‘Total War: Warhammer 3’ preview: getting to grips with the Daemon Prince and Cathay

Daemons and dragons and Chaos, oh my

The evolution of Creative Assembly‘s Warhammer stewardship has been a delight to watch. Across six years of thorough development, the fantasy strategy series has only ever increased its scope, and now it seems like anything and everything is possible. All of that growth has been building up to Total War: Warhammer 3. As more details on the game’s races has trickled in, it looks like Creative Assembly has taken every lesson learned from Warhammer 2 in stride – factions have more complex mechanics, there’s more to do on the campaign map, and there’s been some promising changes to settlement battles and diplomacy.

As someone that’s spent the last six year on grimy battlefields from Lustria to Kislev, it’s fair to say that I was buzzing like a rot fly to sink my teeth into Total War: Warhammer 3. Creative Assembly has steadily built on Warhammer‘s foundations with bolder, more ambitious mechanics – would Warhammer 3 rise to meet that challenge?

To get to grips with Warhammer 3, I started my hands-on by playing Cathay. Dragon emperors aside, I figured that playing as the mostly human faction would give me a starting goal I could get behind: not being annihilated by the forces of Chaos.

That’s harder than it sounds – from your very first turn as Miao Ying, it’s clear that Cathay has some real health and safety issues to address. Surveying my starting position shows that some Cathay lords have mustered in open rebellion, while the Chaos god Tzeentch has taken the chance to secure its own foothold in the land. Add in a gaping hole in Cathay’s prized bastion – the kingdom’s main defence against the rest of Chaos – and you’re looking at a real fixer-upper.

Taking stock of my imminent doom should’ve taken priority, but I ended up pausing for a moment to take in Total War: Warhammer 3‘s gorgeous campaign map. This map’s around double the size of the previous Total War: Warhammer games, and Creative Assembly has made full use of the bigger canvas. Cathay is brimming with colour – cherry blossoms, rolling fields and towering cities bring the land to life, and some subtle changes to the map’s presentation give it a smoother look.

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

Unfortunately, this scenic detour is interrupted when I notice that the land around Tzeentch’s territory looks malign with corruption – each Chaos god has its own effect on the campaign map, and Tzeentch’s influence is…very purple. I’m not having anyone – god or otherwise – fuck around with my cherry blossoms, so I add “purge Chaos” to my to-do list and crack on with quelling a rebellion.

That took me to my first battle of Warhammer 3, set against these rebels. As we’ve already seen, Cathay has quite a defensive roster, so I positioned my troops a little further back and prepared to blast my former citizens to kingdom come. With some powerful crossbowmen and a flying artillery unit I did just that. My elite Dragon Guard cut down the ragtag bunch of peasants that made it to my frontline, and a short victory was secured. It’s worth noting that although the battles themselves remain largely unchanged, some UI changes have made the flow of information much easier to read, and every battlefield I fought upon was so pretty that I almost felt bad for leaving them covered in broken bodies.

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

Throughout my Thursday morning quest to squash a rebellion, I got to fight through several of Warhammer‘s new minor settlement battles. These were present in earlier Total War games but have been sadly missing in the Warhammer series until now. In my hands-on, I didn’t see the same city map twice, something made even more impressive by the sheer complexity of each town. These minor settlements don’t have walls, and there’s usually plenty of ways to approach taking them. Lots of smaller pathways resulted in more intimate, fragmented battles as opposed to the usual blob-on-blob violence that settlement battles used to devolve into. The new settlement maps are one of my favourite changes in Warhammer 3. Defenders can now build their own fortifications, so I loved trying to navigate a sizeable army through narrow streets all while trying to bowl them through wooden fortifications and well-defended supply points.

It didn’t take me long to experience what it was like to be on the other side of these settlement battles. Although I had no issues with crushing the rebellion, Tzeentch took the opportunity to march upon my lands. The next few turns were spent almost entirely on the defensive – entirely outnumbered, I relied upon my garrison’s ability to raise hasty barricades to split apart Tzeentch’s forces and funnel the daemons into chokepoints I could better protect. Defending a city is just as fun as taking one: there are a lot more reactive decisions to make and despite being heavily outnumbered by daemons, I won the first few battles by making full use of Warhammer 3‘s supply feature to throw up barricades, traps and towers wherever necessary.

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

Between these battles, I also got to try my hand at keeping Cathay’s trade running via caravan. Through a menu system, you’ll pick one of your caravans and tell it where to go. From there, it’s a mercantile Oregon Trail – sometimes I grew my caravan’s security by discovering the survivors of ill-fated caravans past, while other times I lost big chunks of my tradeable goods to appease some ambushing Ogre bandits. Maintaining these caravans can be difficult but they also offer further encouragement to secure your lands, as there’s significant money to be made when they reach their destination.

That’s much harder said than done. While I achieved some impressive victories against the various forces of Chaos, it was painfully obvious that they would just kept coming. Eventually, my main army – in a pitched effort to rebuild a ruined section of the Bastion – was defeated by a force led by Tzeentch’s legendary lord. What hope did a bunch of puny humans (and one dragon human) have in the face of daemons with forcefields?

My resolve broken, I’ll admit that I routed. Retreating to the safety of the menu screen, I switched sides to Warhammer 3‘s surprise faction – the Daemon Prince. A truly wild option, the Daemon Prince allows you to make your own avatar of Chaos by morphing nearly every part of the Prince’s body based on gifts bestowed from the four Chaos gods.

The Daemon Prince plays completely differently to Cathay. I didn’t fight a single defensive battle, and instead spent my turns marauding from one city to the next and putting each to the torch. You can sacrifice captives and dedicate cities to the four Chaos gods, in return for blessings that have a huge effect on your playstyle. For helping out Nurgle, my Daemon Prince got a set of wings that were ravaged with rot and boils, while currying the favour of Slaanesh gave me a choker (which somehow matched Tzeentch’s gift, which gave my Daemon Prince a bird’s head). The options to customise your Daemon Prince are truly outstanding, and a Creative Assembly developer confirmed that there are around “500billion” options for how each Prince can turn out.

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

The Daemon Prince can also recruit units from all four Chaos factions, and the result is a senseless hodge-podge of slaughter that’s every bit as weird as the Daemon Prince itself. While my Cathayan forces were neatly comprised of just the right amount of cavalry, artillery and infantry, my Daemon Prince’s armies had no such delusions of order. Giant hellhounds loped past swarms of giggling Nurglings, while Khorne-worshipping bloodthirsters fought side to side with Tzeentch’s miniature magic-slinging daemons. I was anxious that the Daemon Prince would lose some of the Chaos faction’s character by giving you access to every Chaos god’s goodies, but it’s the opposite: the Daemon Prince offers a chance to relish in the haphazard playstyle of a truly undivided Chaos, and getting to create your own legendary lord feels like the recipe for Total War‘s most replayable faction yet.

Toward the end of my time with the Daemon Prince – which included heaps of butchery and one actual orgy – I managed to foray into the realm of Chaos to make progress on the main storyline. Gateways into this realm will sporadically appear across the world, and you can either close them (boring) or march your troops straight in (cool). Once you’re in, you can either pursue the game’s overall campaign objective – gathering four major daemon souls to batter Be’lakor – or leave the realm via another gateway to leapfrog across the world, opening a whole new front to conquer. The realm of Chaos itself felt like a twisted board game, as the whole time I was racing against the armies of Khorne and Kislev to get Nurgle’s blessing.

Honestly, there was so much in my preview that I could go on forever. Creative Assembly has improved its fantasy formula in leaps and bounds, and the most exciting thing I can say is that even by playing just two factions, Warhammer 3 is shaping up to stand even taller than its predecessors. I don’t know what race I’ll play first come launch, but by the Chaos gods: February is so far away.

Total War: Warhammer 3 launches on February 17 for PC.

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