Monday, 06 November 2017 08:41

Total War: WARHAMMER II Review

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When you think you've found something important in a busy genre, it's a tricky moment. This is because there's so much familiar in genre works; they're layered with tropes, so informed by the history of the works that have come before them, many of which inevitably are little more than those established tropes in different configurations, that what sets a beautiful or revolutionary new entry into the canon can be buried under the familiar skin of the genre. Often times these new, important works see success simply because they're another good iteration of something that people already like and consume, but like it took time for people to separate Firefly from every other “crew on a ship” story, or Radiohead from the crowded world of 1990s college rock, there's an inherent need for time, perspective and deep analysis to see why some genre works are not just good, but among the best of their kind ever made.

This complex, big-picture mindset is the one in which I now, after over 20 hours of play and a lot more deep consideration than my editors would have liked (sorry guys, this one was too important), see Total War: Warhammer 2.

Because this isn't just a good game, or a great game, a great video game, or a great game. Total War: Warhammer 2 is one of the best games I've ever played. And more than that, it is the definitive burning edge of not just one, but three genres of creative works, one of which is nothing less than the literary genre of fantasy fiction itself. Plus, it ain't a bad 4X game either.

This is a game that deserves more than praise; it deserves dissection, study and a place in the history of video games, tabletop games and even fiction at large. Let me tell you why.

[A note: I refer to Total War: Warhammer 2 as an RTS in this review. There are some who will argue that RTT {real-time tactics} is the correct genre for this game. For many reasons, I believe that RTT is an outdated and mostly useless term. The differentiation between RTT and RTS is semantic, used almost exclusively to point out that one has base-building and {in the past} more single units. To underline how subjective the application of these terms is, looking at the list of games tagged as RTT on Steam you'll find titles as diverse as Shadow Tactics, Blitzkrieg 3 and even side-scroller Dwarflings. There are Total War games in the list, but what isn't on that list? Warhammer 2, though it is listed as an RTS. My suggestion: Ditch the archaic and poorly used term and how about we talk about all real-time war games under the same banner, and then we can get specific afterwards? Cool, my fellow generals?]

It's Not Just the First Game with Different Races

Let's get that out of the way right now, and let's be quick about it, because this is not a real thing, and it's not what we should be spending time on. Yes, this game has the same bones as the first game, but this title shouldn't even be spoken of in the same sentence as rushed, cash-grab sequels, because it is far from that. Think of it as the perfected version, the Empire Strikes Back to A New Hope. It's tighter, more dramatic, more fun, darker, crazier and all-around better. And that's because what 1 did, and did great, 2 absolutely knocks out of the park and then some. For instance...

Total War: Warhammer 2 is a Highly Engaging 4X Game

It's a (very minor) argument online about whether or not the Total War games are actually 4X titles, or whether they're grand strategy. The fact that the discussion is something that's being had at all means that it's mostly arbitrary and personal (akin to the arguments about doom vs sludge metal), but Warhammer 2 and its predecessor have moved the franchise closer to proper 4X than ever, with the sequel having even more of a feel of the Civilizations, Endless titles et al. than ever before.

With the empire-building, turn-based segments of Warhammer 2 (which, if you didn't play one, is where you'll spend an average of half your time in the game, with more or less time dedicated to it, depending on how many battles you choose to directly control), the devs have found their groove in a way that's tighter and more engaging than it has been in the past.

A lot of this has to do with the options given to each of the new races, of which there are Skaven, Dark Elves, High Elves and Lizardmen (as of now — more are almost certain to come). Building from what some of the original game's starter and DLC races had access to, especially later ones like the Brettonians, the races of Warhammer 2 have a seriously wide variety of buildings to build, each of which feels like it has a pretty extensive effect on the world. Build options in this version feel tighter and more directed than before, forcing you to choose more particular build-outs and with each build feeling like it has more of an effect on your empire. In addition, trade and tradable resources have been heavily expanded and improved upon; you're now allowed to trade as all starter races, and you don't have to be right next to another faction to trade. New buildings allow you to trade quite a few goods, and like in Civilization or other 4X games, it's now worthwhile to target certain areas militarily just to obtain control over the trade goods there.

Speaking of, Warhammer 2 takes quite a few lessons from other 4Xs like Civ and the Endless series in general, and it's a much better game for it. This ranges from small things, like adding incentives to expand/explore, such as shipwrecks and the ability to “treasure hunt” in cities for items and bonuses — options that encourage constantly moving your units around even when not looking to expand your empire's borders.

Even better, though, is one of the game's most badass and compelling features, one that also was a lot of what makes the Endless games so great: The factions and the resulting gameplay here is entirely asymmetrical. Each of the four races is very different from each other and has a large amount of faction-specific content beyond just the units, including techs, game mechanisms, movement abilities, spell types and more. Whereas most big-scale strategy games are all about balance, the devs here have realized that straightforward balance, where everyone has a set of units that's 80-90% tweaked versions of what the others have, is actually not very compelling.

What is compelling is throwing the rulebook out and crafting factions that are so thoroughly their own thing and so intensely detailed that they feel alive, that you feel like you really have to think like the fictional characters you're taking control of to win, and that compels you to try all of the other factions as well just to see what weird stuff they have, too. Again, some of this was in the first game, but 2 takes this idea of asymmetry and unique units, buildings, quests, stories, aesthetics, you name it, and performs it with precision.

Total War: Warhammer 2 is the Definitive Way to Experience the Grandfather and King of All Tabletop Gaming

A large part of the superb, assertive asymmetry of this title comes, of course, from the fact that the races and units here are (mostly) something that existed already in the tabletop game. It's almost unfair, in fact, to other games; you just can't compete writing- and variety-wise with something that has literally thirty-four years of development under its belt. Hell, reality can't even compete with that, because reality just doesn't have the freedom that a universe where their version of a Pope murders Dracula by throwing both of themselves off a wall and onto a spike, pinning his body down with his massive, fat-ass weight. Or hell, if you want to talk about something relevant to Warhammer 2, how about the fact that the women of the Skaven race are 700-pound, 10-foot long megarats covered in boobs that sit around pumping out rat-babies and getting high from drugs brought to them by eunuchs? This isn't even something that's mentioned much in the game as far as I've seen; it's just part of the massive amount of lore that Warhammer already has, and which makes this game one of the deepest — content-wise — that we'll probably ever get.

All of this about the tabletop version brings me to my second main point on why this game is so good: For some, this is sacrilege but, as I say every time I review a good Warhammer game, there’s a lot of praise deserved for a good tabletop-gone-video game title that lets you experience what has been previously relegated to the table — and the table, alone. As someone who plays and enjoys tabletop games myself, I get what is special about them, but even you most grizzled wargaming vets have to admit that it is one hell of a pricey hobby. Video game versions give those of us with shallower pockets the chance to not only experience the lore of a thing like Warhammer, but also some of the excitement of the battles.

In this regard, Warhammer 2 is the best way I have ever seen to experience the primary Warhammer universe and game-style. No, it's not turn-based, but just about everything else is a dead-on recreation of the world from the tabletop game, and this being a videogame and not something static, it has some tremendous advantages over the traditional game. These include its relative cheapness (no need to keep buying models), its ease of setup (no painting, no need to schedule physical meetups, no time spent putting things out on tables or cleaning up), speed of play, animated effects (you just can't beat watching a giant lizard with a magic laser on its back blast into oncoming forces) and extensive, extensive built-in lore that is constantly available to you both in terms of reading it in the very many places it's available in the game and literally playing it. All of this is stuff that, despite being awesome itself, the tabletop version just simply can't compete with, and it makes this, the best Warhammer video game ever, also the best way to experience Warhammer's world and style of play ever made.

In fact, if you're just now getting into Warhammer, this and the original game are actually the only recently-released ways to experience the first version of the Warhammer universe available to buy new. Weird as it might sound to someone who isn't familiar with the IP, the original universe of tabletop Warhammer has actually been discontinued and replaced with a new one in an epic, if perhaps ill-timed, event called the End Times, and it's been replaced by a similar but new set of figures and rules that's called Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. Now, you can still buy old OG Warhammer gear used from shops and online, but Games Workshop is no longer making new content for it, and it's no longer supported or considered the “current” version of the game.

So, for even more reasons than the normal “I don't have to buy/paint an assload of figures? My god.” reasons, Warhammer 2 is both the very best and actually only official way to buy into the whole original Warhammer shebang, which for my money already makes it a glorious piece of coding. But wait, there's much, much more.

Total War: Warhammer 2 is as Good, as Inventive and as Exciting of a Story as Any in the Current Era of Fantasy Literature and Film

Now, here's something we don't talk about that often in regard to real-time combat-featuring strategy games, the vast majority of which either focus on historical events or have a very loose storyline that's mostly setting and characters and which serves almost entirely to string together battles. I'm talking plot, which is just not typically the genre's strong suit. Though there are some memorable moments and characters, especially in games like C&C: Red Alert, that get weird with their settings, overall the plot is a glorified through-line in strategy; everyone knows it, and nobody really cares because it's not the point. The point is fun, fun murder in large amounts.

And Warhammer 2 has all that murdery goodness you could want, but thing is, Games Workshop does care about story – I talked about the insane backlore earlier, but I invite you to just watch one of the many, many unofficial recountings of the official lore on YouTube and really see what I mean – and devs Creative Assembly have not only incorporated the pre-existing lore of the Warhammer universe into their game in tremendous amounts, they've made narrative a central function of this new title in a way that is both unique to this kind of strategy game and also plainly brilliant.

Holding back most of the awesome and (for the most part) vicious details of this dark, violent fantasy tale that you'll fight your way through, the action in this title is driven by its narrative, which centers around the idea that an ultra-damned magickal vortex that has long been controlled by fancy, very elitist high elves for a very long time is becoming unstable, meaning everyone in the immediate vicinity has a chance to take ole spinny water's incredible mystic powers for themselves. This means that every faction in this part of the world is vying to get their own version of a magical-takeover plan off the ground before the others do, giving this game a powerful central narrative device and a sense of urgency that the first title didn't have (there was the whole Chaos invasion thing, but that wasn't nearly as gripping or all-important to the gameplay) and that few RTS games have ever had.

From a gameplay standpoint, this is awesome, but we'll get to that in a moment. This isn't just a killer mechanism for the action, it's also so damn well-written and fresh feeling that I, someone who has whole 6-foot bookshelves just for fantasy and sci-fi novels and reads/watches/plays just about anything within the genres that I can, think it's among the best of the best fantasy stories created so far in this century. In terms of fantasy game storytelling, this is up there with Witcher 3 and Baldur's Gate II.

I could write volumes on this, and I may just do that one day soon (look out, op-ed section of OPNoobs), but I'll keep my reasons more concise here, since this is already a gigantic-ass review. The reason this fantasy is fresh is that, like (and because of) the Warhammer lore that birthed it, it takes conventional fantasy tropes and twists the hell out of them, most especially when it comes to morality and the idea of good vs evil. There is nobody in Warhammer that is really all good or all bad, and “evil” is usually just a term used by one race to describe another race just doing what it's born to do. All of them do messed up, violent, self-serving things, and all of them contain characters and subfactions with all types of moral compasses and wildly different personalities, oftentimes clashing with others of their own faction. This deeply postmodern and tradition-bucking approach to fantasy is much more realistic in its approach to politics and morality than most fantasy, and in fact, it's part of what has made Warhammer famous (hell, the genre name “grimdark” was literally created to describe Warhammer: 40K, and now we have A Song of Ice and Fire).

And yet, in every other way except for the way it approaches motivation, politics and morality, this universe is as fantastical as it can get. This is where the game differs from The Witcher and a lot of other dark fantasy games: It's realistic where it comes to people and the darkness of war, but it's all absolutely bonkers made up magical insanity in every other aspect.

Add to these concepts a balls-out frantic race to dominate the known world in a short amount of time, with all of these morally grey, super fantastical races and factions throwing everything they've got into a winner-takes-all, loser dies race that has an immovable timer counting down to the end on it, and what you end up with is a sandbox for insane fantasy stories. Imagine if the aforementioned Game of Thrones story started with every character at the very beginning being told that they have exactly a year to win the throne or they all die, but oh, hey, also the throne will make you a god and EVERYONE HAS DRAGONS or at least something equally as awesome, and magic, and there isn't just one wizard lady, there are HUNDREDS and pterodactyls with bombs on their backs and giant city-sized boats that shoot lightning bolts hundreds of miles and a horde of insane rat people that eat their enemies and everyone is going to war right the hell now.

And, since every playthrough ends up with a different path through this epicness, with the rush forcing mad battles and blinding-fast strategy changes all filtered through the lore and the quests and the races, only means that the insanity really never stops until you want it to.

The word epic finally has found a game top which it can truly be applied.

Total War: Warhammer 2 is the Pinnacle of Creative Assembly's Experience in Strategy Combat

All of this, and we haven't even talked about how the battles feel, that's how good this game is. And frankly, this is the section of the review that I think needs the littlest in the way of explaining why it's so good, which it is, so good.

And that, as some of you will not be surprised to hear, is entirely because of the rock-solid and fully-earned reputation that Creative Assembly has built for itself over seventeen years and over fifteen Total War real-time strategy combat games. These guys know what they're doing when it comes to combat systems in strategy games, and they have not forgotten a single lesson for Warhammer 2. This game is tight and responsive with control of armies, it has interesting maps (and with the option to add more through easily installed mods, the possibilities are limitless), it has a staggering variety of units, each with a massive amount of stats that you can dig into, and, in general, it absolutely feels like the devs have taken every year they've been making these strategy games and used it to tweak, add, remove, and expand their system with the resulting newest iteration in this title being the most adaptive, cleanest, easiest to use yet deepest to master, most fun and overall simply the best they've ever made.

Considering that the other Total War titles have some of if not the best battle simulation technology that has been seen in any video game, what we're then talking about is a best-of-the-best situation, which is elevated to even greater levels by the fact that everything else I've talked about that's great about this game is poured into and around these thrilling, roiling, carnage-filled battles. The fights are so good, and so unique due to all of the hundreds of factors (factions, units, maps, situation, what crazy-ass magic hero you have) that go into them, that I legitimately like hearing my friends that play just tell stories of theirs. If you play games, you know that just hearing someone talk about what happened in a strategy battle isn't typically the most thrilling. But when you have dinosaurs tromping into gigantic rolling altars with witches on them throwing magic down on the lizard's heads, it is.

And This Isn't Even Its Final Form

The absolute craziest part of all of this is that Warhammer 2, while absolutely containing a full AAA game's worth of content that's worth the initial money, isn't even close to having all of the content that it will have by this time next year. We can know that for three reasons: 1) That's what happened with Total War: Warhammer 1, and 2) The first game was modded to an extent that I have rarely ever seen, and the mods are very, very good, and 3) They've already told us some of what's to come. And it's wild. Like, I don't think any game has ever really done this wild.

For one, there will be DLC and mods, and there will be DLC and mods, and there will be more DLC and more mods. That's what happened with the first game, and that's what's guaranteed to happen with this one. And the DLC for the last game wasn't just like a couple of new maps or one new faction; it was five new races, new campaigns, huge numbers of new units, rebalancings and a ton more. It was enough that, unlike most games, I could come back to it throughout the entire year-and-a-half that it was out repeatedly and play whatever new content it had and be interested again like the first time I booted it up, if not more later on because I knew what I was doing and the new stuff was just that cool. With the hundreds of very easy-to-install mods out there too, this expansion of the original game grows even more, almost to Minecraft levels. It's 100% certain we're going to get all of this with the new one, but there's something even bigger that is just about to be released, and it's downright revolutionary.

What I'm talking about is a thing known as Mortal Empires, which is set to be released on October 26. Mortal Empires is a new mode of campaign that (for those that own both) will take the map, factions and creatures of Total War: Warhammer 2 and add them to those of the first game, creating one titanic, sprawling and, I'll be bold enough to say, groundbreaking megacampaign. This is not like anything I've ever even heard of before, and considering the fact that every playthrough I've done of either game takes dozens of hours for one faction alone, the scope and scale of this thing that's about to be given (for free!) to those that own the games is something that I have a hard time even comprehending. The best I can do is just to show you the list that Creative Assembly itself has released, detailing the content that will be involved, which includes: 117 starting factions (WTF), 96 spells, 35 legendary lords, 295 settlements, 268 battle maps (that's a different one every day for over eight months) and an almost inconceivable 352 unit types. I don't even know what to tell you, other than that this is something entirely different, and I love it just so damn hard.

So you know what, here it is:

Total War: Warhammer 2 Is the Greatest RTS Yet Made

Let's not bullshit here and just get to the big one, the thing that is what all of this adds up to. I've thought about this for a very long time, far longer than a review should take, because I think it needed time to sit in my brain as a concept and see if it stuck. As a critic, making sweeping statements like “best ever” is something I'm trained to not do unless you're talking about something from the past, and then you can maybe be allowed to do it here and there if you're really careful and passionate. If this was the past, in fact – say four weeks ago –  I'd have said that Company of Heroes is the greatest RTS ever made so far, with nods to Age of Empires II, Dawn of War, Command & Conquer: Red Alert, Myth and Starcraft.

But about an hour into playing, I had the thought, and I gave it that time it needed, letting it sit at the back of my mind for days and days before I even allowed myself to open up to the idea that I might, training be damned, need to start using superlatives to talk about this game. I mean, I knew immediately that I liked it, a lot, but as a journalist and even as a fan, making a claim that something is the prime example of its genre is something that simply feels wrong; too big to be true, when examined deeply enough.

I've done that examining now. It's sat in my brain, and when I look again, after nearly thirty hours of play and hours of conversation with fellow players and a ton of soul-searching, it's still there, standing firm. And I'm ready to say it.

Total War: Warhammer 2 is better than anything that has ever come out under the Starcraft, Command & Conquer, Dawn of War, Age of Empires or any other RTS banner there is. It's the best, tightest, most thrilling combat system I've ever played. It's the craziest, wildest, deepest story I've ever seen in a strategy game, with the most lore, the best variety of factions and units and the most interesting asymmetrical structure that I know of in any title yet. It has so much in terms of variety and depth in terms of factions and playthroughs that, even without the Mortal Empires DLC, it's one of the most replayable games I've ever seen.

And speaking of, it's about to contain the largest, most spectacular campaign I've ever heard of. The multiplayer is so good the only comparisons I have are the early Baldur's Gate II campaigns of my childhood, some of my most cherished gaming memories. It's the best game of a storied studio with three decades of games under its belt, many of which are considered outright classics. It's so good that it just happens to tack on being great at a second genre, that of 4X, on top of already being incredible at real-time combat. It's so good that it is literally replacing a real-world, physical, 34-year-old game that's stood up for that long and is still popular at being the best at what it does. It is a near-perfect expression of everything it does, the best iteration of everything good the other famous, beloved games in its genre have done before it.


The Verdict: Transformative

I can't find anything else to say, other than this, and here I'll leave you, 4000 words later. Total War: Warhammer 2 is the best real-time strategy game that has yet been created. If you care about strategy, this isn't just a game, it is the game. And I'm about to go play more of it, because that is the best thing, as a gamer, that I've had the option of doing in a long, long time.

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Trevor Talley

Trevor used to tell people that he writes anything 'they' pay him for and everything else. But, what he really wants to do is sit on his porch all day with a beer, listening to Berliner techno while pounding culture into his brain through a computer screen and then writing about it. Trevor subjects the internet to his musical tastes as editor of The Deli Austin and his credits include PC Gamer, the infamous Busted! Magazine and over a dozen books on Minecraft and sports (not together, though he thinks it could be done).