we didn’t get to see are just as varied, and that there are meaningful differences in play style between each race. And to your point about unit customization, I think Creative Assembly will get there in time. But as long as Total War: Warhammer is as moddable as past games in the series, modders will be solving that problem on day one...and probably creating tons of new Warhammer units, too.

Imagine, Tim. Your all-time favorite Warhammer character, charging into battle at the head of your army.

Tim: Sometimes it’s like you just enjoy seeing me cry in the office.

Tim Clark

With over two decades covering videogames, Tim has been there from the beginning. In his case, that meant playing Elite in 'co-op' on a BBC Micro (one player uses the movement keys, the other shoots) until his parents finally caved and bought an Amstrad CPC 6128. These days, when not steering the good ship PC Gamer, Tim spends his time complaining that all Priest mains in Hearthstone are degenerates and raiding in Destiny 2. He's almost certainly doing one of these right now.