Hands On With Total War: Warhammer’s Vampire Counts

Bleached white bone is the new black, undead immortality is the new 30 and death is the life of the party. Playing as Total War: Warhammer’s undead faction, the Vampire Counts, injects some fresh mechanics into the long-running strategy series’ blood and provides plenty of evidence that this will be far more than a fantasy paintjob applied to well-worn rules and mechanics.

There are two main reasons for my newfound faith: the ability to resurrect the fallen and the existence of giant flying monstrosities that eat archers for breakfast. Welcome to Sylvania, the rotten heart of the Old World.

Both the strategic map and the tactical battles of Total Warhammer are clearly cut from the same cloth as those in The Creative Assembly’s historical titles. The interface is similar, the landscapes are populated by similar troops of tiny people, and settlements follow a roughly approximate path of building upgrades. If you were to play the game with your historical hat on, you’d be in for a rude awakening though.

The undead don’t behave like any faction previously seen in a Total War game. That makes sense. They shouldn’t. Even the most militant and war-ready hordes can’t repopulate the ranks of their warriors quite as efficiently as an army capable of raising the dead and commanding them to fight. And yet I wasn’t willing to dismiss the nagging suspicion that Total Warhammer would fail to embrace the fantastical fully until I’d tried it for myself.

Before plunging into the positives – and there are plenty – there are two things to keep in mind. The first, broad point is that Total War games can look much stronger in a preview than in their final form. That’s not because of any sleight of hand on the part of the developers or publishers, it’s a symptom of the flaws that only become apparent after prolonged play. Even half a day spent with one of these behemoths doesn’t provide enough time to construct a meaningful analysis of the AI, in either the strategic or tactical layers, and any potential mid- and late-game slog obviously wouldn’t be apparent.

The second point is specific to this preview and to the Vampire Counts. Of all the Warhammer factions included in the game, they’re the one most likely to upset the applecart. That’s a good thing in this case – the applecart has been sitting there for far too long selling the same old apples – and it means that the usual Total War formula might be more apparent when playing as the other factions. We’re at the edges of strategic possibilities and shapes with the undead, playing with unconventional methods, and that makes them an ideal representation of the game’s fantastical elements.

Essentially, if I’d spent a couple of hours playing with the Empire, this might be a very different preview. In the context of the game as a whole, it makes sense for the factions to have unique playstyles and also to have at least one that hews close to the more traditional rank and file of a historical army, but I’m glad that my first experience of Total Warhammer was at the weird and wild end of the spectrum.

The best way to summarise exactly how weird and wild my time with the undead turned out to be lies in a conflict between myself and a fellow vampire. He was a neighbour, seemingly holed up in a haunted keep that he called home, and we were both attempting to carve out some new territorial claims in lands occupied by the living. That swiftly brought us into conflict with one another and we were soon picking through the bones of the armies we’d demolished in a big brouhaha at the border between our realms.

Inter-faction fighting, in the early stages of a campaign at least, might be extremely common. Even if you want to make a beeline for Karl Franz’s head, that’s all well and good, but you’re likely to be surrounded by chieftains, counts and kings of your own kind who have made similar plans. Alliances are all well and good, but eventually the fur and flesh is going to fly.

With around 20,000 undead now redead on the outskirts of my territory, I turned my attention to recruiting new units. Basic undead, in the form of zombies and skeletons, are cheap. They’re also rubbish. Zombies are the worst, the absolute worst, useful for absorbing the enemy’s blows for a while but barely capable of shuffling across a battlefield.

Undead units don’t have morale, presumably because they’re the unconscious puppets of the necromancer who raised them, so they’ll never flee. But they will crumble. It’s the perfect verb to describe their performance, crumbling. They’re like biscuits assaulted by too-hot tea, their rotten flesh resolving into clots and crumbs.

Crumbling occurs when undead are flanked or surrounded, and causes them to lose units at an alarming rate. My zombie masses tended to crumble before they’d made any impact whatsoever, limping toward the enemy and then disintegrating shortly after impact. They’re rubbish.

And that’s the point. The undead are as specialised a faction as I’ve ever seen in a Total War game. Their lords are capable of wading through crowds of infantry units, sweeping them aside with a combination of brute force and dark magicks, forming the focal point of many an attack. They have no ranged units whatsoever, which makes initial deployment deceptively simple, and the early stages of a battle a desperate attempt to cover ground quickly. That’s a drag when so many of your units are barely capable of standing upright, malformed and mutilated as they are. Tactical choices emerge, however, particularly when flying units are thrown into the mix.

Flying units look spectacular. It’s somewhat disappointing to find that the first tier critters can’t deal much damage and are more useful when deployed to harass an opponent’s ranged units, disrupting plans rather than destroying enemies. Tactically helpful but lacking the blood and thunder I hoped for.

The vargheists, which I started to recruit toward the end of the play session, do not lack in blood or thunder. They’re enormous things and when the crash down in the midst of a crowd of archers, they pluck individual people off the ground and carry them into the sky, screaming and panicking. They thrash and tear, sending men tumbling head over heels, and when one set of imperial warriors broke and ran, the vargheists pursued, using their wingtips as a second pair of legs in a way that was both comical and vaguely terrifying.

There’s a confusion to the battlefield, stemming from the fact that each faction has the means to outmaneuver the others, and that feels fresh. Deploying a ludicrous mass of zombies as a wall of flesh that must be contained before it gets too close to vulnerable units works as a method to distract from the surgical vargheist strikes that take out precious units that have nowhere to hide.

The fresh feeling carries through to the strategic map. All of those units that died on the borders of my land? They’re ripe for the picking and can be raised again – as weak, trashy fodder – to form the crumbling backbone of a new army. Or perhaps the fleshy protective shield around a backbone made up of stronger units.

When a major battle takes place in the world, it’s marked on the map and a undead lord who travels to the spot can raise the fallen to create a makeshift horde, or to bulk up an already-existing army. It makes them very tricky opponents to right as they’re capable of creating something out of (seemingly) nothing, constructing a ramshackle hindrance of an army. That can lead to unwanted distractions or even, as in my case, to a seemingly eternal conflict (I only played for 60 turns to ‘eternal’ is a stretch). Blood will have blood, ichor will have ichor and death leads to yet more pesky unliving warriors.

The combination of throwaway units recruited through unusual methods and specialised elite units is one side of the undead coin. On the other side there is the concept of corruption and blight. As you spread your influence across the map, the blight spreads with you. It’s slow to take hold though, which can make conquering an arduous process. I’m not entirely clear on the specifics as to how it can be encouraged or the numbers that are being crunched, but sending out an advance party to occupy an enemy city can lead to catastrophe. Away from the necromantic influence of the vampiric lands, they suffer a horrendous rate of attrition and will crumble to dust before they can set up efficient siege defences.

What I find pleasing about all of this is that it supports the notion that Total War: Warhammer’s factions will play different games, with their own possible strategies and tactics. There’s a very strong sense of identity in both the world and in the Vampire Counts themselves, and if that carries through to every faction, part of the battle for hearts and minds will already be won.

The little that I played of the campaign was promising as well. The map is tighter than Rome II’s sprawling monstrosity, which encourages the AI to create interesting scenarios. A dwarven stronghold that I’d pencilled in as my next target for conquest fell to marauding greenskins, who I had agreed a nonviolence pact with, before I’d dealt with problems elsewhere. And there was a lovely moment when an antagonistic neighbour backed down and offered peace plus a stack of gold when my lord came back from the dead in all his glory.

Named characters can die too, you see, and if you’re playing as the undead, they’ll become available to recruit again even if they fall in battle. That could lead to some interesting interludes – if a powerful hero falls but will rise again, there’s a window of opportunity for his enemies to attack while the iron is hot (and he’s cold, in the ground). I wish I’d had more time to explore hero skills and spells because they’re obviously a key part of battle. As it is, along with a healing and life-leeching spell, I managed to unlock some magic that allowed me to raise a unit of zombies during battle, which seemed exciting until I remembered that zombies are garbage.

All signs are promising, then, but until we’ve played with all of the factions and seen how campaigns play out in their entirety, it’s impossible to make any accurate forecasts. There’s encouraging talk of varied end-games that avoid complete conquest of the map as the goal, which should negate that awful sense that you’ve tipped the scales toward victory but have to grind out the final provinces to get over the finishing line.

This much is true: I had a wonderful time with the game and the way the undead attributes have been threaded through the tactical and strategic layers seems smart. It also shows full commitment to the cause; this is as much Warhammer in a Total War costume as it is Total War in a Warhammer costume. More than either of those things, though, it’s shaping up to be a broad, epic strategy game that isn’t afraid to tackle the weirder side of life (and death), in both its rules and its setting.

Total War: Warhammer will be available to play at EGX Rezzed and is out May 24th.

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Top comments

  1. TheWhippetLord says:

    Had a 'cannot unsee' moment on that first photo. My aging eyes and the placement of that feather initially led me to believe that the figure on the left was some kind of bunny-bretonian.
    The reality of this game can never be as awesome as those few seconds were to me.
  1. Jams O'Donnell says:

    Did you mean: Ushabti Bone is the new Abaddon Black.

  2. froz says:

    Oh, I just imagined Warhammer: Dark Omen redone with those new graphics… That would be so much better then another Total War AI mess :/.

  3. captainparty says:

    Total War’s terrible AI still manages to be better than I am at Total War games, so I will put up with its terribleness for a chance of leading Orc’s in a video game

    • FreshHands says:

      How true!
      Abstractly I should love this series for its interesting historical flavour. In reality I apparently totally suck at war on this scale and get owned by the A.I. during our first (and only) encounter.

  4. Danarchist says:

    I know this may be an odd question, but I have never played a Total War game before and I am wondering if you can pause the game mid-battle?

    • froz says:

      Yes, you can pause and issue orders. You will need to pause, because units are superfast and everything is happening very quickly (this aspect got much worse compared to old TW games, especially since now units have more and more stupid special skills that you have to remember to click, I’m guessing Warhammer will have even more of that). You can also dynamically speed up or slow down the game during battle. Both pausing and slowing down is not available for the highest battle difficulty (which, I think has no other differences, so it’s fine to just select one notch lower).

    • Aetylus says:

      Not an odd question at all. Its the one I ask on all RTS because deep down I just want them to be TBS. But yes, its fully pausable, so you can mull over strategy and tactics (or run off to change a nappy) to your hearts content.

    • Smaug says:

      You can both pause and give orders and you can also toggle slow-motion or accelerate time.

  5. Calculon says:

    Interesting article – however my big concern that the bones of the pre-existing Total War mechanics will be poking painfully out of the skin at every turn were only enhanced by the review to be honest.

    The fact that the ‘Recruit’ Mechanic appears to be a key piece in the game without adding any interesting mechanics around it that the undead might have leads me to believe its pretty much just a re-skinned Total War game.

    Recruit could lead to all sorts of various and interesting mechanics like – having to capture cities with lots of live individuals to turn into undead, or needing vast amounts of corpses, or perhaps special acquisitions in order to use necromantic skills etc would be much more interesting than just ‘recruit’ – I wont even get started on various races being made into undead like Goblins or Dwarves – how would that work/look? My guess is its not accounted for.

    My impression – pretty much the same old apple cart except this time, they put an Orange on top. Bleh.

    • lordcooper says:

      Did you even read the article? They can raise units that die in battle and even reanimate zombies mid-fight.

      From other previews I’ve seen, it seems like they don’t even use gol.

    • motoryogurt says:

      So you’re deciding to discount everything in the article. You missed the point.

  6. Maxheadroom says:

    Definitely looks like it’d be up my street. My history will Total War games though always seems to follow the same cycle:

    Buy new Total War game
    Play for a couple of hours and think “this is fun, must set aside some time to play it properly”
    Never fire it up again

    Guess that says more about me than the games though

  7. BathroomCitizen says:

    I love the medieval setting, so if I were to play one of the Medieval Total War games – given my extremely limited free play-time – which one should I give a go to?

    • froz says:

      There are only 2 and the first one is really old. You can play it, sure, it has some nice aspects (I prefer the 2D map from it, for example), but Medieval 2 is much better looking and probably has some other enhancements. AI is most likely on the same level. The biggest thing Medieval 2 adds is mods though. There are a lot of mods for it, including great total conversion mods (including warhammer and lord of the rings).

      • BathroomCitizen says:

        Ok, thanks, I’ll surely try the second one then.

        • BathroomCitizen says:

          Another question: Are the mods – take the Warhammer one, for example – really innovating on the gameplay side, or are they just reskins of the original factions?

        • Luke Nukem says:

          I would suggest you check out the current humble bundle…

          • BathroomCitizen says:

            Hehe, in truth, that’s why I asked ;) I purchased it but I surely don’t have time to try everything!

  8. TheWhippetLord says:

    Had a ‘cannot unsee’ moment on that first photo. My aging eyes and the placement of that feather initially led me to believe that the figure on the left was some kind of bunny-bretonian.
    The reality of this game can never be as awesome as those few seconds were to me.

  9. Premium User Badge

    richlamp says:

    I’m really looking forward to this and hoping for the best. It looks like the breath of fresh air this series needs. I recently gave ROME 2 another shot and, although it’s much improved from its release, I just found it quite dull to play.

  10. Dr Biffo says:

    It’s pretty obvious Creative Assembly are deliberately avoiding making the game most of us really want, “Medieval III Total War”. They skirted around the issue with the “Attila” job so what’s going on? Are CA UK incapable of reprising and doing justice to Brisbane Studios’ previous work or are they avoiding Medieval III for some other “political” reason? Can an insider who works at CA let us know what’s actually going on? Thanks!

    • InfantryNerd says:

      Ehh, I would definitely argue about what “most of us really want.”

      I doubt I am the only one who has been wanting a fantasy based TW game since they started doing, “Thing we already did: 2 (we have boats now!)”

      I probably spent more hours playing Medieval 2 with non-historical mods than all of the other TW games combined. And I am super excited about Warhammer getting some proper game development (and not that age of sigmar bullshit either).

      Anyway, it’s not like we aren’t going to see another Medieval TW game. It’s just that us fantasy nerds finally get a turn. :p

  11. bill says:

    Sylvania, the rotten heart of the old world?
    link to cdn.sylvanianfamilies.net