Platform: PC

Staring down a line of enemy artillery as it sights from both a height advantage and at its ideal range is a unique experience, one that made me grateful for the optional distance from the battlefield granted to the player in Total War: Warhammer 2. As if that wasn’t enough, watching a horde of screaming, traitorous Skaven bear down on my equally traitorous, but ordered line of infantry made my stomach quiver for what felt like the hundredth time.

Coming out victorious and completing the quest against this horde of traitors would net a massive bonus to the commander’s armor, along with a pile of gold that could be used to fund the war against the high elves.

Failure would leave the Skaven forces weakened and open to attack from the Lizardmen to the west, who had an eye on the High Elf capital, which two armies were currently hard at work besieging. Knowing that attempting a quest during a siege was far from ideal, but Skaven love destroying traitors, especially traitors who have chosen to backstab us, specifically.

Failure wasn’t an option, but there was a plan, using a cadre of rat ogres, slingers, and the most veteran Skavenslave Spearman to flank around the hill to the left and right, even as the enemy artillery fired their first shots on the solid block of rat-bait. Watching the enemy prepare to decimate a much smaller force from an ideal position was still nerve wracking, the kind of nerve wracking that didn’t get any better when realizing that the right-most wing of the flanking infantry was being slowed drastically by a small skirmish force led by an enemy war machine, which for all intents and purposes looked like a half-mad rat driving the world’s deadliest hamster wheel.

In response, deploying a charge of rat-in-a-can, better known as the Skaven’s battlefield ability The Menace Below, summons a small, but weak band of infantry anywhere on the battlefield. Rats literally boiled from the ground beneath the enemy artillery, and setting the rat-bait pinwheeling around one of the large underground columns holding up the roof of the cavern for cover. This further draws in the enemy artillery and infantry.

The enemy commander split the force charging down the hill so that some could handle the minor infantry annoyance currently ripping apart his artillery. After that things get a lot more hectic, a combination of rapid clicks trying to keep the forces from being surrounded, keeping enemy slingers from breaking Skaven morale, and making sure that the worst of the Skaven forces always outnumbered the enemy commander’s rats two to one.

Despite this, getting some of the battlefield’s most precious commodity, time, and when the force finally managed to pull the gates of the trap shut, the Skaven was able to put a stranglehold on their enemy commander and cut the battle short before reinforcements could advance and attack the Skaven flanks.

This was one battle, and TW:WH2 manages to deliver this kind of tense, high stakes action around every corner. Your ability as a commander can turn the tides of a battle, even one where you feel hopelessly outmatched, or can send you hurtling towards ruin as your choices on the turn-based map result in very real consequences when you start throwing troops around in the trenches.

As you would expect, TW:WH2 is similar in all the ways that matter to the original Total War: Warhammer that launched last year, yet carries enough polish to make it accessible to beginners in the genre, and still feel like a quality high-level strategy game that expands on the foundation created by the original.

Pick Your Poison

Unlike most Total War games, where units and factions play, look, and feel like similar flavors of the same ice cream, TW:WH2 builds on the layers of wildly fantastic variation we saw in the original title. It uses the first game as a framework to bring four more unique races to the party that all encourage drastically different playstyles, and the unique traits and abilities of each race change how you approach nearly every situation.

These races each feel fun and challenging to encounter and to play, and although you can’t play as the factions we saw in the original Total War: Warhammer for now, they can still be encountered as you progress through the campaign. This makes it feel like Creative Assembly is using every resource available to change up gameplay from the original, while temporarily forcing players out of the shells of their favorite factions. At least until they release the update that unlocks the ability for fans who own both games to play any faction from the first two titles in the mother-of-all-campaigns, which is planned. 

In the meantime, TW:WH2’s four flagship races feel more than substantial enough to carry the game on its own. Following the trend of the first game, each race feels distinct and unique enough to both draw the player in and ensure that there’s more than enough to learn in order to keep you interested long into the final turns of a campaign.

Dark Elves don’t fight like High Elves, High Elves don’t fight like Dark Elves, and Lizardmen and Skaven are on a whole different level. When was the last time you watched rats the size of busses go toe-to-toe with mace wielding raptors? How about triceratops cavalry bearing down on ordered lines of shining High Elves? Perhaps screaming banshees charging lines of rats wielding flame throwers and tossing grenades primed with poison? The possibilities are endless, and each faction feels like a unique challenge to learn, play, and eventually master as you confront their weaknesses and consolidate their strengths, both on the strategic map and the battlefield alike.

There’s no doubt that the culture and variance present in the Warhammer lore helps to build out this sense of identity, and the more you play as any one faction, the more you feel like you’re taking a deep dive into a whole new way of thinking. It isn’t long before you find yourself questioning whether you should play as a die-hard tactician that’s in it to win it, or if you should begin to spiral into a playstyle that fits the culture of your chosen faction and commander.

Are you absolutely sure of your superiority as a race like the High Elves? Unwilling to compromise as you march your armies toward absolute control of the vortex? Or are you obsessed with the nitty gritty details of running a bloody empire off the backs of your defeated enemies like the Dark Elves? Will you push objectives as the Lizardmen, pulling together a powerful support network that’ll allow you to stretch your empire wide and deep? Or are you a Skaven? A rat that pushes the boundaries, filling the world with corruption while rending a tear across the overworld, making peace just to backstab your enemies when the time is right, before they manage to do the same to you.

Or have you found a new way? A compromise to the ethics and strategies of each faction that allows you to forge them like a sword made from red hot iron, ready to purge anyone that threatens your domination of TW:WH2’s vastly enlarged campaign map.

The joy of TW:WH2 is that it teaches you the rules to succeed, and then sets you loose on the world, with the full knowledge that you’ll soon learn exactly when to ignore or break those rules entirely. It’s a system that feels good. A system which rewards you for intelligently experimenting, for feeling out the rules of engagement, and then stepping around them at the perfect moment to deal a crippling blow to your enemies.  

The Coming Storm

Unlike the first game, where the factions largely operate on their own schedules according to their specific win conditions, TW:WH2 seemingly improves on this formula with the addition of the Vortex as a primary plot device. It's something that gives factions a much more accessible and focused goal to structure their strategy around in the opening acts of the game.

Every faction wants to either control or destroy the Vortex by the end of the campaign. Gathering resources to perform faction specific rites and rituals builds a sense of direction for the player while also encouraging conflict in a way that the first game didn’t.

You’ll need to push hard to gather the materials you need to perform these rites. Doing so will often dispense hefty rewards and bonuses, but also force you to slow your advance and protect your borders from the forces of chaos. Other factions would love to keep you from getting one step closer to completing every rite, and therefore your final objective.

The result is a balancing act that in one way gives your faction a purpose, but can also make your factions greatest strengths work against you. When you throw quests, diplomacy, and a bit of roleplay into the mix, the choices can get extremely hectic and at times incredibly overwhelming. There’s no doubt that it makes each turn feel more significant and does a lot to break up waiting on endless turn timers in the mid to late game moments of a traditional Total War title.

It’ll be interesting to see where the chips fall when other factions join the mix later on in TW:WH2’s lifetime. During our time with the game each faction felt like they pulled off the balancing act well. There’s no telling how the more erratic factions would handle the static nature of these newly introduced win conditions.  

A Beautiful Distraction

Similar to the first game, TW:WH2 looks beautiful in a genre where units are often detailed, but better observed from a distance. Visually, this means that zooming in for a closer look during rare lulls in the tide of battle are a real treat. You’ll see your favorite heroes fighting nearly impossible odds, watch large creatures crash through enemy lines with a much more satisfying crunch when compared to the first title, and plenty of other sights that would make Tolkien proud. Each unit is extremely detailed and animations seem to have taken a small but noticeable leap in quality since the first game. Even with all that, there are still the occasional unwieldy moments when large armies clash in the heat of battle.

Furthermore, the user interface across the whole game has been reworked to feel a little more streamlined. It’s easier than ever to sort, assign, and gauge the disposition of your forces on the battlefield and campaign map. This has a direct impact on the games flow, making it much smoother during more complicated turns when a lot is going on.

Sadly, there are still some holes in the tutorial; more than a few stats and numbers are far from properly explained, and for new players there’s really no easy way to figure out when to use something like an armor piercing unit without a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of other forces.  Unfortunately, the user interface doesn’t give you many clues, often showing you stats and values that you can’t hover over to learn more about. Meanwhile, enemy units are an utter mystery until you’ve either played as the faction or taken some time to do some research into game, but not in game.

Of course, this doesn’t ruin the experience, and thankfully some of these stats are self-explanatory in their own way. It would just be nice to have a more direct way to gauge how valuable these stats are on the battlefield.