Warhammer is a property that has a long and rich history, both inside the gaming industry and outside of it. It first appeared in 1983 and has ‘survived’ (for explanation of the quotes, please see your nearest Age of Sigmar fan) for over 40 years, popping into and out of the popular consciousness as easily as the wind blows the grass.
Forgive the slightly tortured metaphor, but across the different Warhammer properties, Games Workshop have had an inconsistent relationship with quality. Back in the early days when their efforts were focused on home computer ports of their board games, things didn’t go too badly. Since then, games have zig-zagged back and forward from terrible, to mediocre, to excellent and almost every stage in between.
In more modern eras, they’ve been a bit more choosy with their licensing, and the general increase in quality has shown. The last Total War: Warhammer game was a very well received title, perfectly capturing battles between the fans’ favourite factions. Warhammer: The End Times- Vermintide was a take on the same formula as Left 4 Dead that had you facing off against horrifying giant rat-people. In short, they’ve really been stepping up their game, and Total War: Warhammer II isn’t much of a departure from that trend.
The storyline of the game is going to be a bit complicated for anyone who isn’t already familiar with the lore of the Warhammer universe. Basically, there is a huge Vortex in the world that keeps all of the evil from overtaking everything; however, a stellar force known as the Twin-Tailed Comet has streaked across the sky and weakened the power of the Vortex. Now, four factions who have noticed the weakening of the Vortex must battle it out to either doom or save the world as we know it.
Obviously, as a fantasy game, the story would seemingly be the most important element, but contrarily RTS games may have stories, but they usually take a back seat to the simulated battles of the gameplay. The story has a lot of dark fantasy beats, but much like a porn story, you expect the story to be present, but it’s not really what you’re there for. Luckily, the gameplay, the real reason you should be here, actually makes up for the lack of a story.
Not much has changed since the last game. You control an army of your choice through a campaign to complete your faction’s particular objective. You choose one of four available factions, then you select one of two leaders for that faction to play as. When you first start out, the game helpfully tells you how difficult each campaign actually is, so you can select one that suits your previous experience with Total War: Warhammer or RTS games in general.
When you start your campaign, you are presented with an opening cutscene for your chosen faction/leader. These cutscenes are presented in a much different style than the ones that introduced the game itself. Instead of a fully rendered video, the game goes for a hand-drawn, or rather hand-painted, style. This style works pretty well for the individual leader introductions, but it is a shame that we didn’t get to see more of the expertly crafted video from the beginning of the game.
Once you get past the opening sequence, you’re put onto a huge world map where a lot of the action actually takes place. The basic goal for each faction is to complete your rituals to help either strengthen or weaken the Vortex. This is done by collecting a ritual currency for your faction to fill up the ritual bar at the top of the screen. Once you’ve gathered enough resources, you can perform the rituals, and then you are presented with another cutscene in the same style as your faction cutscenes.
Once you’ve performed all these rituals, you win the game. This means that while conquest is still important, it is not the be all and end all of the campaign. You can conquer almost the entire map and still lose if your enemy teams manage to perform all of their rituals before you. Having said that, it is technically possible to win the campaign via conquest if you manage to destroy every other faction in the game.
The main methods for gaining ritual currency are threefold. Firstly, certain buildings produce this currency on each turn, so obviously the more territories you control and the more buildings you have in these territories, the faster you’ll be able to win the game. Secondly, you can complete missions. These are asides that pop up as you play through the various turns through which the main campaigns progress.
The missions are usually something simple like build structure A or maintain status B, but they don’t always provide you with your needed ritual currency. Even when these missions do provide the ritual currency, they don’t usually provide a lot of it, unless it is a particularly difficult mission. This means that your most reliable source of ritual income is probably going to be the structure building.
The final way of collecting ritual currency is to go treasure hunting. Basically, you can send one of your armies around the campaign map searching for treasure, usually consisting of ritual currency, actual currency and magical items to equip to your lords. This is a good way of subsidising your income, and as long as you keep a strong force to prowl the world, you’re rarely likely to run out of money or items using this strategy.
Obviously, to do any of these things, you’re going to need to get into a fight, at least some of the time. While the game does have some pretty solid RTS mechanics, which we’ll be getting to in a moment, it does have a few interesting features, not least of which is the auto-resolve. Auto-resolve basically means that if you think a fight is going to end up in your favour, you don’t even have to actively complete the fight. Basically, when you square off against an opponent, a screen is displayed showing you your strength versus your opponent’s strength (via a little yellow and red meter) and then usually gives you three options: attack, retreat or auto-resolve.
Attack is exactly what it sounds like, a simple attack where you manually resolve the battle as you normally would. If you don’t think you’ve actually got the strength to finish what you started, then you can retreat, but if you can’t be bothered and think you’ve got a strong chance of winning, you can just click auto-resolve and have the computer do all the fighting for you instantly.
This auto-resolve is a nice feature, although it is by no means perfect. Even when the system seems to think that you have little to no chance of victory, you can sometimes find the battle one-sided in your favour when doing the battle manually. Obviously, there is a certain amount of leeway that has to be given for individual play skill, but there still seems to be a pretty big divide between how successful the auto-resolve will make you versus how successful you can make yourself.
The actual combat, should you ever choose to engage in it, is very well done. Being based on a table top war simulator, there was a lot to live up to here, and luckily Total War: Warhammer II doesn’t fall short in any regard. At the start of battle, you select where you want to deploy your troops, whether it be by defending a good vantage point, lying in ambush amongst the trees, or even a swift cavalry unit hiding further afield.
Once battle commences, you can separate your different units into sections, giving you quick access to each different group. You can then organize them according to your battle strategy. You select your units with the left mouse button and move them with the right. One of the best parts about this gameplay, and something which makes it feel different from other RTSs, is the ability to perfectly control each unit’s formation and the direction in which it is facing. This gives you more minute control over tactics, meaning that you can pile units with high defence up front, then a unit with long reach (such as spearmen) behind them, then have some ranged attackers bringing up the rear. This use of advanced tactics can help any battle become a cakewalk, and the ability to perfectly control your army’s formation down to such minute details gives an absolutely perfect strategic feel to the proceedings.
The variety in unit types and the different powers of different lords play a huge part in the strength of your army and the outcome of your battles. Knowing how to use a cavalry unit or when to bring your siege weapons into play can mean the difference between a shattering defeat and an awe-inspiring victory.
It is not possible to stress enough how good it feels to control your army in this game. While in other RTS games your strategy can basically be summed up as “send your units to attack the enemy in waves,” here you actually need a concrete battle plan, having different unites stashed in different places until they become useful. Playing the game makes you feel like a military genius, or at least a contestant in ‘Time Commanders’.
An added bonus for any owners of the previous game is that you can actually combine the main campaign of this game and the previous game to make one huge super-campaign. While this isn’t necessary, it will certainly be of interest to the game’s hardcore fans.
Once you’re done with the single-player game modes, there is plenty going on in the multiplayer. You can either engage in one-off skirmishes against players from around the world, or you can even take part in a multiplayer campaign. You can either work together to complete your faction’s rituals and either conquer or save the world, or you can go head-to-head in a race to see who will get to the Vortex first.
The multiplayer campaigns are a nice addition and are mostly as well built as the main campaigns are in single-player. The only downside to them is that the chat isn’t very well optimized, which can get annoying when trying to converse with your friend/foe. Basically, there is supposed to be an option to keep the chat window permanently up so that you don’t miss any messages from the other side, but this option only works as long as neither of you ever goes into battle at all. This is a very small nitpick, but it did become significantly annoying during our playthrough of the multiplayer Skaven campaign.
Honestly, there isn’t much else to say about the game. It is an excellent sequel to an already excellent game, and it provides more story to the universe that the games have been building. Very minor niggles aside, there is no reason why you shouldn’t pick this game up if you’re a fan of either strategy games, Warhammer tabletop games or even both. The only conceivable downside that could be conjured up here would be that not much has changed since the last game, but honestly, does that matter? If you imagine this more as a huge DLC that you can play standalone, then it seems like a pretty good deal.
Developer: Creative Assembly
Release Date: 28th September 2017