I know my Total War. I’m not an expert – I wouldn’t trust myself on the battlefield in anything other than digital form, and if you pit me against a thinking human (or even slightly clever dog) opponent I will likely lose. But I do know my trebuchets from my siege towers.
On the other hand, if you drop me in a room full of people talking about orks (with a K), Waaagh, the Empire and Varghouls, I will likely start weeping before running away. Alright, maybe not that bad, but it’s true I’m not up to speed on my Warhammer. So who better to send to see Total War: Warhammer? Exactly.
Sam Millen, development manager on Total War: Warhammer, smirks when I accidentally call the game Total Warhammer, then answers my question: ‘what’s all this fantasy doing in my srs strategy?’
“We've done Total War for the past, what, 15 years now?” he says. “In that time we've always looked towards the opportunities a fantasy approach to the series would offer us. Many of us played Warhammer tabletop when we were younger - if you're familiar with that version, it just matches up perfectly with Total War.”
I am not, Sam. You will have to go into a bit more detail here: “You've got these epic scale battles with hundreds of units, big, epic clashes on the battlefield... it's just what Total War is. The thing that also works perfectly with it is that Games Workshop has created this really rich back story, this deep lore behind the fantasy setting, the characters... and it's not too dissimilar to doing history, in a way.
"There are all these books and all this history of this fantasy world, it wasn't that much of a deviation for us - we're still doing what we did in the past, going and reading history books. Games Workshop has done a lot of the legwork for us by creating this amazing world. We're just integrating it into Total War, and it just works perfectly, the two together.”
I like this whole ‘it’s exactly the same as real history, only not real’ angle. I’ll go with it. So I sat down and played Total War: Warhammer and found that... by crikey, Millen’s not wrong. This does all work precisely how it should, with the epic warfare of the tabletop realm transferring seamlessly onto PC screen.
There’s an adjustment to be made, coming from marauding Huns to Waaagh-ing Orks (sorry, it’s about the only Warhammer reference I know), but with a bit of thought – and some understanding helpfully provided by the game’s frequent tooltips – I start picking up on things.
But then I play as the Vampire faction and my brain goes ‘... buh?’ See, there is an interesting factor to the anti-sun brigade – and that’s not a sunscreen joke. No, the fanged bastards are missing a mainstay of the Total War world: there’s no ranged units for the Vamps. No artillery. What the what?
“We haven't had that before, it's an interesting problem,” Millen admits. “When you look at the the rock, paper, scissors set up of units in Total War, this is taking one pillar of that out. So we looked to the tabletop and how they solved that problem - Vampires have flying units like the Vargheists, so you don't have to have your standard frontline and missiles in the back. You can just fly your units over and charge them in from the back while your main force pushes in. There's Fellbats, very fast, scout around the battlefield, Direwolves, they're your flankers, they will rush in... There's so much difference and interesting mechanics to play with.”
I listen, and I try the technique. It’s scrappy, I’ve some learning to do, but it works: the Dwarf forces I’m facing off against are suddenly, surprisingly, surrounded – flanked from the sides and behind, with an undead army rushing (well, shambling) at them from the front and magic-wielding hero units ready to smash some skulls for the good of evil.
It’s this kind of thing that has me excited for Total War: Warhammer, even if I’m not a fan of the Games Workshop property. I got about as far as buying Space Hulk from the 40k spin-off, reading half of the rule book, badly painting my Blood Angels then just making up some other rules and going “dukkadukkadukka” as my Space Marines wiped the Genestealers in bloody, rule-lacking, not-playing-the-game-properly glory.
But this – yes, I can get on board with this. Total War: Warhammer has that thing about it where it might just be able to bring in new fans to an existing property, as well as being able to lure in Warhammer fans to the land of computer strategy games. Obviously there’s already some crossover, but there’s a bigger audience to bring in if the balance between the Total War side and the Warhammer side can be maintained.
One way in which Creative Assembly’s balancing act is likely to succeed is in the base level, unit-to-unit balance. Why? Massive battle simulations that run all night.
“We've a lot more internal tools,” Millen says. “For example, there's an automated system that simulates battles across all of the hardware in our office every night, fighting every single unit one-on-one, spitting out a load of results that we can then look at and figure out how one bit of fighting is versus another. That's really been helping us in being able to see a snapshot every single day of how the balance across the game is.
“With balancing it's always going to be a forever ongoing process... we can probably categorically say we will never achieve a 100% perfect balance, I'm not sure such a thing exists in any game ever. But you sway from side to side, you keep working on it, and we're going to be working on this game as a trilogy for a long time to come. We'll achieve the best balance we can, with these tools to help us.”
I’m being told the right things, and I’m seeing positive changes in Total War: Warhammer – the improved tooltips I mentioned help beginners and veterans who might have missed something pick up on more detail, while bringing elements back like guard mode and the ability to withdraw troops from the middle of battle with a single click shows this isn’t just a side attraction. It's trying to make up for the misstep that was Rome 2: Total War.
At the same time, it is a hugely familiar experience masquerading as something totally new. Money is still money, regardless of the name it gets, and upgrades might be Warhammer-themed, but they’re still of a recognisable type, even if the names are different. It's more Total War than it is Warhammer. Coming in as a Warhammer ignoramus, I did leave feeling positive. This match-up, after all, just makes sense.
“This is what everyone's been saying,” Millen smiles, “it's why we want to do it - it just makes sense. It fits fantastically, and I think it's going to be a fantastic game.”