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There Is Only War: Playing Total Warhammer As The Chaos Warriors

Grind for the grind god

Raze, sack, slaughter, burn, maraud. The life of a Total War: Warhammer [official site] Chaos Warrior is simple, with few diplomatic interruptions and little in the way of urban planning. There are buildings to construct, but they're part of the caravan of carnage that makes up your nomadic horde, and when you lay waste to a settlement, occupation isn't on the cards. The Old World map becomes a chain of battles and the core of any Chaos strategy is to build and maintain forward momentum as you carve your way through the factions.

Playing as Chaos, the game really is Total War, with no distractions. I've spent some time campaigning with Khorne and co to figure out if this barebones approach to the game is effective.

Total War: Warhammer's greatest strength lies in the diverse approaches demanded by the playable factions. I've fallen for the Dwarves, whose Book of Grudges delivers a steady stream of short-term objectives that serve to guide my efforts and provide a neat narrative context for the many minor wars and disputes that arise. They're a great faction for a first campaign partly because of the light hand-holding of the Grudges, and partly thanks to fairly well-rounded army composition. Compared to the Vampire Counts, whose lack of ranged units tears up the tactical playbook, dwarven troops are a cinch to manage.

Chaos Warriors are slightly trickier. While their entire ethos is based on destruction and warfare, the armies you can recruit in the early running of a campaign are a bit naff. Marauders, which make up the bulk of the first tier units, are feeble compared to many of their opponents, only elevated by the mounted units who can lob weapons over short distances, performing a microcosmic version of the hit and run raiding and razing that typifies the Chaos approach to warfare.

Sadly, these early units make all of your Chaos leaders talk of skulls for the skull throne feel slightly ironic. The majority of the skulls you'll gather with a tier one army belong to your own marauders. Against a sizable stack of human units, marauders tend to fall apart like a Nurgling's nappy, unable to take the strain. They're so surprisingly feeble that I was tricked into thinking that the entirety of the Chaos horde had been underpowered to make up for a possible strength in numbers that would evade me until later in the campaign. Dismayed, I decided that my violent voyage into the south would be put on hold while I did something unthinkably unChaotic.

I set about to some serious grinding.

Chaos Warriors might have some puny early units but once you're recruiting Chaos Knights and monstrous units like the Chaos Giant, you're more than capable of outmatching an equivalent Imperial force. The horde becomes formidable quite quickly, but making a beeline for the heart of your enemies is unwise. Play like a boxer rather than a piledrivin' demon straight out of hell and set yourself up by aiming a few jabs at the body and bonce of your opponents before going for the knockout punch. It seems a little odd to play Archaon the Everchosen, Lord of the End Times, as a patient pugilist, but think of the campaign's opening as the nascent stages of the End Times rather than the actual apocalypse. The drizzle before the storm.

Now, if you're thinking that playing as Archaon the Everdamp or Kholek Drizzlespouter sounds a little bit less exciting than playing as Archaon the Everchosen or Kholek Suneater, we are of one mind. As I mentioned right at the start, the Chaos strategy is all about momentum, like a snowball trundling downhill that becomes an avalanche. At the beginning of the game, you're scrabbling around to find enough snow to pat into a ball though, rather than setting the thing rolling right away. That might work out OK if there were more than one type of snow to choose from - bring in Nurgle's gross acolytes for some of the yellow stuff maybe - but there isn't much room for experimentation in the early stages.

Perhaps that ties in to the single-minded nature of the Chaos Horde. Orks might seem to fight for the sake of fighting, but Chaos treat destruction as an end in and of itself. Your objectives are mostly simple - raze this many settlements of a certain type, or raze this many settlements total. The focus on combat above all else serves to highlight Warhammer's battles, which I reckon are Total War's best in terms of sheer spectacle. Seeing an enormous unit shambling across the battlefield can be intimidating in just the right way, and I still find archers fleeing from flying critters hilarious after tens of hours playing.

The number of battles involved in a Chaos campaign can become draining though. It doesn't help that the attrition penalty for Horde armies in close proximity means that it's best to field one army for much of the game, seeing the same units riding out again and again. It's a shame that sieges and town battles have diminished somewhat in Warhammer, both in regularity thanks to the AI's preference for open field battles and in variety thanks to the simplified approach taken by Creative Assembly this time around. The thing is, I think the choice to cut back on tedious chokepoint-based fights was a good one on the whole, but when it comes to Chaos, it'd be enjoyable to see settlements in flames during battles as well as on the campaign map.

As it is, expect lots of battles against armies of similar composition. Especially when you run into Kislev, at the northern borders of the lands of men. It's not unusual to find your mighty Chaos horde is being chased around the wastes of the Old World by several stacks of enemy forces. And when you do meet on the field, temptation to auto-resolve after one too many repetitive battles might be your undoing - larger units, such as those Chaos Giants that are so precious to you, seem to take an inordinate amount of damage during automated combat, which leads to longer healing time post-scrap, which leads to the AI building more stacks to oppose you...and so on and so forth.

None of this is to say that I haven't enjoyed playing as Chaos, but I can't imagine starting another campaign with them. It'll be the Greenskins for me next, and then I might go back to the Dwarves for another playthrough on a higher difficulty.

I'm glad that the Chaos Warriors exist though, partly because the very nature of their ruleset shows that Creative Assembly are willing to explore elements from Total Wars past (the horde mechanics from Attila in this case, though a lesser version of them) as well as playing with the fundamentals of the game when designing new factions. It seems likely that the Wood Elves will be entering the fray at some point, given that their home territory, Athel Loren, is a blank spot on the map. It's just waiting to be filled with settlements and some weird territorial rules to suit such a reclusive faction, surely.

The other reason to be grateful for Chaos, apart from the splendid nature of their more monstrous units, is the way in which they highlight the game's flaws. They do so usefully and it was only after playing with them for a while that I decided to install the two mods that have improved the game dramatically. They're both designed to counter problems that hadn't become wholly apparent until I spent time with the metalheads up north.

The first is the Home Region Movement Bonus mod, which gives armies travelling in a region owned by their faction a 10% bonus. It doesn't actually work for Chaos, since the faction doesn't really own any territory at all, but it was while playing my first Chaos campaign that I broke down and decided that being chased around by enemy armies was one of the most irritating things in the game. This gives at least a small bonus while in home territory, allowing you to outmaneuver enemies who are running around raiding and pillaging.

Even more essential is the Better AI Recruitment and Army Composition mod, which prevents the AI from dumping great big blobs of archers and artillery all over the map. If you've played a campaign to its finish, you've almost certainly come across this kind of behaviour, and I found it particularly grating when playing as Chaos because of the sheer number of battles I was fighting.

A mixed experience, then, the Chaos Warriors. Not enough to distract me from the riches of the mountainhomes and a little too constrained in their playstyle to keep me hooked for a second campaign playthrough, they feel better suited as a tutorial faction in some ways, lacking some of the complexities of their enemies. I admire the variety of the factions though and the Chaos Warriors are an extreme example of the rule changes Creative Assembly are willing to commit to. Despite my misgivings, I hope for similar extremes when future factions arise.

For our review of the base game, look here.

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