This was always supposed to be the perfect mix, wasn't it? The sheer unmatched scale of Total War meeting the extraordinary races of Warhammer Fantasy; I think I've been daydreaming about this game for more than a decade now. And the demo looked incredible: a Greenskin horde crashing violently into the organised lines of the Empire at Black Fire Pass. Being able to sit back and watch it all play out is captivating. However, that's a pretty important clarification to make. We watched the battle, but we didn't play it.
The demo was entirely scripted (I'm sure of this, as we saw it twice), with the developer zipping the camera around the battlefield, pointing out all of the interesting things that we should be looking at. We never intervened, aside from one wonderful exception: the Doom Diver Catapult. This is a Greenskin siege unit that flings suicidal goblins towards their enemy with a surprising amount of accuracy, as the goblins themselves guide their trajectory. In both demos the developer manually controlled one of these goblins as they flew towards their demise, with different results. It looks like a really fun unit to play around with, but importantly showed that this was all in-engine.
Now I feel like it's important to mention all of this before we get started, as the entire experience reminded me of watching that stunning Carthage demo for Total War: Rome 2 - a demo which would unfortunately prove misleading.
Alright then! With the appropriate level of skepticism now attached to this preview, let's delve into the battle itself. Those of you more familiar with Total War than Warhammer may be picturing an encounter you've already played before: a barbarian force charging wildly into your carefully managed Roman army. There were certainly echoes of this as the Greenskins rushed forwards and the Empire chose to hold their line, but the very moment they clashed, it became clear that this is a different kind of Total War game.
First of all, we're dealing with a much greater variety of units than Total War has ever seen before. That tested rock-paper-scissors (infantry-ranged-cavalry) approach is probably going to need to see a few adjustments. Just look at the Greenskin infantry and you'll find a new variety of units. A cavalry charge against a band of goblins works, for sure, but how about trolls? Trolls are massive, hard as nails, and they vomit acid all over the place when they get a bit upset. Total War hasn't prepared us to deal with acid vomit. Nor has it taught us how to combat giant Arachnarok spiders or indeed, actual giants. It's superb to watch, but managing that many distinctive units in real-time sure feels intimidating.
Oh, and magic! Magic is absolutely huge. Early on in the fight we saw a goblin shaman devastate an entire unit of Empire pistoliers (light cavalry armed with dual long pistols) and forced them from field. Later on, his Orc counterpart would call down the 'Foot of Gork' to destroy a very heavily armoured steam tank in a single stomp. Total War has seen generals with active abilities before now, but it's never seen anything close to this.
"You're not going to be able to cast those big spells over and over again," Ian Roxburgh, the project lead, assured me. "When you go into a battle, there will be a limited amount of spells you'll be able to draw upon and that will vary each time. There's a semi-random element, but it's also linked to the campaign game. The further north you go, and nearer to the Chaos Wastes you are, the higher amounts of magic you'll receive, but we don't want you approaching every fight with a rotation of spells that you know you can use."
As well as the magic casters, your other heroes are going to play a very different role within the battles themselves. No longer can you afford to have your general skirting around the edges of combat, providing boosts to morale and staying nice and safe, Total War: Warhammer encourages your heroes to get stuck in. The battle for Black Fire Pass had named characters like Grimgor Ironhide in the middle of it all, striking down multiple enemies with each swing of his axe, whilst The Empire's Karl Franz dominated the air astride his griffon. They seem anything but fragile, which was a huge relief. If I have the Emperor himself leading my force, I want to use him.
Speaking of Mr Franz, the battle we watched was a culmination of something else that will feel quite new to the Total War series: a quest chain. "It's a way of bringing narrative into what is a sandbox game," explains writer, Andy Hall. "The Warhammer IP contains such rich stories and we want to delve into that. So if you're playing as Karl Franz, there will be a quest chain that eventually rewards you with the warhammer Ghal Maraz. The idea being that after a victory at Black Fire Pass he will feel worthy to pick up the warhammer and hopefully lead his nation onwards."
"These quest battles can be ignored if you like," continues Roxburgh, "but they do allow you to unlock new magic items or mounts. It's just a nice way of bringing in these character stories, without really breaking the sandbox dynamic of Total War."
It will be interesting to see how this is actually handled on the campaign map, as I can't imagine myself wanting to pass up on wielding a legendary warhammer, but likewise, I don't like the idea of having my grand campaign feel pre-determined. We're yet to see anything from that side of Total War: Warhammer, although I was glad to hear that the early game won't see you commanding the huge forces we witnessed in that demo. In fact, it sounds like each race will begin somewhat divided and the early game will be largely centred around trying to unite your people before looking elsewhere on the map.
"You will start small." says Roxburgh. "Although the Greenskins, for example, are a single race, there are many factions or tribes within that that you'll need to beat up or assimilate into your own. We don't feel that you should start a Total War game with too much to manage. We want you to build that up yourself and know how everything came about."
From what I've seen so far, Total War: Warhammer could be absolutely outstanding. When you play the tabletop version, this is what we all imagine it looks like and that's an amazing thing to capture. Total War and Warhammer can work, this demo has shown me that. I just hope it's a fair representation of the final game.
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