Total War studio Creative Assembly continues to push the boat out when designing new factions, and we’re now so far from land that there are sea monsters.
Even more so than usual, monsters are the stars of the show in the latest Total War: Warhammer 2 DLC: Curse of the Vampire Coast. In realising those monsters, Creative Assembly’s artists and animators have outdone themselves. This army of piratical bloodsuckers is a giddily joyous box of new toys: giant crabs chitter and chirp, crusted in barnacles and dripping with saltwater. You can almost taste the brine.
The inexplicable Necrofex Colossus – a giant golem made of rotten ships – twitches and lurches as it lumbers across the battlefield, groaning when its wooden beams strain. The attention to detail is astonishing – even the units the Vampire Coast shares with the Vampire Counts, like the dragon-sized bats called Terrorgheists, have had a slimy reskin to distinguish them from their landlubber equivalents.
Early conquests come easily by (ab)using the Raise Dead mechanic – which lets you instantly raise units anywhere, allowing you to quickly reinforce after battles – to overwhelm enemies with low-tier troops. This mechanic will be familiar to Vampire Counts players, who have the same system. Where the Vampire Coast distinguish themselves is their artillery, which is unquestionably the most lethal in the game. By the mid-game you can field enough mortars and cannons to rout enemy units in a single volley, especially if one of those cannons is the massive Queen Bess.
Without question, Vampire Coast artillery is the most lethal in the game
Necrofex Colossi take the stage in the endgame, which builds to another epic final battle on a unique map. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s probably the coolest yet. I took a kicking in my first attempt, so I tailored my army for another try and brought six Colossi. The wooden mechs’ cannons have good range, can fire while moving, and are strong in melee to boot – they routinely racked up hundreds of kills in every battle.
Tactically, my approach was to target units that might give me trouble (mainly the anti-large ones) before they hit my lines, and buy myself time to do so by stalling the enemy’s advance. Like the Vampire Counts, the Coast have plenty of tricks to do this: they can summon tarpit units of zombies, or use disruptive magic to break up formations. There’s also the bloated corpse, a fast-moving suicide bomber that can practically kill a whole unit with a clean hit. I’m not exaggerating – one got 79 kills according to the post-battle screen. Self-destructing units are new to Total War, and shooting them down before they hit your lines is thus a new challenge in awareness and reactivity.
But top of the bill when it comes to these new monsters is Amanar – a ‘merwyrm’, or sea dragon, so vast that it can damage coastal settlements. Which it will do, periodically and arbitrarily, throughout the campaign. It’s a flavourful touch, and since the new Legendary Lords all aspire to control Amanar, a necessary illustration of its power.
In play, however, it’s frankly a bit annoying. Amanar’s attacks add no strategic depth, boiling down to a notification saying ‘some of your coastal buildings are damaged now’. You can either leave them that way or fix them, which is not a meaningful choice. Perhaps a mechanic by which you could curry favour with Amanar, and plead for it to attack someone else, could have provided an interesting inflection at these moments.
The aim of the Vampire Coast’s campaign is to bend this beast to your will and dominate the seas, which requires you to obtain and empower a magical harpoon. To activate the harpoon, you’ll need to reclaim all the parts of a lost sea shanty, each of which is held by a legendary pirate. Excitingly, pirates are a thing now – there are a dozen buccaneer fleets roaming the ocean, much like rogue armies on land. They are a stern proposition early in the game and will make seafaring more perilous for everyone, but for the Vampire Coast, they’re rivals as well as hazards.
All pirates – Vampiric ones included – are ranked by their Infamy. The three who hold the shanty verses will not spawn until you’ve surpassed their Infamy, so accruing it is essentially your main objective. And how do you build a reputation among amoral bloodsucking materialists? Violently: killing enemies and taking or razing cities are major sources of Infamy. Some of the pirates you’re trying to outshine also carry ‘pieces of eight’, with which Vampire Coast factions can unlock their regiments of renown, so you’re fittingly incentivised to do at least some of your scrapping on the high seas.
If you want a more dependable stream of Infamy then you want to establish some pirate coves. These are Creative Assembly’s latest game-changing idea: take a port settlement from an enemy, and as well as occupying, sacking, or razing it, you can opt to set up a pirate cove there, effectively building in enemy territory. You can then choose one of four further cove types, of which by far the most useful is that which siphons half the port’s income into your coffers (they all give Infamy, but in varying amounts).
It’s an exciting idea but takes some time to adjust to. Setting up a cove means leaving an enemy city intact once you’ve taken it, which doesn’t come naturally – at least, not to me. It can also cause public order headaches if you have designs on the neighbouring region and can prolong wars, since the AI is understandably reluctant to make peace unless you deal it a crippling blow. This means coves are best as distant outposts, installed in factions you don’t mind being perpetually at war with. And since you want a lot of them, you should be ready to, again, pick lots of fights. As with Skaven and the Dark Elves, your Lords will also suffer decaying Loyalty if you don’t make use of them, so that’s another nudge to get you out and terrorising the seas. I trust you’re seeing a pattern here.
It’s possible to complete a Vampire Coast campaign without holding any territory at all, apart from your capital. This is thanks to coves and to the new shipbuilding mechanic, which is limited to the Vampire Coast faction leaders and to four unique Lords, who you can recruit via the tech tree for 1,000 Infamy each (incidentally, these Lords don’t suffer from the Loyalty mechanic, which is great if you need a domestic guardian). Shipbuilding is the nautical equivalent of a Horde army – it allows you to develop and recruit troops from your ship as if it were a settlement, and means a Lord can be away from home, plundering merrily, for dozens of turns at a time.
In my first campaign as Count Noctilus, I abandon the idea of a land empire after a poorly executed invasion of Ulthuan teaches me how to use coves the hard way. The rest of the game is a linear grind up the tech tree and Infamy ranks, sailing around the Great Ocean and beating people up. I pay for my increasingly expensive army by sacking or setting up coves in ports owned by weak factions, by grabbing techs and skills to reduce upkeep, and by plundering the high seas.
You may have noticed that plundering and preying on weaklings is stereotypical pirate behaviour, and it’s impressive that Creative Assembly has once again reshaped Total War’s mechanics to create a playstyle that perfectly fits perhaps its wackiest race yet. But being a nautical bully isn’t as fun as it sounds.
Treasure maps will drop from battles, ruins, or encounters at sea for Vampire Coast factions - though very rarely, in my experience. Trivial clues point you to a given region where you ‘dig’ using a new army stance. Rewards include a decent wedge of gold and Infamy. It’s another system to encourage you to get out into the world.
Noctilus’s capital is way out in the middle of the sea, and with a good garrison, none of the many enemies I make seem interested in punishing my aggression (on ‘normal’ difficulty). With only one main army to command, whole turns pass without incident while I sail, or recruit, or build. I have to think ahead when developing my ship, but otherwise I don’t encounter too many tricky decisions. Just a lot of sailing.
Fortunately, you’re under no obligation to take this approach. I’m halfway through another campaign as Luthor Harkon, mixing foreign coves and high seas scraps with the customary challenges of a land empire, and I’m having much more fun. It helps that Harkon is hilarious, sinking his fangs into the cutscene scenery as much as his rivals’ necks.
Still, even with nothing better to do than sail about and fight, the aesthetic and story elements of this expansion have kept me engaged. Another series of painterly cutscenes tell the scurrilous tale of your pirate lord as they journey from dockside cartographers in teeming Sartosa to the very depths of the sea itself, while notifications drop little teases of a twist ending. As with the base game, it’s almost painful to see the world realised with such beauty and not be able to get closer during play, but I can hardly fault a strategy game for taking a strategic view. Even a glimpse at such a personal perspective is a rare achievement in this genre.
This is a richly characterful DLC that the devs clearly had tremendous fun making. It’s as if everyone on the art and narrative teams binge-watched Pirates of the Caribbean then melted and drank the Blu-Rays. Their work is an equal pleasure to experience. The wider game is also greatly enriched now that there’s more going on at sea, with new hazards and a means to manually fight naval battles, even if it’s not ship-to-ship.
But oceanfaring isn’t so interesting as to sustain a whole campaign by itself. Pirate coves are a neat idea, and combined with shipbuilding they make it possible to live the life of a solo pirate. This fits the theme perfectly and is a clever bit of game design, but in enabling you to ignore so much of what makes Total War interesting, what remains can be a fairly one-note experience. Step onto land and do some good old-fashioned empire building, however, and you’ll have a whale/merwyrm of a time.