There’s a long-standing theory among the Warhammer community that the chaos wastes at the globe’s south pole house a peculiar breed of beastmen in the form of evil, monstrous penguins. The theory is based on a world with similar geography to our own, and the tendency of the ruinous powers to morph local fauna into mockeries of their previous forms. No ping-gors show themselves as I trawl the southern wastes as stealthy chameleon-skink Oxyotl, but I find myself thinking about them all the same. Noot for the noot god, the blasted crags seem to whisper. Fish for the fish throne.
Evil penguins or not, all things seem possible with Immortal Empires, the combined landmass of the Total War: Warhammer trilogy into a single sandbox map, vast and varied in its climates, landmarks, and inhabitants. Creative Assembly have already dug deep into dusty stacks of White Dwarf to flesh out footnotes into full factions, and as the list of obvious additions dwindle, things can only get wilder and more creative. For now, we have one very big map stuffed with each faction and lord from three massive strategy games, creaking and occasionally buckling under the weight of its own promise. But it works. There’s a breadth of technical and balance issues still to solve, but the Immortal Empires beta is substantially more stable, playable, and enjoyable than I dared to hope it would be for at least another six months.
The words ‘End Turn Times’ spur similarly strong reactions in Total Warhammer players as the words ‘End Times’ do for Warhammer Fantasy players, so allow me to soothe your fractured nerves: they’re fine. Good even. About 30-40 seconds, a minute at worst. Part of me wonders if some AI complexity wasn’t sacrificed to achieve this sorcery, but it’s hard to get too conspiratorial during such negligible downtime. The hilariously overconfident autoresolve has taken another balance pass and seems much more sensible now.
What hasn’t changed is the frequency of the new minor settlement battles, exacerbated by AI that vastly prefers turtling over meeting you in an open field. This has been a known issue for a while now, and one we’re due a patch for, with the aim of making land battles the more frequent type. Until then, I’m consoling myself with some absolutely gorgeous maps, and the need to think a bit harder about army composition with certain factions - my beloved hawk rider air force no longer cuts it if I want to capture points.
Immediately noticeable is how differently structured each individual campaign now feels. The flyover advisor speech at the beginning of each is now replaced with a brief line of dialogue from your chosen legendary lord, and chapter objectives don’t appear to exist anymore. I can do without the intermittent big piles of money, but I do miss the framing provided by brief but evocative paragraphs of lore. Going from N’kari to the Sisters of Twilight, it became clear how big the gulf is in story events and dilemmas between factions. A true sandbox should always be the aim, of course, but I did miss having a loose narrative frame to give shape to the freeform stuff with some factions.
A notable casualty of this move towards sandbox convenience is quests. The bigger quest battles still exist, but others are simply gone or autocomplete. It’s great to not have to send heroes halfway across the map, but it does mean a load of excellent writing and worldbuilding already done and released gets thrown out with the bathwater, like mushy parchment down the privy.
There are some great changes on this front, too. Everyone gets reworked campaign objectives for short, long, and ultimate victory conditions, with the vast majority of the short conditions offering bite-size, leisurely weekend, or long evening-sized campaigns - although there’s currently a possible bug that prevents any sort of win notification, robbing you of confirmation of your Warhammer genius. The customisable chaos invasion has been upgraded to several tweakable end-game scenarios, each spawning a different flavour of hostile doomstack-stack for you to contend with and within a turn window of your choosing. You’ll discover them all the first time you check the menu, but at least one gave me a good chuckle, so I won’t spoil it.
Less fun is a hoover dust bag full of bugs, running the gamut from hilarious to depressing. Some Chaos Spawn I fought were actually costumed Skaven, I decided, as I watched the supposedly unbreakable unit route from battle. I once followed some odd screaming on the campaign map to find Satyr Mel Gibson stuck in the same spear thrusting animation, bellowing tree nonsense, in an infinite loop. A few hard crashes, too. But the biggest issue I’ve run into seems to be some sort of AI shackle that stops them from being the threat they should be. Like Skarbrand, on turn 70, fielding a single army of low-tier units and no heroes, despite having six settlements and all the upkeep bonuses from very hard difficulty. Skarbrand, apparently, hates winning. Ditto Ikit Claw bringing stacks of slaves, and little else, to assault Athel Loren. He did still nuke my archers, though, so there’s something.
Releasing factions in an overtuned state and then periodically bringing out the nerf bat with Joe Pesci-like zeal is something both Games Workshop and Creative Assembly share
Impressive is the immense number of tiny tweaks for older factions, from balance and battle changes (Dragons are now beefier. Gor’rok’s unique rite now grants Saurus Warriors a Tzeentchy barrier. Norsca can build walls now) to lore-friendly recruitment options (Aranessa Saltspite can recruit Ogre Maneaters, ditto Vampire Counts and Mournguls). Alongside this, a few factions have had soft reworks - notably Vampire Counts and Tomb Kings - shuffling around build orders and unit tiers to make their starts faster and more forgiving. But practically every faction has received tweaks or passes of some kind.
The theatre of war has changed, too. Playing as several of the new chaos factions, I invariably found the much-maligned ‘Ordertide’ in such tatters that I almost got nostalgic for them, especially when I was quite looking forward to some heavy resistance. Releasing factions in an overtuned state and then periodically bringing out the nerf bat with Joe Pesci-like zeal is something both Games Workshop and Creative Assembly share, of course, but at least CA seldom charge for errata. Plus, I’ve always cared about thematics more than balance, anyway. After three games, it's finally Chaos o'clock, and if the Old World has to burn for it in beta, that’s a fair trade.
Etymology segue: Do you know what a Mountweazel is? It’s not a Warhammer monster, although I do remember one of Kieron Gillen’s newsletters containing a picture of a Skaven he’d literally mounted on a weasel statue he found in a charity shop, which I found very inspirational. This Mountweazel is a neologism referring to a type of copyright trap, also known as a ‘fictitious entry’, used by mapmakers, dictionary and encyclopedia publishers, and the like. You’re a cartographer, say, and you don’t want anyone copying your homework, so you might pop down a cheeky island or town or road network that doesn’t actually exist. These are sometimes known as paper towns, phantom settlements, or the gloriously evocative ‘cartographers follies’.
I bring this up because Immortal Empires has me thinking a lot about cartography, about hearsay and perspective, and misdirection. Whose map is this, really? Whose version of reality are we seeing here? Do we see this massive, stylised world as an impartial observer, or cobbled together from tales blurted out from half-mad survivors? At the moment, I feel like I’m seeing the world almost entirely from the perspective of a scientist, albeit a very impressed one. It’s not only that this new map has yet to hit its stride - it’s yet to find its tone. All of its most interesting aspects are inherited from its predecessors, and its darker, more chaotic focus is just now cementing itself with the release of the new factions. It’s beautiful, sure, and ridiculously detailed, but it doesn’t yet feel cohesive as a world in the same way it feels technically impressive as a game map. Huge swathes have invisible ‘popped out for lunch” notes, primed for expansions, and if you zoom in close enough, you can practically make out the scaffolds and saws, the cranes and pulleys.
But even if I don’t quite feel like I’m exploring the ultimate incarnation of a fully realised fantasy world just yet, I do feel like I’m experimenting with an incredible achievement in game creation. For the first time in a long one, the unknowns have returned. Little feels pre-determined, every path to power and global spanning empire up for grabs. As a mighty chaos lord or a scheming rat, I want to remove threats, to utterly obliterate my enemies. But as a player, I want to preserve them from harm, like cultures in a petri dish, to watch them grow and expand and see what wild new developments they can introduce to the war theatre.
It helps that I feel like I know so many of these characters personally by now, and maybe if you’re someone with an actual brain you get this feeling with the historical titles. But seeing these conflicts, both lore appropriate and wildly, hilariously incongruous, bubble up from border tensions and faction aversion, is always a treat. A treat that still needs time in the oven, for sure, but that won’t stop me from gorging myself on it.