Total war: warhammer II
Cry havoc! And let slip the massive dinosaurs of war
Armies of rat-men and dinosaurpeople clash in epic warfare. It sure makes Rome look boring in retrospect.
“The Skaven go into batt le behind a mass ive hamst er wheel that shoots lightning”
The game we’re probably not meant to call Total Warhammer gets a sequel a mere 16 months after its initial launch, leading to concerns of an Assassin’s Creed-like release model given that the original game was still receiving DLC in August. We needn’t have worried. While Warhammer and Warhammer II are very much like two halves of the same game – and indeed join together into one enormous campaign (out now via a patch) if you’ve got them both installed – the different Warhammer races and some tweaks to the interface make this a triumphant reprise for the series. For anyone new to this, welcome. You’ve come at a good time. Total War is the quintessential PC franchise, unplayable with anything but a keyboard and mouse (although attempts have been made to get it going on iPad, with shaky levels of success), and with hundreds of high-res models on screen at once, all moving, and charging, and fighting, and generally not doing the same things as one another. It’ll certainly get the fans on your graphics card spinning, and the series is notorious for making high demands of your rig. The first Rome: Total War, from 2004, had a setting to desynchronise animations across units, and it brought many a frame rate to its knees.
Oddly, the system requirements for recent instalments seem to have relaxed a bit, with TW: WII requiring merely a recent i5 and a GPU backed by 4GB of VRAM to run at 1080p. It’ll still take up 60GB of space on your hard drive, though. The game matches a turn-based strategic map with real-time battles, triggered whenever your marching army – you can have several in play at once – encounters another bunch you’re not on good terms with, or lays siege to a city. You can run away or have the fighting automatically decided, but the real meat of the game is on the field of battle.
The matching of Warhammer, a tabletop fantasy battle game in which blocks of hand-painted troops smash into each other and exchange frantic blows, and Total War, in which similar things happen but with invisible dice, is just about a perfect one. The rich lore of Games Workshop’s Tolkienesque fictional universe leads to acres of background reading to discover just why everyone hates everyone else.
The races that come with the base game this time around include two flavours of elf, the Aztec-inspired, dinosaur-riding Lizardmen, and bad-tempered, Warpstone-huffing techno-vermin the Skaven, who are the real draw. Being able to skulk around the map as a mass of rats, spreading corruption wherever you go, before going into battle behind a massive weaponised hamster wheel that shoots lightning is worth the trade-off of some dubious courage levels that can turn the end of a lost battle into a series of
yakkety-sax chases as your forces scatter and exit stage left, pursued by an elf.
War, being based on deception, suits the Skaven, as they lurk in apparently ruined cities, travel via underground routes to avoid being spotted, and burst forth onto the battlefield from their rat holes at just the right moment and in the right place to take out, say, some pirates’ heavy-duty cannons.
Wandering armies are a part of the game guaranteed to annoy. In one of our campaigns, a band of corsairs landed and turned out to be enormously powerful, harrying our Skaven warband, which was encamped and trying to build its strength before capturing the Warpstone resources in a nearby cave. Despite retreating twice, the pirates wouldn’t give up, and we ended up fighting and losing to them badly.
The loss of an army and its associated hero character – who can be upgraded and given extra equipment – isn’t the end of the game, however, as you can launch a new raid from a nearby friendly city. The map this time around concentrates on the left-hand side of the Warhammer world map, playing out on the continents roughly analogous to the Americas, plus the curving Atlantis-alike that is the High Elves’ home of Ulthuan. To keep focus in what could be a sprawling, freeform world, you’re all involved in a race to take control of the Great Vortex on Ulthuan before any other faction.
This inevitably means smashing your way there, as even with a slightly underwhelming diplomacy system that allows for alliances and non-aggression pacts, no faction is going to give you a free run at the prize. Add to this the need to complete five rituals to control the vortex, which means protecting your ritual sites for ten turns against everything the game can throw at you (there’s no such thing as a quiet ritual, apparently) and the alternative victory condition of simply wiping out every other faction starts to look attractive. Pile on top of this the need for the Skaven to constantly move about thanks to their insatiable need for food, and the rebellions that can start if you’ve got too many slaves in your Dark Elf economy, and the sheer complexity of the game’s systems starts to show itself very near the lushly textured surface.
Lizards and wizards
The playable races this time around are a lot more subtly drawn. Whereas in the previous title they were each defined by one dominant characteristic, here they’re more sophisticated. While the Skaven are fun, the Dark Elves offer an initially easier ride with their massive support ships and additional discipline, and the High Elves are skilled in diplomacy and can influence others, offering a more strategic game with fewer hasty battles. All races have access to rites – not rituals – that confer global bonuses on your troops in return for a sacrifice, be that of slaves, or food, or whatever your faction holds dearest.
Total War may have abandoned history for fantasy, but levitating lizards and Skaven engineering insanity have brought so much fun to a previously po-faced series it’s impossible to begrudge the jump. Whether you’re a Warhammer veteran or a newcomer, this is the best the series has ever been. It’s a game of huge tactical depth which prompts strategic thinking under huge pressure thanks to the need to rush toward victory rather than settle down and build an empire, and the fact it looks great too – all glinting metal armour, verdant jungle, and pseudo-Incan ruins – is simply the glossy top coat on a well-painted model.
Hover your pointer over a unit on the battlefield and you’ll get a readout of what it’s doing and how it’s feeling.
Lizardman Lords literally levitate, giving them a smooth movement around the map.
Turns are ended by clicking a button, but the game will nag you if it thinks there are things you haven’t done.