It has been a little over a year since Total War: Warhammer launched and, over that time, it has acquired so much DLC that buying it all will cost you more than the game itself. With the most recent DLC release mere weeks ago many players are anxiously feeling their wallets, thinking about sunk costs, and feeling a little dubious about the upcoming sequel. Is this just going to be a glorified expansion?
That's roughly where my thinking was before I got the chance to play Warhammer 2 for a few hours. It’s not the new content, surprisingly enough, that convinced me this is a step forwards — but the many noticeable improvements on the previous game's basics that could potentially create a better experience.
One of my main gripes with Total Warhammer was how, fundamentally, all the races played the same. Yes, there was some slight differences between them; different starting units, the location, lords and a focus on unit type, but too much was the same. My strategies and tactics only needed slight adaptation from race to race. Even the Chaos and Vampiric corruption, a key feature, I found was little more than a nuisance. All of this gave me no incentive to complete playthroughs with the other available factions.
In Warhammer 2 there seems to have been a concentrated effort to remedy this and capitalise on what the Warhammer lore provides, in order to make the playable races 'feel' unique. Lizard Men and High Elves are two different species, and how these races work in the game should reflect that.
The recently-announced Skaven was the race I spent the majority of my time with, and the signs are good. The underground-dwelling rat species have a unique food resource, which can be gained in a myriad of different ways and then used to bolster the Skaven in different ways. You can 'spend' food to increase the level of a new settlement or power up abilities but, alternatively, it can also be stockpiled to reap other benefits such as increased army morale, public order and growth.
Skaven food can also be used to increase the number of uses of their unique starting ability “The Menace Below.” This is used in combat and summons a unit of Clanrats wherever you choose on the battlefield, including behind city walls. For those who played the original, no doubt the mind is already alight with the possibilities that this offers. While the Clanrats it spawns are relatively weak, depending on how much food you've got you can more or less spam the ability and spawn multiple units around the map, scuppering even the best-laid defensive plans.
After I felt I had a tenuous grasp as to how the Skaven worked (by losing four battles in a row), I sat down with the game's director Ian Roxburgh and senior designer Eva Jobse. I asked what I'd been doing wrong. "As a general rule the Skaven are about numbers and volume," says Roxburgh. "Big hordes of big, cheap units to send at the enemies, wave after wave and massive, crazy-ass war machines like Doom Wheels. But they are also very skittish as well and one of their big things is that you’ll find they run away quite easily compared to others but then they’ll regroup and come back."
This was exactly my problem. In fact it happened three times in a single battle, and it almost felt like my army spent more time being routed than fighting. "Yeah but then you get used to the fact that normally when you play a race and they route, they may come back but ultimately a lot of the time you think 'Oh no that’s bad,'" says Roxburgh. "But with Skaven when you get used to that you think 'Oh no, actually they are going to comeback and I can use them again' you get used to that being part of your gameplay strategy. And they have a lot of diversity as well, they don’t have cavalry per say but they’ve got so many different ways to achieve the things you want to do."
Good advice, and when I stopped fighting against the Skaven’s mechanics it all seemed to click together. I experimented with The Menace Below ability as much as I could in my time with the game. I would bait the enemy vanguard out of position and spawn the Clanrats to their rear, cutting off their retreat and demoralising them. More than once I found myself unable to reach an artillery unit that was shredding my forces, but The Menace Below allowed me to instantly keep them off my back, and the same applies for attempted flanks from enemy units. The omnipresent threat of this ability offered me tactical and strategical choices that I never had in the previous game.
I was able to jump ahead to an encounter later on in the campaign against the Lizardmen. More advanced units had been unlocked and it gave me a small taster as to how the Skaven would play closer to the end game. While being thrown in command of all these powerful and wonderfully weird units was rather overwhelming, I still found the use of the aforementioned starting ability invaluable. It allowed me to surround the enemy’s units, forcing them to fight from all sides while my artillery dealt with the bigger threats from a safe distance.
But as Creative Assembly gives, so they take away. The major rhythm of the Skaven remains their constantly-swinging morale and a tendency to flee from combat. They return just as fast, however, creating in particularly drawn-out battles a strange kind of ebb-and-flow that I had to adapt to. Two units might turn and flee from the enemy, but two others would have rallied elsewhere and were charging back into the fray. If nothing else it felt authentic for an army of rats to be both brave and cowardly, constantly undulating across the battlefield in hard-to-predict patterns. Most importantly, playing Skaven felt nothing like playing any of the other races.
Creative Assembly appear to have gone all-in on the intricacies in an effort to distinguish the races. The High Elves are all about political manoeuvres, weakening their enemies by using their own unique resource to spark wars between factions or building impassable gates on the world map, possibly forcing their enemies to trespass in each other’s territory and inciting conflict. Manipulating the factions to weaken one another before sweeping in for the final decapitation seems to be how High Elves roll.
The Dark Elves forgo these political machinations and are more murderously inclined. They are faster, more aggressive and possess a Murderous Prowess buff that activates after a kill threshold has been met, encouraging suicidally reckless tactics in order to turn a battle. This all fits with a society that predominantly runs on slave labour. The Lizard Men have upgradeable ley lines connecting their settlements and providing various buffs, bolstering their more reserved and defensive playstyle.
The only hands on I got with the Dark Elves was a short instance late into their campaign, and the experience differed greatly from anything I had experienced in the previous Total War game. It opened simply enough: Malekith, the intrepid love child of Darth Vader and Daenerys Targaryen, was leading a direct charge from atop his dragon against a group of High Elves. Unlike the strategical positioning and careful use of abilities I had encountered while playing as the Skaven, this was equivalent to an all-out-brawl with my forces getting surrounded and battered. Then their Murderous Prowess buff activated, and they slaughtered everything on-screen within the ability's one minute duration.
There are other new additions. Each race now has access to large-impact spells called Rites, the effects of which can range from summoning powerful Hero units to conferring income bonuses. One of the most intriguing new features of Total War Warhammer 2 is undoubtedly the Great Vortex, a special new campaign event. Five Rituals must be completed during your playthrough, obviously there are various challenges conducting them, and you effectively paint a target on your back for all the other races.
Gaining the resources required is no small task, and there wasn't enough time to try summoning the Vortex. The features around it do sound great: campaign-wide buffs, hireable AI armies able to help fight your battles, and in particular the spawning of Chaos warriors to start really shaking things up. It's interesting but one of those things where, until you've played a full campaign, it’s hard to know whether it's a game-changer or just a nice feature.
Finally, the post-launch addition of a 'Combined Campaign' fuses together the map and races of the original Total War: Warhammer game with this sequel, and will be the main incentive for fans and newcomers alike to purchase the previous title and DLC. Warhammer 2 isn’t a glorified expansion, by these lights, but the platform that perhaps the first game should have been. The Combined Campaign will not be available at release, with CA citing the need for significant playtesting and balancing. It is ambitious, and should make some of the game's biggest fans feel better about all that DLC they've bought, but much depends on the execution and just how well-integrated the original game's material is.
Total War: Warhammer 2 seems to have learned from its predecessor, at least, and is differentiating itself in all the right ways. Even though I enjoyed the first game, my problem was always that it just didn't feel quite Warhammer-y enough in the details, and lacked some of the asymmetry that lies at the very heart of its inspiration. Judging by how the Skaven skitter back-and-forth across the battlefield, burst from the ground, and instantly surround isolated units, that's been much-improved. Which at least answers the question we opened with: this isn't some glorified expansion, but a big project that's doing exactly what a sequel should be doing.