THE RITE STUFF.
As a series, Total War tends to give its best when building on an already established foundation. Napoleon surpassed Empire, Attila surpassed Rome 2. And so, in faithful fashion, has Total War: Warhammer 2 pushed beyond the original Total War Warhammer, creating the most fleshed-out and engrossing campaign this veteran strategy and tactics series has offered to date.
The standard trappings are all present in top form. A sprawling campaign map that’s possibly the best-looking one Creative Assembly’s artists have ever put together. Real-time battles with reasonably competent AI (not always a given for Total War) who seem to know how to play to each army’s strengths and weaknesses – if only in a pre-set, somewhat predictable way. You build cities and research tech to unlock new units and improve your economy and fighting capacity, with each of the new factions having a fairly innovative way of doing so.
It’s Good To Be Bad
High Elves don’t have much of a stomach for blood, though, and fight the hardest at the beginning of a battle before they’ve started to take casualties and get blood on their expensive cuirasses. Dark Elves, in stark contrast, become more deadly the more viscera has been spilled. They have a focus on wicked, frenzied units that evoke the sinister, un-Disneyfied versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In keeping with that cruel theme, they have a habit of taking slaves after each victory, who can either be put to work to improve your economy or sacrificed to gain bonuses – including the ability to summon floating cities called Black Arks that can move around the seas and recruit units.
New World, New Rules
When attempting to take full advantage of all these new faction mechanics, combined with the ability to explore ruins and shipwrecks, powerful rites that can be activated for strong temporary bonuses, and the overarching battle for control of the Vortex that determines victory, the amount of micromanagement can start to feel overwhelming. The theme of Warhammer 2’s campaign seems to be that you’ll never sit around hitting End Turn while waiting for buildings and armies to finish, which is an improvement from the lulls in the first game. But there was definitely an adjustment period where I had to learn that prioritizing a few things was a better idea than to try to play with all the shiny new toys at once.
The interface has also seen some major improvements, notably in the ability to zoom directly from the 3D campaign map to the strategic overview without having to open a separate menu. There’s still a lot of room for growth here, though. You still can’t initiate diplomacy by clicking on a faction’s cities or units, for instance. And diplomacy itself remains decidedly behind most other modern strategy games in its versatility: wars are still all-or-nothing affairs, an end to which can only be negotiated with an exchange of cash and each side keeping what they’ve captured. But Creative Assembly is on the right track, taking baby steps toward a decent diplomacy system.
I feel like a broken record saying this is the best Total War game so far, since I’ve felt that way about each major release since Attila. But it really is true: Creative Assembly’s designers are honing their campaign and faction design consistently from game to game, and that progression is clearly on display in Total War Warhammer 2. There’s not as much progress as I’d have liked to see in the politics and diplomacy systems, which show only modest improvements. But each of the four factions is a distinct and fun-to-play addition to the growing roster. The story and objective-driven campaign is a league above anything we’ve seen in the entire Total War series before in both design and presentation. I’m anxious to see how it all fits together when the combined Moral Empires campaign is released to owners of both games later this year.