Creative Assembly has been churning out the Total War games for years now. Utilizing history from all kinds of different military styles and epochs, they have made a name for series featuring enormous amounts of troops on screen and actual era specific tactics. Deeper than any other real time strategy series on the market, and with fangs that pierce the skin, any PC gamer probably has at least one of their titles ensconced in their collection. Still, last year’s Total War: Warhammer managed to feel like a breath of fresh air. Utilizing Games Workshop’s goliath franchise and leveraging it into Creative Assembly’s existing framework made fantasy RTS titles seem brand new and fresh despite the age of the Warcraft franchise. With the original’s continued support from the studio, it does seem odd to receive a full fledged sequel so soon after. The great news is that this is a new title that vastly improves upon last year’s edition in meaningful ways.
The plot is simpler than the actual game makes it sound. Long ago, the High Elves created a vortex to stave off a demonic invasion. It worked. Now, though, the vortex has become the center of a conflict between the High Elves, Skaven, and the Lizardmen who each want to capture the vortex for their own purposes. Each race must perform rituals to access the power of the portal and prevent the others from doing the same. It’s an easy to understand concept that informs the actions taken during each of the race’s campaigns. In the game itself, the writers went way overboard, sprinkling in heavy amounts of lore, arcane references, and more indecipherable names than a newcomer can handle. Even someone better versed with the workings of this world might find their eyes beginning to glaze over, as the over the top narrator can’t make up for the dryness of the script.
Fortunately, other than setting the final goal, the prewritten story doesn’t really matter. What truly matters is the tale that the player will create as they expand across the world’s map, conquering territories and stymying the other kingdom’s machinations. Using thoughtful building and planning between battles is just as important as managing the grand battles for which the series is known. It’s smart and incredibly deep, one of the shining lights for PC gamers to prop up the superiority of their chosen platform. This just wouldn’t work on a controller. With all of the inner workings that make a title like this tick, it can become a confusing mess for a new player. Fortunately, Creative Assembly has added a decent tutorial, which is turned off by default, to ease people in. This alone makes it the place to jump in.
For those not in the know, Total War: Warhammer II takes place in two parts: turn based strategy mode and battle mode. In the former, the player does things like construct buildings, recruit heroes and troops, and explore the map searching for stat boosting items and treasure for the heroes, place cities under siege, and initiate combat with enemies. The vast amount of options available even differentiate between the races. High Elves are all about the politics and can spend intrigue points to disrupt another kingdom’s stability, while the Lizardmen eat more than a Sharknado coming off of a fast and need to have their food supply assured in exchange for their power on the field of battle. It almost feels like a fantasy version of Civilization, condensed to a smaller time frame. It’s also very rewarding. Even something as basic as raising a fresh army to attack a foe that has a city locked in a siege, breaking them before the city ran out of supplies, feels great. Spending just a bit of time here opens up the endless possibilities.
Then there are the battles themselves. At first, they don’t seem like much, but as the game progresses and military technology is unlocked, massive amounts of troops take the field. Early on, I favored the strategy of holding the line and letting the enemy come to me under the hail of arrow fire. As the options opened and more maps became used, I would take to hiding troops in tree cover, sending my flyers to keep a broken enemy from regrouping and any number of other horrible, cutthroat maneuvers to punish a foe that tried to step up just to get put down. The elegance of the battle design is that it’s easy to read the field and quickly take advantage of any holes in the enemy’s formations. Typically, with RTS games, I find myself at a loss to keep up with the entire map. With Total War, though, the battles playing out are the reward for the tactical mind. The Warhammer flavor just brings it out in the best way.
There’s plenty of new things in this entry, from reworked skill trees to some really interesting chokepoint maps that provide some stellar challenges to surmount. This second title also introduces something that the previous version did not possess: incredibly long load times. I will admit to barely hitting the RAM recommended requirements at 8 GB, but everything else about my rig far surpasses everything listed for the recommended requirements. It should not take two minutes minimum (often longer) to load between the world map and the battle or vice versa, especially when the first title runs like a dream, and this is running on the same tech. With quality of life improvements that respect the player’s time, such as not forcing the player to wait through the AI’s turns, it’s really sad that this is an issue. Hopefully, this will get ironed out quickly. Also, while the game isn’t ugly, per se, it does have the appearance of some tech that needs a bit of an update.
While many Total War fans might scoff at playing with elves when they could be conquering Europe or Japan with historically accurate techniques, Total War: Warhammer II is the best place for the typical gaming nerd to start. It succeeds on that long promised, but never really delivered idea of taking part in battles akin to Lord of the Rings. This sequel improves on the original in terms of accessibility, maps, and improving the heroes through use, but it does falter a bit on the technical end, and keeps its story impenetrable. Fortunately, none of that matters when sending a flaming phoenix to break the enemy lines. During that moment, everything is forgiven, and real time strategy can once again reign supreme.