Creative Assembly’s second RTS Warhammer title, Total War: WARHAMMER 2, arrived last fall, and, much like the turns you’ll take in the campaign, we’ve been taking our time with it. There are some great improvements and additions to the game, though there are still a few quirks that we hope will get worked out in the long-run.
Similar to the first game, Total War: WARHAMMER 2 combines the turn-based, city building aspects of Civilization when you’re at the campaign map with the real-time strategic action that’s a hallmark of the Total War series. While there are multiplayer options for putting together your own army and going up against human or A.I. opponents, the new "Eye of the Vortex" campaign is the biggest attraction and where you'll find the most co-op "bang for your buck."
The main objective of Total War: WARHAMMER 2's campaign is to gather up "ritual resources" from around the map and perform each of the five rituals necessary to claim the "Great Vortex" at the center of the map. So, while you'll still be marching your forces around the map and capturing cities from the other races, there's a specific purpose in doing so outside of "wipe out everyone else." There are four different races from which you can choose to play (Dark Elves, Skaven, Lizardmen, and High Elves), and each one has their own unique structures to build, units to train, and technology to research. They also have their own special mechanics, such as the Dark Elves being able to capture slaves from defeated opponents that get sent back to cities to increase overall income, or the Lizardmen’s “Geomantic Web” that links their settlements together and provides additional bonuses.
Outside of the campaign now having a set objective (control the Vortex) instead of the nebulous "kill or form an alliance with everyone" goal from Total War: WARHAMMER, the biggest changes from the original to the sequel are subtle. The first of these are the different “Rites” that can be performed once certain conditions, such as researching a particular technology or constructing a certain structure, are met. These Rites provide limited-time bonuses and have a cooldown period of several turns before they can be used again. These bonuses can swing things in your favor when you really need it, so there's some strategy involved in deciding when to "pull the trigger" on them. The other new feature is that every city now has a "habitability rating" for each race. While occupying a "habitable" city will provide no benefits, occupying an "unpleasant" or "uninhabitable" city will inflict an array of penalties like increased construction time for buildings and lower income earned from those buildings. Thus it's not always to your advantage to push into an area and take over another faction's cities. Sometimes, diplomacy and negotiating alliances is the better option, an idea that was present in the first game but never felt like a viable option. All of these differences and changes mean there have been some changes to how the campaign co-op works as well.
In the first game, you could team up with a friend to play as two different factions and work together to take out everyone else. As we’ve covered previously, if you and your buddy own both Total War: WARHAMMER games, then you can relive this co-op experience as any of the factions from either title in the “Mortal Empires” campaign. If you’re looking for something new/different, then you’ll want the “Eye of the Vortex” campaign. Unlike “Mortal Empires,” you now play together as the same faction, i.e., you’re both Dark Elves, or both Skaven. While playing as the same faction has the added benefit of placing you and your co-op buddy close to one another on the big map, there are some confusing elements to it as well.
The most confusing element to the campaign co-op in Total War: WARHAMMER 2 is that there is absolutely no sharing of resources whatsoever. You cannot give units to your buddy if they really need them, nor can you give them gold. There are a limited number of cities on the map and you can’t both occupy the same place. Finally, despite the fact that you’re both attempting to take over the vortex for your faction, your progress towards that ultimate goal is separate. You both acquire the materials necessary to initiate the rituals individually and you cannot share. In a weird way, then, all of this kind of puts you and your friend a little at odds as there are only so many resources to go around. You either have to pick one person to focus on doing the rituals while the other deals with taking out other factions, or you have to work out who gets what.
After playing through some of the campaign on my own, it’s clear that the co-op is ultimately limited by the underlying mechanics/systems of the game itself which has limited options for how you can ally yourself with another faction and none of those allow for the kind of features described here. Still, I would think that the developers would make at least some concessions for co-op players.
Of course, expanding your empire and performing the necessary rituals will put you in conflict with the other factions, and when you get into battle, Total War: WARHAMMER 2 shows off its tabletop roots… kind of. Prior to two armies duking it out, each side has the opportunity to first determine where on the battlefield that can position their units. Some of your troops may have a special “Vanguard” ability allowing them to be deployed outside the normal deployment zone (represented by a yellow rectangle on the battle map), thus providing you with the opportunity to plan and set up traps for the enemy once things get underway.
Beyond beginning-of-battle positioning, there is a lot of strategy involved in the battles themselves. Deciding when to send units into the fray and when to pull them back, which enemies to prioritize, when to use units' and leaders' special abilities - these are all things you'll have to be thinking about in the middle of battle. For instance, cavalry units are great for charging into the flanks and rears of enemy forces that are engaged by infantry units from the front, but they don't always hold up well in prolonged engagements. Thus, once they make their spectacular charge, you’ll have to take control of them and try to move them out of the fray so they can regroup and charge again. That wouldn’t be too bad if that was the only thing demanding your attention during a battle, but you’ve also got to manage your infantry, ranged, artillery, and specialty units as well. This micromanagement of your forces is a bit exhausting at times and I would often use the "auto-resolve" option for battles rather than control the action myself.
I know some of this comes down to a matter of individual preference. Some folks like the tense nature of having to command/react to things in real-time, while other prefer to take their time and scrutinize their options without feeling pressured by time. One of the things I really loved about the tabletop version of Warhammer was how, in some ways, it played out like a chess match. You’d take your turn, try to figure out what your opponent would do next, move your units, and engage others accordingly. While you can pause the action in Total War: WARHAMMER 2 whenever you want to select units and issue orders, you eventually have to unpause so things can play out once more. The good news is that when you’re playing the campaign with a buddy, you can share the responsibilities of command.
While the big picture campaign may have some interesting quirks, co-op shines when you get into the real-time battles. If, like me, you get overwhelmed by attempting to manage each of your units while enemy forces charge down on you, then you should bring a friend along to help out. When one player gets into combat they can give direct control over some of their units to their co-op buddy, thereby delegating some of the responsibility. For example, maybe you only want to concern yourself with your ranged units, so you give your friend control over the infantry and cavalry squads. Not only does this allow you to better focus on a smaller portion of the battlefield at a time, it also provides you and your co-op buddy with some great chances to really strategize and use the units to their fullest (“ok, I’ll pull the enemies over here with my archers and when they get close, you charge in with that shield squad before hitting them from the side with the cavalry”). Granted, this is only an option if your co-op buddy doesn’t have their own army close enough to provide reinforcements mid-battle, in which case each player controls their forces separately.
As a fan of all things Warhammer, the Total War take on the game has been an adequate substitute for the tabletop experience and even allowed me to play with old buddies once more. Within the bigger picture of RTS titles, I feel like Total War: WARHAMMER 2 provides a little bit of the “best of both worlds” mechanics from a variety of games in the genre. Even if I’d prefer the battles to be turn-based instead of real-time to truly fulfill my tabletop dreams, they still capture some of the best parts of Warhammer and provide you with that same thrill when your dragons swoop down on a pack of Skaven. If you hold a particular, specific hatred for the rat creatures, you can even slow time down and zoom in on the action to watch them get torn to pieces. There’s plenty of fun to be had within the game by itself, and you can sink even more time into it if you own the original title thanks to Creative Assembly’s (wise) decision to pull all the races into the sequel and make them playable in the multiplayer Skirmishes and “Mortal Empire” campaign. At this point, the only other thing I’d wish for would be an army painter feature.
Total War: WARHAMMER 2 is definitely a step in the right direction for the franchise as a whole. While there are a few quirks when it comes to the co-op, playing with a friend feels like the best way to tackle the campaign. Not only do you have someone with whom you can shoot the breeze while you wait for the A.I. to finish up its turns, but you also open up the possibility to better execute certain strategies on the battlefield by divvying up control of the units. While the game scratches a very specific itch for me as a Warhammer fan, I believe Total War: WARHAMMER 2 is an excellent title in its own right and worth picking up if you’re in the mood for something else to give you that “one more turn” feeling.