Prior to the release of Total War Warhammer, which wasn’t all that long ago, there was an overall sense of mystery throughout the Total War fanbase. Another word one might use - concern. Mostly because it was the first time in the series’ long history that, err, history would take a backseat to fantasy. A world filled with greenskins, elves, dwarves, vampires, and giant beasts of war. But even though there might have been a wait and see approach by some, or a ‘hey, this looks cool let’s hope it works out’ mentality among others, the end result was perhaps Total War’s finest hour.
With Total War Warhammer becoming one of the most impressive strategy releases this decade.
And really, what else should we have expected? Developer Creative Assembly has time and again shown that it can recreate and immerse players in history, epic large-scale battles, and instil a sense of conquest unlike any other. So why not apply that skill to the rich fantasy world of Warhammer.
Total War Warhammer II is the second game in a planned trilogy of Total War Warhammers, whose ultimate ambition is to fully recreate the entire Warhammer universe across three titles. Total War Warhammer II introduces the New World, a large and incredibly varied mix of islands and continents, forests and volcanic ranges. All circling the mysterious and impressive Great Vortex. A High Elf creation used to protect the surrounding lands from the forces of Chaos. Yeah, those guys.
Whereas the campaign in the first game dealt with the inevitable, a large Chaos threat that would appear at the same time no matter what race you chose to play as, it was an existential threat to everyone. And often led to the cool, but ultimately repetitive, conclusion of enemies becoming allies in the great battle against evil. This time we find a single goal for each faction - control the Great Vortex. Through conquest, diplomacy, and ritual. And in a stroke of genius, cap it all off with a huge end-times style battle for the ages.
At first the simple victory condition might feel a little vague, and confusing. But by levelling the playfield Total War Warhammer II’s campaign is ultimately freeing. And yes, better than the first.
There’s a level of confidence here that was only hinted at in the original.
Creative’s Assembly’s dedication to small somewhat insignificant detail, as seen in the first game, takes on new meaning in Part II. Orks and humans, sure. That’s fantasy bread and butter. This time you get Lizardmen that also ride, for lack of a better term, dinosaurs. Giant sentient rat creatures known as the Skaven. High Elves that speak in Tolkien-style fantasy jargon and are all about purity. And Dark Elves that wear incredibly detailed gold armour whilst dabbling in the dark arts. Ditching the greenskins and humans, and delving deeper into Warhammer lore adds so much more than simply retreating the same ground.
This is more than just a licensed product, this is the sort of adaptation that will bring in new fans and get them invested in the lore of a world where Vampires and Orks co-exist.
And so Total War Warhammer II is less of a sequel than it is the next important chapter in a much larger story. Like Blizzard’s StarCraft II saga, where a grand space opera and faction control changed and evolved over three releases. Of course, this is different. Total War Warhammer II doesn’t continue the story from the first outing. Not directly anyway.
Limiting the number of playable factions to four lives up to that adage ‘less is more’. The differentiation between the factions extends beyond physical appearances. How they conduct diplomacy, what constitutes a successful settlement, and how they go about simply existing in the world varies wildly from race to race. Let’s say you played through an entire Grand Campaign as the Skaven whilst someone else experienced the pristine life and fancy bejewelled trinket trading of the High Elves. The stories and highlights you could share with each other could just as well apply to two very different games.
This was also true of the first Total War Warhammer, where the replay-ability factor was incredibly high because of the diversity. One of the campaign battles for the High Elves in Total War Warhammer II involves taking your Lord to the base of one of those fantasy-world, perpetually erupting volcanoes. The perfect backdrop for a huge battle against a menacing Dark Elf Lord and his army. On the other side of the lava filled backdrop lies a proud elven city, full of white buildings and impressive spires. And with ridges and hills on each side, there is seemingly no escape. There’s no choice but to fight.
Overwhelmed, the battle quickly devolves into an intense sprawl of skirmishes full of spearmen and axe men, flying eagles, and yes - dragons. And just when the battle could turn or shift in either direction comes hope. Upon the ridge to your left, reinforcements. Cavalry. A hundred proud elven warriors in shiny armour ready to join the fray. And so, they begin to move down the hill, speeding toward the enemy in an eleventh hour save the day fist-in-the-air equestrian charge. Reminiscent of the climactic scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Where Gandalf and the Riders of Rohan turn the tide at the Battle for Helms Deep.
Total War Warhammer II battles are full of moments like this that are in a word, epic.
And although that might be a more scripted example, in that it’s a pre-defined battle separate to the unpredictable nature of the campaign, it’s hardly alone.
Let’s say that you’re in the middle of a Grand Campaign as the High Elves. And by you, that of course is a reference to me. Okay, so one of your High Elf partners has been under siege by Chaos armies for the better part of a couple of dozen or so turns. Even though you’ve got a defensive alliance with them you’re more interested in capturing one of the port cities closer to the Great Vortex than lending a helping hand. And so, you ignore the threat. Even though it’s close enough that some of your outlying settlements are feeling the effects of corruption.
Flashback to several turns prior, the Chaos Lord leading the charge opens diplomatic channels with you as they’re aware of your alliance. They demand that you pay them a somewhat inconsequential sum of 300 gold and sign a peace treaty. To hell with that you say. Betray my High Elf brethren for some measly gold? No way! Even though this is the same High Elf ally that you’ve ignored whilst they’ve been systematically attacked on all sides.
And so, your High Elf friends who are somehow still happy enough to call you an ally end up retreating to an island settlement. What happens next is both unexpected, yet ultimately deserved. Four separate Chaos armies make their way into your lands, no doubt looking to destroy or capture one of your smaller towns. And the first Chaos army just sits there, waiting for the others to catch up. In a few turns, it’s an overwhelmingly intimidating force.
And so, you march your two biggest armies to meet them head on – in a battle that you narrowly win, leaving behind close to a thousand corpses. During the peak of the epic confrontation, all four Chaos armies join forces and attack your army head on. It’s at this point that you decide to reveal your back-up forces hiding among the trees, and have them charge the enemy from the rear. With this last-ditch effort, you’re able to encircle the Chaos troops causing them to break rank and, well, fall apart.
And it all looks and sounds wonderful, with art and animation that builds on the foundation of the first title. If you’ve got the hardware to match the size and scope.
Incremental improvements are everywhere else too, with interactivity and adding more things to do in the Campaign Map being the goal. New types of battle maps can also be found, where choke-points can turn even the largest and most intimidating force into cannon fodder.
But with a foundation as solid as the first Total War Warhammer, these aren’t the key reasons to get excited for this second entry. Ultimately, it once again comes down to the experience of playing your first campaign. The excitement, strategy, conflict, uncertainty, and fantasy spectacle. The first dragon you take into battle. Crossing a vast body of water to formally introduce yourself to the strange Lizardmen that live in equally strange forests. Total War Warhammer II is a milestone release, for the simple reason that the campaign is both one of the most intricately detailed and open we’ve seen so far in a Total War game. Proving that a sequel can take a very different perspective, showcase a new part of the world, and be all the better for it.