Just over a year after the original game's release, SEGA and Creative Assembly's Total War: Warhammer II comes to Steam this week. Touting a vastly improved campaign, four distinct races, and always-impressive large-scale battles, this is one amazing fantasy-flavored real-time strategy game.
Battle for the Vortex
Total War: Warhammer II is the latest entry in the popular Total War franchise, a series of real-time strategy (RTS) games featuring large-scale battles. Taking place within the Warhammer fantasy universe, the new game's story centers around a Great Vortex that holds unlimited magical power. Created by the High Elves long ago, all of the Warhammer fantasy races now vie to control the Great Vortex.
The new campaign, which can be played solo or in online multiplayer, offers four playable races: the noble High Elves, their ruthless brethren the Dark Elves, the cold-blooded Lizardmen, and the plague-carrying Skaven rat-men. Each of these factions has two playable leaders to choose from – one geared towards beginners and the other for advanced players. The leaders all have unique powers and slightly different stories.
Total War: Warhammer II's campaign easily surpasses that of its predecessor, thanks in part to much-improved tutorials. After starting the game as a beginner-friendly leader, the narrator offers advice and explains game mechanics for most of your early turns. Sometimes this help text verges on information overload, but it makes for a suitably beginner-friendly experience and a great jumping-on point for the Total War series.
The campaign itself strays from the mostly sandbox-style design of the previous game. The whole thing is built around the Great Vortex narrative, complete with minimally-animated but fully-voiced cinematics. Each faction starts on the game's new landmass, somewhere near the Vortex. And from there, they fight to control it.
Your team can still win by dominating the map and wiping out all competing factions, but that's the more aimless and less urgent path. Taking control of the Vortex is far more structured and interesting. You'll need plenty of the new Vortex currency to make this possible. You earn it by taking over and establishing new settlements, constructing special buildings in key locations, and completing quests.
Players will also have to complete five arcane rituals, all of which cost big chunks of Vortex currency. During these rituals, your team must protect three ritual sites for 10 turns. All factions can see that a ritual has begun, though, so you're bound to face stiff interference from the other races and clans. Not only will you have to deal with regular enemy armies, but they can also buy single-use armies next to ritual sites.
No longer having to dominate the map really opens up new strategic possibilities. You can still opt to attack and befriend everyone in the vicinity, but that's slow going. Instead, you can try to build alliances to keep the heat off while you focus on capturing cities and other targets that provide Vortex currency. And if you make sure to knock out plenty of quests along the way, you'll be closer to completing the rituals and gaining control of the Vortex.
Large-scale fantasy battles
The game's huge new map features a diversity of biomes and terrain, making exploration more interesting. They also add some variety to battles, which now take place on more uneven terrain with features like hills that provide elevation bonuses, trees with which to hide and ambush unsuspecting opponents, and more. The more interesting the location, the more exciting the battle, which helps make this one of the best Total War games yet.
Whereas the map portions of the game play like a Civilization-style strategy game, the actual battles are pure RTS. Controlling units and directing the battle is quite simple, especially for anyone who has played an RTS game before. You can select individual units or groups of units and assign numbers to groups for easy switching. Combat is as simple as sending your groups to where they need to be, though you'll want to put ground units in front, ranged in back, and perhaps try to surround and surprise the enemy forces too.
All four of the base races have magical abilities and ranged and melee units, but they each have distinct features as well. For instance, the Skaven can summon teams of weak units almost anywhere on the map – they'll burrow out behind their foes, creating panic and allowing the main force to get some free hits in. The Dark Elves have the cool option of firing bombardments from their sea-faring Black Ark city-boats, as long as the battle takes place close enough to the shore.
Winning battles gets your units XP and an assortment of loot. Each faction then gets three different choices of what to do with their captives, such as selling them into slavery, sacrificing them for experience, and eating them for food. You have this same abundance of options after capturing a settlement.
Expanding your empire
Between turns, you'll move your leader and subordinate leaders around the map, perhaps stopping in your own settlements to recharge depleted units and requisition new ones. Each settlement has numerous building options as well, some providing income, improving public order, or unlocking access to new units. It takes multiple turns to complete construction, but turns can be very quick if you don't engage in battle or choose to simulate the results of the battle instead of fighting manually.
The diplomacy system is less robust than many of the game's other mechanics, though. You can pester someone for agreements or resources pretty much endlessly without suffering any real consequences. Offers will come in for alliances and such, but it's all so rudimentary. The High Elves get the option to spend influence to improve or harm relationships between other factions, so more diplomatic-minded players will want to stick to that race.
Overall impressions of Total War: Warhammer II
Strategy games can be frightening for new players, especially games that mix both map-based strategy and real-time battles like the Total War games. But Total War: Warhammer II is a great game for both novices and experts alike. The fantasy races provide a great diversity of units and exciting animations to keep battles lively, and the extensive tutorials and streamlined UI of this installment make it less confusing and faster to play. Multiple ways to win campaigns, cooperative and competitive multiplayer, and a big arsenal of separate quest battles all add tons of replay value as well.
- Huge battles featuring the always-appealing Warhammer fantasy races.
- Improved tutorials and menus make the game easy to learn.
- The campaign's story and objectives provide a focused experience.
- Diplomacy system is overly simplistic.
- Engine and gameplay systems might be too familiar to owners of the first game.
Total War: Warhammer II sells for $59.99 on Steam.
Steam review copy provided by the publisher.