Stepping back into the world of Warhammer is always a fantastical journey, and with Total War: Warhammer 2, never before has an adaptation of the source material felt quite so natural.
With the second installment in its massive strategy game trilogy, developer Creative Assembly has begun flexing its design muscles. Battles are bigger and more expressively animated, and scores of soldiers of all different types be they ghastly unread or blood-thirsty dinosaurs–sound impeccable, but the improvements run well beyond the aesthetic and into the fieriness of tactical and strategic play.
Where the first entry in the series kept to standard Total War form with an open-ended, Risk-inspired campaign of territory control, now there’s a directed focus a vortex which is said to seal away legions of Chaos Demons.
Within the context of the Warhammer universe, Chaos is an all-consuming malevolent force that corrupts and distorts. Long ago, a ritual helped quarantine the forces of Chaos behind a seal so that normal life could thrive. Now, though, you, and a number of other forces across the map will be racing to take control of that seal–to whatever end.
Your target takes the form of a swirling Vortex comprised of magical energies. As you progress through a pre-made set of special quests, you’ll be able to start performing rituals that will, in time, allow you to wrench control of the Vortex from everyone else. But, since all the other races of the world are pushing towards the same end, your progress will be marked along a track with five milestones. Each time you (or anyone else) performs one of the five successive rituals, the pace of the entire campaign picks up.
This mode still balances Total War’s signature dualistic design. As you’re worrying about the stability of the Vortex, you’ll also need to manage cities and tax your people, as usual. You’ll research new tactics, weapons, and monsters, and conduct diplomatic consorts with the various races of Warhammer. And, should talks break down and two or more armies meet, you’ll be ushered into a tactical view that will task you with micromanaging your troops.
Rituals often take quite some time to complete, and, in the interim, three of your most powerful cities will be marked. Opposing factions will try to sack, capture, or raze any of them. And, if you don’t control all three by the end of the ritual timer, you’ll have to try again; and still deal with the invaders you directed to your lands.
Completing rituals marks major steps in the game, in part, because you’ll need to ensure the safety of your home front while you presumably press battle lines across the map. It complicates play with an interesting, macroscopic challenge that every player will be able to approach a little differently.
The global quest tracker/countdown has been seen before in Masters of Magic-descended strategy games, but here it’s backed with specific quests that play to the lore of each race within the Warhammer universe. Lord Mandamus, for example, is struggling to revive the great Slann mage-priests who once guided the feral Lizard men on the fields of battle. And your quests will revive and recruit the long-slumbering Slain to use in your own armies. That’s quite distinct from the approach the Dark Elves or the rat-like Shaven will take to victory, for example. The former specializes in naval combat and tailor-made invasion vessels known as Black Arks, while the chattering clan rats of the Shaven are better suited to hit-and-run attacks. Their whole civilization being subterranean means they need not worry so much about foes razing their ritual sites.
As you progress through the campaign, your foes become more numerous and the evil forces of Chaos will filter onto the map in an attempt to stop you. During the late-game, after 50 hours or more of play, they will be monstrously powerful. These are tests, in a sense, as they’ll gauge how well you’ve distributed your forces and managed the challenges posed to you thus far. And they encourage you to seek help from your neighbors, as it’s difficult to pull together the might all on your own. That brings up one of Warhammer 2’s most engaging consequences of the Vortex rituals.
Progression yields huge impacts for diplomacy, encouraging you to forge alliances with those of your own faction. This make sense, in play, because each group’s broad goals are distinct within the lore. Lizard men, for example, believe themselves to be the only ones following the will of the old gods and they are among the closest this universe gets to an unambiguous “good.” Dark Elves, by contrast, are fueled by torture and slavery and causing pain to others. Should they wrench control of the Vortex, they will, of course, use it for their own violent ends. This confluence of goals can lead to the creation of confederations, which are a fancy name for one of the most useful ways to build your empire. Like minds can, over time, be persuaded to let themselves be absorbed. This merges politics, economies, and research trees, and gives you a quick, sudden expansion of territory, often with a new legion of eager soldiers for your command.
This keeps the game from chugging in the middle and latter stages, where you’d have to take back razed cities from marauders only to carry the dead weight of a developing province for a while before seeing any return. The new system both fits thematically and boosts the importance of diplomatic and factional ties on the map. Generally you’ll get along with your own groups better, but you’ll also find yourself stepping into long-standing political alliances, many of which aren’t always the easiest to navigate. The focus, of course, is still on the battles, but this breaks up long stretches of action with some careful maneuvering from time to time.
As you pick up more subjects and commission larger and larger armies, you’ll no doubt unearth some of the other major new additions to play. Choke point maps, for instance, give you a lot more to consider in your approach to special in-game locations. Some will funnel your forces through a bridge, giving you a very narrow front on which to concentrate, others will use different types of land to give bouts more depth.