‘Total War: Warhammer 2’ at four: from humble beginnings to one of the greatest strategy games ever created

Four (literally) magical years of bloodshed, butchery and betrayal

I‘ve played Total War: Warhammer 2 for 1,300 hours. Broken down, that’s 54 days – a month and a half – of uninterrupted warmongering. For comparison, it’s also roughly 25 non-stop flights around the world, but I’ve got no interest in doing anything like that. Earth would be a boring planet to travel anyway. Instead I’ll stick with the violent and weird world of Warhammer, because for the last four years, there’s been no better place for a strategy fan to be.

I don’t actually remember making a conscious decision, or any moment, where Total War: Warhammer 2 suddenly became my favourite game. Nor do I remember a magical turning point, where the fantasy strategy game became the beloved behemoth that it is now. On launch, four years ago today, it was a completely different story. There were only four races available to play as, none of which resonated with me as much as those in the first game, and fan reception was a little lukewarm surrounding the Vortex campaign.

The Vortex campaign took Total War in a slightly different direction to the usual sandbox style that fans expected. While the real-time strategy side of TW:WH2 was the same – you control thousands of units to rout and kill enemy forces – the wider, turn-based map was  different. Instead of through vast and unchecked expansion, victory was achieved by gathering resources and conducting rituals across your empire. While I still enjoyed it, it was kind of jarring to play in a much more conservative direction, as it wasn’t always a great idea to expand your empire too much. While community feedback on the campaign was mixed, in time I would’ve likely come around to enjoy it more. As it turned out though, I would never have to.

Total War: Warhammer 2
Total War: Warhammer 2. Credit: Creative Assembly

One month after launch, the Mortal Empires campaign arrived and completely changed the scope of Total War. Mortal Empires was a whole new map, a massive combination of both worlds from the first and second game. This fusion meant that every playable faction, from both games, could interact with each other in the same map. Greenskins were pitted against High Elves, Skaven against the realms of men. Currently, Mortal Empires is two games-worth of content, though it stands to become even bigger with the addition of Total War: Warhammer 3 in 2022.

The mode wasn’t always perfect – it used to take forever to pass your turn, and the AI could be a little bit hard to balance. It’s fair to say that it took a lot of tweaking and a couple of rougher phases to get so many moving parts working in tandem. Like much of the game, four years of attentive chipping has turned Mortal Empires into a seamless colossus, which is surprising when you consider the sheer scale of the thing.

Honestly though, while the size and scope of Mortal Empires feels unparalleled, that’s not quite what plants it on top of the strategy pedestal. It’s the fact that, over the course of four years, the realm has been lovingly fleshed out and polished with heaps of playable factions. Every inch of the map is stuffed with life (bad choice of words, sorry Settra) and filled to the brim with big personalities, ranging from the odiously villainous to hilariously cowardly… and that’s just the Skaven.

There’s now 15 races and 69 factions to choose from, almost all of them equipped with their own unique mechanics and ways to play. The addition of so many new characters over the years – many of whom are beloved figures in existing Warhammer lore – has elevated TW:WH2 beyond the genre’s norm, more than the usual canvas to be painted in blood and borders. Four years of working with a detailed existing universe has let Creative Assembly create something akin to a gory Avengers, a star-studded cast of characters defined by their distinctive personalities and playstyles. For me, having so many factions with their own flavour of warfare is the reason that Total War: Warhammer 2 has stayed so replayable over the four years since launch.

Total War: Warhammer 2 vampire coast
Total War: Warhammer 2. Credit: Creative Assembly

It can’t be understated just how much each faction plays differently to their neighbours across the world. Each race bringing their own brand of butchery to the battlefield – while some may opt for a hardened frontline of melee infantry, others enable players to wipe out opposition with merciless rows of archers and artillery. Then again, it’s Warhammer, so there are generals who can kill hundreds with a single spell. Trying to pick specific examples is hard, because it feels like every faction that goes un-mentioned does a disservice to a game. Should I write an essay on the Vampire Coast, who sail around and terrorise other factions with hordes of gun-toting zombie pirates? What about the Lizardmen, a faction that literally has dinosaurs riding other dinosaurs into battle? Am I meant to just ignore the haughty High Elves, who even have a Henry Cavill-inspired hero called Cavill because of how much he likes the game?

Four years later, there are still factions that I haven’t tried out. Partly because there’s just so many of them, but partly because I’ve fallen in love with the personalities and units of certain Legendary Lords. Once you’ve found The One (or The Ones), it’s hard to stay away from them. Many late nights of campaigning means my heart goes to the Tomb Kings and Lizardmen, and when I inevitably die from giving away that pesky vital organ, my shambling corpse will belong entirely to Luthor Harkon. By adding so many characters and sprinkling in their lore-driven motivations, Creative Assembly has created a very special opportunity for nerds across the world to tap into the rich library of Warhammer lore for the first time. As one of these nerds, the interest piqued by these characters has lead me to read more Warhammer novels than my wallet can handle, which has in turn fed my excitement for characters yet to feature in the game.

Even now, an entire love letter later, I still haven’t quite put my finger on what happened over these last four years to make Total War: Warhammer 2 so great. Maybe it’s because TW:WH2 is, in itself, already a love letter. To fans of the series, fans of Warhammer, fans of the strategy genre. It may have taken a little time to reach its full potential, but today TW:WH2 stands tall as one of the all-time greatest strategy games in the field. It’s hard to imagine the heights that this trilogy can reach when Total War: Warhammer 3 launches next year, and it may have been delayed, but that’s alright. These last four years are a testament to the fact that with a little time, Creative Assembly are capable of some real magic.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a Skaven apocalypse to bring about.

Total War: Warhammer 2 is available on Steam now, while Total War: Warhammer 3 is set to launch in “early 2022”. 

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