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Total War: Warhammer 3 review: a heavyweight RTS with transformative changes to multiplayer

War really is hell this time, but in a good way

Total War: Warhammer 3 is an extremely hard game to review in isolation. It’s utterly massive in itself, with eight hulking single player campaigns at launch, not to mention a greatly expanded range of multiplayer and PvE skirmish options. But that’s just the start of it. For indeed, just like beloved Warhammer villain Ebeneezer Scrooge, any attempt to form an opinion on this game has to contend not just with the present, but with the bedevilments of its past and future to boot.

While it is very much a game you can buy and enjoy on its lonesome, TWW3 is perhaps better considered as the last, grand instalment of a game whose release began nearly eight years ago with Total War: Warhammer. It’s a genuinely epic construction; a proper Pillars-Of-The Earth-level feat of game development. And here’s where the future sticks the boot in. Because while the last stones of this electric cathedral have been lowered into place, the phone line to God hasn’t been wired in yet.

TWW3’s final consecration as a place of worship will occur some time over the coming months, when developers Creative Assembly release the Mortal Empires update. This will allow the game’s map, factions and systems to fuse with those of its predecessors, producing a sandbox strategy game of truly mind-buggering scope and - unless something goes horribly wrong - giving players the yawning digital strifehole we’ve spent a lot of the last decade dreaming of hurling our lives into. Oh, and then CA will start barking out a long stream of faction packs as well. You know, in case we get bored. There’ll be as much to say again about TWW3 when all that is done. And to me, honestly, that’ll be the verdict that matters more.

Still, there is plenty to say about this game as it stands. In classic overblown fantasy style, TWW3’s campaigns are all about collecting x number of ys, in order to unlock a z. In this case, x equals four, y equals devil souls (one from each of the four realms of Chaos), and z equals a dying bear-god. Said bear-god has been put in godjail by the demon Be’lakor, objectively the biggest dickhead in Warhammer, after having got battered in TWW3’s prologue campaign, and now everyone wants to bust him out.

An army of Slaneesh in a Total War: Warhammer 3 screenshot.
First time for everything
Nearly every Total War release prompts curious TW virgins to wonder if this is their moment to jump into the nightmare. TWW3’s prologue, an artfully accomplished narrative tutorial, should definitely serve as an argument in favour for said virgins. It’s got a brilliantly told little story, bearing some audacious similarities to the story of Cross Ice Bloke Arthas off of Warcraft, which makes it more than worth playing for veterans, too.

Ultragrim early-modern-Russia analogue Kislev wants the bear because it was their god in the first place. Cathay, a sort of high fantasy China and the game’s second human faction, wants it because of a slightly unconvincing plot involving finding the queen’s lost sister. The Chaos powers of Nurgle (poo and wee), Khorne (punching and kicking), Tzeentch (vultures and crosswords) and Slaanesh (cum) all want the bear because it’s something to do. Chaos’s fifth beatle, Chaos Undivided, is led by the bloke who wounded the bear in the first place. He wants to finish the job he started. Plus he is a devil now.

But what of the Ogre Kingdoms, TWW3’s preorder/first week “bonus” faction? Well, they want to eat the bear. Not in a metaphysical sense or anything. They just want a battleship’s weight in cosmic bear meat. I fucking love the Ogre Kingdoms.

As with every other TW game ever, the action unfolds on a big, gorgeous 3D map, where players build and develop cities, assemble armies represented by cute, over-scale models of their commanders, and smash these into cities or other armies in order to expand. When the smashing happens, you can either let the game decide who’ll win based on some quick maths, or play out the engagement in an RTS battle of gargantuan scale. None of this is probably news to anyone at this point.

As mentioned, everyone in play needs to collect four big jugs of devil juice in order to boot the lid off Be’lakor’s Bear Bin. To get each slug of juice, an army has to fight through one of the four Chaos realms, besting multiple stacks of satans along the way, before overcoming a climactic, tower-defence-style survival battle of the type I wrote about in last year’s preview. The realms only become accessible during magical mega-storms, occurring intermittently through the campaign, during which loads of portals appear on the map, corrupting the landscape and blopping out armies of devils.

This is extremely cool. The storm periods last a good few turns, and they give the same sense of apocalyptic desperation as the buildup to the endgame in Frostpunk. Playing as Kislev especially, with its role in the lore as the human world’s ultra-tough Northern bulwark against the forces of Chaos, the immersion was cracking. Despite being already overstretched due to three separate border wars, I suddenly had to contend with hell itself spewing out into my heartlands. Nevertheless, the portal events, plus the infernal invasions they make possible, are at the root of my single, big problem with Total War: Warhammer 3. This is, to put it succinctly - and you must promise not to laugh - that there’s a little bit too much fighting in it.

Every Total War title is, like football or a fist fight with an ettin, a game of two halves. There are the chilled-out, turn-based strategic segments, and there are the grinding micromanagement orgies of the RTS bits. The latter are where the games truly shine, admittedly. They’re also very intense, requiring some watering down with the more gentle dopamine drip of the strategic game between fights. Every individual player has their preferred mix of the two, and I like more strategy vegetables with my RTS meat than most. But at the end of the day, only a true maniac never hits the auto-resolve button.

I like more strategy vegetables with my RTS meat than most. But at the end of the day, only a true maniac never hits the auto-resolve button.

And the problem is, during the plot-critical storm sessions of the campaign, it feels like there’s a 20-minute fight happening every 10 minutes. There’s whatever wars you were having before the portals opened to deal with, for a start. After that, there are the field battles needed to close the portals you don’t want to use for invasions, and the fights against any Chaos armies they manage to spit out before you can do so. Then, should you invade one of the realms, you’ll have a good few beefy armies to chew through across multiple turns. Then, finally, there’s the grueling, super-sized survival battle to contend with.

That’s a lot of fights: several times during campaign play, I went through periods where I encountered between three and five tactical battles every turn, for 10 turns or more at a time. Auto-resolve, you would think, would have been my friend during these tricky spots. But auto-resolve has gone seriously fucking cool on me since TWW2, it seems. Maybe it’s just because the process is still being finessed, but I found the game giving me noticeably more miserly odds, especially in fights between higher-tier armies.

Even when a victory was forecast, I often had to play the fight manually anyway, since I knew the army in question would have more battles to fight in the very next turn. Casualties had to be kept to a minimum, and the game simply couldn’t be trusted with the job. Worse still, I couldn’t just take things at my own pace and skip the invasions until I felt ready. Unless you opt-in to the much grindier and less interesting Domination win condition for campaigns, you’re locked into a leaderboard against the other seven main factions, each of which is led by a tireless AI capable of ending the game for everyone if it gets into the bearzone first. All in all, it was just a bit too much. The constant high-stakes RTS action, paired with the lengthy loading screens while switching between maps, left me frequently closing sessions prematurely because I needed a break.

A red demon roars as his army charges forward in Total War: Warhammer 3
Hell is too hot for bugs
Having mentioned loading screens, I should say I was pretty delighted with TWW3’s performance on my PC. I experienced two crashes in 50 hours of play, which ain’t bad for a pre-launch build. And while I had periodic issues with running low on graphics RAM (despite my dedicated video memory matching recommended specs), I can’t say the difference really struck me.

With that gripe belched, however, I’ve genuinely got nothing else bad to say about TWW3. And I don’t mean that in the sense of "jolly good, more of the same"; this third slice of Warm Ham has been garnished with an ogre-sized handful of small but piquant improvements on the last. One of the advantages of Creative Assembly releasing 18 Total War games every month is that each successive release accrues the best adaptations of its forebears, in a sort of weird games Darwinism. The prime example here would be the addition of Three Kingdoms’ "rematch" feature, allowing a lost battle to be re-attempted instantly. This saved me a lot of save-scumming during my frequently-beefed invasions of hell, and went some way to ameliorating the problems with mid-game fight pile-ups.

Further tune-ups of note include the diplomacy system, which has been streamlined by a UI overhaul and some AI improvements, and which is way more rewarding to use in play thanks to a bunch of new options. Telling trespassing armies to piss off, and intimidating tiny allies into confederation, for example, were very handy indeed. Better than all of that, though, is the addition of outposts constructed in your cities, allowing you to recruit their troop types. So yes, your Kislev army can include dwarven artillery, lizardman dinosaurs and even bloody ratling guns, if you’re some kind of genius.

On the RTS side, TWW3 features a drift of small but crucial quality of life nudges - little “ZZZ” overlays on the unit bar for inactive troops, for example, or coloured outlines for units blocked from sight when there are trees in front of the camera. None of these little changes are particularly sexy, but in a game series which relies so much on revealing masses of information to the player on an already busy screen, all aids to visual comprehensibility punch well above their weight.

Siege battles, possibly the weakest element of the series so far, have been reworked entirely. Taking their cue from the lynchpin survival battles in the realms of Chaos, they now feature capture points, towers and barricades, and a robust, simple resource economy allowing the construction of new defences mid-beef. The new siege system has also been applied to minor settlement battles, which now play out like their larger counterparts, minus city walls to deal with. The new sieges are a fair bit more challenging for both attackers and defenders, somehow, but a lot more interesting with it.

The final, egg-sized jewel in TWW3’s tyrant crown, however, is the transformation of its multiplayer elements. For a start, games can now support eight players, rather than the previous two. This opens the door for massive 4-vs-4 brawls. Multiplayer fights can be good old fashioned field engagements, siege battles, chokepoint battles and more, or can take place via a new free-for-all, point-capture-focused arena mode called Domination.

Then there’s the option for co-op play against the AI, which can include all of the above save for Domination, and with the addition of the Survival missions from each of the Chaos realms. And to top it all off, there are even three entirely new campaigns designed for multiple players - an eight-player version of the single player campaign, and two others designed for three and six players respectively. Each of these condenses the scale of the single player campaign in a way that makes completion over as little as a couple of sessions a feasible prospect, which is smart.

But what’s genius is that they not only allow for players taking simultaneous turns, but do so in a way that leaves nobody waiting around while their mates fight. Whenever anyone jumps from the plate of the strategic map into the RTS gravy swamp, other players can get involved either by being loaned sections of a participating player’s army… or by taking on elements of the AI opposition. The potential this offers for shitstirring in fights that have nothing to do with you, all on its own, makes this a splendid decision.

There is so much more to say. The colour palette of Tzeentch’s realm would be worth a paragraph on its own. There are fully customisable Daemon Princes, which you can give beaks and tentacles purely for your own amusement. I’ve not even been able to spare more than a sentence for my beloved, dreadful ogres. And still, as I said at the outset, this is not even the final form of Total War: Warhammer. It’s just the game’s impossibly hench arse, being winched into place by a rickety crane, before Creative Assembly brings the monster to life and, with a hearty roar, it eats the rest of my year.

Disclosure: Nate Crowley writes Warhammer books for The Black Library, Games Workshop's publishing division. Alec Meer (RPS in peace) did some writing on TWW3 (although I don't think Nate even knew that and will probably find out by reading this disclosure).

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Nate Crowley avatar

Nate Crowley

Former Section Editor

Nate Crowley was created from smokeless flame before the dawn of time. He writes books, and tweets a lot as @frogcroakley. Each October he is replaced by Ghoastus, the Roman Ghost.