I’m watching a lizard, riding a gargantuan dinosaur, beating the snot out of a dragon. A lizard, riding a lizard, fighting a lizard. And they’re surrounded by countless High Elves and Lizardmen, duking it out over an ancient ruin. A dinosaur carrying a solar cannon shoots the dragon and then goes berserk, trampling the pointy-eared archers who haven’t been flung aside. Total War: Warhammer 2 [official site] revels in the absurdity of it all.
The Lizardmen don’t seem like a faction that could have existed in the first game. They’re bolder and weirder – far away from the armies of the historical Total Wars. Warhammer 2, in general, feels like a significant departure from the tried and tested formula of the series.
“With the DLC, we experimented a lot,” designer Mark Sinclair tells me. “Each race had a unique set of features, and we’ve definitely doubled down on that.” In the case of the Lizardmen, they don’t just get to ride dinosaurs. They can summon raptors out of nowhere in the middle of battle, while on the campaign map they can link up cities through conquest and diplomacy, strengthening the power of their mystical geomantic web. This creates interesting vulnerabilities, too, as enemies can make the web fall apart by taking out key cities.
Back to the battle – it’s a quest battle that’s tied to the campaign story, where a Vortex has appeared and all the factions are rushing to control it. The High Elves have been mucking around in some jungle ruins, and the Lizardmen want to put a stop to their reckless poking and prodding. The scrap itself is atypical of Total War. It begins with a flashy cutscene reminiscent of dinosaur stampedes from Jurassic Park, and then the fight slowly unfurls.
The first phase is between two small forces, with the Lizardmen trying to clear a bridge. Once that’s over, reinforcements appear, and they can push their way up a huge hill, taking out deadly ranged units as they attempt to engage the main, heavily-defensive force. That’s when the dragon appears. Every dragon now has both a ranged and melee attack, and this one breathes fire before it comes crashing down on the scaled skulls of very distressed Lizardmen. The final phase sees the army attempt to take out a pair of wizards, ending the meddling Elves’ excavation once and for all.
So there’s a proper objective: kill the wizards. The rest of the battle is a backdrop for the quest, and when the wizards fall, the Lizardmen win. It’s unusual, but a welcome reprieve from just killing everything.
What’s surprising about this cold-blooded faction isn’t that it straps guns that harness the power of the sun onto behemoths, but that it has a lot of reasons to engage in diplomacy. In a series like Total War, it is perhaps not particularly surprising that diplomacy has always been a little awkward. Confederations and various faction mechanics undoubtedly improved the system in the first Warhammer, but this time Creative Assembly seem to be making an even more concerted effort to make diplomacy compelling.
So, not unlike the Wood Elves, the Lizardmen can choose the path of conquest or diplomacy when it comes to accruing more power. But it’s their enemy, the High Elves, who are the masters of making deals.
“High Elves are the kings of diplomacy,” explains lead writer Andy Hall. “People not familiar with High Elves probably think of them as these airy-fairy good guys, but this is Warhammer, and nobody is good. The High Elves are political animals, proper House of Cards kind of guys.” These Machiavellian ne’er-do-wells can gather influence through court intrigue and then wield it like a weapon, recruiting new Lords on the cheap, setting enemies against each other or buttering up potential trade partners. Diplomacy, then, is fundamental to the High Elves.
Exploration has had new life breathed into it, too. There’s a point to trudging across the map when you’re not just trying to get from A to B. Searching for treasure in long-forgotten ruins is a pretty good reason for a jaunt across jungles and mountains. Exploring a ruin kicks off a Choose Your Own Adventure mini-narrative with random effects that range from the good, like currency and new recruits, to the bad, like Chaos corruption. Best avoid blood-covered, skull-shaped amulets.
“The general point is, we’ve got such a large map this time, we wanted to make sure it’s very active,” says Hall. “So we’ve got lots of sea, for instance, and so going across the sea isn’t a boring thing, we’ve put encounters there, a bit similar to the treasure hunting. There will be reefs and shipwrecks to interact with and rogue armies roving around, so it’s a populated map.”
Rogue armies are an interesting new wrinkle. They’re unaffiliated armies that wander the map, getting into trouble, but what makes them a bit special is their composition. You might witness an Orc general leading a warband of Beastmen, or an army made up entirely of Trolls or Squigs.
The Old World races will be present, then, in rogue armies and even territory – the Vampire Counts have a nice little vacation spot on the coast. If you own the first Warhammer, however, the entire Old World continent will be present. “With the first patch we’re going to ship this grand campaign, this mega campaign, which is going to combine the Old World with the Warhammer 2 map,” Sinclair explains. “Before, when you were playing as the Empire, you could only move within that Old World area, but now you can start a campaign, sail right over to the High Elves area and capture that territory.”
So, prior to any DLC, Total War: Warhammer 2 will have both a story campaign and a mega campaign. The Vortex scenario is like Realm of the Wood Elves or Call of the Beastmen, only much larger. But even within the confines of the narrative, it’s still very much a sandbox. Each faction is trying to collect Vortex currency in a race to control the maelstrom, but there are many ways to do that, and other ways to put speed bumps in front of enemies.
“Rather than just race them to the Vortex, you can effectively kick the other guy in the knees” says Hall, grinning. That’s where conquest comes in. So you can play the campaign traditionally, swallowing up provinces and factions in a bid for global domination, stopping anyone else from reaching their objectives. Or you can forge alliances, manipulate opponents or focus on the story, going on quests for different characters.
With this magical storm looming over everything, the campaign was never going to have a typical Total War end-game. This is a very, very good thing. No more mopping up the last provinces while you slowly march towards a forgone conclusion. “We’re going to end it with a big bang – there’s a climax to it,” Hall teases. He won’t say what shape it will take, though I’d be surprised if it wasn’t some dramatic final clash. It won’t just be the big empires in the running, either. A tiny empire might have the most Vortex currency, while a continent-spanning superpower could very well lose the game.
The path you take might depend on your chosen Lord, too. The first game introduced the concept of factions with multiple starting positions through DLC, using them to create new challenges and tell different stories. In Total War: Warhammer 2, every faction will get this. Usually, the second, less important Lord will start in a trickier position, like the High Elf Lord Teclis, beset by enemies on all sides.
Combined, all of this makes for a bewilderingly massive game. Two bewilderingly massive games stitched together. And Creative Assembly are already thinking about DLC and expansions.
“DLC has done very well for us,” says Sinclair. “It’s been really appreciated by players… they certainly always want more. Obviously we want to do that. Like we said from day one, it will be a trilogy, and we can’t get all 16 races in the three games, but we can do that with the DLC, as well as Lords and Heroes packs, and we’re also looking at new kinds of DLC.” What new kinds of DLC? They’re keeping shtum for the moment.
It seems a bit silly to say that this is a more confident Creative Assembly at work, when the studio has been making these games for almost 20 years. But Total War: Warhammer is a different beast. Ultimately, it succeeded by not just being another Total War game, by introducing RPG elements, characters and faction-specific mechanics. Now that the developers have seen that not only does it work, but that it’s been embraced, it seems like they’ve been encouraged to take things even further.