Recently we were given the opportunity to play one of Total War: Warhammer III’s new ‘survival’ battles – a climatic set-piece engagement that sees us fighting through the stronghold of Khorne, one of the four Chaos gods. You can also read our resident Warhammer fan Rich’s comprehensive impressions on the battle, but I’m here to offer a different perspective; one that starts with a confession.
I’ve never understood the appeal of the Total Warhammer series. I prefer the historical Total Wars and I’ve never played Warhammer Fantasy (I played 40k, because I wasn’t a nerd.) But, as a dutiful fan of strategy games, I gave it a try, playing the first Total War: Warhammer a couple of years after it first came out. It didn’t go well.
Nothing about how I thought Total War games should be played seemed to hold true. The time-to-kill felt off, tactics and formations counted for less… and what happened to sieges? What’s all this magic nonsense? I didn’t like it, but playing Total War: Warhammer III gave me a feeling of optimism I wasn’t expecting.
Perhaps it helps that Kislev, aside from being badass fantasy Russia, is easy to parse for someone who plays a lot of historical Total War – or at least, easier than the armies that rely on monsters, magic, or undead, which play by different rules and are just a bit bonkers.
They’ve got a fun mix of units: core heavy infantry in the Tzar Guard, and the Streltsi, who wield rifles with axes attached to them (which, let’s be honest, is fantastic). Then you’ve got the Ice Guard with their bladed polearms, and let’s not forget the bear cavalry, though I don’t know how you possibly could.
It’s all expectedly over-the-top, but also grounded in a recognisable medieval framework. And while I was playing the demo build, I felt the tactics I wanted to employ – which were still largely informed by the historical games – were being respected and rewarded.
The crux of this new survival battle is in balancing the need to press forward while also dealing with a non-stop wave of low-level threats from the rear, ensuring that you have enough ‘firepower’ to deal with the boss fight at the end. After you take the first control point, minor Khorne units will flood in at a regular cadence, increasing in intensity as you get towards the climax. You need to leave some forces in reserve to hold the line, otherwise you can’t concentrate on the big bad when he turns up.
The tactical challenge in this was rewarding, as was figuring out the minimum commitment to a rear guard that would leave your core, elite forces free to press on. You have to carefully manage your supplies as well – supplies being a mode-specific resource collected by killing enemies and taking control points.
You can use them for a wide variety of things like upgrading weapons or armour, replenishing health, and summoning new units. They’re also important for building defensive structures to help manage the waves of enemies you’ll face, both those attacking from the rear and the principal threats that trigger when you take each point. The barricades perhaps got a bit pointless towards the end, though Rich disagrees on this, and the towers are invaluable at all stages for the extra firepower they bring.
These survival encounters are meant to be isolated spectacles, and will not be representative of the typical battles you’ll fight on a turn-to-turn basis. But the mechanical foundations will be consistent regardless of what ‘type’ of battle you’re playing. And we’re getting a few new ones, such as minor settlement battles, with others hinted at across single-player and multiplayer. Even sieges are getting a long-awaited rework.
All this is to suggest that not only is Creative Assembly putting in effort to create more diverse contexts for battles, but is also trying to refresh the foundations underpinning conflict. If this succeeds, Total War: Warhammer III might be able to unite the Total War fanbase in a way that Total War: Three Kingdoms has so far failed to do.
Sidenote: Tzarina Katarin is dumb. I mean, sure, she’s actually pretty badass and wielding her Ice Magic is very satisfying, but have you seen how she traverses the map? Come on now:
Can we not just get her a bear? Even Katarin’s dad Boris got a bear.
Anyway. I’ve few doubts that Warhammer III is going to be the finale that series fans deserve. And even as a history fan, I can’t deny that Warhammer has been instrumental in improving the strategy layer of Total War, which has spilled over to other games across the series. That doesn’t change the fact that this final game faces the same stern challenge as its predecessors if it wants to win over historical players that have up till now steered clear.
So far, things seem to be moving in the right direction, but one (admittedly fun) new battle type does not a Total War make, so we’ll have to wait and see what the rest of the game has to offer.
Related: The confirmed Warhammer 3 races