Introduction

So the time has finally come for me to write about another sequel which has surpassed its predecessor in nearly all aspects. The gaming industry does fare better than its film counterpart in this regard. Total War: WARHAMMER II is currently my favorite in the entire Creative Assembly series and this was not to be expected, in all honesty. In fact, I have to admit that I was quite skeptical at the developer’s decision to explore a full fantasy setting, when they first announced Total War: WARHAMMER in 2015. It took me another year to finally play it, once MSI had bundled a Steam key for it, along with a new motherboard I bought from them. As a history buff and fan of the Warhammer 40K series, I really didn’t think that the Warhammer Fantasy setting would succeed. But I was proved wrong.

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Simply the introduction of magic and all sorts of monstrous creatures, would have never been a formula for success on its own. CA had to integrate Games Workshop’s rich lore and adapt it to the Total War series’ signature hybrid genre of real time battles within a turn based campaign. Strategy gaming at its finest given the right circumstances, such as sufficient development time, proper quality assurance and last but not least, learning from past mistakes while listening to what the established fan base desired. Total War: Rome II took many months after its launch and even more patches, just to be playable on most systems, but Total War: WARHAMMER and now its sequel which I’m writing about, are quite stable from day one. That is a very important step forward and while Total War games remain PC exclusives and dependent in equal measure on CPUs and GPUs, I knew that I had to play & test them far longer than the time I allocate to most review projects. I was not disappointed.

Story 

While its precursor focused on the Warhammer Old World (part of the Eastern Hemisphere), Total War: WARHAMMER II went for a larger scale by including the entire Western Hemisphere and thus featuring the New World (Lustria & Naggaroth), the Ulthuan archipelago and vast swaths of the Southlands (from the deserts of Araby to southern jungles of Yuatek). In case you didn’t notice already, the Warhammer Fantasy world is mirroring Earth’s own continents and oceans with the  single exception being Ulthuan which is in more ways than one, a reference to the mythological (sunken) land of Atlantis. It is not only a change of scenery, but also an opportunity for armies to take full advantage of the new types of terrain and the subsequent attrition which may assist or hinder the various warring factions, depending on their racial affinities. Jungles, deserts and frozen wastelands may prove an enemy as worthy as a well trained army, if you’re not carefully planning your campaign.

As with Total War: WARHAMMER, the sequel also has a central theme and potential threat that requires the players’ constant attention. Instead of emphasizing on massive Chaos Invasions, we now have to cater to a “magical tornado”. The Eye of the Vortex is the name of the new main campaign and unsurprisingly, it offers an excellent dynamic between focusing on the regional or player-induced objectives and the one goal that truly matters: gaining full control of the Vortex. All four playable races and their sub-factions, wish to exert their influence over this supernatural barrier created by the High Elves in order to siphon the Chaos taint while also preventing the resurgence of the nefarious Daemons. Naturally, not all races have the same intentions for the Vortex, but they must all subdue their rivals before claiming the final victory. I shall of course, focus on each race in as much detail as I can, in the gameplay section below.

Suffice to say for now, that I enjoyed the Vortex campaign far more than simply staving off one Chaos “doom-stack” (an allegory I use to describe a full 20 unit roster that is also overpowered) after another. Defending or attacking the Vortex, you’ll still have to face auto-spawned full stacks, yet having to contend with them in sparse succession is the key to victory in this case. Divide and conquer, my friends! There’s no denying that the entire map and racial choice seems more exotic, more diversified from one cardinal point to another. The save games are now better stored and categorized by faction, so you can efficiently play with all races at the same time, if you wish. It’s not the real time switch between these sovereign states like in Crusader Kings II, but it is a step forward from having all save games stacked upon each other. Proof that even small User Interface changes can have a large impact on the overall experience.

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Graphics

There’s some debate online over the used graphics engine’s name since some refer to it as Warscape and some as simply being “TW3”. What truly matters is that it’s proprietary to developer Creative Assembly and it is a visible improvement over the series’ predecessor. At launch, Total War: WARHAMMER II had some minor frame rate drops which were fixed rather fast. I’m having the same solid performance now while playing the game maxed out, on 2K resolution. It’s remarkable that while the battle maps aren’t any bigger than in Total War: WARHAMMER, in the sequel they are far more detailed. Siege maps are especially a visual delight whether we’re talking of the Aztec-like pyramids of the Lizardmen or the sprawling castles of High Elves. You’ll be witnessing fortifications that truly put to shame anything erected by the Dwarfs or the Empire of Man.

Apart from the maps, the HUD saw a nice overhaul, which now implements the racial bonus/malus system pertaining to the selected faction and the diplomacy menu has also been streamlined. Minor details from the campaign map, become noticeable once  a race captures all the settlements within a province and various objects and structures begin to appear within a few turns. For example, you’ll be seeing a lot of Warpstone meteorites and mine shafts or burrows once Skaven corruption reaches a higher echelon within newly captured provinces or even neighboring regions. The influence bleeding effect is taking a literal meaning in this case. Vampiric corruption also features some extra visual assets that make the map stand out. Incremental improvements for certain, yet if you’ve played Total War: WARHAMMER for a decent amount of time, you’ll notice and appreciate the changes implemented by the sequel.

Audio

Everything is top notch, from the epic soundtrack to the convincing voice acting that’s being portrayed in the same kind of diversity, as the visual assets themselves. The quirks and mannerisms of each faction, are lore appropriate. Speech patterns aren’t the only aspect that adds further personality to each faction leader and minions, but they are the most prominent early on. I couldn’t find a single flaw in the audio department. As a fan of epic music in general terms, Total War: WARHAMMER II features more than a few tracks I’d listen even outside the game.

Gameplay

As promised, I will now write about the four playable races in the base game. I wish to start with my favorites, the Skaven. It is no understatement that the Ratmen are a community dear and they’ve been desired as a playable faction by Warhammer fans, even since the release of Total War: WARHAMMER. The worthy sequel finally delivered and they did it without holding back. The voracious Skaven are perfectly portrayed with their strength in number, always offset by the constant drive towards rampant consumption. We are talking of underground-dwelling creatures that have to constantly chew and bite, like any “respectable” rodent would. Significantly weaker and shorter than humans, yet with a rapid metabolism and wits as sharp as their blades, the Skaven had to enhance themselves in order to stand a chance against magically proficient foes and rivals. For a Ratman has no friends but the mighty Warpstone. An essence of Chaos, the green crystals might be alien to many races but not to the Skaven which literally fuel their Under-Empire with the help of this highly toxic and addictive mineral. Yet food is the gameplay mechanic which will force Skaven factions to expand in all directions at an accelerated pace, lest they resort to cannibalizing themselves.

If you like the steampunk subgenre, you will love the Skaven tactics and unit roster. A Vermintide would only be a “meat shield” without Doomwheels, Globadiers and Warp Lightning Cannons. Ironically, Skavendom itself may be just as well be capable of engineering feats that could topple any Steam Tank or Gyrocopter, if only their society would not be highly susceptible to in-fighting just like the Greenskins. In fact, I can draw several similarities from a tactical point of view, that will demonstrate the Skaven reliance on expandable units in the front and center army with their most potent fighters, ever ready to flank the enemy and thus closing the gap and overrunning any signs of resistance. A tactic used and perfected when playing with the Orcs. Easily routed units don’t spell a lost battle just yet. Skaven are cowardly by their nature, yet they regroup and are ready to counter-attack when you’re least expecting it. Use this advantage of feigning the retreat. A scattered army has lost its momentum and cohesion. They’ll be easy pickings for the monstrous assets from the Skaven forces. Unleash the Hell Pit Abominations on all who stand between the Skaven and the sinister plans for the Vortex!

Moving towards my second favorite, it was a hard pick between Lizardmen and Dark Elves but I will write about the former right now. Ratmen would feel lonely without their scaly, cold-blooded “friends”, right? Calling myself a Warhammer fan and avid reader of its lore, wouldn’t begin to describe my joy of pitting against each other these mortal enemies that mirror the struggle between Orcs and Dwarfs. Lizardmen have every reason to despise the Skaven since the reptilian home of Lustira, shall get vaporized once the green moon of Morslieb crashes into the continent during the End Times. That’s not a spoiler, don’t worry. Sadly, you can’t re-enact this further proof of Skaven madness/ingenuity just yet. The lizard folk prefer calling themselves the Cold Ones and are proudly defensive of their sacred jungles and temple complexes. What’s important to understand about the Lizardmen, is that their starting positions and tactics allow for a lot freedom and improvisation. Many monstrous units (like a literal Jurassic Park) are ready to devastate wave after wave of infantry, yet their primal instincts and ferocity are two-sided coins. Just like the  rampaging elephant units from Total War: ROME II, you can quickly lose control over the many Saurus’, Bastilodons, Kroxigors, Stegadons or Carnosaurs that enter a frenzied state, once they’ve sustained enough damage. Not being able to issue new orders to your strongest warriors during the crucial moments of a battle, can be quite an issue. At least they won’t rout.

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It’s a fight to the death which may still score a victory for the Lizardmen. The unique factional gameplay mechanic is their Geomantic Web, which is a supernatural link between all the controlled provinces that can offer some well stacked bonuses by both recruitment and financial means. What more can I say, the Lizardmen play entirely different than factions that rely on versatility or defense. Cold Ones are all about a concentrated attack and the subsequent mop-up of the retreating stragglers. Set loose those “dinosaurs” and the results will be more than just satisfying. Another faction fully committed to the offensive tactics, are the cruel Dark Elves, which refer to themselves as “Druchii”. An isolationist offshoot from the High Elves, their “dark” cousins are not like the Dunmer from the Elder Scrolls series at all. Warhammer’s Dark Elves are simply the more sinister, greedy and malicious side of a once proud race of united elves. Political schemes which went all the way to assassinations and attempted bribery, have forced the disgraced princes of Nagarythe into exile. Their new home? A literal frozen wasteland that is far too close to the even deadlier Chaos Wastes.

Naggarond is the capital of the Naggarothi continent and also the seat of power for a creature that was once a formidable defender of Ulthuan. The Witch King Malekith now only seeks to subjugate his former island-nation and to destroy all traces of “Elven purity”. I won’t go into detail about Malekith’s “interesting” relationship with his wicked mother, Morathi. You can find plenty of reading materials online, about the rich lore surrounding the Druchii and you will be controlling  Naggaroth’s conquests with either son or mother, in this twisted case. As for the tactics you may employ while playing the Dark Elves, know that unlike their “more fair relatives”, the Druchii have abandoned the longbow in favor of the crossbow. Increased penetration & damage at the expense maximum range. Less dragon types than the High Elves but you will forgive and forget that once you see what an unstoppable beast, the land-based War Hydra can be against pretty much anything thrown at its many fire-breathing heads! Just like the Hell Pit Abomination, the Hydra can regenerate its lost hit points very fast if taken out of harm’s way for a minute or two.

A slavery-dependent economy and efficient piracy/raiding gameplay mechanics, make the Dark Elves a more dynamic choice over some of the more static factions found in Total War: WARHAMMER II. Hit and run will only get you so far. Prepare elaborate ambushes along the way so that the Druchii may become a threat that can’t be ignored by anyone. And claim the Vortex once more, along with the wretched island around it! Last but not least, the High Elves are in the not-so-graceful position of being more on the defensive side of things. Attacked from nearly all directions and with few allies early on, the Asur are a beacon of civilization and enlightenment yet petty squabbles and a penchant for arrogance, make them quite unlikable to other races. Make no mistake though. High Elves are neither weak nor stupid. If it wasn’t for the Great Vortex created by Caledor Dragontamer, the entire world would have been swallowed by perpetual Chaos and slowly consumed by Daemons. Every faction thus owes their present existence to the Asur, but that won’t stop them from performing rituals to eventually manipulate the Vortex for their own selfish reasons.

The current defenders of Ulthuan must unite their homeland, repel the invaders and perhaps conquer the lesser civilizations around them. The struggle for mere survival won’t last that long, when considering the all-round powerful unit roster at the beck and call of the High Elves. Impressive dragons, the best archers and support magic in the known world, all confirm that the Asur could once again be the zenith of military and cultural enlightenment, protecting not only themselves from the impending darkness. Most tactical approaches qualify when campaigning with the High Elves. Certainly there’s no need to play it too safe and turtle around Ulthuan for very long. Unite the entire island and you’ll have enough funds to bankroll multiple incursions into Lustria or Naggaroth at the same time. Don’t let yourself get swarmed by being on the offensive, naturally. Late game armies of the Asur, are true killing machines afterall. A political intrigue system can be viewed as the factional unique trait, yet it’s important to understand that the Vortex won’t defend itself unless you take all the necessary steps in uniting the far too divided Ulthuan. If diplomacy fails, a small civil war or two can be forgiven since you’re having a much bigger fight in mind. Survival against Chaos itself can’t be sidelined by the refusal of some minor Elven prince, who doesn’t wish to join the Lothern Confederacy, as I like calling it.

Verdict

It’s finally time to write a bit about the two things that bothered me in Total War: WARHAMMER II. First of all, in spite of its fascinating battles along the Eye of the Vortex campaign, the final rewards are hilariously inadequate in the form of some flimsy in-game bonuses that really didn’t make me feel like I “won” the game’s final objective. The Vortex didn’t open “Pandora’s Box”. It didn’t make the potential world conquest that may ensue, if you’re patient enough, any easier or more fun than it already is. Talk about an anticlimactic conclusion! Secondly, I have read already online some of the reasons, but I’m still disappointed that naval battles are not implemented. I mean the fully 3D rendered battles, not an auto-resolve.

Besides being an armchair general, I fancy myself as a bathtub admiral as well. In all seriousness, I came to view all subsequent games from the Total War series as being better than their predecessors in nearly all regards. Why couldn’t the license for the fleet aspect of the Warhammer series get secured at least in time for the sequel? Should I still hope that it may get included in the final part of the intended trilogy? Rhetorical questions or not, I still consider Total War: WARHAMMER II as one of the best video games I played in 2017.

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.