Total War: Warhammer

This announcement trailer came out recently and made a lot of people very happy, myself included. For many years, fans of both the Total War games and Warhammer have been suggesting a collaboration, and now it is on the horizon. There will be no more need for it to turn up on countless forum threads titled “What game do you wish existed”, or for modders to cobble together a pallid copy of their dream. Total War: Warhammer is actually going to exist. 

I never actually got into the game of Warhammer – a combination of expense, social stigma, and the sneaking suspicion that it probably wasn’t that fun all combined to prevent me. But I’ve always thought that Warhammer’s twin settings (fantasy and 40K) were awesome – not subtle, but immensely fertile ground for the kind of big, flashy stories that games and action novels are good at telling.

Neither setting is original – they are stuffed with tropes and archetypes, rarely diving into anything new or complex. That’s fine though, because Warhammer has never pretended to be a great artistic endeavour, or a totally innovative work. Warhammer joins a long list of fantasy universes that unashamedly borrow from earlier works.

What sets the Warhammer universe apart is the gleeful and glorious fusion of all of these ideas, mixed with the most fascinating periods of human history. It has everything – green-skinned orcs make war with Roman Empire-analogues while squads of witchfinders tangle with space elves who are trying to stop Satan from destroying Stalingrad. Lots of fantasy and science fiction has clear influences; Warhammer has all of the influences, at once, sometimes in space, always on a massive scale.

The “Rule of Cool” is always fully in effect, and that’s something that really works for games – it’s one of the few mediums where having chainsaws for hands or replacing your skull with a horse’s doesn’t come across as totally ridiculous. The Warhammer universe contains ratmen musketeers, steam-powered robots and bondage elves; only video games can fully exploit that insane variety.

There have been various games using the setting, ranging vastly in quality. Perhaps the best was Dawn of War, a strategy game that did almost everything right. The sequels were significantly weaker, but the original game is still one of the better RTSs I’ve ever played: it even had a compelling campaign. Blood Bowl is another example – fantasy football with more violence; it’s very playable, though I think I’d like it more if I knew anything about American football.

A third game is Warhammer: Mark of Chaos. It’s not as good as the other two, being rather too linear to benefit from its own mechanics, but I still find myself reinstalling it every so often. It’s a strategy game in which you control units as a general, managing the composition of your army over a campaign. The combat is real-time tactical, controlling forces in formation. All the elements of a fantastic game are there, but, as above, the linear nature of the campaign and the levels stop the player enjoying it to the full; the best thing about such games is the freedom to choose your own strategy and tactics. Mark of Chaos forces and guides the player into certain tactics, which does somewhat limit the enjoyment and replayability.

That’s why I’m so excited about the prospect of a Total War: Warhammer game. The Creative Assembly have a track record of creating fascinating and replayable strategy games, ones that allow a variety of tactics and give the player the freedom to recreate history in their own way. With Total War games, I’ve crushed the infant United States beneath the British Empire, I’ve led Egyptian forces to the gates of Imperial Rome. I’ve conquered Edinburgh with a single unit of horsemen, and held back the charge of a thousand crazed savages with a thin red line of unbreakable men.

The Total War games are the pinnacle, to my mind, of strategy games. They may not be the most mechanically complex, or the ones that people choose to play competitively, but there is something so compelling about them – the variety of units, the massive scale, the agony or ecstasy of a perfect manouver or a rout. Empire: Total War is widely regarded as one of the weakest in the series, but it’s still given me more emotional engagement than countless more highly regarded games. I’d recommend the series for that reason alone; playing it, you are continually made aware of the senseless loss of life. It is a more nuanced take on war, despite the name, than most strategy games with their faceless and unmourned units.

Warhammer has a wonderful setting, and it’s being taken on by a developer with the experience and history to take full advantage of that. Ideally, we’ll end up with a complex game that still has all of the ridiculous ostentation of the setting. Failing that, I’ll happily play a game that has even one of those elements: a Total War game  without the Warhammer or vice versa is still something I’d be interested in. Both together would be fantastic.

There are very few details available at the moment, but the video suggests a lot of things that I’m looking forward to – giant monsters fighting entire regiments, flying units, magic having a huge effect on the battlefield. The final moments of the video suggest that Tzeentch’s worshippers and underlings will play a role, which is exciting. Tzeentch is the most interesting of Warhammer’s dark pantheon, and rarely gets much attention; Khorne and bloodlust seem to win out over Tzeentch and slow corruption for most authors/developers.

Right now, it looks good. The video is polished and fills me with anticipation, though (as it’s not gameplay), it could all just be blue-sky thinking. It’s a game that has been wished for for years, and I’m really hoping that it lives up to those wishes.

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