From fact to fiction: how fantasy set Creative Assembly free in Total War: Warhammer

Total War: Warhammer

Warhammer has amplified Total War. You can see it in the terrain, which is jagged and extreme in ways you couldn’t reasonably expect from Europe or Japan. You can of course see it in the troops: mismatched collections of orcs and ogres, dwarf thunderers and goblin doom divers, Germanic knights and ginormous spiders. This is the Newport moment where Creative Assembly go electric.

“There are always guys on foot with bows or swords and some horses and sometimes dogs, and occasionally you see elephants and camels and things like that,” says communications manager Al Bickham of the historical Total War games. “But at the end of the day, it’s a bunch of humans fighting a bunch of humans. Greenskins are not humans. They have vastly different…”

“Value judgements,” suggests lead writer Andy Hall, perhaps mindful of the orcs’ tendency to reach for the ‘violence’ option in any diplomatic matter.

“Value judgements, indeed, yeah,” Bickham continues. “And ways of expanding throughout the world. If you look at the Roman era in history and what it covered – while there is an arms race between Rome and Syria and Egypt throughout the campaign game, they’re all variations on a theme. If you play as greenskins, you’re not going to be popping your half-moons on and dicking around with tax rates.”

Total War: Warhammer

Simply put, if you’ve decided to play as an orc, Creative Assembly want to encourage you to act like one. While the human Empire play far more like a traditional Total War faction, the greenskins are beholden to their Waaagh! mechanic – a “critical mass of bubbling war” that spills across the map. Think Medieval’s crusades turned up to 11: as an orc warboss, you’ll lead a tribe cowed by respect and fear in levelling “whole swathes of the Empire”.

“You’re going to be sweeping across the landscape, thumping all of your enemies in your path,” says Bickham.

“We’re not straitjacketing anyone,” adds Hall. “It’s still fundamentally a Total War game, a sandbox system. There’s nothing stopping you, if you’re Karl Franz of the Empire, just ignoring your empire and going straight north. But obviously we want to encourage people to play like their races.”

The gulf between those races is most apparent on the battlefield. Each have their memorable heroes and monsters, and each draw their abilities from fundamentally disparate powers at large in the Old World. While the Empire’s battle wizards call on arcane knowledge drilled into them at the Colleges of Magic, the night goblins believe only in the spiritual potency of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Those different disciplines manifest as rare, tide-turning spells – like the Comet of Casandora, a blue-plumed rock which plummets into the battle lines of the Empire’s enemies, or the gigantic boot of the orc god Gork, stomping clumsily through anti-greenskin artillery.

Total War Warhammer dwarfs announced

Total War: Warhammer won’t play like the tabletop game – which isn’t so much driven by luck as bad luck, and the stories that emerge as a consequence. But Creative Assembly have pulled perhaps more from the rulebooks than you might expect: referring to stat lines to work out the relative strengths of their units. Where a single soldier on the table might have one wound, a giant will have several – and that ratio will be reflected in the new game’s battle engine.

“It’s still very much a Total War game, we’re still very much using the Total War system,” says Bickham. “But interpreting Warhammer into that system.”

Clearly the scatter dice and unpredictability of Games Workshop’s most unhinged units have inspired the studio to experiment. On a scorched hillside in the Black Fire Pass, a goblin wearing homemade wings hops into a catapult. His sniggering comrades winch back the device and let loose, leaving the player in third-person control of this kamikaze creature – steering him, cackling, to a punch a hole in an Empire formation.

Bickham points out that Creative Assembly have allowed Total War players to take direct control of artillery since Shogun II: Fall of the Samurai. But there’s no real precedent for something like the doom diver.

“You can’t fire a Roman out of a catapult – I think the history books might have an issue with that,” admits Hall. “There are opportunities there, and the audio guys, the animators, the model makers are just magic.”

For all the change, though, Creative Assembly haven’t had to alter how they work. During development of the average Total War game, desks are piled up with history books from the studio library.

“You have to do that,” explains Bickham. “You have to look through source material, because with our fanbase, if we get the wrong number of buttons on a tunic we get told about it in no uncertain terms.”

Warhammer has proven to be much the same. Though the Old World is, thankfully, fictional, Creative Assembly have 30 years of backstory and narrative to pore over, buried in rule descriptions and army book flavour text.

“We’ve got that drive for authenticity with our historical games,” says Bickham. “We’ve just got a new set of source material to choose from.

Total War: Warhammer

The studio will deliver some of that lore through new Quest battles: “crazy” scenarios that eschew pitched battles for, say, an ambush, or the summoning of an undead dragon in a cave lair. It’s there that we’ll see the return of bespoke battle speeches. But it’s the campaign that excites most, with its mad clash of wildly-conceived races.

“They work so very differently,” enthuses Bickham. “It’s going to be like playing a bunch of different Total War games when you’re playing these factions.”