Like many youths on the mean, winding streets of Bland County, Virginia, my capacity to have fun centered around creating fun for myself. Friends usually lived far beyond walking distance, and getting to see them was an event saved for weekends, summer camps, or Boy Scout meetings. Thus, keeping myself entertained meant playing games and, occasionally, inventing them. A youthful obsession with the Warhammer universe became an obvious fit for a 10 year old with an amalgamation of toys and no prior engagements. I couldn't afford the models or paints necessary to field an actual army of Eldar or Chaos Warriors, but I was able to save up enough to purchase a couple rulebooks for a less popular offshoot of the franchise: Epic 40k. Using a conglomeration of my LEGOs, toy soldiers, and Micro Machines, I cobbled together forces of good and evil to combat each other. My tenuous knowledge of the ruleset made the bedroom-spanning battles more improvisation than page flipping, but I loved each and every encounter and often convinced (forced) friends to indulge me in a round between sessions of Zombies Ate My Neighbors.
Imagine my joy when, years after that childhood of imagined, epic battles, Creative Assembly announced that they would finally be trying their hand at the world of Orks and Dwarfs.
Perhaps my biggest grievance with Total War: WARHAMMER is the length it took in arriving. Given Games Workshop's past reticence to lend their treasured license to the realm of video games, it makes sense; but even with all the corporate hand-wringing about brand protection and whatnot, you'd think that the marriage of these two franchises would have been a no-brainer. Regardless, it exists now, and it's every bit as beautiful, stressful, and complex as you could've hoped.
As much as CA's previous entry, ATTILA, managed to play it safe and quietly expand on the ideas set forth in Rome 2, WARHAMMER extricates itself from those preconceptions and twists them in ways tailored to the universe in question. Each faction has its own unique mechanics and victory conditions, ranging from the Orks' Waaagh to the Dwarfs' Book of Grudges. These complex additions tend to dictate, but not necessarily dominate, your approach during play; where the Empire may try to insulate themselves from Vampiric corruption or the impending Chaos blitzkrieg, Ork armies must constantly chase battle in order to prevent boredom and subsequent infighting. It may take a little while to come to terms with these deviations from the standard Total War formula, but once understood, they keep the game humming along in a way that feels wholly unique.
That's to say nothing of the battles themselves, of course, which are easily the deepest and most fun I've had in any Total War game thus far. For someone who cut their teeth (albeit not very well) on Total War: Shogun, that's quite the accomplishment. Each real-time conflict looks and feels like an epic, knockdown, dragout affair. They are equal parts high fantasy and gritty realism, with flying lion-mounted wizards mixing their arcane prowess with the palpable sweat and blood of the armies below. Strategies must constantly fluctuate and adapt to the opponent and their army's composition. Attempting to lock down an enemy necromancer to prevent him from resurrecting fallen combatants feels like a far cry from looping around Ork armies in an effort to squash their guerilla warfare tactics. A fantastic A/V experience depicts each affair with the proper weight and tone. At many points in my time with the game, I sincerely wished for a break from my strategic duties, if only for a chance to watch as my ranks of Grudge Throwers pelted my Ork nemeses from afar.
The game's aesthetics thankfully extend beyond its bloody combat. The campaign map looks just as one would expect from a Warhammer property. Both landscape and settlement alike are simultaneously bombastic and understated. Mountainous passes are flanked by massive, carved skulls, Bretonnian cities glow with an Arthurian aura, and the Chaos Warriors’ rampaging path can be traced by the bloodshed and destruction left in their wake.
On top of the complexities of army composition, WARHAMMER expands on previous iterations of leadership outfitting by giving you full control over the equipment used by your armies' generals. It's not an entirely new step, as previous Total War games have allowed players to garner minor items and retinue for their named minions, but WARHAMMER presents potions, staves, armor, and weaponry that can be gained from quests or wrested from the clutches of your fallen foes and equipped to their respective slots, à la Age of Wonders 3 or Endless Legend.
The stark differences and complexities of the various factions make co-op play shine. While the starting empire locations inevitably lead to early turns becoming repeated variations of "so… how are things going on your end?", both sides of the game's two player online co-op experience vastly different versions of empire management. Obviously, this won't affect things too much when the two of you are each dealing with the initial political and combative landscapes, but once your factions begin to reach each other and homogenize, the strategic implications really begin to shine through. The mind quickly reels with possible combinations, both tactically and strategically. Perhaps your regenerative Trolls can hold a few enemy units long enough for your Vampiric allies to wheel their Terrorgheists into the enemy artillery, or maybe your Pegasi are the perfect cover for the Dwarfs' ranks of Organ Guns. Seeing these factions interact in such a way is something I've longed to experience for years, and having these systems intertwine so effortlessly is a fantastic feeling for both the Total War and Warhammer fan in me.
It's unfortunate, then, that the game continued in the tradition of Creative Assembly's patented Launch Day Bugs. While I believe games should be be judged over a period extending beyond their initial launch, the bugs preventing me from getting much time with WARHAMMER during its initial launch stages were tough to stomach. It took until the first major patch for me to feel comfortable spending lengthy sessions with the game. While it's nowhere near the Rome 2 debacle, I suspect that some users will continue to deal with issues well into the rest of 2016.
Games Workshop's history in the video game arena is spotty at best, but they've recently hit a hot streak in terms of both polished and well-supported products. When paired with Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide, you and your friends could spend hours in the now-dead Warhammer Fantasy universe. Given these victories, it seems strange that GW decided to dismantle their beloved setting, scorching the earth every step of the way. Any good commander will tell you, though, the best plans are those hidden from prying eyes. Perhaps Age of Sigmar will continue this string of successes in ways we didn't even know we wanted. Who's to say? For now, though, we are blessed to have received a game so lovingly crafted from both ends of the spectrum. Whether you're a Total War junkie just dying to get your hands on the latest strategies, a Warhammer veteran looking to convert your tabletop experience to a computer monitor, or an adult whose childhood memories of epic, carpeted combat still linger, Total War: WARHAMMER is about as easy a recommendation as I've ever had to give. I'll still never forgive its creators for wasting the opportunity to name it Total Warhammer, though.