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Total War Warhammer 3 Immortal Empires impressions

The Total War Warhammer 3 Immortal Empires beta looms as does the Champions of Chaos DLC - our pre-review impressions of Creative Assembly's biggest game mode

Total War Warhammer 3 Immortal Empires Valkia growls

All the statistics about the size of the Total War Warhammer 3 Immortal Empires map, about the number of settlements and regions as compared with its predecessor – they’re all just numbers. They’re inadequate preparation for actually getting your hands on it. After all the time spent in the previous version of this multi-game mashup, I notice the assumption form that, after a few seconds of scrolling, I would be halfway across the map. It’s disorientating to find instead that I’m barely a quarter. It just keeps going.

I time it. At the lowest zoom level, and starting in the furthest northwest corner, I press the S and D keys to scroll to the bottom right. It takes 44 seconds before I hit the bottom map border, and another 13 of scrolling right to get to the extreme southeast. Almost a full minute. It needs to be experienced to be fully understood.

Total War Warhammer 3 Immortal Empires map, with the player starting in the top-left

My first campaign as Valkia the Bloody begins in the northwest of the world, and will arc eastwards across its whole arctic circle as I cut a swathe through my rivals. Valkia is one of four new Legendary Lords in the Champions of Chaos DLC, which arrive to bolster the neglected Warriors of Chaos faction alongside a major rework of their mechanics. As before, pillaging is essential to their economy, so they remain a momentum-based faction – stop fighting and you risk stagnation. But almost everything else about them has changed.

The Warriors of Chaos compete to earn the favour of their dark gods, and in keeping with this, you can spend unit experience ranks to upgrade units into a higher-tier equivalent – Marauders can become Chaos Warriors, who can become Chosen. This is the primary means by which you access the killiest units, and it’s another triumph of Creative Assembly’s flavourful yet gameplay-rich faction designs. Though you need to stay aggressive, you also need to protect your mutating troops and bring them through the campaign alive – no reckless auto-resolves on the higher difficulties. As designer Mitch Heastie says in our recent Immortal Empires factions chat, it’s a delightful bit of emergent story to rage across the world with an army of rank-nine Chosen, when you remember that they began as a rabble of Marauders. I imagine it’s what a parent feels watching their children graduate.

This need to nurture an army over time also has the effect of raising your threat sensitivity; on lower difficulties, more conventional factions can drum up an dragon doomstack in just a couple of turns to respond to a sudden attack on their border, and while the new Warriors can still raise large armies quickly, they’ll invariably be full of basic troops.

Total War Warhammer 3 Immortal Empires shows the gifts of Chaos boon menu

Ever since the Tomb Kings, with their radical ‘look mum, no unit costs’ economy, it feels like CA has seized a different piece of Total War’s complicated chugging engine and souped it up to become the driving force of each newly tweaked faction. This time around, it’s unit XP; it’s every bit as precious as Favour (Chaos’s name for gold, your primary currency), and appropriately, there are many ways to buff its accrual rate, such as character skills, settlement buildings, techs, and more.

The Warriors’ actual secondary currency is Souls, which can be spent on equipping and then maintaining Gifts of Chaos. More powerful gifts require you to have spent a certain number of souls in total to unlock, so it’s to your advantage, in a way, to equip more expensive gifts in order to raise the spend per turn. As Valkia, I can equip generic Chaos gifts as well as specific gifts from Khorne, her patron god, which include the only means of accessing daemonic units such as Bloodthirsters.

This is only the most obvious way that each Warriors subfaction gets its own flavour. Though all Warriors of Chaos are pressed into aggression by the need to loot and earn unit XP, Valkia, as Khorne’s champion, is even more bloodthirsty: she gets a Bloodletting meter which, at high levels, buffs troop XP gain, spreads corruption, and grants Khorne authority, which helps troop replenishment – crucial for keeping your armies in fighting shape. She’s not quite Skarbrand, but it’s still critical to keep your foot on the gas while playing her, as I discover when I find myself caught between Sigvald, Malekith, and Cylostra.

Total War Warhammer 3 Immortal Empires Cylostra faces off against the player

Initially, I flit between the three enemy lords, watching Sigvald run away in the east while Malekith picks at me in the west and vice versa. Unable to bring them to battle, my coffers run dry, Valkia’s bloodlust is exhausted, and my territory collapses when they finally come for me at once. It would be an interesting situation to try and recover, but I’m eager to make progress for these impressions so I simply save scum. In my do over, I commit to chasing Sigvald into the east. Malekith does snap up a couple of cities, but his attention is split between Grombrindal and my vassal tribe, the Mung. Meanwhile Valkia tears through Sigvald’s territory, bringing enough loot to raise a second army on the home front, her high Bloodletting keeping her own troops replenished and quickly ranking up.

You can technically conquer any settlement, but most won’t be of much use. Apart from specially marked Dark Fortresses, Warriors of Chaos get no income from settlements and only a single-slot, one-tier building option – these can be situationally handy, but aren’t worth hanging onto long term. Dark Fortresses are the prize, but not for the same reasons as in other factions: they won’t help you sidestep the promotion-based army-building outlined above. Instead, they buff your particular XP, corruption, and vassal-focussed playstyle, with one notable building chain strengthening vassal income in adjacent provinces.

You’ll have a lot of vassals if you’re doing it right. Most regions in the Chaos Wastes are marked as the domain of certain Norscan tribes, and if you conquer the corresponding fortress, you get to vassalise them automatically. With non-fortress settlements being so useless to you, it makes sense to gift them to your vassals. The result is that most of my Valkia campaign saw me cutting a bloody swathe across the arctic, stamping out pretenders like Sigvalt and Archaon, and bringing their vassals to heel by taking their fortresses. It’s exactly what the champions of Chaos should be doing according to the lore: vying with one another to be the one true uniter of the bickering followers of the dark gods before falling upon the rest of the world in an irresistible tide.

Total War Warhammer 3 Immortal Empires has Ironfrost Glacier buildings

I’ve started a couple of other campaigns in Immortal Empires to try and get some sense of the variety of experiences on offer. I so enjoyed Valkia that I had to try Archaon. As the one true uniter of Chaos in the lore, he brings a pan-Chaos spin to the Warriors’ playstyle, with the ability to promote units into variants from all four of the Chaos gods as well as undivided, and many more slots for gifts in order to accommodate all four gods’ offerings. Combined with Archaon’s start position on the other side of the arctic, this is enough of a difference to make me want to finish another Warriors playthrough with him – something I haven’t always been able to say about other Lords within the same faction.

Frankly, though, I get that feeling everywhere I look as I browse the Immortal Empires faction menu. I want to throw myself into the maelstrom of the Southlands thunderdome, but who to pick? Mannfred? Skarbrand? Wurrzag? I want to try the four old Legendary Lords who, in a free update, will be spun off from their main faction to get their own start positions, and it’s thanks to the community’s mockery that Ghorst continues to stick as the one I want to try first. And then Alberic’s excursion to Lustria has given me a fresh excuse – like I needed it – to start another campaign with my beloved Bretonnia.

Simply by bringing all 15 of the tabletop game’s core races to a full recreation of the Warhammer World, Immortal Empires has already delivered on the thrilling but distant dream that was promised at the announcement of the Total Warhammer trilogy. But it’s gone further than I dared hope at that time, with more obscure races such as the Vampire Coast, races such as Cathay that I never thought would be fleshed out, and multiple leaders for each race, many of which alter the experience to the point where a full playthrough is justified.

Total War Warhammer 3 Immortal Empires shows known factions on the map

Yes, it took a little while after launch to arrive, and as it’s still in beta there are some performance issues, as Creative Assembly is keen to stress – my game starts juddering after a long session, there’s a fair bit of texture pop-in, and these problems get worse if I try to raise the level of detail. Unless your machine is very powerful or you’re able to overlook such things, I don’t know if I’d recommend buying the previous games to enable Immortal Empires until it’s a bit more polished.

Nevertheless, the game experience that’s on offer here is little short of staggering. These are only impressions which have deliberately focussed on one of the newer factions, but most of the races in that huge and tantalising menu have had enough recent polish to be worth a go, and are distinct enough from one another to hold your attention. That means there are multiple hundreds of hours to chew through. But if you’re not sold yet, there’s no hurry – even after CA removes the ‘beta’ tag we’ll still be closer to the start of the third game than its end, with years more DLC still to come.

With that in mind, it’s difficult to find the right superlative for the scale of this project. Only the longest-running and meatiest Paradox games can offer any comparison. Don’t rush into it if you’re not convinced yet, but I feel confident in saying all strategy fans will owe it to themselves to take a look at some point in the future.