The Hammer of War.

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Total War : Warhammer
2016 Grand Strategy/RTT, developed by Creative Assembly

 

I have enjoyed the sixty something hours I have put into Total War : Warhammer (henceforth TWWH), since its release. However, having seen quite a lot of what it has to offer, I am left with mixed feelings about the game. On the one hand it is the most streamlined, solid and well tested Total War games ever made. It runs like a dream, even on my old jalopy. Further it has a set of extremely satisfying core gameplay loops, which makes it is easy to sink boundless time into. On the other hand, it never becomes more than the sum of its parts. For a game based on such creative and weird intellectual property, it plays things surprisingly safe. In this piece I would like to try and explain why, while I enjoy TWWH, it is also a disappointment.

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Moving away from the restraints of history, for the Total War series, means moving towards a purer form of game. That is, a game in which pieces do not represent some historical object to be simulated but stand for themselves; they have a significance predicated on the rules of the game and their role with that game. Such purity allows the developer almost complete freedom to craft different styles of play for different factions.
Getting the Warhammer licence must have been a massive boon for CA. The most important change is of course the Warhammer setting. Warhammer is the older, wiser, brother of Warhammer 40,000 (or was until it was recently put to death by its creators, Games Workshop). As a setting it is as grim and dark as its sci-fi sibling, however it carries with it decades of lore and love from thousands upon thousands of the most loyal fans. Of the grab bag of possible fantasy heroes and villains which Warhammer presents, CA have chosen six to represent (at least for now, there is apparently a ten year plan for expanding that roster), of which five are currently playable.

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The Empire, 16th century Germans, essentially similar to the holy roman empire in style and substance—albeit with wizards and steam powered tanks thrown into the mix— give a solid semi-historical basis upon which to rest the other more fantastical elements of the game. As a player the Empire gives an easy access point for those who are already familiar with the structure and style of a Total War game to enter this new, strange world.
The Dwarves also play largely how one might expect a standard Total War faction to play, although they are more similar in style to the cannon-and-shot armies of Napoleon than the other races—although entirely lacking in cavalry. They cannot take human settlements, and are mostly restricted to holds in the mountains.

This is interesting, as it means that they primarily compete for territory with another of the playable races, the Greenskins. The Greenskins represent a true move away from Total War tradition, they are a ridiculously warlike race of Orks and Goblins. They enjoy nothing more than a fight, and therefore are only ever happy when they are at war. Greenskin armies will spawn a “waagh” army if they win enough battles. On the other hand keeping public order high in a Greenskin settlement is difficult because they have few buildings which are not dedicated purely to the pursuit of more intense warfare. Greenskin rebellions happen often, which is actually quite good, because it means that back-line armies get something to fight. If left too long without a good scrap, Greenskin armies start to turn on themselves and take casualties.

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Thus the Greenskins turn some of the certainties of a Total War game on its head. The best way to play them is to be absurdly aggressive and run head-first into war with everything. The economic basis for this expansion comes from sacking and looting all the settlements that one cannot loot and occupy.

The Vampire Counts on the other hand are all about slow, creeping, expansion. They cannot take mountain holds, and therefore primarily compete with the humans for territory. The undead take attrition damage in territory that is not yet corrupted by their influence. However, once a province is under the influence of the Vampire counts, the tables turn and the living take attrition damage in the land of the dead.. Vampire Count units do not break and run (instead they crumble to dust if they lose spirit) but they need to vastly outnumber the enemy in order to be effective. It makes sense therefore to carefully pick and choose one’s foes, picking off their forces piecemeal, rather than engaging on equal terms.

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Lastly the Chaos Warriors are a rampaging horde whose armies function as both military force and city state. Their campaign is interesting in concept, and lends itself best to the structure of the new quests. One can simply pack up one’s entire empire and go in search of magical items. It is also a great challenge, and possibly the best way to go sightseeing around the Old World.

These new ways of playing a Total War game are interesting, and laser focused on making sure that there are as many great big battles as possible. It is this spirit that I love about TWWH, it’s sheer desire to show the player all the cool toys and let you go and make a mess with them. TWWH is also greatly simplified from previous Total War games, both on the tactical and strategic level. Individual activated unit abilities (so in vogue in Shogun 2 and Rome 2) are almost completely gone. Where a unit does have some special quirk, like throwing grenades or dropping bombs, they do so without player intervention. Most of these abilities have been centralized to wizards and heroes, who often have two or three different abilities that they can throw into the mix to change the course of battle (including, of course, fireballs). A great deal of the randomization that used to characterize the nuts and bolts of Total War combat has also been thrown out. Every unit has a health bar, and it ticks down in a fairly predictable way based on the weapon damage of the units attacking it.

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The strategic map has also been treated to a haircut. This is most notable in the areas of economics and diplomacy: Total War games have flirted with the idea of economic complexity since Medieval. Economics were really rather simple in the original Shogun. One had farms, in some places there were mines that made a bit more money, but in general the purpose of the economy was to provide one with a relatively stable income per province. In later games CA tried to mix up the formula a little; introducing harsh running costs for high level military buildings, having population growth create unsanitary conditions (remedied by building health buildings) and splitting settlement types between castles and villages to allow for specialization in either economic or the military buildings.
Specialization of provinces became such a staple of what a Total War game was that I never questioned its purpose in the game. Its primary purpose was, I now see, to slow down the player’s advance across the world. Few forces in any game world can stand the irrepressible player—armed as they are with the mighty quick save button.

A complex economic simulation, however, can bog down even the most quick witted general in screeds of paperwork—and it is more difficult to save-scum away. This lends a somewhat more satisfyingly historical bent to the Total War games, keeping them from being too much of a walkover. TWWH, however, throws out a good chunk of that simulation, pairing the system back towards the original Shogun economy. No longer do buildings have an upkeep cost, nor is there sanitation to worry about, or indeed food. All that matters is public order, and growth. Growth does not affect the money a settlement makes, but instead, how quickly it will gain new building slots. The system is incredibly easy to grasp, and it takes almost no time at all to see the optimal set up for a province. Generally speaking, and this cannot be a co-incidence, an optimally set up province will net enough money to fund a stack of twenty units, with a little left over in change. TWWH is not a game for beating around the bush, you came for large scale fantasy battles, and that is what you are getting.

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Indeed, what one does most in TWWH is fight battles. It is hard to avoid them, especially given how limited one’s diplomatic options are. Diplomacy is essentially rigged, different races have set levels of distrust for one another, and various factions cannot engage in diplomacy at all (although that is quite sensible, the Warriors of Chaos have come to begin the end times, not to have tea an biscuits). Moreover, the larger one’s empire grows, the more everyone else hates you. This is all quite sensible, and it is mostly familiar from Rome 2’s approach to diplomacy. However, there is now no option at all to secede territory to, or demand it from, an opponent. There are also no options to request that one faction make peace with another (although one can ask them to jump into a war in which one is involved). Essentially the diplomacy screen becomes something like a “declare war” screen. One does not even need to go fishing for alliances, when other nations get friendly enough they tend to come to the player.

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As with everything else in the game, diplomacy has been mostly tided away to make room for the main event, the aforementioned battles. These battles are important now not only because they decide the fates of nations, but also because winning them conveys many benefits. Magical items, experience for one’s heroes and hard currency for the war machine. In fact one can make absolute scads of dosh fighting enemy armies and sacking enemy settlements. So much so that in most of my campaigns money has become something of a joke by midway through—there is just so much of it sloshing around. This structure resembles more a traditional RPG than the standard Total War experience.
RPG elements continue into the core aspects of the game.

When picking a faction one picks a “legendary lord” from that faction to play as. This is typically a choice between a warrior and a wizard, representative of the faction’s fighting style. These legendary lords have quest-lines associated with them, and completing these quests grants powerful magical items. I have found that, so far, integrating these quests with the stock and trade of the business of a Total War game (war and something like diplomacy) is quite difficult. That is, I have found that it is not easy to find the money and time to run armies around to the four corners of the map in the way that the game seems to desire. Quests generally consist of sending one’s agents to a named province—perhaps to kill a character or simply to scout the area— and then sending one’s lord’s army away to another province to fight a set piece battle. These set piece battles can be hard however and involve sending an army out into what is very likely enemy territory.

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The chances of losing the army that one sends out are quite high, and the benefits of completing the quest can be somewhat nebulous. Fitting quests into the flow of the game feels unnatural and uneasy at the moment, as it has done whenever it has been tried in a strategy game. The problem is one of pacing and preparation. The point of quests seems to be to provide a challenge that is orthogonal to the direction of the standard gameplay, the completion of which feeds back into that gameplay. Thus the player must make time outside of the standard run of running a fantasy empire in order to go adventuring. The player will never, however, do these things at the correct moment; they will either go in unprepared for the challenges that await them, or they will be teched to the nines and the challenge will be no challenge at all (Fallen Enchantress provides a playbook on how not to do these things. Similarly Endless Legend tries very hard to make quests make sense within its 4x structure, one still feels like one is either doing them too early or too late—never at the right time).

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There is something about the quests, which I found not just disappointing, but slightly depressing. Bear with me on this, but I felt that they revealed a curious deadness that lies at the heart of TWWH, and echoes through the whole game.

TWWH does not really have much to say mechanically speaking. That is of course, fine, given it is not really trying to say anything. Indeed Warhammer has never really tried to say anything particularly deep or interesting about the human experience either. It is a playground of western fantasy tropes, and was created in order for people to play around within it, making their own stories. TWWH sits with the Warhammer theme uncomfortably, like a new partner at a family Christmas dinner. It makes all the right compliments, and a great deal of effort has been exerted to Warhammerfy Total War’s accumulated mechanics. However, Warhammer has always been a vessel for the creativity of those who play within its universe.

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In order for the Warhammer world to be interesting, one needs to bring a sense of imagination to the table. The fiction is both a resource and a danger. It is full of suggestions and rumors, strange units with weird traits and rulers who make no sense. If one can take this raw material in hand and beat it upon the forge—adding generous portions of one’s own creativity—one can make something that is truly deep and epic.
What feels dead about TWWH is its world. The Warhammer world of weirdness and exceptions—full of random chance and happenstance. TWWH however is a game in which all the corners have been sanded off and all the grime washed away.

It is not that there are no surprises to be had, clearly a great deal of love that has gone into the game. It simply lacks a spark, the joy of the truly random and the otherworldly. Because the economic simulation is so bare-bones there is little to make any one region stand out from the Old World map—unless one knows its importance beforehand. Because the diplomatic simulation is so simple, none of the other leaders really has any personality—they can’t, there are not enough different things for them to request or deny the player.

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Further, while the battles are very good indeed, they are also rather sanitized. I have never seen anything as cool as the large scale battles one gets in TWWH. A game, however, must be played and it must not only look good, but feel good. Battles in TWWH are too simple, they lack the possibility of strange reversals and unexpected twists.

I have lost days to TWWH, when I am playing hours fly by in what feels like minutes. When I emerge from the trance, I can hardly remember what happened. I certainly find it difficult to recall why exactly I should care. I have no real stories from TWWH, and that makes me sad. The Old World is a world of anecdotes. Half of the fun of the tabletop game is talking about old games where something weird happened, like a single empire soldier taking on a Vampire and winning. Such things will never happen in TWWH, everything is determinate. The game is relentless in its drive to keep its reality in line with one’s expectations. I am still not sure how I feel about that. I cannot help but think it may have been a better game if it was less brilliantly polished.

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The Hammer of War.

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