When I go to watch the Creative Assembly team show off units from their upcoming Total War: Warhammer [official site] game, what really sticks out to me is the sense of humour. I've been to Total War previews before and the emphasis is very definitely on serious historical epic battles. This time around I watch a goblin with scrappy-looking wooden wings clamber into a catapult, preparing to fling himself into the ranks of the opposition.
"That's called the Doomdiver catapult," grins battle designer Simon Mann. "Goblins volunteer – I don't know why you would – to have a pair of wooden wings strapped to their backs, get loaded into a catapult and then just get launched. In our game it is kind of silly, and there's a lot of humour in the Warhammer franchise."
The demo we've just seen didn't involve a hands-on but it did give a decent peek at a lot of the units from the Empire and Greenskins factions. (Dwarfs and Vampire Counts will come a bit later, with Chaos also very strongly implied in trailers.) The Greenbacks are all manner of weird and wonderful, while the Empire occupies relatively familiar Total War territory - give or take the odd demigryph.
"You've got halberdiers, greatswords, swords and shields, but then you've also got the newer things," says Mann. "There's the steam tank – a war machine – which is a kind of unit we've not really done before. It's got a turret on and the turret can rotate and fire. Then you've got the Luminark of Hysh."
I'm not a Warhammer player but the phrase Luminark of Hysh comes close to convincing me to start. What the hell is a Luminark of Hysh?
"It's got two Empire wizards on it and something called a bound spell. They've locked this spell into this machine that some mages have poured all their power into, called Solheim's bolt. On command they can wind that up and just fire this ray. It can take down a Giant in one hit. It's a slow firing beast but pretty powerful, mainly for taking out larger units. If you use it against a group the laser's so thin it's not going to take out much, but against a bigger unit…
Mounted units are also well represented with the Empire faction. "You've got the Reiksguard, the heavy armoured knights – very medievalesque. Then you've got the Demigryph Knights who are riding the wingless griffons. You've got lots of variety even in something that's familiar and loads of the Warhammer lore coming in."
Facing off against them on the battlefield are the rest of the Greenskins. "They are insane," says Mann. "There's nothing in the Greenskin army you've ever seen in a Total War game. Let's start with the goblins – these tiny little goblins, they're quite weak, their morale is useless. They only join an army when they think they're going to win. They're really sore losers. Then you've got Orc Boyz which are the rank and file of the Greenskin army and they're armed with choppers – anything sharp and pointy they call a chopper. Then the Black Orcs – really big and heavy –"
Are they the ones who looked kind of burned and blackened and sicked up bile on things?
"No, they're the Trolls. This is the start of a thing we haven't really done before, which is having big units. You get less men in the unit but they're bigger. The trolls were twice the size of an Orc. You saw them charge in and SWIPE and then they throw up fish over people. They're hitters. If you're standing there in a line defending against a charge they'll crush you. They're mass.
"Then you saw Grimgor Ironhide who is the leader of all of the greenskins. He's starting to lay waste to the Old World, which is where we're setting the game. He's the biggest and baddest. The leader of the Orcs is generally the one who's toughest. There's a dead man's shoes thing. You become the leader by taking out the leader. He's the meanest, nastiest of the lot of them.
"Then you've got the giant creatures. Did you see the Arachnarok Spider? There's a platform on top of the Arachnarok with eight Goblin archers. Then the giants – they're one of the goblin top tier units. They're a bit like the trolls and can just break defending units. They're really good at attacking and taking out, but because they're single entities they can get surrounded and mobbed. They can only attack to the front. In Total War-style everything that has a strength has a weakness as well. We try to make sure things are really balanced."
Generally, Warhammer seems to lend itself well to the Total War treatment but I ask about points of compromise – any moments where Warhammer and Total War came into conflict.
"Everyone's desk in the office has all of the rulebooks. We're constantly reading through. Every decision we make we go, 'Well, what would Warhammer do?' Also, we are still trying to make a Total War game too. I think it's great that we're trying to straddle two big groups of people.
"The biggest compromise is going to be turn-based. We're taking what is essentially a turn-based game and putting it into our real-time battle engine. Sometimes stuff doesn't quite translate directly, but where we can't translate directly we translate the spirit of the feature. For example, the Doomdiver catapult – in the boardgame you can roll and have it move a little bit after it fires. You can hit there but say it goes off over here, but in our game you're flying it. If you go into first person mode on the catapult that was being flown."
You fly that catapult dude?
"We've got a guy in the office who loves flight sims so he coded it all up. It flies like a plane so you have roll and pitch. We were playing earlier and trying to do barrel rolls and stuff like that."
What's the deal with that giant ghost foot that comes and stamps on things? (Alec would be so ashamed of me right now.)
"That's Foot of Gork. Gork is the Orc god, basically. He's quite an angry guy and the Orc shaman can call him down to tread on people. Spells is another whole new thing. Between flying and spells we have two totally new vectors of gameplay on the battlefield. New tactics to deal with. Flying units. Because they're flying, you can't get in their way. They can fly over anything you want and then hit down. You can't stop them easily from hitting you but then if they get caught on the ground that's their weakness."
Speaking of flying units, there was what looked like a flying griffon having a barney with a dragon?
"It's the Orc Wyvern versus Deathclaw, who is Karl Franz, leader of the Empire's griffon, which he unlocks through the campaign game. The two of them can be fighting in aerial combat. Bringing in the magic as well – it's powerful. Hundreds of guys were dying with each spell. The Comet of Casandora at the end smashes down – did we win? Did we lose?"
He's referring to the final bit of the battle footage where a gigantic comet smacked into the battlefield and led into a E3-traditional fade-to-black.
"Those spells are really powerful but they're a limited resource. If you use them at the right time, brilliant. If you wait too long [the opponent] could kill your shaman, if you go too early it might not do the damage. You have to choose the moment - when the enemy is clumped together just hit the middle and take them out.
And what of the campaign Mann mentioned?
"We're setting it in the Old World which is – if you imagine the Warhammer universe, the Old World is the centre – the big middle bit. We're going to have four playable factions. Greenskins, Dwarfs, Empire and the Vampire Counts which I'm really happy about." (Mann was mostly a 40K player but on his forays into Warhammer the Vampire Counts were his faction of choice.)
"You start with your campaign gameplay. It's the sandbox style, so you can choose to do what you want, but we're setting you up with the scenarios like the Empire hate the Orcs, right? That's just standard. Actually, I think it's more that the Orcs hate everyone and the Empire have to deal with that. Every faction's going to play very differently. Previously we had subtle differences between factions – different building trees and [so on] – that's stuff you'll see but it's more pronounced.
"For example, the Greenskins aren't really that into taxation – they won't be going round people's houses, knocking politely and saying 'Can I have my tithes please?' They just find someone else's village and take it. They're more about warfare and fighting.
"We're bringing the Warhammer lore back into this. We've got something called a Waaaaaagh which comes out and that's if an orc war boss keeps doing really well and winning battles, once that happens you build up momentum and more Goblins and Orcs start following you on the campaign map. Suddenly you're charging through enemy lands with a giant force.
"The Empire are much more political and there's a lot more skullduggery. Karl Franz himself – he wasn't the first choice to be the Emperor so you've got that reticence towards him as the leader of the Empire factions. There's more politics, there's a more standard expansion. Then there's the Dwarfs and Vampire Counts, which we'll go into more depth later, but they have unique playstyles as well.
Thing is, the units I've seen look interesting and varied and the touches of humour might get me to stick with the game in a way I didn't with previous iterations. But there's also the Rome 2 question hanging over Total War releases at the moment. That game had a shaky launch, no two ways about it, and it's a concern echoed in the comments whenever Total War gets a mention on RPS.
"I think the main thing is that Rome 2, yeah, you could say it's a shaky launch. Since that point we released a lot of content and DLCs and the game has really improved. I liked it on release but now I think it's in a really amazing state. Then with Total War: Attila coming afterwards we took a very grounded approach and built on all the improvements and fixes and the advancements with the AI. We're doing the same with Warhammer. We're taking that solid foundation and taking a big step forward with it and bringing in some new mechanics, but trying to keep the core mechanics correctly functioning.
"We're trying to be as grounded as we can with our cores, then with the new mechanics putting in a lot of work to make sure each of them is perfect and polished. That said we're still in pre-alpha so we've got loads to do."