Genre games are in these days. Paradox and Creative Assembly, two studios best-known for their historical strategy sims, are working on sci-fi and fantasy sims respective - bold departures from their usual fare.
While I'm more inclined to like sci-fi than fantasy, I'll admit that I'm intrigued by what Total War: Warhammer brings to the table. I'm personally a fan of the Warhammer license, and it's nice to see it in in the hands of a recognizable developer. It's also a good opportunity for the Total War series to break out a bit and explore some new territory. Having received a new game pretty much every year since 2012, the formula has gotten a tiny bit stale of late.
Here are a few things that I noted during Creative Assembly's most recent press tour.
Creative Assembly's engine is built for games like this
As I'll explain in a bit, Total War: Warhammer has some elements in common with the rest of the series, but in other ways it's very different. Creative Assembly can thank a modular and extremely flexible engine for making it comparatively easy to re-create what is effectively a tabletop game.
"We unplug certain bits of code when we want to change the particle system or something like that. We keep a lot of the systems code, certain bits we turn off because we don't need them for this particular game," Creative Assembly brand manager Al Bickham told me. "Nothing gets thrown away, our codebase is pretty huge. But this, we've had to develop quite a lot of new systems or heavily modify old systems to bring out that flavor between the different factions."
With multiple projects in the works, including Halo Wars 2, Creative Assembly has also grown quite a bit, having now reached around 450 people. This foundation makes it a bit easier to set aside fears that Creative Assembly is being stretched too thin in trying to turn Total War into what amounts to an annual franchise.
The greenskins are their customarily weird and fun selves
Creative Assembly's most recent tour is the first instance in which they've really showed off the campaign engine. To this point, they've mostly focused on the game's battle system, which is the element of Total War that has traditionally been promoted the most heavily. But in this case, I'm actually more interested in the campaign than I am the tactics engine.
A lot of that is to do with Creative Assembly's portrayal of Warhammer's signature races - factions that are bound to be quite a bit different from the ancient empires that have dominated past Total War games. The greenskins are their customarily goofy selves, dispensing with the usual high fantasy dialogue for an accent that wouldn't be out of place at the average West Ham match. They like to rampage and break things, and that is reflected in their mechanics, which is very much focused on combat.
Looking beyond the expected battle upgrades, one of the more interesting racial mechanics is the greenskin fightiness rating. The more a greenskin fights, the more its fightiness goes up, which brings benefits. If the greenskin isn't fighting enough, though, problems can erupt. Individual units may begin attacking one another and generally quarreling among themselves. There are ways to combat that, though, like building a raiding camp so that they can go and loot and pillage the surrounding landscape. This will bring in money, build up a unit's fightiness rating, and allow them to replenish their health. More importantly, they can recruit any available unit to the raiding camp, which is expensive but enables individual greenskin armies to become dangerous and highly mobile units capable of operating autonomously in enemy territory.
Once a greenskin unit's fightiness has reached a certain level, a waagh begins. This state activates a secondary AI-controlled war boss that shadows a parent army around the map as long as its fightiness rating is high enough. All of the races have an interesting mechanic in this vein, though it doesn't always manifest in quite the same way. The dwarfs, for example, are focused on vengeance, so their campaign objectives are built around avenging various slights from the Book of Vengeance, which is scrupulously updated through history.
Warhammer's races have long had a very clear identity and appeal, so it's no surprise that Creative Assembly is taking this route with Total War: Warhammer. But there's a side benefit: Freed from the shackles of trying to be historically accurate, Creative Assembly have more freedom to portray Warhammer's individual factions in fun and interesting ways. Greenskin fans should be pleased.
The heroes and quest chains add a bit of roleplaying flavor
Aside from the unique faction mechanics, another thing that makes Total War: Warhammer interesting is its roleplaying elements - a feature that feels in keeping with Warhammer's fantasy trappings.
In Total War: Warhammer, every race gets its own legendary lord. Greenskin players, for instance, will likely recognize Azhag the Slaughterer - an Orcish Warlord known for his uncommon intelligence. He wears the Crown of Sorcery, which in the word of the Warhammer wiki "would constantly whisper into the primitive mind of the Orc Warlord, telling him of a grand conquest that lies to the south, of a great plan that needed to be fufilled."
As you might expect, Azhag the Slaughterer is capable of equipping the Crown of Sorcery as a piece of epic loot, which in turn gives him special powers. He can also embark on special quest chains culminating in a final battle specifically crafted by Creative Assembly, giving it an epic flair appropriate for the setting. Your reward for completing Azhag's quest chain is Azhag's 'ard Armour, which makes him that much harder to bring down.
I'll admit, this feature makes the RPG nerd in me pretty happy. I've used the word "flavor" a lot to this point, but it strikes me that Total War: Warhammer has the chance to be the most entertaining of Creative Assembly's settings to this point. Historical settings are great, but who doesn't want to go on an epic quest or two?
Ultimately, it has more in common with the tabletop game than Total War
At the beginning and end of their session, Bickham made a point of scanning over the battlefield to show off castles, dragons, units, and other familiar elements of Total War: Warhammer. The point, I think, was to drive home the feeling that they were creating an epic fantasy game. For the most part, it worked.
I'll admit that I haven't played Warhammer Fantasy in a very long time, but I was forcibly reminded of the original tabletop game with its huge maps and meticulously hand-painted units. If Total War: Warhammer is meant to evoke that feeling, then it succeeds.
Another thing that I was struck by was how little interest I had in the big battles that otherwise define Total War. Total War: Warhammer has a perfectly decent sim engine reminiscent of Civilization, and I'm actually more interested in the campaign this time around. This is about as close as I'm going to get to having a fully-featured videogame version of the tabletop game in the modern era.
So let me offer a tip of the cap to Creative Assembly. For the first time in ages, Total War: Warhammer has me interested in revisiting the series, which I didn't think was possible after the disappointing Rome 2. What might have come off as an otherwise cynical move seems to have paid nicely. Now if they could just hurry up and make a game based on Warhammer 40K, I'd be much obliged.