Review: Total War: Warhammer II

Creative Assembly’s latest foray into the Warhammer universe is less of an expansion on the first game, and more of a sidestep into other areas of the world. There are remnants of Old World factions, but the vast majority of the game deals with new races and locations not seen in Total War: Warhammer, all while keeping the focus on fantasy battles. And what fantastic battles they are.

The sequel of 2016’s critical acclaimed title, Total War: Warhammer II doubles down on lore and goes even more niche than the first instalment. Unlike the Old World, with its expansive landmass full of humans, orcs, and dwarves, the new region of Lustria is features a collection of islands and small continents connected by massive seas.

A truly gigantic map, Lustria is beautifully executed with a decidedly tropical tone. The world map offers breathtaking views of mountains, beaches, and cliffs, among a dozen other geographical features ranging from common canyons and plains to unique volcanos and magical structures. It continues the graphical fidelity standard set by Rome II, and turns the strategic map into a true work of art.

Even the cities — with their unique visual representation — are a wonder to behold, although there is disappointingly little variation between settlements of the same race. I expected cities to visually change and grow with each upgrade and expansion, like they did in the latest Total War historical games, but instead we got the same stale depiction of the previous Warhammer and Total War games of old.

The top east corner of the map features the island of Ulthuan, home continent of the High Elves and which center holds the epicentre of the Great Vortex. The beautiful world map serves as the background for Warhammer II’s main campaign, which revolves around the struggle between different factions to attain control of the Great Vortex: a massive swirl of blue energy and raw magic. A staple of Warhammer lore, the Vortex was recently destabilised by the passage of a comet, and nearby races all rush to either heal it in order to maintain the status quo, or corrupt it in order to further their own interests.

Those races are the noble High Elves, the savage Lizardmen, the corruptive Skaven, and the chaotic Dark Elves — all of the playable factions in Total War: Warhammer II’s campaign. The sequel continues its predecessor penchant for making each race a truly unique experience, from buildings and units to mechanics and abilities. Historical Total Wars often have two gameplay styles: begin with a flagship empire, or struggle to superiority with an underdog. In the Warhammer franchise, Creative Assembly has embraced what makes each fantasy race unique, and the game is all better for it.

Of all the factions, my favourite was without doubt the High Elves — not only because they are the only good guys, fighting for the good of the world — but because their set of units and culture strongly appeals to me on a personal level. Aside from Elven archers and white horsed cavalries, they possess a healthy selection of aerial units in the shapes of phoenixes and dragons. As much as I love ground battles, having good dragons in any army is an instant way to get my attention.

However, I didn’t really click with battles in Warhammer II. Ever since Attila, the ground combat seems to be tweaked to be more fast-paced, which is a terrible proposition in a tactical game. Shogun II and Rome II had wonderful battles that could at times grind and stale as evenly matched armies would hack at each other, giving you time to manoeuvre a cavalry or shock troops behind enemy lines and crash into their flanks, breaking the line. But like its predecessor before it, Warhammer II prefers to take a more immediate approach to damage, to the point that you can easily kill most of the enemy army with ranged attacks before they get within melee range of your infantry.

Even when locked in combat, the units just dwindle very quickly — there’s none of that grinding and back and forth, and whole units break and route in a matter of seconds. I rarely had the chance to perform a proper pincer move, and often had to rush an intended backline attack into a side flank incursion, lest the battle be over by the time my troops were in position. As I got latter in the campaign, that was less important — large units, heroes, and flying creatures change the flow of battles, and magic starts to play a bigger role. However, it is still a worrisome sign — the strategy layer has improved with every new release, but the tactical layer is getting more and more rushed. One just needs to look at Dawn of War III to see a similar shift.

Even though battles are at times lacking, they look utterly fantastic. Each unit is rendered in high resolution with a very detailed geometry, and clash against each other with tremendous effect. Heroes send several soldiers flying with each strike, while artillery pieces down dozens of enemy units with a passion. The terrain itself also looks utterly amazing, with geographical variations and multiple set dressings such as towers, statues, and buildings littering the landscape and background. As beautiful as it is, everything besides the terrain itself serve serve only as a backdrop to battles — even settlements play no tactical part in it, as the enemy army will face you in the field.

Unfortunately, the sound design is a bit lacking. Battles do not sound particularly interesting from an auditory standpoint, but the campaign map has it worse: Heroes constantly utter catchphrases in the campaign map, which doesn’t take long to become annoying, and diplomacy is distractingly disconnected from the actual circumstances — someone whose opinion of you is just one point below neutral will scream at you in rage and call you a traitor, while people who barely know you will proclaim how much of a trusted ally and friend you’ve been to their people. Similarly, the soundtrack is utterly forgettable. Coming from Shogun II’s brilliant feudal melodies to Rome II’s latin music and Attila’s terrific throat singing, Warhammer II’s OST leaves a lot to be desired. Is not that the music is bad, per se, it’s just that it is ordinary — unlike the often praised scores of historical Total Wars, Warhammer II’s soundtrack fails to stand out.

That lack of identity, however, is not present in the tackling of the setting. Thanks to the unique characterisation and gameplay mechanics, the game at times almost feels partly RPG, vesting you with interest in the happenings of the world and of your particular culture. As I previously mentioned, I loved playing as the High Elves — their unique Influence mechanic allows them to manipulate the diplomacy of far countries from afar, and they really feel like aristocratic stuck up snots, ruling the world from their ivory towers. However, the game does take the plunge into the deep end of lore at times, and as a result it is utterly unwelcoming to newcomers. 

Pretending to see it from the lenses of a newcomer, this is what happens: the campaign starts with a cutscene that throws a dozen names around, mentioning brothers, places, and murders, none of which meant absolutely nothing to me. Shamefully, the game took 80 minutes to tell me who the hell my race actually was, and it did so by showing me a one paragraph tooltip about the High Elves. Instead of giving me an overview of the culture during the prologue, like most Total Wars do, Warhammer II forced me to spend an hour and a half with a race I knew nothing about to achieve things I had no interest in for people I didn’t cared for. It was a shameful introduction, and I am certain a lot of players unfamiliar with the setting will be put off by it.

In the end, however, Creative Assembly’s latest foray into the Warhammer universe is once more a success. It’s wonderful animations and fantastic visual identity deliver an immersive and enjoyable experience for anyone with even a passing interest in the fantasy genre. It is both a capable Total War game and a satisfactory Warhammer title, and it manages to unite both of them without losing sight of either. The world is in desperate need of a Total War: Lord of the Rings title, but until then, Total War: Warhammer II is your best fantasy choice.