Stepping back into the world of Warhammer is always a fantastical journey, and with Total War: Warhammer 2, never before has an adaptation of the source material felt quite so natural.
With the second installment in its massive strategy game trilogy, developer Creative Assembly has begun flexing its design muscles. Battles are bigger and more expressively animated, and scores of soldiers of all different types–be they ghastly undead or blood-thirsty dinosaurs–sound impeccable, but the improvements run well beyond the aesthetic and into the fineries of tactical and strategic play.
Where the first entry in the series kept to standard Total War form with an open-ended, Risk-inspired campaign of territory control, now there’s a directed focus–a vortex which is said to seal away legions of Chaos Demons.
Within the context of the Warhammer universe, Chaos is an all-consuming malevolent force that corrupts and distorts. Long ago, a ritual helped quarantine the forces of Chaos behind a seal so that normal life could thrive. Now, though, you, and a number of other forces across the map will be racing to take control of that seal–to whatever end.
Your target takes the form of a swirling Vortex comprised of magical energies. As you progress through a pre-made set of special quests, you’ll be able to start performing rituals that will, in time, allow you to wrench control of the Vortex from everyone else. But, since all the other races of the world are pushing towards the same end, your progress will be marked along a track with five milestones. Each time you (or anyone else) performs one of the five successive rituals, the pace of the entire campaign picks up.
This mode still balances Total War’s signature dualistic design. As you’re worrying about the stability of the Vortex, you’ll also need to manage cities and tax your people, as usual. You’ll research new tactics, weapons, and monsters, and conduct diplomatic consorts with the various races of Warhammer. And, should talks break down and two or more armies meet, you’ll be ushered into a tactical view that will task you with micromanaging your troops.
Rituals often take quite some time to complete, and, in the interim, three of your most powerful cities will be marked. Opposing factions will try to sack, capture, or raze any of them. And, if you don’t control all three by the end of the ritual timer, you’ll have to try again; and still deal with the invaders you directed to your lands.
Completing rituals marks major steps in the game, in part, because you’ll need to ensure the safety of your home front while you presumably press battle lines across the map. It complicates play with an interesting, macroscopic challenge that every player will be able to approach a little differently.
The global quest tracker/countdown has been seen before in Masters of Magic-descended strategy games, but here it’s backed with specific quests that play to the lore of each race within the Warhammer universe. Lord Mazdamundi, for example, is struggling to revive the great Slann mage-priests who once guided the feral Lizardmen on the fields of battle. And your quests will revive and recruit the long-slumbering Slann to use in your own armies. That’s quite distinct from the approach the Dark Elves or the rat-like Skaven will take to victory, for example. The former specializes in naval combat and tailor-made invasion vessels known as Black Arks, while the chittering clan rats of the Skaven are better suited to hit-and-run attacks. Their whole civilization being subterranean means they need not worry so much about foes razing their ritual sites.
As you progress through the campaign, your foes become more numerous and the evil forces of Chaos will filter onto the map in an attempt to stop you. During the late-game, after 50 hours or more of play, they will be monstrously powerful. These are tests, in a sense, as they’ll gauge how well you’ve distributed your forces and managed the challenges posed to you thus far. And they encourage you to seek help from your neighbors, as it’s difficult to pull together the might all on your own. That brings up one of Warhammer 2’s most engaging consequences of the Vortex rituals.
Progression yields huge impacts for diplomacy, encouraging you to forge alliances with those of your own faction. This make sense, in play, because each group’s broad goals are distinct within the lore. Lizardmen, for example, believe themselves to be the only ones following the will of the old gods and they are among the closest this universe gets to an unambiguous “good.” Dark Elves, by contrast, are fueled by torture and slavery and causing pain to others. Should they wrench control of the Vortex, they will, of course, use it for their own violent ends. This confluence of goals can lead to the creation of confederations, which are a fancy name for one of the most useful ways to build your empire. Like minds can, over time, be persuaded to let themselves be absorbed. This merges politics, economies, and research trees, and gives you a quick, sudden expansion of territory, often with a new legion of eager soldiers for your command.
This keeps the game from chugging in the middle and latter stages, where you’d have to take back razed cities from marauders only to carry the dead weight of a developing province for a while before seeing any return. The new system both fits thematically and boosts the importance of diplomatic and factional ties on the map. Generally you’ll get along with your own groups better, but you’ll also find yourself stepping into long-standing political alliances, many of which aren’t always the easiest to navigate. The focus, of course, is still on the battles, but this breaks up long stretches of action with some careful maneuvering from time to time.
As you pick up more subjects and commission larger and larger armies, you’ll no doubt unearth some of the other major new additions to play. Choke point maps, for instance, give you a lot more to consider in your approach to special in-game locations. Some will funnel your forces through a bridge, giving you a very narrow front on which to concentrate, others will use different types of land to give bouts more depth.
Through a thousand tiny tweaks, they’ve refined the experience into one of the most intriguing and exciting strategy games ever.
The effect on play with that alone is huge, as it means many powerful strategies aren’t always applicable. At the same time, you may find that a holdout army formed of all cavalry can repel a far stronger force in the right conditions. In time, you’ll learn where these battlefields lie on the map. That, in turn, opens up countless other broad-scale strategies designed to guide foes to the points where you’ve got the strongest defenses. You could always do this to a degree, of course, but the results are far starker here, on top of adding much-needed variety to play. Combined with the pacing changes that the race to control the Vortex brings, Total War: Warhammer II feels fresh, even though you’ll be stepping into the same universe as last time.
Eye of the Vortex, as the single-player mode is called, is among the best a campaign of this type could be. It encourages the right amount of conflict to keep you moving, paces itself well, fits plenty of in-universe lore for diehard fans, and fine tunes about every other facet of its predecessor. Plus, as the game wears on, you can rest assured there’s a definite, clean ending. Someone’s going to complete the rituals–even if you don’t. At the same time, the multi-part and complex victory conditions can often lead to some of the most nail-biting matches around, made that much better by diverse maps that encourage novel tactics with each bout. Nothing feels quite as exhilarating as holding a key province against multiple unsuccessful assaults thanks to your own cunning.
Every piece in Total War: Warhammer II is designed to force you to innovate and create new plans on the fly, testing your prowess over and over in new and exciting ways. In fact, Warhammer II surpasses its predecessor in nearly every respect. Everything except the camera–which doesn’t zoom out far enough and has been a source of frustration for several Total War games now–and multiplayer..
The complaint with its online multiplayer is simple: there aren’t enough factions for competitive play. At present, you can only use the four groups featured in the Eye of the Vortex campaign–Dark Elves, High Elves, Lizardmen, and Skaven. Given that the first game started with five for multiplayer and rapidly expanded from there, it feels like a step backwards to have so few options for now. Not being able to pit vampires against dinosaurs is a shame. And it’d be cool to see how Elven dragons fair against the mighty Dwarves, but that’ll have to wait. There are some planned free content expansions coming, including a massive campaign map that spans the lands and races covered in both games, but that’s some time off. Those fans who were put off by the monetization of content in the first will likely have the same complaints, though they can rest assured that the base game is robust on its own.
With Warhammer II, Total War doesn’t reinvent anything so much as it iterates on the ideas that made the first so special. At its heart there’s still the marriage of Total War’s big-scale strategy and Warhammer’s precise tactical play. But, through a thousand tiny tweaks, they’ve refined the experience into one of the most intriguing and exciting strategy games ever.