Video Games

‘Total War: Warhammer’ a natural melding of similar franchises

The aerial units are pretty fantastic in “Total War: Warhammer.”
The aerial units are pretty fantastic in “Total War: Warhammer.” Sega

The trick to any good battle plan is using your fleshless skeleton warriors as bait at the center of your force while your giant man-eating bats and zombie dragon encircle the empire’s ranged units at the rear.

At least, that’s my go-to strategy when playing the vampire faction in “Total War: Warhammer,” a fun mashup of two established strategy franchises.

From its first breath, the new release is distinctly a “Total War” game with “Warhammer” characters. That was the right choice, as Creative Assembly established a pretty firm grip on realistic military strategy simulators with the “Rome: Total War” and “Medieval: Total War” games.

Games Workshop has spent more than 30 years molding “Warhammer,” which was born as a tabletop game and has since spread to miniatures and video games, into a decent little fantasy setting. I’ve never been a fan of their video games, so I was excited to hear the developer lent its franchise to Creative Assembly.

The marriage isn’t perfect – few are, I hear. The magic and dragons don’t quite fit into the hyper-realistic play style present in the period-centric “Total War” games. Neither does the commitment to a central storyline. The option to completely rewrite history from the very first turn in “Rome” or “Empire: Total War” was a major draw. I like being able to pick lowly Portugal and wipe Spain from the face of the Earth within a few turns. In “Total War: Warhammer,” I’m not allowed to even attack certain factions in the beginning of the game – even if our borders touch and they’re looking me in the eye.

However, the blending is largely a success. Each of the five factions has a diverse set of military units, which allow for five totally different play styles. Humans have strong infantry units, but dwarfs have much better artillery. The vampires have better magic-users, and so on. My battles with each faction may have been found on similar planes, but they felt different.

Previous “Total War” games grew stale, because no matter how many playable factions they had, they were constrained by historical convention. Gauls and Romans are certainly different in “Rome: Total War,” but they were both limited by existing in the 200 B.C. time frame. There are no such rules in “Warhammer.”

I was also impressed with the graphics. Rendering hundreds – sometimes thousands – of tiny soldiers and beasts can take a toll on a game’s overall presentation, but I thought “Total War: Warhammer” stood up as the best-looking strategy game I’ve seen.

The battles are first-rate. The actual carnage in “Total War” games has always set it apart from competitors like “Age of Empires” and the original “Warcraft” titles, in which fights to the death come off too cartoon-y.

But the latest installment opens up a weak spot not typically present in “Total War” games: faction leaders and heroes. These characters basically walk into scores of enemies alone on the battlefield and emerge unscathed.

I have two problems with this:

First, it isn’t believable. Yes, they’re magic or whatever, but so are their enemies. I doubt walking into a horde of vampires with only a fancy hammer would bode well for an emperor, even in a fantasy realm.

Second, it makes it very hard to target enemy leaders on the field. Because I watched the Mel Gibson movie “The Patriot,” I know that America won its independence by targeting British officers during the Revolutionary War. I try to do this in my military strategy games, but I can’t in “Total War: Warhammer” because they are just tiny specks. When I try to order my units to attack the foe, I either end up clicking on a neighboring enemy unit or ordering my units to stop attacking and move to a spot – the opposite of what I want to happen.

Generals in “Medieval” have the power to rally their troops or frighten the enemy, but they do so as part of a small elite force. Your king is surrounded by 20 mounted knights as he moves across the field. I would like to have seen the same in the latest title.

Ignoring the small issues I have with “Warhammer” has not been hard. I haven’t been able to put the game down. I’m conflicted because I enjoy being the “good guy” in games, meaning I was naturally drawn to the human empire at first glance. But all of the awesome Halloween beasties in the vampire faction keep pulling me away from my righteous quest. I haven’t even touched the Greenskin (orcs and goblins) faction yet – it could very well be the best one.

If you’re a fan of either franchise or of real-time strategy games in general, “Total War: Warhammer” is a safe bet.

Total War: Warhammer

Video Game Review

  • Rated Teen for mild blood, mild language and violence
  • Developer: Creative Assembly
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Out now for the PC
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