‘Total War: Warhammer 3’ review: Creative Assembly at its undisputed best

A monumental conclusion to a trilogy six years in the making

In Total War: Warhammer 3, I suffered from a problem that’s plagued me since Creative Assembly first introduced me to Warhammer in 2016: deciding who to play first. In a world where every fantasy race is as violent and varied as the next, you’re telling me I can only choose one to start with?

The problem doesn’t end when I pick a side and press play – it just gets worse. I played my first Warhammer 3 campaign leading worshippers of Nurgle, a hardy faction that’s all about soaking up damage, spreading disgusting plagues, and wearing a lot of green. My ranks are swollen with pus-dripping daemons, and I’m constantly inventing new diseases to spread upon the poor campaign map.

Stupendously cool, right? That’s true, but in my 19-hour campaign, I encountered plenty of stiff competition that nearly tempted me into pressing ‘New Game’. Fighting across the Chaos Wastes I saw Tzeentch’s daemons gleefully sling fiery magic into my ranks, witnessed hardy mortals hold off vast tides of monsters with bullets and brawn, and lost hundreds of troops to the brutal charge of towering Ogre footsoldiers. I had no problem with my time as Nurgle – in fact I was loving it – but as with the two prior Warhammer games, my brain was always jumping forward to ask: who’s next?

Total War: Warhammer 3
Total War: Warhammer 3. Credit: Creative Assembly

With Warhammer 3, I persevered and stuck to my (sometimes literal) guns. Resisting all temptations, I made sure to finish one campaign before moving on to the next. This meant that I got a much better look at each of the faction’s offerings, but that longing feeling never went away – even in the middle of a gripping campaign to save (or in Nurgle’s case sicken) the world, I was often savouring the thought of my next playthrough.

And that’s the thing that makes Warhammer 3 so fantastic. There’s so much variety in each race, and the five-year development span of Total War: Warhammer 2 has given Creative Assembly a much greater understanding of what makes a faction unique. Before playing, I was concerned that having a whopping five factions dedicated solely to Chaos would spread any substance a bit thin, but boy was I wrong.

Though they all have the same end goal – being a dick to humans – each faction of Chaos is vastly unique in every aspect, from its playstyle on the battlefield to its effects on the campaign map. I’ve already touched on Nurgle’s tanky roster and penchant for pox, but that’s just for starters. Stupid sexy Slaanesh, for example, is all about utilising speed to pull off masterful flanks, all the while seducing enemies to fight for them. Khorne is (predictably) all about simply murdering people, and Tzeentch can cause staunch allies to slaughter each other simply by pulling a few strings.

Total War: Warhammer 3
Total War: Warhammer 3. Credit: Creative Assembly

That’s not even touching on the Daemon Prince, who represents Chaos Undivided and can earn access to every god’s units by spilling blood in their respective names. The Daemon Prince only gets small tastes of each Chaos god’s campaign abilities, but becomes a powerhouse in its own right by turning each army into a violent pick ‘n’ mix of destruction. Chaos Undivided also gets a level of customisation that’s unparalleled in any Total War game: as well as bestowing their most loyal troops to you, the Chaos gods can gift you  living body parts to wear as you will. As a result of the Chaos gods’ odd gifting habits, my Daemon Prince – known across the realm as NMEvil – took many forms over the course of this campaign. Whether NMEvil sowed arcane terror as a bird-headed magician or walked between enemy ranks packing a fearsome greataxe and the legs of a goat, I couldn’t stop admiring how much of a tangible effect my customisation had on the game.

Total War: Warhammer 3
Total War: Warhammer 3. Credit: Creative Assembly.

Though every faction feels like night and day to play, they’re all chasing the same campaign objective. There’s still the usual Total War sandbox goal (expanding your empire)  but layered on top of that is a new feature that adds a bit more direction. Periodically, rifts to the Realm of Chaos (an altogether Bad Neighbourhood) will open across the world, spewing out daemonic armies and corrupting the surrounding lands. To complete the campaign you’ll have to march an army into these rifts to visit the four Chaos god’s respective realms and retrieve a soul from each. These four souls are used to outline a path to the Forge of Souls, an ominous location where big baddie B’elakor spends the game  monologuing to a dying god. Every faction in the game wants to find this god for their own purposes, so the aim is to gather these souls and get to the forge before anyone else.

I wasn’t a fan of Warhammer 2‘s restrictive Vortex campaign, but these rifts hit a fantastic middle ground that manages to sharpen the narrative without getting too much in the way of the traditional sandbox experience. Sending your flagship army into the unknown means pitting them against dramatic survival battles and twisted god-specific challenges, which is fantastic – you don’t have to play Total War differently to win here, you just get to gorge on more of the series’ best bits.

Total War: Warhammer 3. Creative Assembly
Total War: Warhammer 3. Credit: Creative Assembly

For me, those best bits are mostly painting the map in my colours and fighting. Lots and lots of fighting. On that topic, a surprising amount has changed with Warhammer 3. Map symmetry has been thrown out of the window, and battlefields have been injected with lots more room for creativity. In one memorable battle, my Kislevite army was brutally outnumbered by two armies of raiders and faced almost certain defeat. During the deployment phase I spotted a jutting mountain that was too steep to climb, so I positioned my forces with their backs to the slope, and cast my die. My meagre forces waited as swarms of barbarians marched across the map, and I sent out a plucky unit of gun-toting War Sleds to harry their advance. Rivers and streams dotted across the map, which slowed the enemy considerably and gave my War Sleds more time to shoot into their ranks. When the two frontlines finally met, the mountain to my back meant that I couldn’t be surrounded despite the tribe’s far superior numbers. Fifteen minutes later and thousands of bodies later, I won a Pyrrhic victory that was almost entirely down to Warhammer 3‘s nuanced approach to map design.

That goes double for the settlements you’ll inevitably spend hours fighting over: not only does Warhammer 3 mark the return of minor settlement battles, it also brings a fairly hefty rework to siege battles. Defenders can now earn supplies by defending certain points, which can be used to construct things like barricades, traps and turrets. To equalize things, attackers get vastly more angles they’re able to attack from. As well as making these settlement battles altogether more interesting for each side, they’re also a good little window into some behind-the-scenes AI improvements. I was impressed to see that while I would defend certain areas, invaders would dispatch units to capture points that I had left uncontested, and they made good use of the extra pathways and routes that web every town. All of that extra depth made manually fighting each battle worthwhile, as the ease of a quick auto-resolve was replaced by the thrill of more genuinely engaging battle.

Total War: Warhammer 3
Total War: Warhammer 3. Credit: Creative Assembly.

Each of these battles – from small border skirmishes to apocalyptic sieges – is made even better by the unit diversity in Warhammer 3. For every faction I played, there wasn’t a single one that I grew tired of by the end of their campaigns. Though each faction’s tailored rosters are a joy to play, part of the fun is in watching them interact with another race on the battlefield. As one example, Khorne’s forces will excel in melee combat but are lacking in ranged options: you’ll cut down most other armies up-close, but races like the Dwarves and Cathay will make getting to them a nightmare with reams of artillery. Likewise, Tzeentch’s iridescent cascades of magic will dearly punish any aggressors, but its worshippers will falter in prolonged hand-to-hand combat. It’s another instance of Warhammer 3 thriving in asymmetrical carnage, and each faction’s vastly different strengths and weaknesses means there’s rarely a truly fair fight to be found in the Old World.

All of this culminates into one simple thing: Warhammer 3 is a glorious, bloody celebration of Total War at its very best. Not content with merely concluding Creative Assembly’s fantasy trilogy, Warhammer 3 steps up to evolve it in every way possible. Whether that’s with much-needed improvements to siege battles to giving the diplomacy system a Three Kingdoms-style polish, there are few areas of the Total War experience that haven’t been refined, enhanced or altogether upgraded. What’s even better is that Creative Assembly has clarified that there’s still much more yet to come for Warhammer 3 in the future.

And so, despite Warhammer 3 having plenty of factions I’m yet to try out, I still can’t help myself from looking further ahead and asking: what’s next?

Total War: Warhammer 3 launches for PC on February 17. It will also be available via Xbox Game Pass

The Verdict

An essential play for any fans of the strategy genre, Warhammer 3 is quite possibly the best Total War entry to date. Bigger, better, and bloodier than its predecessors, this conclusion delivers everything that fans were asking for – and then some.

Pros

  • The new races are all standout additions, and no two play alike
  • A litany of changes address six years-worth of community feedback
  • Creative Assembly has finally landed on a narrative approach that doesn’t intrude upon player freedom

Cons

  • The zoomed-out campaign map can be a bit hard to read
  • If you aren’t a fan of the Creative Assembly’s fantasy games, it’s doubtful that anything will change here
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