Saturday, August 13, 2016

Total War: Warhammer. The tabletop comes to life!

Or, should that be Total War: Waarrrrghammer?

If there was ever a game that would attract tabletop wargamers, surely it would be the Creative Assembly's long time bestselling Total War series:

  • Control thousands of troops at a time, organized by units and blocks
  • Fight battles in "real time" (but with the option to pause to give commands while paused at the easier levels)
  • Have your general at the head of your troops, and control them through his leadership
  • Use terrain to your advantage (or your enemy's disadvantage!)
  • Zoom down to troop level and into the thick of the fighting.
  • Carefully plan your troop placement before the battle begins.
  • Use tactics and maneuver to swing the course of a battle by attacking your enemy in the rear.

...and all that is just when you fight a battle - winning a war will take strategy, diplomacy and planning, all played out on a beautifully realized world map.

Sounds good right?
...and overall it HAS been good, even when just considering all the time-periods and cultures that have been covered in the series to date (Rome, Barbarians, British Empire, Japan etc. ) The combination of strategy and battlefield tactics has deservedly been a winning combination, even when some games have launched in a less than stellar condition.

The big news here though is that with the release of Total War: Warhammer, you can now wage war using many some of your favorite fantasy races and armies from Warhammer Fantasy Battles. What is it like? I've been playing the game for 260 hours (according to Steam) and I have now finished two campaigns Empire and Dwarf, covering both normal and hard settings, so feel ready to comment.

The Old World comes (back) to life

If you played and enjoyed Warhammer Fantasy Battles (8th edition or previous - the game is set before the End Times) there is a lot to like here. Battle to take control of the Old World in race-specific campaigns for The Empire, Dwarves, Vampire Counts or Greenskins (and as of July 28th, the Beastmen)...

...and what a world it is! The world map looks amazing. You'll see the winds of magic blow across the land, armies and generals advance, and enemy and friendly agents stalk across the map infiltrating, assassinating, impeding and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

Take a few moments to zoom down to ground level and scroll slowly across the swamps, mountains, towns and forests that make up this world. Even when you see how detailed it is, you'll still come across small details that will bring an involuntary smile came to your face. A broad grin split my face when a sea monster (or whale?) suddenly surfaced near one of my fleets for just a second before diving out of view.

This detail isn't all just for show however. You'll need to become intimately familiar with the provinces and regions that make up this world and the information shown as you hover over the terrain. The type of terrain will affect the battlegrounds you play on and the buffs and debuffs that will affect your forces (e.g. you'll suffer attrition when moving through regions owned by enemy forces.) Simply hover anywhere to get an idea of the kind of land it is, who owns it, and how it might impede you on the battlefield or affect your forces on the march. 

The fun here of course isn't just the world map (as nice as it is) but that each race has specific units, campaign objectives and methods of waging war that will feel quite familiar to any fan of the tabletop game. As the Empire player, regardless of whether you play as the Emperor Karl Franz or arch-mage Balthazar Gelt it is quite a challenge to fend off the forces of darkness while trying to unify your fledgling empire. As the Empire, you have access to a wide spread of methods of waging war, from Swordsmen to massed cavalry, gunpowder weapons and Steam tanks. Because of this you'll need to make careful decisions about which parts of the tech tree to invest in as you develop your capital. Will you focus on cavalry or artillery? What about heavy infantry (Greatswords!) 

Quite apart from these questions, you also have to make decisions about how to "Level up" your generals and characters as they acquire new skills. Will you sink skill points into boosting their leadership capabilities, or make them into deadly melee killers capable of stopping enemy characters, (or whole enemy units!) in their tracks (or weakened versions of both?) In TW:W one difference from other games is that you want your generals to get stuck in to the fray. On the field of battle, they have an aura of command that influences your army, and as you win and fight battles you can arm them with the spoils of their victories in the form of magic armour and weapons, most of which influence either their stats or buff/ debuff units around them (at a time of your choosing, sometimes literally turning the tide of a battle.)

We could leave the Old World at just the terrain, but story missions also play an important part of the game for each general. The IP for Warhammer has always provided great stories to round out the central characters of the Old World, so it is nice to see key moments recreated here. As your general progresses, they will unlock missions on the map from key moments in Old World history. These will lead you to special battles. Each of these has an animation and opening speech. Winning them usually unlocks a magical weapon or armour important to your general or his race. I enjoyed these as they added a nice bit of change to what can otherwise become a series of monotonous battles, and they were a little bit more challenging than some of the run-of-the-mill battles on the main map.

Close up Carnage!

So what about the battles themselves? 
If you have already played a Total War game then you know what to expect. The actual mechanics haven't changed much - left click to select a unit, right click to give them a destination, and drag to change the shape of their formation. Units are easily selected from their images or using ctrl and click to drag around them. You'll need to master grouping units and other shortcuts for best effect, as you will soon find yourself with 20 or more units to manage on the field.
Each of these lines is a separate group in my army, allowing for fine control

Vampire counts... wolves and Chaos Warhounds are a constant threat!

A vampire counts army assaults a Dwarf-held hilltop.

What HAS changed is the variety and unit types. If you play as the Empire you'll spend a lot of time with swordsmen (and later Greatswords), spearmen, cavalry and missile units (crossbowmen, handgunners etc.) but each army has a good variety to choose from, depending on your race. Some only become attainable with goodly amounts of gold or investment in high-level buildings, but it is nice to see such a nice variety. Each walks, fights (and dies) in a different way.
Chaos giants lumber across the field. Very well animated!

Vampire Counts Zombies - the very definition of cannon fodder.

Dwarf Firedrakes add a little heat to the proceedings.
They don't just walk though... a first for a Total War game, you will get access to flying units like giant bats (Vampire Counts), Pegasus Knights (Bretonnia, available in multiplayer I think) Gyrocopters (Dwarves) and Griffons. Once you have upgraded Karl Franz to give him access to Deathclaw the Griffon, you may just spend a minute or two in cinematic mode. The animation on the flying units is generally excellent. Even as they decimated my gun line I marveled at how units of Pegasus Knights would circle, swoop down and savage my troops.

Flying units also add a new tactical challenge. Even with just a single unit that flies, you will be able to harass your enemy's backfield with ease, opening up new opportunities for disrupting his plans by attacking his warmachines or slowing an advancing unit. This is good as it forces you to take new approaches to managing your army on the field. As Dwarves, a gunline approach that would decimate an infantry based enemy may struggle to deal with "Von Carstein's Flying Circus" (as I like to call it) of multiple flying monsters and heavy cavalry. Not only will they be on you in moments but they will make a bee line into the middle of any defensive formation, distracting your gunners from more threatening unit.

Dwarf gyrocopters...Tally ho!

Seeing all of these units and giving them orders on the screen in undeniably enjoyable if you like tabletop wargames. Early on there is a huge tension about key battles, with regular nail-biting moments as you monitor the morale of your troops - will that one unit of halberdiers hold off that Chaos chariot long enough for you to reinforce the line from your reserves? Part of the enjoyment for me is that this mirrors the tabletop experience.

What takes this game beyond that experience is that the animations, sound effects and clash of units is done very well, with the graphics on display here being leagues above most of the other Total War series. Zooming in to the individual soldier level is fantastic, even on medium graphics settings. Animation, colouring and unit movement is well worth getting to ground level to experience. Having a helicopter view just doesn't cut it when you can zoom in and watch your general wade into the the foe!

A Dwarf flame cannon let's fly.

Mirroring checking line of sight on the tabletop, I've often found it useful (actually essential) to spend time at ground level checking the lay of the land before positioning my troops. In battle, the Del/ Ins key fixes your view on a particular unit, from which you can zoom in and out more freely, and position your camera just right to enjoy them slamming into the enemy, or bracing themselves to receive a charge. Depending on how you feel about blood in video games, the DLC Blood for the Blood God expansion either adds or detracts from this experience...(Should I feel guilty for particularly enjoying closing in to watch my cavalry cut down fleeing enemy units??) As we are on the topic of graphics, I should note that unlike quite a few players, for the most part my experience has been smooth. I'm getting very playable framerates on the campaign map and battles by keeping settings at Medium, which still has a good level of detail for me. (I'm using an Intel Core i7 2700K, x2 Nvidia GTX 770's in SLi, 16 GB of RAM on a 1920 x 1080 screen)

Artillery can really make a mess of the enemy (Blood for the Blood God DLC)

If it was only the graphics that were good though, battles would soon be disappointing, but I've found there to be two key factors that help to avoid this.

Firstly, the races that I fight against DO feel different. Chaos are fast and difficult to pin down, Bretonnian elite cavalry is devastating on the charge but vulnerable to handguns (with rank and file peasant archers and infantry making up much or their armies). Orcs and Goblins are a mix of fast cav and infantry.

Secondly, your generals play an essential role in the battle itself. You'll WANT them in the thick of things and this adds another layer of excitement and tactics to the fray. Their combat powers go way beyond the cannon fodder that makes up most of the units you field, so where should you deploy them, and against whom? At times I've thrown them against whole enemy units to slow them down, sent them charging into the rear of an enemy unit engaged with my own rank and file or, especially when they are airborne (yes you can tool them up with a Pegasus or Griffon) used them to engage enemy flyers that would otherwise attack my own backline of archers and handgunners (I'm looking at you Fell Bats and Pegasus Knights....)

Ungrim leading his army and ready to get stuck in.
Von Carstein

Even in situations where your own general might be massively outgunned by a higher level enemy leader, they still have a very important role to play because their presence affects the leadership of your own troops (as shown by a blue circle of influence around your general). As well as thinking carefully when to use any powers you've given them, they can also still be used in more mundane ways (e.g. to slow down an enemy general or character in hand to hand combat, or distract AI forces by luring some enemy units into chasing them away from the main battle - but watch out, because you are losing the benefit of their leadership if you do!)

Magical Mayhem

As well as flying units, another major addition is magic. It simply wouldn't be the Old World without wizards, so it was a relief to find that for the most part magic is integrated very well. It IS powerful, but it doesn't dominate the game due to two useful mechanics. 
The "Winds of Magic" blow freely across the map, affecting the amount of magic your wizard(s) can call on during battle. You can influence this by equipping your armies and wizards with followers and skills that enhance the winds, but very rarely will you have a surplus of magic that feels like you have more than you need. At the beginning of each battle, you also have the option to flip a coin for a chance to get more magic, but as often as not I was unlucky in my rolling, ending up depleting the winds!
Also, magic comes in a variety of forms. Sure, there are potentially devastating spells to those who level up their wizards in pursuit of destructive magics, but even these are unpredictable as most take the form of area of effect spells that can veer off in a random direction. Just as useful in my experience were the non-offensive spells that buff your units or affect your enemy. I struggled mid-game against fast moving Chaos chariots and units of monstrous creatures, but then I discovered the light wizard's Net of Amyntok spell, which holds the enemy in place for a few seconds and gives me just the time I needed to bring my handgunners to bear or send a character or swarm of spearmen into melee to delay them.
Regardless of how effective they are spell effects do LOOK good when they go off, making using magic fun as well as tactical.

Agents of Destruction

I mentioned Empire Captains above, and it is worth noting that as well as generals, you will need to supplement your forces with characters/ agents.
For the Empire, this means Wizards, Empire Captains, Witch hunters and Warrior Priests. Dwarves have Thanes, Runesmiths and Engineers. Every race has agents like this, and they will prove important to you not only on the battlefield, but for affecting other factions on the map by assassinating their leaders, impeding army movement, infiltrating and downgrading their settlements, and buffing your own provinces or towns. Access to them is granted by building the right facilities in your towns. They don't come cheap though, so be careful about how you use them and who you send them against...
...having a new and expensive agent assassinated is not only a painful experience, but if you don't have your own, you will also be at a distinct disadvantage later in the game both on the campaign map and on the battlefield. Agents level up just like generals, with access to an increasingly powerful array of spells and skills that can be used in a variety of situations to impede your enemies and help your empire.

Gripes and Groans

As you can see, so far I've been very happy with the game, but there are frustrations, although these have more to do with me just not being a great player!

1.) Despite being successful on the battlefield, everything seems (for me) to ultimately descend into a realm-wide game of "Bat the rat". Enemies from all quarters are constantly popping up, and even when you have a lot of money in the bank you never have enough armies to deal with them all (buying units isn't a problem - army upkeep costs are!). You'll come to hate some of the generals that pop up regularly both for their armies AND their timing. Of course, resources shouldn't be finite, but after a while it feels...annoying! Perhaps this is just because as an Empire player, the territories I want to make my own are spread over a large area, and rather difficult to defend.

2.) Agents, agents, EVERYWHERE! My goodness, enemy agents are annoying. Not only do they seem to be extremely damaging to your armies and settlements, they seem really good at assassinating my generals and agents at key times. On the other hand, my agents just simply don't seem very good at this - almost never succeeding in knocking off their enemy counterparts (what am I doing wrong?). I should note that in a patch, I think enemy agent aggressiveness was toned down, but mastering the use of agents is a skill that I'll have to acquire. You'll receive agents at key points early and mid-game who will join your faction. It is worth looking after them, because again, the end game will see very high level enemy agents quite easily assassinating your own general and agents.

3.) Diplomacy doesn't seem to allow me to be very diplomatic! I do manage to setup trading partners, non-aggression pacts and targets for my allies to assault, but even after defeating the Chaos hordes of the Everchosen and being the 2nd most powerful nation in the game there are factions who just won't do my bidding! (Drat! You will pay, someday you will PAY!)
I love the Dwarves of the Old World, but I HATE how demanding they are as allies (yes, I know stubborness is a dwarven trait, but it isn't endearing for long in TW: W!)

4.) "Chase the army" is something I can't get used to. Why can't I catch these guys on the map? I've poured points into developing my general's ability to move freely on the world map, but the enemy armies always seem just...out...of...range...AND then they disappear as soon as I get near them.

5.) Lack of a decent manual IS annoying. The PDF supplied as a manual on the steam page for the game just isn't enough for a game of this complexity. Even having played some Total War before, I found myself wanting to understand important game concepts in more detail by having a read. Do I have to brace my troops against charges? Do they do it automatically? How does population work in detail? I know there is in-game help accessed via a browser, along with tooltips almost everywhere you point, but these still don't replace a good manual!

6.) Legendary Lords can sometimes be a bit...OP. When defending a city using a garrison, it become tiresome to basically defeat the enemy army, but then have each of your units ripped apart by a single lord before fleeing in ignominy. Sure, Legendary Lords like Von Carstein and Azhag the Slaughterer SHOULD be powerful, but that doesn't make it any less frustrating when they almost single-handedly work their way through 100+ troops.

7.) Repetitious battles and gameplay do get boring after a while, even with the story missions, different races and campaigns adding some variety. At it's heart, you are forging an Empire, and this revolves around your budget, building your cities, and fighting battles. The battles look and sound great, but you will fight hundreds of them. Sure, you can autofight a battle, and there IS variety, but once you have found dozens of armies with your own you will get a sense of what approach "works" to defeating them. At the end game of the Dwarves, I was making more than 20,000 gold per turn, even while maintaining 4 to 5 full armies. I just had to grind out some of the final objectives! Very rarely did anything happen that really surprised me.

Dwarf tactics. Find hill, line up gunline, decimate incoming enemy (repeat)

DLC of Doom

Before closing, I'll mention the area (issue?) of DLC. In general, I'm one of those people who thinks that if you are paying 40-50 pounds for a game, then asking for more in DLC is just plain greedy on the part of the developers.

The aftermath of battle. The Dwarves stand unbroken (but certainly bloodied).

BUT having said that, I don't have a problem with playing a couple of pounds for a something like the blood and gore pack. It doesn't make major gameplay changes, but the game looks better, and so the low price is acceptable. I ALSO don't have problems with the approx 12 Pound price (after discount) of The Call of the Beastmen DLC campaign. Firstly, it is a full campaign for a completely new race, objectives and map area, and not just a cosmetic pack. That potentially means 10-20 hours, if not hundreds (if you are a crappy general like me) of new gameplay with new units. A lot will depend on how the Beastmen play as a race. If they are a carbon copy of other Chaos races then maybe I will change my tune. The developers have tried to answer some frequent questions about the Beastmen here. It is interesting to note that they will appear in various way for people who don't pay for the pack (and that the Empire is getting a new Amber Wizard as "Free LC" as part of the update.) Compared to an FPS, strategy games like this offer a lot more bang for the buck IMHO - this also reminds me of the tabletop game too... pays yer money, but you get hundreds of hours out of it in various ways!

In Closing

If you like tabletop miniature wargaming (and especially Warhammer Fantasy) there is a good chance that you will like this game. It "feels" right in terms of battles and has the added bonus of having a complete empire building system built-in. The final thing to say about it is that while the initial price may seem expensive, just like the table top hobby itself you can get hundreds and hundreds of hours of enjoyment out of this game. I've finished both the Dwarf and Empire campaigns, played around 260 hours of the game, and still haven't started the Orcs and Goblins or Beastmen campaigns - good value in my book! :-)


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