No matter how good a Total War game is, the follow-up campaign is always better. Warhammer 2's is no exception.
It's taken nearly two decades, but they've finally nailed it. Warhammer 2 is Total War perfected.
Yeah, I know I'm supposed to be wary of deploying the P word in reviews, at least not before watering it down with some safe, lazy adverb, but 'flawless' would be taking it a bit too far and it's too early in the game's life to be talking about a 'classic' . Besides, as I hone these words, it's past 3am and all the nuanced superlatives are getting their beauty sleep.
Total War evolved? Well, yes. But, no. Oh god, no.
Here's the thing: I can't think of any aspect of Total War: Warhammer 2 that I didn't like or that doesn't work seamlessly for the good of the whole one-strategy-game-to-rule-them-all thing that Creative Assembly has been striving towards like feverish alchemists these past 20 years. Little things annoy, of course, but they're persistent irritants better leveled at the series rather than any single game: for example, the way dissenting forces always seem to go after the player and not any instigating invader. Then there's CA's butchery when it comes to cutting out essential races and then having the gall to charge for blood and offal. Less prevalent but still present are the indecisive movements of AI generals. In other words, the usual stuff.
More specific to the Warhammer line, you could argue against the noticeable lack of dynastic intrigue that was so integral to the Medieval and Rome games, but then we have to remind ourselves that this is the Warhammer world we're dealing with here; Games Workshop's immoderate Middle-earth cover version - an absurdist fantasy mirror into our shared contemporary dystopia rather than some idealised pre-totalitarian neverland. There are spies, assassins, wizards and saboteurs to hustle around the map as solo Heroes or under a Lord's banner, but here, again, the overwrought stats and nested backroom menus are in the service of character and unit upgrades, working to make each new battle that little bit more compelling than the last.
If there's one weakness that binds all Total Wars together - old and new, historical and fantasy, the great and the merely good - it's the often wearying end game; where we'd reach a point in a campaign where careless losses could quickly be replaced, making the last thrust towards a final victory a one-sided, anticlimactic slog. Sadly CA's attempts to keep the tension up, by spamming the player with army stacks, imposing division or invoking breakaway territories, often felt like some kind of punishment, as if the game logic had developed a sudden powerful disdain for humans and gone rogue.
While the first Warhammer didn't exactly solve the problem, with its increasingly frequent and more deadly Chaos incursions, the end game mechanic not only suited the setting and sated the lore, there was a noticeable ratcheting of tension that permeated the game from the start. As with Attila's hordes, you knew Chaos was coming and it paid to plan accordingly.
Warhammer 2's Great Vortex does much the same thing, only better. Swirling in the centre of one of the game's four continents, it's effectively a heat sink that channels undesirable magic away from the world. For millennia it's done its job well enough, but it needs servicing and, depending on which of the races you choose to command, your aim is to pick out the fluff, so to speak, and get it working at peak efficiency again, or bind its power towards your own nefarious ends. Either way you need to hoard a race-specific resource and invoke a series of remote rituals, during which time the Vortex temporarily weakens and the forces of Chaos can break through and attack your sites of incantation.
While the Vortex ritual mechanic isn't fundamentally new - it works a bit like Civil Unrest, but with Chaos armies rather than rebels - it requires a resource that must be sought out, requires periodic activation and invites crippling acts of sabotage, both from Chaos and the other main races. It all makes it feel like you're in the midst of an escalating arms race. The important thing is that not only does it complement Total War's traditional mode of conquest, it works to keep up the heat when interest in outright domination starts to cool. One strategy that it allows that previous Total Wars didn't is that, if you're the turtling type, you can afford to be more selective in your marauding, using allies as a bulwark while raiding for ritual resources. Your coffers might not be as deep, but you might have enough to keep the spawning forces of Chaos at bay before the final showdown.
While faction selection remains thin, with eight lords again divided equally across the game's four core races, there's no shortage of distinction in terms of the game's unit roster, with regimented High Elves and their glass cannon Dark cousins joined in battle by the enigmatic Lizardmen and chittering hordes of demon-eyed Skaven.
Warhammer 2's roster is less iconic than the first game's fantasy stalwarts, but as someone who's harboured a lifelong indifference towards all the elvish races, was uninterested in the meandering affairs of Lizard-kind and only mildly intrigued by the ways of the Vermintide, I quickly came to appreciate the anomalous versatility of all Warhammer 2's clans. The armies of the undead will always be my favourite (they were my introduction to Warhammer as a teenager, after all), but the Lustrian's combination of lumbering dino-steeds and hard-hitting skirmishers requires a keen eye for tactics and timing. Likewise a plundering Skaven commander is both hindered and helped by having hordes of comedy-strength troops and almost peerless artillery units at the rear.
As expected though, it's the flying beasts, monsters and machines that entice and entertain. The Skaven Hell Pit Abomination is a fatberg of verminous body parts - quite the beauty, all told. The Feral Carnasaur, meanwhile, is a thunderous pair of reptilian thighs that, with a sweep of its leathery tail, can melonball any frontline unit ranged against it. The elven dragons are the least impressive; effective, yes, but a bit on the dinky side, but that's probably down to unrealistic expectations after recently blitzing through the latest season of HBO's fantasy reboot of Keep it in the Family.
With four new races trying to harness the Great Vortex churning away at the centre of a diverse new map, there's more than enough justification for Warhammer 2's existence, but thankfully there's more to the sequel than a ride west and a shift change in personnel. Races now have army abilities than can be unlocked, allowing, in the case of Slann and Skaven commanders, the option to spawn cheap units behind enemy lines. There are Rogue Armies flitting about the campaign map about made up of multiple races, reminiscent of some fantasy battle adaption I recall from an ancient issue of White Dwarf. My favourite iteration - more of a fix really - is that instead of the first game's somewhat arbitrary limitations on the territories you could conquer, you can now let your forces loose anywhere, with the caveat being that each race has a climate it is most suited to, so that the jungle-dwelling Lizardmen, for example, will find it harder to tame the frozen north than the swamps of the south.
And there's still more to come. Not so much the inevitable DLC, which is always divisive and rather inconsistent (although if, as expected, the armies of the Tomb Kings are on their way, I'll be the first to welcome them), but a promised combined campaign mode, dubbed Mortal Empires, across which owners of both Total Warhammers can assert world domination with their installed race of choice. It could be awful, of course, made interminable by the AI groaning at having to manage so many factions, but my point is that Warhammer 2 is enhanced by Warhammer 1 and vice versa, and will be emboldened still by the final game in the trilogy.
So, yeah, Warhammer 2 may be Total War evolved to near perfection, but for now the epic PC translation of Warhammer Fantasy Battle is incomplete. Like the halflings from a parallel universe being lead away from Osgiliath towards Mordor, much about the future is uncertain and the final Warhammer episode could just as easily be a fitting climax as a painfully over-extended epilogue. Maybe it doesn't really matter, because right here, right now - and, yes, even without upgrade or add-on - Total War has never looked or played better.