Total War: Warhammer 2 (PC Review)
Creative Assembly. Honestly, those two words alone get me excited. Growing up, I cut my strategic teeth on Medieval: Total War, which remains to me one of the finest strategy games of all time, so it’s easy for me to appreciate Creative Assembly’s genius. I was not, however, always a fan of Warhammer. I grew up dabbling somewhat in Warhammer 40k, but the fantasy version wasn’t something I ever delved into.
And then along comes Warhammer: Total War 2. The initial impression from this is the same as it was in the original Warhammer: Total War; why the hell didn’t they just call it Total Warhammer? Much easier to say, but that’s neither here nor there. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll point out that I didn’t play the first Warhammer: Total War.
Like all Total War games, there are two sides of Warhammer: Total War 2 (W:TW2). First, there’s the turn-based campaign map where you’ll spend the majority of your game time: creating your armies, hiring Heroes to do your bidding, and building great cities. The campaign map is where you do everything that’s not directly killing your opponents. Of course, the other part of the gameplay is the battle maps, where you take control of the armies you’ve created in real time, employing strategy to win as many battles as possible.
The main reason I picked up W:TW2 was due to it’s robust cooperative campaign, something that I value in any genre but is a stand-out selling point in strategy games for me. My good friend Simon and I wasted no time jumping into the game’s story-based campaign, The Eye of the Vortex. Unlike most strategy games, and certainly most Total War titles, the bulk of W:TW2 revolves around a singular campaign, which each playable race approaches in different ways.
There are four playable races, each with two different Legendary Lords. While the races play differently from each other, the Lords are generally similar but have different starting positions and innate abilities. Generally, one of these Lords is best suited as a powerful spellcaster while the other while be better at leading their armies from the front on the battlefield. The races are the noble High Elves, their dark brethren the Dark Elves, the scheming Skaven (rat people, for those of us not in the know) and the Lizardmen, a race of cold-blooded reptile people.
While each faction can create and command equivalent units, they all have different key abilities both on the battlefield and in the campaign map, so playing each race feels completely different. The High Elves, for example, have the ability to generate a resource called Influence by completing quests and missions that allows them to manipulate the diplomatic relations between two factions. This goes both ways; you can strengthen the relationship between two forces, perhaps staving off a war or increasing the chances of making a powerful ally; or you can cause them to deteriorate, which can be useful for starting conflict where there was none, especially if you’re in a prime position to march your noble elves in amidst the chaos and take the warring sides’ cities for your own.
The Dark Elves are able to capture slaves after battles, which they can use to bolster their economy or as the ingredients for powerful Rites, which we’ll look at a bit later on. It’s not as immediately impactful as some of the other race abilities, but if you devote yourself to capturing slaves they can be a huge boon to your resources. Additionally, the Dark Elves have Murderous Prowess, an ability that triggers in battle if they can kill enough enemies. Murderous Prowess temporarily kicks your soldiers into overdrive with the blessing of their dark god, and it can really turn the tide of a battle in their favour.
I found the Skaven most difficult to play, as the corruption they naturally spread is detrimental to the public order of the local province, but aids you in battles by allowing you to spawn additional units. They are also the only faction that uses Food as a resource, requiring you to constantly keep an eye on your food supplies, as allowing them to drop too low has devastating effects on things like public order and gold generated by your cities.
And then there are the Lizardmen, lead by the enormous frog man Lord Mazdamundi. He holds a special place in my heart now as the first Lord I chose to play as in W:TW2. The Lizardmen can create special, Blessed versions of their units by completing missions that pop up periodically, and these Blessed soldiers are a great advantage on the battlefield. The higher-tier Lizardmen units are essentially dinosaurs, from bomb-dropping pterodactyls to rampaging T-Rex’s, their definitely the most awe-inspiring army to watch on the battlefield.
Like most grand strategy games, there are two ways to ‘win’ a game of Warhammer: Total War 2. The first is through the complete and total annihilation of all enemy forces. This is the classic approach, as victory through conquest has long since been a staple of Creative Assembly’s titles. It’s much easier said than done, as while there are only eight Legendary Lords, there are dozens of other, minor factions, each with dominance in mind. They’ll war with each other independently, as each faction begins the game in a certain state of diplomacy with the others. High Elves and Dark Elves hate each naturally, for example.
The second victory condition is story related, in the Eye of the Storm campaign. One of the orders of High Elves, lead by Tyrion, begins play on the same island as the Great Vortex. The Vortex is a massive, swirling maelstrom of power that syphons the excess magic from the world, so that it can be used by the forces of Chaos. The story of W:TW2 begins with the arrival of a twin-tailed comet, seen as an omen by the races in the game, that begins to mess with the Vortex. The different factions each look to take advantage of this. The High Elves, for example, want to strengthen the Vortex so that Chaos can’t flood the land, while the Dark Elves look to take the power of the vortex for themselves.
Each faction achieves their goal in the same way; by completing four Rituals throughout the game. Each Ritual requires more and more of the special ritual resource each race must gather. When you begin to perform each ritual, the armies of Chaos will appear near the site you’re channeling the Ritual through and try to take the city from you, and these invasion forces get stronger with each successful Ritual you perform. Additionally, your opponents can pay to create powerful Intervention armies to stop you from succeeding, and you can do the same to them.
As you conquer and pillage the lands surrounding your own, you can expand your empire by taking the various settlements that make up each province. When you own every settlement in a given province, usually 3 or 4 cities, you can put a powerful Commandment in place there. Commandments give a sweeping bonus to the settlement their issued in, like increasing Public Order, which makes riots less likely, or making buildings cheaper to build. With Commandments, the Lizardmen are given another advantage through their Geomantic Web.
The more adjacent capital cities controlled by a Lizardmen faction, the more powerful the connection to the Web becomes, which increases the strength of their commandments. This makes expansion especially crucial for them, because even holding two or three provinces surrounding your own can drastically increase the impact of the Commandments.
On top of Commandments, Ritual and Unique abilities, there are also Rites. The 4 Rites each race can complete have different effects and performance costs. For the Lizardmen, you have to have met certain criteria like winning an Ambush battle or creating a specific building, on top of paying gold for the Rite. For the Dark Elves, it’s a matter of not just gold but also sacrificing slaves. Rites have a variety of impactful effects, such as spawning powerful units or giving your entire faction a bonus to things like experience gained or combat ability.
The steps between each difficulty level in W:TW2 are pretty vast. I spent the majority of my time playing on Normal, as easy was a total pushover and Hard is just completely unforgiving. There’s an appeal to that in strategy games, the type of brutal, visceral kill-or-be-killed campaign that punishes every single flaw in your gameplay. There isn’t a natural curve to increasing difficulty in W:TW2. It’s less like taking it step by step, and more like each difficulty is almost prohibitively far from the previous. Or maybe I just need to git gud.
The unit and map design in W:TW2 are stunning, another job well done by Creative Assembly. There’s not much as cool as zooming right in on your War Hydra as it plows into a unit of elf Archers, with the backdrop of a beautifully spired elven city reminding you exactly what you’re fighting for. The beautiful sky, a flickering rainbow overhead, plays host to a battle of it’s own, as a giant eagle taken straight from Lord of the Rings engages in deadly battle with a black dragon, while down below the elf Lord hurls a fireball into the midst of the enemy combatants, hoping to break their will and force them to flee.
But it’s not without its flaws. The Total War series once had astounding naval battles in the Empire and Napoleon games, but now if two armies collide in the ocean both sides are forced to auto-resolve the battle, letting the game decide the victor by weighing up the odds and comparing your unit strength, size and experience. Which is honestly pretty disappointing. Not only does it massively favour the Dark Elves, who can spawn powerful boats called Black Arks that are essentially floating fortresses capable of spawning their own armies, but there’s immense satisfaction to be had in commanding your army to victory in a battle that the game weighs against you in. Even if they weren’t true naval battles like in Napoleon, the ability to deploy on a small island map for a frantic, close quarters battle would have been immensely appreciated.
While the co-op campaign is handled fantastically, allowing you to gift units to your teammate to control during combat, I was disappointed by some of it’s execution. For example, the Dark Elf races I played with alongside my friend share progress through the Rituals, but don’t share the resource itself, making it feel less like a team effort and more like individual sprints towards the same goal. I feel like there should also be an option to just agree with your teammate on everything they do during their turn. Later in the campaign, each players’ turns can take a long time, and as the host takes their first, there were often times where I would take my turn and then go to check on my dinner or take a quick toilet break, and my partner would be waiting for me to simply click “Auto-resolve” on a battle he had no interest in fighting, despite the fact I wasn’t involved myself.
Those complaints are fairly minor, especially when compared to the vast amount of fun I had with Warhammer: Total War 2. Both in cooperative and single player modes, building your faction from their starting position of a handful of settlements to commanding an empire that stretches across a continent or more.