Total War: WARHAMMER 2 - Mortal Empires Review

Mortal Empires is a complicated product to review. It marks a first in Total War’s history, and potentially even the steam platform; it’s content for a game that unlocks when you purchase a separate game. Further to that, the amount of content it unlocks increases if you bought DLC for that other game.

So for the uninitiated, of which there seem to have actually been quite a few of you out there, Mortal Empires is a piece of DLC content for Total War: WARHAMMER 2, that is only downloadable if you also happened to own Total War: WARHAMMER 1.

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What it adds to the game, is essentially a brand new map that combines the assets from both games in a familiar, all be it a little stretched landscape. Though the consensus in the community when Creative Assembly called it a combined map was that the maps of both games would fit together, this isn’t quite what happened. Instead, portions of the Warhammer 2 map have been clipped off and landmasses have been reshaped and pushed together. In fact its just a whole brand new map. This was revealed 3 weeks after the launch of Warhammer 2.

Now while ultimately the map is huge and the promise of the biggest map ever, pretty much has been delivered upon it is something worth mentioning, and honestly if this was Total War: WORLD, there’s no way they could’ve got away with squishing continents closer and reshaping Africa… like it just doesn’t hold up and I’m surprised they were able to with Games Workshop keeping them in check.

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The bulk of the playable content in Mortal Empires, is actually from Total War: WARHAMMER 1. That is to say, the geographical area it includes is fixated primarily on the old world, and the playable races and factions from Warhammer 1 make up the majority of the content.

So, this makes it a very tricky beast to review. If for instance, your fresh to the franchise, and pickup both games, you’ll have 9 playable races to try out and around 23 legendary lords spread around the map.

The more DLC you own, the more races and lords you have to play with, up to a current maximum of 12 playable races and 35 legendary lords. This means that essentially Mortal Empires is a great reward for loyal customers. Those that have bought DLC, now get another campaign to mess around with them in it.

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However the mortal empires campaign, if you’re playing as one of the old races is basically a mirror copy to the old game. I mean that’s kind of the point. Your lord or race will start in the same place, their mechanics will be the same, their quests, buildings, units, skills and objectives will largely be the same, there are some slight variations to one or two technologies or events here and there, certainly not something that changes the playthrough that much. The faction you play will behave 95% identical to how they did before. However, the most notable change is now you have the chance of coming across 4 new races in some expanded territories to the south and to the west.

I want to make a comparison to one of the previous games in the franchise, Medieval 2 Total War. After a certain number of turns you may discover America, and there’s new and interesting factions over there to fight, that play and look different and have different architecture and landscapes. This situation is kind of similar. Whether you discover it or not, you’ll play your campaign the exact same, but if you do go there, you’ll have something new to fight.

Now obviously these races you’ll encounter have a lot more to them than the ones in Medieval 2, but I wanted to drive home the idea that your faction is untouched by this new world. If you sit around and play as the vampire counts, you might never see the new world, just as Egypt may never have saw the new world in Medieval 2. Now of course, you as the player can make it a priority to do that, so the option is there, but that’s more of a self driven design.

So depending on who you choose to start as, you’ll have an increased chance to encounter these races, obviously factions near the south and the west, will reach them faster.  And encountering them is the largest new element to this campaign, it’s a race that you should be unfamiliar with fighting, and it could also be a potential new ally. Of course there’s also the chance that these races will come for you eventually which can happen, and skaven in particular have been dotted around the old world so you might run into them faster.

So on the whole, if you played a lot of Warhammer 1, you’re not getting too much new here in terms of your raw campaign experience. If you choose to play as one of the Warhammer 2 races, again, you’re probably already familiar with fighting the old world races, as they were present in the Vortex Campaign.

 

It’s not to say the amount of familiarity is an overly bad thing, it’s just that… it is familiar. Playing as Belegar, I couldn’t help but think I’ve done this all already, and was forcing myself to try and encounter new races to shake up the gameplay I was used to.

Other conditions outside of that change how the campaign develops. For one, the new climate system, that the community clammered for in Warhammer 1, allows any faction to conquer anywhere and because of it, you’re seeing a much more random and dynamic campaign, where minor factions conquer well out of their usual areas and it makes it a lot more fun to experience and form allies and make enemies. The emergent narrative of Total War is creeping back in. Now the Dwarfs don’t just sit in the mountains all the time, they branch out a bit and it might be a bit weird for the lore but it makes for a much more interesting campaign, encountering races all over the world.

Another great aspect is that with Mortal Empires you can now play co-op or head to head with a myriad of different factions and races, and as I always advocate, co-op or head to head, is the best way to play. On-top of that, with Mortal Empires’ release, WH2 now allows multiplayer between WH2 and WH1 races and sub factions, so there’s just more diversity overall in the multiplayer scene.

And I think this is what the draw of Mortal Empires is for a lot of people, the fact that the world is much bigger and now that is has 12 races in it, it’s a lot more random creating a lot more interesting gameplay. Now remember, this is a Total War: WARHAMMER 2 DLC, so you also have the new additions that Total War: WARHAMMER II introduced, as I mentioned, we have the climate system, an improved UI, increased skill cap for lords, increased city sizes, improved trait system, encounters at sea and that’s pretty much it. If you want to hear my thoughts on those mechanics, check my Warhammer 2 review. To be honest the new feature set for this campaign, is basically just slight balance improvements which mods had delivered a lot of before and some quality of life stuff to the UI.

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It can sometimes feel as if this was the type of campaign many expected when Total War: WARHAMMER was first announced, one filled with variety and all the races you’d expect from the geography of the area. Athel Loren exists now. Beastmen raids and ambushes occur. Skaven are more than just a rumour. It’s a campaign with a better working trade and resource system. A campaign that let’s you conquer anywhere. And no doubt over time this campaign will fill up even more as DLC is created for Total War: WARHAMMER 2 and DLC from the old game gets patched in.

This is the best way to play Total War: WARHAMMER by far, the only issue is, to get the full experience of this campaign the bill is $195.

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It honestly feels like less and less is offered when the initial games come out, and you’ll rely on DLC and updates to make the product worthwhile over time. Some of these updates, the community really wanted, like small increases to lords levels, conquering anywhere, increasing build slots, these have now been placed behind a new full priced game paywall, while the original game is seemingly done and dusted now.

Of course there are sales on steam to help mitigate that cost over time, but there’s just something about a Total War game featuring 4 factions on release that will always seem bare bones to me. People can say the factions are far deeper and diverse than they ever have been, but I feel that any diversity or depth that was added, was removed from other parts of the game, such as campaign mechanics, unit mechanics, sieges, minor settlement battles and a bunch of other things.

I guess the problem is, if you’ve never played Total War Warhammer, getting that awesome experience is super expensive. If you’re a loyal customer and have purchased this DLC already, then this campaign is largely something you’ve played already. Its bigger and better, but only slightly.

 

So in that regard, I feel like scoring this content is super difficult, so I won’t score it in this review. For me, it’s a bit underwhelming, it’s a lot of what I’ve experienced already, it’s a little anti-climactic because its not as big as they said it was gonna be, it’s end game is currently messed up and some of the updates to the old game haven’t come over yet. For someone new, it’s probably one of the best experiences you can have with Total War, because it’s finally at the stage and perhaps even passed it now of what you’d expect from a strategy fantasy sandbox. I highly recommend trying it out if you haven’t, and wait for a sale for the DLC, it’s been 75% off before, and no doubt Christmas sales will see it drop again.

That’ll be it for my review of Mortal Empires, as I mentioned, the gameplay and mechanics carry over from Total War: WARHAMMER 2, so if you want a further in depth review of those mechanics, check out my review for Warhammer 2 here: https://www.therepublicofplay.com/news/2017/10/total-war-warhammer-2-review

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Total War: WARHAMMER 2 Review

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Total War: WARHAMMER 2 released on the 28th of September 2017, and is currently available on Windows PC through Steam activation. It’s developed by Creative Assembly and Published by SEGA.

As a brand new entry in a long established franchise, and with the fastest turn around time for a full priced game from Creative Assembly, this review will explore how the game stands on its own, how it improves as a sequel over its predecessor and how Total War: WARHAMMER II places itself in the franchise as a whole.

The Races

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Total War: WARHAMMER II features four playable races. The High Elves, The Dark Elves, The Lizardmen and The Skaven. The four races have a wildly different aesthetic and also have a set of distinct characteristics that makes each race feel unique.

The High Elves are an orderly and defensive race, relying on spearmen and powerful archers. They also depend on late game, high tier monstrous units such as Dragons and Phoenixes to cause mass damage and chaos on the battlefield. On the campaign, they specialize in trade and diplomatic manipulation. However both sound far more interesting than they actually play out, but we’ll get to that leter.

The Dark Elves are in many ways the opposite of the high elves, they favour a more dark and chaotic playstyle, with hyper aggressive units such as Witch Elves and War Hydras. Their sole purpose in battle is to cause fear and rage amongst the enemy ranks and the more damage they do, the more powerful they become after reaching a certain threshold. On the campaign, they’re economy is built on slavery, the more slaves you gather, the more you earn at the cost of unrest in your cities. It’s a nice balancing act that adds more depth to the campaign, and connects your battles to your economy, so I think it’s a great implementation. As well as that, they have access to Black Arks, a unique naval unit, that can build armies and provide battle support in the form of bombardment spells.

The Lizardmen, one of the more outlandish races in the Warhammer Universe, are extremely thick skinned and tanky. They move slowly and have strong heavy infantry bolstered by extremely strong monstrous dinosaur units. It’s often pointed out that they’re basically dinosaurs riding dinosaurs, and that’s essentially what you get. Don’t forget that they also have floating frogs that can telepathically cast spells. So yeah. Warhammer. On the campaign, they have the geomantic web. The geomantic web is basically just a building, that recognises if you have the same building in another adjacent province. If you do, you get buffs to the province. It’s simple, but it is a really nice idea, to connect up regions in a chain like that, but the buffs are often so minor, it hardly makes the investment worth it. The Lizardmen also have blessed spawnings, which allows instant free recruitment of high tier units upon completing missions. This was pretty neat, and is similar in previous games to the Vampire Counts raise dead mechanic, except this time it feels more rewarding and special to receive these units.

Lastly, we have The Skaven. Walking talking rat people coked up on warpstone, these guys are the opposite of Lizardmen in many ways, extremely quick and weak, but attack in large numbers from all directions. Their armies are made up of numerous variations of swarming rats, long range missiles and experimental machines, such as the doomwheel and hellpit abomination. On the campaign, they spread a corruption to adjacent provinces and rely on food to grow. They also have a unique hidden mechanic whereby their settlements appear undiscovered to other factions, allowing them to ambush wandering armies. For the most part their food mechanic makes the campaign more interesting, much like the managing of slaves, however the hidden mechanic doesn’t really play out that well as things like corruption give away their position and AI armies tend to attack ruins with full armies anyway.

So that’s it for the races and their diversity, each race also has two playable factions each led by a legendary lord. They share the same army rosters and building chains, but each lord has a unique starting location in the world, unique traits and skill trees. It is also possible to acquire the other unique lord throughout your campaign through confederation, giving you access to some of their benefits.

The Vortex

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Total War: WARHAMMER II’s campaign is focused on the Great Vortex, a large and dominating hurricane of magical energy that each race is fighting for control of. Due to cosmic events, the races believe the vortex to be unstable, as delivered through beautiful 2D cutscenes at the beginning of the game. Now each race will attempt to gain control of the vortex, to stop Chaos flooding into the world, or to destroy the world itself.

To gain control, each race must complete random missions and conquer settlements in order to acquire a particular ritual currency. The currency has different names for each race, but its all the exact same. Once you gather up enough of the currency, you’re able to perform rituals to gain factionwide benefits and push towards completing the final ritual which will give you control of the vortex and ultimate victory in the campaign.

It’s a really cool idea, having each race work towards a goal can place you under pressure to complete the ritual for fear of losing to the enemy AI. You’ll shift your priorities around of who you want to attack, in order to slow them down, and determine where you want to conquer based off missions and ritual resource sites. It really shook up the generic Total War conquer whatever I want gameplay for the better I feel.

The rituals you perform along the way, while interesting the first few times, become extreme slogs as the AI sends wave after wave of auto generated armies at you or your surrounding towns. You’ll end up fighting the same battles over and over again and it really just isn’t fun to play. Switching from an aggressive playstyle to defensive one as you hunker down to perform your rituals does force you to think differently, and I think is one of the more fun aspects of the campaign, however in the later stages when 6 or 7 armies appear at a random location and scatter around your lands, it becomes an extremely laborious affair to chase down armies. In context, these armies are supposed to be trying to stop your rituals, but often the AI determines that it can’t beat your defences and will raid your lands and destroy settlements. It’s really quite unfair, because you may think to yourself, well I’ll just build up defences in my towns. However the AI will spawn in your least defended places, and when they spawn with 5 armies, they can beat any town defense you have. So often performing rituals is a guaranteed loss of settlements at random and just feels very cheap and artificial.

As you progress and eventually reach the end of the game and story, you’ll realize it was all for nothing. There’s minor spoilers here, so skip ahead a bit if you want to avoid it. Essentially there’s a big plot twist regarding the vortex and your motivation for trying to control it. While this was really interesting to learn, it kind of kills the replay ability. Having a strategy sandbox game contain such a rigid story makes it extremely tedious to play through the same plot twist over and over again. Total War is at its best when it provides the tools to create an emergent narrative. Instead, Warhammer 2 has provided an extremely lightweight story, with deep roots in the world meaning it never changes no matter what you do.  The cutscenes were great, the writing was brilliant, but there’s roughly a total of 2mins story for your 20hr campaign. After beating one campaign, there’s really no point in following along the same story again and again apart from seeing the different art for each one.

That’s just the story though, the rituals themselves can also largely be ignored, if you lose the race to the AI, you’ll be prompted to fight a final battle with whatever army you wish, and should you win it, that AI will be out of the vortex race completely. The battle itself isn’t even hard, as your enemies lay down their weapons and fight together against the common foe. It’s a 3v1 that you’ll never lose, unless you’re extremely far behind in the game that you can’t even manage to get one full army together.

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As the High Elves, I was just three turns behind the Dark Elves frantically trying to stop them from completing their ritual, only to find out I could’ve just waited until the end. Then a few turns later, in my final battle, I was against the other three races, but I was given unlimited ammo, massive heal and explosion spells and the enemy trickled in in smaller waves making it quite easy. Then on completion, you’ll receive an extremely minor reward for the rest of your campaign should you choose to continue to mop up.

Overall the implementation of the vortex is a failure in my opinion. In premise, it felt similar to the Advent from XCOM 2. This ticking timer that you had to keep up with, but Creative Assembly couldn’t commit to it fully, instead putting in several fail safes to make sure you couldn’t lose, defeating the entire purpose. On top of that, the story is the same for each race, so playing multiple times is borderline pointless. If you want the regular conquer anything campaign with normal Total War games, you can find that here, but you’ll have to try ignore the cutscenes, the giant UI bar and constant messages and missions about the vortex. The roaming chaos, norscan and skaven armies that fight for the rituals and the enemy AI that is designed to attack and defend ritual sites. After beating the campaign in most Total War games, I want to immediately play another one. In Total War: WARHAMMER II, I’m not sure I have any motivation to play it again.

Campaign Visuals

Let’s just get this out the way straight off the bat. The campaign map looks astonishing. The map is fixated on 4 continents of the Warhammer Universe. To the south west, you have the dense tropical jungles of Lustria, flanked by the large mountain range known as the spine of sotek. To the North West lies Naggaroth, a largely barren and icy wasteland, with Chaos corrupted mountain peaks and volcanoes. To the south east, is the Southlands, a large desert continent with a thin strip of mountains and jungles to the south. And lastly, to the north east lies Ulthuan, a magical island with a pristine climate shielding the great vortex behind it’s impenetrable mountain fortresses.

For geographical equivalents, this is basically South America, North America, Africa and then a giant ring continent, so this game’s scale is the most impressive in any Total War. 

Despite the scale, Creative Assembly have not skipped a beat on the detail. Zooming in all the way in I noticed lots of hidden nooks and cranny’s housing beautiful architecture, from Dwarfen mining networks, to Lizardmen temples and aqueducts, to even small remote caves no doubt home to mysterious creatures. The lighting is extremely pleasing to the eye, even in destitute areas, as god rays shine through the mountain peaks down on the charred terrain and lava bubbles up from the cracked chaos earth. Coral reefs and rolling clouds overhead break apart the coastlines and add some colour to the endless ocean, which can also be rife with thunderstorms and whirlpools.

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The campaign map is the most impressive part of Total War WARHAMMER II and I think is the most incredibly detailed map in any game yet, not just Total War. The texture quality and VFX are extremely high and the audio is excellent as move your camera around the different props, mountain ranges and climates.

And climate is important. Total War: WARHAMMER 2 introduces the idea of persistent climates for the first time with different races having different climate suitability preferences. There’s 10 different climates and 10 different races, though most overlap somewhere in the middle for tropical style climates, while a few others prefer the chaos ridden wastelands. It’s a mechanic that plays out pretty nicely, you can conquer wherever you want, but climate will determine how easily you’ll manage your settlements there as it effects public order, construction costs, income and more.

Economics

So how does the campaign gameplay pan out? The main new features to this game are the Vortex mechanics and rituals, which we’ve already covered. Aside from that, for any Total War veteran out there, the gameplay is instantly familiar as it’s largely the same as Total War: WARHAMMER 1 and is a simpler version of previous games like Total War: Rome 2 and Total War: Attila.

For the uninitiated, the campaign is entirely turn based, in which you play out your turn and then all the other factions play out there’s in the same sequence each time. The goal is conquest first and foremost, so you’ll spend time building up settlements in order to sustain the armies that you field. Generally speaking, the only expenditure in the game on a turn by turn basis is army upkeep and the main sources of income are taxes and trade. You use excess income to then build new armies to conquer and buildings to further your economy.

The game uses a provincial system, whereby regions will fit inside a province and owning all regions will allow you to garner province wide benefits. Each province has a capital settlement, which allows for higher tiered buildings. This is something I’ve mentioned before with the previous Total War: WARHAMMER game, but essentially factions have around 13 building chains they can build. When you own all the regions in a province you generally have 13 building slots free. This essentially means that you can build everything you want, and since buildings have no negative effects, you can just progressively build up and double up on certain buildings, like garrisons to bolster settlements and income buildings.

The system lets you specialize regions to be recruiting areas, income areas and does require some thought in the initial stages about what you want to prioritize, but once you get a bit further into your campaign it becomes extremely easy to manage and you completely forget about provinces. For novices to strategy, this is a great way to jump in and learn in a very forgiving system, but for veterans the simplification can leave them wanting more.

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Something that is sorely missed from this is a sense of immersion with the buildings and provinces in general. There’s no visible population in settlements, just a growth number. When you lose a settlement, or it gets burned to the ground I never felt bad or cared other than the fact I lost a little time investment. When you view settlements in the battles they’re empty, and while beautifully crafted, it’s often hard to picture how anyone lives in these places and there isn’t one reason to believe anyone does. Other towns don’t care when a city gets razed to ashes, millions potentially die, or hundreds, who knows and nobody bats an eye. About 20 turns later, the town is back to where it was and its as if the great holocaust of X never happened. I don’t have the time in this review to talk about why this is important, especially to this series but will get to it in the coming days on my channel. Bottom line is if you care about immersion, its lacking on the campaign.

Resources have a significant impact on the campaign, and each one has it’s own unique building chain. Gathering these resources bolsters income, allows for more trade, provides small buffs to the province and even ties into technology for the high elves, which is a really nice addition. I think having these resource buildings does shake up the monotony of the copy paste provinces you end up creating though for every other faction they don’t have a secondary use for them.

Trade on its own is such a frustrating experience that I’m surprised a whole race depends on it so heavily. All trade comes through your capital on the campaign. If you’re capital is on an island, such as it is for Teclis, then it seems you can only trade with those you’ve connected a port to. I owned the entire western coast of Lustria, bordering Dwarfs, Lizardmen and more, but could not establish a trade route, despite being able to see roads connecting our towns and being able to walk into their lands. You cannot move your capital to trade more effectively and there’s no visible trade routes on the map to relay information to the player about why they can’t establish a route. Trade also just provides money, you don’t actually get the resource to do something with it so it’s a really shallow fabrication of what trade should be.

Some of the new editions to Total War are the Treasure Hunts, Encounters at Sea and Rites. When armies march on ruins, they can perform a treasure hunt that will give you a small story and dilemma. These are interesting, but I often found they were poorly written, not for their use of creativity and intrigue, but for their disconnect with the results presented. You’ll walk into a tomb, and essentially anything can happen. You could decide to walk out, steal something, cast a spell or whatever, and nearly always the result seemingly has no bearing on what you were doing there. It’s also written from a strange perspective. It says “you” open things and “you” walk around, but I feel it should name your lord and even play off traits they have. It’d be pretty cool if a lord who has the brave trait gets a special response to use and could end up getting him killed or could return with something everyone else was too afraid to get. Instead it’s kind of impersonal, disconnected and often not worth waiting the extra turn to do it.

Encounters at sea are pretty basic, but can be nice little stories and usually guarantee you nice items and other benefits. In the early game, these encounters are well worth getting however later on they are pretty irrelevant as you don’t need whatever they give you most of the time. One encounter, the skull island, is a guaranteed 10,000 gold. Once I worked this out, I only ever went after those and it kind of killed the mystique around them. Nice idea though, and they do break up the early game.

Rites are simple faction-wide benefits that are different based on the Race. Often they require a sum of gold or some currency to obtain, and provide fairly significant changes to your faction. The lizardmen can perform a rite to gain an instant massive army of monstrous units, and the Dark Elves can use rites to recruit their Black Arks. It’s a cool feature with a nice UI screen, and it gives the player something to work towards to make life easier and to gain instant access to cool stuff. 

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Essentially in Total War: WARHAMMER II’s campaign you can’t really do anything wrong, you can just do stuff better. There is always an optimum way of doing things, and its reasonably easy to figure that out. You can’t really build something wrong, lose growth or de-stabilize your economy with buildings and because of that its just very simple and a little bit boring.

Lords, Heroes, Armies, Conquest

Armies can be created at any settlement by recruiting a lord and then can be added to with units from within your territory or from any point on the map through a global recruitment system. Doing it globally will incur cost and time penalties. The same works for army replenishment. If you’ve taken losses and want to recruit more men, the game will automatically replenish your troops should you be in home territory or if you’re in a particular army stance abroad. 

This replenishment system makes losing a particular unit in battle a little bit more costly, as they could’ve just been healed for free and will have to be re-recruited which costs time and money. If the unit survived with even just 1 man remaining, it would eventually heal and replenish for free. The catch of this is that while a unit may suffer losses, you still pay the full amount of upkeep each turn. This eliminates some of the tedium in sending armies home and manually paying for replenishing units, which can be confusing and take up time, however this system again eats away at immersion.

How are you recruiting troops 100’s of miles from home, why are units costing the same to pay each turn if half of them are dead. The fact the troops heal quickly and for free, creates a disconnect with the people in that unit. They don’t really feel alive, more like numbers ticking along in a game system. And for the most part, the system works.

This in effect means you never really care when 100 troops die right infront of you, the loss of life is insignificant so long as the unit stays in tact. So again, the gameplay is strong with this mechanic, but immersion is lacking. I feel there is a middle ground to be had here, but again will save it for another video of suggestions.

Lords themselves are needed to recruit armies and they have deep skill trees that allow for great customization. The skill trees have an available 40 slots to be filled in the campaign effects line, battle effects, personal effects and faction effects lines and there’s no way to fill up everything so choices need to be made about how you want to specialize your lords.

One such lord for me, was Enji Benji, a Lizardmen lord I recruited to keep some unrest down in some province somewhere. While Enji was helping the people, he gained traits over time that made him better at doing so as a direct result from being amongst an unhappy populace. As he ranked up, I gave him upgrades that helped with public order, removing corruption, improving taxes and recruiting units for cheap. He became a king of administration, and as his retinue expanded, I assigned him followers such as taxmen, logisticians and administrators, that increased his effects further. If there was ever a town or province in trouble, Enji Benji would go there and fix the problem in no time.

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It’s been a long time since I formed a connection to my generals in Total War, but with the depth of customization at hand, it makes it a lot easier to do so in Warhammer 2. The only downside to my lord was he looked identical to many others I recruited and never had any personality in battle as there are no speeches or any way of really distinguishing him from others. Enji Benji will always have a soft spot in my heart, unlike his asshole brother Benqi Enqi… that guy is a real piece of work.

Diplomacy

The last notable interaction you can have on the campaign map is Diplomacy. Diplomacy is how you deal with the other AI factions in the game. For the most part it works pretty well with what it let’s you do. It gives you information about trade partners, wars and alliances, let’s you set war targets and more.

It doesn’t however let you set goals in a joint war, or let you exchange provinces. This is particular frustrating because of the province system. You may have an ally that takes a part of a province and you can’t get it’s full benefits. Or worse, a faction that might not care about the vortex, could take a settlement containing a ritual resource site, and you have no other choice but to attack them to take it. It’s a very 1 dimensional system that doesn’t really make me feel like I’m talking to a faction rather than just dealing with a particular mechanic that is often just frustrating.

There’s no real back and forth or haggling to be had. Hey do you want to trade? No. Hey do you want to trade and I’ll give you 1000 gold? No. Hey do you want to trade and I’ll give you 2000 gold? Yes. Just tell me what you want! Also, it seems diplomacy has gotten more limited with the removal of the vassalization option completely from Warhammer 1 which is disappointing.

Battles

Battles on the campaign can be automatically resolved if you don’t want to fight it out. The game will do its best to simulate the outcome of a battle, but this auto resolve is one of the worst in Total War’s history. Often the auto resolve bar will display a loss for battles that are easily winnable by the player, and a win for battles that can actually be quite tricky if you fight it out. So essentially you’re encouraged to fight the easy fights and skip the hard fights, which is the opposite of what should be taking place. This is seemingly because of the absence of a reliable cause and effect for magic, which can spawn units for example, or freeze entire armies in place while you hit them with archers. Experience on units and lord levels tend to play an overblown effect also.

Furthermore, getting caught in a battle at sea is extremely unfair because of the auto resolve. Battles you could easily win if you fought it out, will see you losing entire armies at sea because Total War: WARHAMMER 2 doesn’t feature naval battles, despite around 30% of the map being ocean.

Some will cry that Games Workshop hold the license to naval battles from Creative Assembly, but I’ve seen no reliable source for this information so I don’t really believe that. Even if it were true, it’s not a good excuse for the player. Whatever bureaucracy may go on behind the scenes, it doesn’t matter to the consumer as they’re paying to play a good game. Now I personally don’t care much for naval battles anyway, but with the fantasy units I think you could balance it in a fun way unlike the ramming only combat of certain historical total war titles.

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The real issue I have is that the replacement for naval battles is just the completely borked auto resolve. I’d rather there be no option for naval battles, instead transports just ferry troops to and from land. Or battles be fought out on remote island maps to at least give the opportunity to fight. Either way, it’s terrible in it’s current implementation.

Land Battles

Fighting out battles is what you’ll spend about 20-30% of your time doing in Total War WARHAMMER II, out of the 210 turns I played in one campaign to completion, I fought 188 battles and played 60 of them myself.

The battles feel well balanced for the campaign, and look exceptionally good. The quality of models is at an all time high for the series as well as the animations and audio. This starts to fall apart slightly when you look at single entity combat. Entities will miss their targets, swivel around without animating and lock in and out of their animations, which really makes these powerful units look pretty stupid. Monstrous charges are appropriately over the top as entities get flung through the air on impact. Magic has significant influence, and you’ll be making use of it regularly. The AI, while not perfect, does a good job of setting up battle lines, flanking manoeuvres and keeping their missiles out of combat most of the time. The morale of armies tends to break after significant damage has been done, or a lord has been killed, creating mass routs which gives a real sense of great victory or a sudden defeat.

The UI can get extremely cluttered at times, but has some nice features that allow you to configure what information is presented at any time, or when holding the alternate view. This ranges from unit types, health bars, missile range and even options to remove the foliage of trees should it obstruct your view. Most of this stuff is never really explained to you in the game, with the tutorial itself being extremely lacking in teaching players some of the basics to look out for. The in game encyclopaedia has even been removed in favour of a small set of youtube videos with basically no views.

The 4 races have around 100 units available to choose from, with 4 new lores of magic containing 6 spells each. On top of this, there’s all of the Warhammer 1 spells and units available to fight against so the amount of variations possible in battle are huge. In reality though, these minor Warhammer 1 factions largely die out by the time you reach them, so I didn’t actually get to fight many, instead I just fought against the core Warhammer 2 races a lot. I would estimate 90% of my battles were against the core races.

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Repetition and battle fatigue is something that I ran into very quickly. It’ll only take a matter of a few hours before you see the same maps, and fight the same enemies on them. Even across continents you’ll come across the same battle maps, which really breaks the immersion that your fighting in that part of the world. Every now and then a map will load where you’ll recognise where you are, and it really elevates the experience of the game. In older titles terrain was generated based on algorithms, and you could see your fleets in the distance, towns and cities where they should be and land that represented the map you were on.

In Total War Warhammer 2, it seems random maps will load based on climate and your reinforcements will arrive in random places. They’ve said they’ve achieved hand crafted maps in this game as a selling point, but a lot of maps I’ve come across have been low quality and uninteresting, to the point where entire sections look unfinished or unplayable to your troops. As well as that, Warhammer 1 maps are present in the game, but load the new Warhammer 2 lighting and terrain and often look extremely out of place.

Because your fighting the same enemies over and over, you’ll often get used to doing the same formations and tactics over and over. Something noticeable is that even with the skavens superior numbers, they always just bunch up allowing you to cast mass debuff spells and ranged attacks. It’s a pretty big problem with the AI that they never seem to use numbers to their advantage instead creating large bottlenecks for themselves unnecessarily.

And bottlenecks are now a feature as Warhammer 2 has reintroduced river crossing battles. While they look nice and have been a long featured fan request, I really find them to be uninteresting as two sides clash and you end up waiting out the fight with little else to do other than call upon artillery. I feel the maps need multiple crossing points, elevated terrain or something just to break up the monotony. Chokepoint battles also don’t seem to have much tactical implication on the campaign map. Sitting on rivers or canyons trigger chokepoint battles in the old games, but now they seem to appear almost randomly and even in place of settlement battles. This makes it hard to determine where to take a defensive stand as you would normally. A check terrain feature at any point on the map would be pretty cool as you can do it before the actual battle, but really chokepoints should only appear on rivers and mountain passes and nowhere else.

Next up is siege battles, a long-criticised element from Total War: WARHAMMER 1, it’s sad to say that sieges have not changed in Total War: WARHAMMER 2. The main issue yet again is repetition.  Each siege essentially plays out the same. A mad dash for the walls, scramble over them anyway you can either with equipment of without. Fight on the walls for a bit and then push to the centre.  It’s always the same. The first 10 you do, can be very exciting but the AI never change pattern and become very predictable. Players have almost no freedom in how they approach settlements and each settlement has just one line of defense usually. There’s really not much else to say here. Unfortunately, settlements that house thousands or millions of citizens only let you fight in a very small part of the settlement, with beautiful architecture, streets and river crossings teasing you outside of the playable area.

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The AI does an ok job of defending and attacking, they never do anything particularly smart, however there’s a huge disconnect between then AI’s magic use’s and the battle itself. Wind spells, spells that travel in long lines, will often be cast on single entities or in the wrong direction, bombard spells, spells used to hit a group of enemies will be cast on moving towers and miss them completelyand spawning spells, such as the skavens menace below, will spawn a unit outside of settlement walls, before the AI decides they need to return and re-enter the settlement instantly because it’s suddenly realized they have a unit outside of the city and that’s a big no no in defensive siege battles.

What’s worse, is that particular problem will open the gates, rendering any unit attacking it immobile and unable to attack the gate. Your attacking unit may even accidentally walk into the settlement and not be able to move or get out because the gate is locked… even though its open! It’s a huge problem that is almost guaranteed to happen each time you attack a skaven city and it’s been plaguing the franchise since Rome II. The fact it’s a legacy bug adds insult to injury when the game is charging full price for content and issues present in older games that people have constantly voiced concerns about.

Last in the battle spectrum are quest battles. There are 17 quest battles in Warhammer 2, and they’re easily the most fun aspect of the game. You can access them from the front end menu screen or go on quests to fight them in your campaigns. They have little voiced cutscenes beforehand, and while some can be underwhelming, others can present new and unique ways to fight and are almost like Boss battles in many ways, asking you to kill and take down unique units in order to earn your campaign rewards.

Multiplayer

You can play multiplayer battles in Warhammer 2 of up to 8 players in a 4v4 fight, or do a 4 player free for all in which all players fight against each other. There’s also the ranked battles which are 1v1 which I guess makes it the main mode for the multiplayer community.

Personally I’ve never really enjoyed the multiplayer aspect of Total War Warhammer, it’s extremely micro intensive and fast paced, with battles lasting around 3 minutes discounting the time it takes to walk up to each other. The battles are often very small, with most standard builds bringing around 800 troops on average. It’s just not something that has ever appealed to me and as of writing this, out of the 24,000 people that are currently playing there’s 20 game lobbies in the server browser. It’s extremely niche, but does have a vocal following behind it. To me, it kind of goes against the grain of Total War, which as I understood it was supposed to be about recreating large scale battles on a somewhat realistic scale. I don’t mind fantasy units, in fact I really wanted to get into Warhammer, but if you watched something like Lord of the Rings and 800 people were fighting in the battle and it ended in 5mins I think it’d lose some of its appeal.

Where total war multiplayer does shine for me though, is in co-op and head to head modes on the campaign. You can jump in with a friend and join forces to tackle the campaign or go head to head and work to fight each other. If you go into a battle against an AI faction, your friend will step in for the AI and do their best to win. It’s extremely fun because it removes some of the repetition and predictability of the AI. In a co-op situation, you can gift your friend your units in real time so they can take over the cavalry and you can manage the infantry or whatever combination you wanted. It is, in my opinion the best way to play the campaign. It hasn’t changed much since it was introduced with Napoleon, but I’d love to see more players especially since 4 races fight for the vortex it seemed like a missed golden opportunity to play with friends here.

Conclusion / Verdict

Focusing on what Total War: WARHAMMER II does right is easy. The battles are fun. The graphics are great both on campaign and in battle. The UI has been streamlined for the better. The lore of Warhammer fantasy, while never really introduced properly, has been brought to life here through well crafted stories and interesting characters. What holds the game back from being great, are long standing issues with the series, and the failure of newly introduced features. The vortex is anti climactic and irrelevant. The AI is extremely predictable and monotonous, sending hordes of the same armies at you. The battle maps are repetitive both in terms of design and gameplay - especially the sieges. Immersion is at an all time low, with no real link between your battles and the campaign, the soldiers fighting or the people your managing.

If you’ve never played strategy games before, you’ll probably get a lot out of this game in your first few campaigns, I’d recommend it. If you’re a Warhammer 1 fan, and don’t mind some of it’s shortcomings, and want more of the same gameplay then Warhammer 2 is probably a great fit for you. If you’re a veteran of Total War and strategy this title doesn’t do anything to push the genre or franchise forward in any way. Instead it asks for full price when it shares a huge amount of assets and gameplay with it’s predecessor, and fails to build on it’s most frustrating issues.

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Stellaris: Synthetic Dawn Review

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Synthetic Dawn is a DLC “Story Pack” for the 2016 grand strategy game Stellaris from Paradox Studios. It released on the 21st of September 2017 and has a focus on Machine Empires within the game.

The story packs base price is $9.99 which is the same as the previously released Leviathans story pack. However, if you’re dealing in British Pound Sterling it’s 50p cheaper than its predecessor weighing in at £6.99 as opposed to £7.49. So just a small aside that if you’re in the UK, you’re getting a better deal.

Machine empires are now playable for the first time in Stellaris, when designing your race, you’ll have several new options to choose from including 8 new Machine themed portraits for your race with colour variations in each one. There’s also the general robot portrait from the base game that is now usable too.

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Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of the cosmetic customization for this DLC. There’s no new ship types or planet types. Machines live on the base game organic worlds like every other race and use base game organic ships. This was a large drawback for me personally, as someone who likes to get engrossed in the emergent narrative of the game, it’s more than disappointing that the Machines haven’t created a Matrix style world, with the sun blocked out or harnessed at a single focal point. Even the artwork for Synthetic Dawn on the store page, teases us with images of colourful Mechanical Worlds that are not present in the game. The idea of ships with windows doesn’t really make sense with machines, as a machine would just build a sentient ship that would pilot itself, rather than harbour sentient beings.

It’s important to note however, that this is a Story Pack, not a Species pack like the Plantoids Species pack, so while less artwork in general when it comes to the race designer is expected, it’s still disappointing none the less.

Further to that Machine worlds and unique machine ships are in the base game already, under the form of AI rebellions. Here, the AI can live on Machine worlds and you yourself can live on them too, if you own the $20 Utopia Expansion and upgrade your ascension perk tree to allow it.

I don’t want to dwell on it any longer, but a Machine Race focused DLC, that doesn’t allow you to live on Machine worlds - worlds and artwork that’s already in the base game mind you - without owning another more expensive DLC is bad design in my opinion.

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When selecting the government type for your Machine Race, you need to pick Gestalt Consciousness – Machines act as a collective hive mind, from there you’ll be able to choose Machine Intelligence, which comes with a select amount of benefits and drawbacks. For one, machines are immortal, never dying of old age, they can only suffer random breakdowns or death in battle. As they’re a hive mind, you don’t have to worry about governing ethics creating new political factions within your empire nor do you need to worry about food. However, they don’t grow naturally, you need to build them, and as a result they’re more expensive to maintain and require you to micromanage your planets more efficiently to get the most out of them.

You could just leave it at that, and choose some pretty standard civics and go about your playthrough, but as I mentioned there are three distinct styles of play you’ll want to try out.

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First, we have Determined Exterminators. As you’d expect, this is a Skynet style revolt, where you won’t engage in diplomacy with organics and will do anything possible to find and kill all living things. It sounds more interesting than it is however. Ultimately, not having any interaction with pops and only having one diplomacy option with everyone gets a bit tiresome, but it’s always fun to play the bad guy at times. Interestingly, when you take over a planet with organics on it. You’ll begin to process them as you purge their species. This will turn them into energy, if you can keep the unrest down that is. Once they’re wiped out you’ll receive unity for each pop purged, so they really thrive on the extinction of others, which creates a sort of snowball effect. The more you kill, the faster you grow… so that you can kill more.

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The next one is the driven assimilator. You’ll start the game with 4 organic cyborgs. It’s the assimilators job to find new organics to acquire, and then to transform them into cyborgs. Cyborgs aren’t fully machine, they can eventually die, but they don’t have happiness or food requirements, meaning you can get the diversification of unique species, but the benefits of machines on top.

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Unfortunately I found this way of playing to be a bit counterproductive. Gaining a new species can take a long time to turn into Cyborgs at a rate of four pops per year, so you’ll have to deal with the extreme unrest problems. Then once you get cyborgs, you can’t remove them without being seen as someone who purges or grow them as they can’t be built. You can’t change any policies for them, so are just kind of stuck with them. It seems you’re always far better off building your own robots as you can control their modifications and what they’re good at. This might be a little more expensive, but it’s probably evens out when you consider the armies needed to quell unrest.

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The last distinct style of play is the Rouge Servitor. Easily the most interesting in my opinion, it’s the Machines prime directive to safeguard organic species, preserve them and keep them in a blissful state of happiness. You’ll start the campaign with four pops on your home world, these pops never work or do anything really, they exist in sanctuaries by default. You can’t replace their building, and you can’t even build it, they just automatically have sanctuaries wherever you place them. Sanctuaries will provide unity and can be upgraded via technology and traditions later on.

The higher the ratio of organics pops to robotic pops in your empire will give you a boost in monthly influence and also a percentage buff to resource output for your robots. This is capped at 40%, so the best you can get is +2 influence and 40% resource output.

It’s a fun and unique way to play, trying to maintain a high organic population has it’s drawbacks, Robots can live on any planets, whereas your pet species will have a habitability rating. I ended up using the Utopia Expansion to build habitats to house my organic friends and give them the ultimate paradise while the machines worked on the planets to harvest resources. As well as this, you do need to think about food in order to grow your organic pops, and you’ll have to spend influence to settle them on new planets as they can’t use colony ships.

I completed a campaign with these guys, and I think I’ll be playing another as a sort of collector so that I can house one of every species in habitats. It’s a pretty cool feeling to have a fallen empire race kept as one of your prizes.

Overall I think the new playstyles offer something for every type of player and are fun to choose from, however I think each one only has one style of play that you can’t really deviate from. While this provides a nice tailored experience, it removes some of the emergent sandbox nature from playing a race and making decisions about who you want to be yourself later on. Your policies for the most part with each type of play are largely locked out, as they’ve been determined from the get go. I wonder if perhaps it’d have been more interesting to just add these types of play to the policies screen and let players decide how they want play, taking elements from each playstyle possibly.

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You could’ve had political parties that advocated the protection of organics and others that viewed them as a threat, with your policies dictating which way you lean and a potential civil war erupting. It might go against the grain of a machine intelligence, but if the machines were truly sentient beings with their own thoughts and dare I say feelings, it’s plausible this way. However, in synthetic dawn machines are hive minds only meaning they have one prime directive and never deviate from it.

Synthetic Dawn adds a new type of Fallen Empire to the game, a Fallen Machine Empire. Sadly, out of my three playthroughs, I never encountered a Fallen Machine Empire but from reading online and briefly looking at them in game with cheats, they appear to be a Fallen Empire that acts quite differently. Their mission was to protect organic life on ring worlds that they constructed however it all seems to have gone wrong, now they act erratically and you never quite know if they will help or hinder you. Their opinion is blocked and they don’t ever look to awaken, instead only awakening when a certain crisis occurs.

Another feature that I sort of missed was a Machine Rebellion. According to the feature list, A Machine Rebellion creates an event chain where synths that have not been given citizen rights may start to network and eventually rebel, forming a new Machine Empire that attempts to overthrow their organic masters. So it would seem that this only happens if you play as an organic species. I played as a machine intelligence that doesn’t need to grant citizenship so it can’t happen. I did see an empire close to me rip apart in civil war because machines rose up, and as I was playing robotic I tried to fund them with minerals to survive, but they eventually perished.

I played around 50hrs for this review, so I think it’s a valid point that if you’re thinking of buying it, some of this stuff just might not happen for you.

Synthetic Dawn also adds ten new advisor voices, these are based on government types but you change between any of them whenever you want. It’s personal preference, but some are really good and just inject a bit more life into the game after a year of hearing the same voice.

There’s also three new music tracks added to the game, one of which is a rework for the main title theme. They’re all fantastic in my opinion, Stellaris music is absolutely epic and fits the game perfectly. I never grow tired of it. Robotic God’s dark and slow building synth is one of the soundtracks greatest in my opinion.

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That’s essentially it for the Synthetic Dawn Story Pack. This is a review of the content in this pack only, so stuff like the new end game crisis; the contingency, that focuses on machines, doesn’t count as it’s free to everyone. As well as that Robot Template Modding is now in the base game too.

For what Synthetic Dawn is offering I feel like in some ways its an incomplete pack. The writing of the events is really interesting but they’re just events that are in the base game anyway. The new interaction with the fallen empire is something that never occurred to me so I can’t speak to the value of that, but the Contingency Interaction, while pretty awesome to see, there was only one additional dialogue option for owners of Synthetic Dawn and it doesn’t lead to anything substantial. I think the linear focus of each playstyle means you won’t really get multiple playthroughs out of the pack, and the limited amount of portraits and artwork in general means you don’t have much reason to try it again.

Modders have already been getting to work creating the Machine Worlds a lot of us expected to see and they look great. They’ve also unlocked the machine ships in the base game for people to use. It begs the question if they could scramble it together in a couple days then why couldn’t paradox get some freelance artists to pull together a bit of artwork for machine worlds too. It clearly seems to have been their vision for the pack.

Something that is worth mentioning is that I feel Paradox did a great job supporting the game with an enormous free update that added a lot to the game alongside this DLC. Unfortunately, this review deals with the content of the DLC only so I can’t really judge it based on what’s been added to the game for free.

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Total War: ARENA Review

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Total War: ARENA is a free to play, multiplayer battle game on Windows PC. You won’t find the game on steam, as it’s currently being developed by Creative Assembly and is published by Wargaming; utilising the “Wargaming Command Centre” to launch and update the game.

In Total War: ARENA you select three units from a wide variety of unit types and take them into 10v10 battles, this creates large scale 30v30 unit battles, played out on a series of bespoke maps.

Though the game is in Closed Beta right now, Open beta is only a few weeks away, and you can purchase access along with some other additions for prices ranging from $10 to $100. So let’s see what exactly you’d be paying for.

Gameplay (Pre-Battle)

To begin a battle, you’ll need to select a commander to lead your forces. Upon starting the game you’ll have a choice of three commanders out of a total of 10 that you can eventually unlock. Commanders belong to different factions, of which there are three; The Romans, The Greeks and The Barbarians.

Commanders have access to unique abilities, and each commander plays very different because of the effects of those abilities. You can have wide area of effect buffs and de-buffs to enhance or hinder those around you. There’s also specific charges, timed effects, special formations and deception tactics that your commanders can employ.

Each commander has three abilities at their disposal, but only starts with one. You’ll need to progress and rank up to gain access to the other two, and you can also improve your current abilities by levelling them up also.

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ARENA’s progression is divided into a ten Tier grouping system. Units and commanders will start at Tier One and as you play and gain more XP you’ll start to unlock access to more Tiers. As the Tiers progress you’ll have access to greater gameplay depth. Commanders will get access to more complex and difficult to execute abilities and units will become more diverse and complex in their own right. For example, a battle at Tier 1 will only ever have a maximum of six unit variations on it, while a battle at Tier five has a maximum of eighteen unit variations. The variations don’t actually increase beyond tier 5 (sometimes they do a little), but the units themselves have greater tools at their disposal to create a more nuanced battlefield.

Units in ARENA come in all different shapes and sizes and encourage different playstyles to get the most out of them. The Romans boast strong heavy infantry, strong late tier cavalry and powerful artillery. The Greeks have an extremely strong defensive line with the use of hoplites, long range slingers and devastating shock cavalry. The Barbarians are glass cannon; high damage dealers with low defense, fielding units such as “Naked Warriors”, “Falxmen” and “Warhounds”. Units themselves possess their own abilities, such as charges for cavalry, formation fighting for romans, phalanx for greeks, focused fire for missiles etc. etc.  They also have their own selection of consumables, items you take into battle and can use. These can range from small buffs for each unit, to buildable defences such as stakes or barricades.

Choosing the right commander to match a unit type will push that unit to its full potential. For instance Germanicus of the Romans, has “Heavy Infantry Charge”, “Testudo Formation” and “Vengence” as abilities, so obviously this commander has no use really for cavalry or artillery as those abilities can’t even be used on those units. Similarly, Cynane for the Greeks has “Rapid Advance”, “Hunt” and “Barrage”, some of which can be used on other types of units, but lend themselves heavily to missile infantry. There are also commanders that are unit agnostic; such as Caesar for the Romans and Vercingetorix for the Barbarians, who favour to affect those around them more so than their units themselves.

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Once you’ve selected your commander and units you’re ready for battle. You can play with up to three friends in a squad of four. To add a friend you simply type their username into the friend finder and add them, but you can only play with friends if they’re in the same region as you. When creating a Wargaming account it’ll put you into the North American Region, the European Region, the CIS Region or the Asian Region, depending on location. Or like many people, you may have googled their website and won’t realize you were redirected to the na.wargaming site instead of eu.wargaming site, as it’s very hard to notice in your browser. Even less conspicuous, the ".com" instead of the ".net" for Total War: Arena's website. This means your account will be forced into this region, and you can’t play with friends.

Many people have come to me, living in Europe or UK but accidentally joined the US. What’s even more bizarre, is although they can’t add each-other and party up together, it seems they can play with each-other. With the relatively small userbase, I’ve come across friends and YouTubers from different regions in my game. When we try to add each-other afterwards we cannot because of the region locking. So this is a massive black spot on the game. Region locking is incredibly outdated and frustrating for players. I live in the UK and most of my friends are US based so it makes playing this game extremely frustrating.

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Gameplay (Battle)

As for the gameplay itself, there’s one game mode and at least 7 maps. Maps are weighted between tiers, so you’ll only come across certain ones at higher tiers. There was an old map called Germania that seems to be missing from Tiers 1-6, but it’s possible it could be an extremely high tier map I just never encountered.

The game mode itself is a simple base capture and defense. If one team places a unit in the enemy base, a progress bar starts to move up. The more units in the base, the faster it moves up, however if the unit takes damage, it loses all capture points it earned and the progress falls down. This means you essentially need to catch the base completely undefended to capture it. If there are archers or artillery near it, then they can fire in from a safe distance and keep it from capturing. There’s also a fifteen minute timer on the game. Whoever has the most troops remaining at the end of the timer wins. A viable strategy is for a team to realize they have more men, pull back and start defending, as it’s up to the enemy to try and kill them or take their base before the clock runs out. It’s a very simple yet fun game mode that I don’t ever really grow tired of. Every now and then, you’ll encounter a game where a blob of troops rush a base and win in under two minutes which can be frustrating, but it’s up to the team to stop that from happening and leave something behind to defend. I would say more often than not, the game boils down to just a handful of troops left so I think the balance of the mode and maps in general is quite good.

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Combat itself is all about unit placement and the timing of abilities. Tactical placement of troops that appeal to their unit type are what makes for a successful battle. Blocking off streets, laying ambushes and protecting each others flanks will ensure that everyone survives. Units that stray off on their own, often get surrounded and cut down by greater numbers. Commander abilities then work to counter a bad situation, or enhance a good one. If there’s a block of troops guarding a street or an area, your Vercingetorix can use a scorched earth effect to burn the ground and make that unit move. If an Arminius player has remained hidden for a while, they can use infiltration to mask themselves as an ally and sneak up on the enemy. If Caesar is near an enemy, he can issue his VICI command to stop other commanders from issuing orders and potentially block a heavy infantry charge from Germanicus. So it’s a very dynamic battlefield with different playstyles all triggering what they do best at different times. As well as that, unit commands are the meat of the combat system. Unlike regular Total War games, units don’t really automatically do anything, you have to tell them to. A cavalry charge is a timed ability that you need to trigger at the right moment for maximum impact. If you get it wrong, you won’t have another charge for a while. Raising shields, reloading faster, dropping pikes and more are all things you have to manage as the player. With three units, its surprising how micro intensive this can be at certain times, especially if your units aren’t all together.

The goal of combat isn’t primarily to kill the enemy, it’s to break their morale. The white bar in the UI is the morale, and the red or blue bar is the health. Attacking a unit from the rear will cause a severe morale penalty and usually break the unit. This means it will not fight back and can be cut down easily. The game takes different types of morale effects into account, rear attacks, side attacks and sudden charges from those angles all deal different damage.

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Because of the importance of placement and flanking, teamplay is extremely important. When you’re with a friend, coordinating together makes the game way more enjoyable and rewarding as you work together to pick off enemies one by one. I often play as Caesar, who has large area of effect buffs, meaning when my friend charges someone, I can buff them, debuff the enemy and then charge in myself.

Terrain also effects how a unit behaves. Forests slow units down, and give light units such as barbarians an advantage, but heavy units like romans a disadvantage. Roads will speed units up, Water and Mud will slow them down. As well as this there is a tighter line of sight system at play that makes the battlefield much more dynamic and interesting as units move around it. Mini ambushes are much more viable and way more satisfying to pull off because of terrain types like tall grass, light forest and dense forest. Capture towers will grant you greater visibility, and are well worth fighting over as information about what enemy units there are and where they are is extremely valuable.

Throwing all of this in a big 10 v 10 battle does make for some very fun and engaging fights. Unfortunately what holds the game back the most in the battles is the delay in moving units. I can’t tell if it’s local CPU lag or Network lag, but units will often wait between 1 and sometimes 5 seconds before carrying out their movements. It’s extremely frustrating as timing can be so important. If you’re trying to pull out of combat, or move out of the way of a charge, a 3 second delay can be the difference between death and survival. It’s not a constant issue, but it seems more prevalent as a battle progresses and has definitely affected my enjoyment of the game.

As well as that, there are serious pathfinding issues that seem to affect some units more than others. When turning corners in certain places, units can double back on themselves and spiral around forever until you pull them out of it, often causing delays and strange behaviour where a unit will lose all composure.

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There are also some weird behaviours in the game, such as units that can deploy on cliff edges becoming almost impossible to kill as charges and other attacks seem useless. When a unit breaks completely, they’ll start running back to base, you never get control of them again but they still get in the way and can even sometimes randomly attack you, killing your men without yours fighting back… you can’t quite click them as there’s no UI for them and have to try and individually select them to get them. A real big frustration that seems like a hangover from the battle engine than something that was purposefully placed in.

Lastly at the end of a battle you get your reward and the scoreboard is displayed. Currently, only the kills and deaths are displayed which to me is a huge mistake in a game that focuses so much on teamplay and capturing. You’re still rewarded for capturing in terms of XP and Silver, but it’s not displayed for anyone else, so often you can win the game for your team, but be placed at the bottom of the scoreboard. What’s more, Caesar, my favourite general to play, can buff those around him, but doesn’t receive anything for doing so. Why there is a support commander with no way to reward support is beyond me.

Technical

From a technical standpoint Arena is a lightweight game, capable of running on quite low end hardware. It’s clearly been developed based off the Total War: ROME II framework, which at this point is a 4 year old game, so it’s not exactly pushing polygons like the latest releases. For my PC, it never went above 1.4GB of memory, the CPU was sort of intense at times but generally quite low over all and the GPU barely even knew the game was running. I had a solid 90fps almost the whole time while running everything on the max settings at 1080p.

The presentation of the game is fairly average overall. It’s strongest component is it’s UI, which has a fresh and clean look to it and is fairly customizable allowing you to select what information you want to see. The menus and progression system are easy to understand, and the layout and graphics displayed for battles and statistics is great. The battles themselves are something you’ll never really want to zoom in and watch, as you’ll barely ever see soldiers properly attack or hit eachother as the gameplay takes precedent over the visual fidelity of the fights. The music is well suited but largely forgettable and the sounds in the game have great thundering bass to them, making triggering abilities feel impactful.

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The controls are pretty standard and offer a good degree of customization however the camera won’t seem to let you switch camera types unless you edit the preferences file directly. For fans of TW games, this is a must, as it let’s you move the camera in a free-form way in all directions like an FPS game instead of a more rigid way that it defaults to. Unfortunately as well the camera is strictly limited in height, meaning you can never really get a good view of the battlefield, I’m not exactly sure why this has been done, but it’s probably to allow for flanks to catch you off guard more, and make it harder to micro units that are separated.

There is a large degree of assets taken from Rome II and used here, buildings, units, sounds and animations are largely taken from that game, so I’m not quite sure how I feel about that… the game is free after all, but is going to be making money off content that’s in another game you may have already purchased. And one that I definitely did. It seems a little bit lazy in one aspect but at the same time it wouldn’t really make sense to re-do those assets and I’m sure some work has gone on making them a better fit for Arena, but it’s something I wanted to mention.

Last note on the technical front, apart from the delay in units being an issue, I never encountered any other sort of lag. We never desynced or moved around or anything like that, and when a player drops from the game you can control their units. This is kind o f a half step as often multiple users will control the same units fighting for control of it, so maybe a designated commander that controls AFK players would be a better solution.

Progression (Currencies)

Now a very important part of a free to play game is the progression model they employ. Total War: ARENA’s system is pretty straight forward but can be a little complicated to explain, so I’ll do my best to explain how you’ll be spending money and time in this title.

There are 4 currencies in the game. Free XP, Unit XP, Silver and Gold. 3 of these currencies are earnable based on your performance in battle, and 1 is only ever purchased with real money.

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The XP currencies are used to unlock things. Free XP which is earned each battle, can be used to upgrade your commanders Tier, to upgrade your commander abilities and to upgrade and unlock new units. It’s a universal XP, kept in a global pool that can be used on everything.

Next is Unit XP, unlike Free XP, unit XP is not global. Instead it is earned by a particular unit in battle and tied to that unit type. For instance, fighting with Mycenean Hoplites in a battle, will earn unit XP for the Mycenean Hoplites unit only. You can then use that XP to upgrade the Mycenean Hoplites unit and eventually unlock the next unit in that chain. For a fully upgraded unit, you’ll have no more use for that unit XP; it will just sit and gather there with nothing to spend it on. Once you upgrade a unit, those upgrades stick with them permanently. Removing or replacing the unit, does not effect the upgrades or XP it has.

Next is Silver. Silver is used through every change in the game. If you pick a unit, and place it in your selection, you pay silver for that. If your units take damage, you pay at the end of each game to replenish them with silver. If you unlock an upgrade, like a new shield or weapon, you pay silver to equip it on the unit. If you want to take a consumable into battle, you pay silver for each use. Silver is everywhere in each transaction essentially.

Lastly is Gold. Gold is the premium currency you can buy for real money. How much gold is going to be worth could change with open beta, but judging by the pricing of units on their website it looks like around 3500 gold is about $10 but this could be wrong as its based off current pricing on their website.

Gold is only needed to purchase premium units, to purchase the premium progression and to buy cosmetics. These are the only things that other currencies can’t buy. To discuss the premium units first, there’s around 50 units per faction, and around 5 premium units per faction. However there are also some units available with the founders packs, that don’t seem to be listed in the game tech tree yet such as Triarii for the Romans.

I wasn’t able to test them all out, but by viewing their stats they seem comparable to other units of their tier and seem to try and fill a role not there for others. For instance, Romans don’t get access to cavalry until Tier 5, but with premium you could get a Roman Cavalry unit at Tier 4. The potential for pay to win is there, but hopefully it’s avoided. One can only look at a unit like Spartan Hoplites and imagine that they’re OP. But we’ll have to wait and see.

The premium progression basically just speeds you up by 50% so that’s pretty straight forward.

The cosmetics are very cheap in the closed beta, however buying a cosmetic ties it to the unit only, so you could buy the same cosmetics multiple times. In the closed beta, there’s barely any cosmetics, so I’m hoping for a lot more variation and functionality down this route eventually. Anything that can keep them from doing more pay to win style things like premium units is a good thing. I wouldn’t mind purchasing music packs, colour packs to paint your clothes, a shield designer that let you place your own emblems on shields, hell even spray paint style roman grafitti could be cool if you’re running around tagging things or marking where you rekt your enemy. But unfortunately, in the 3-4yrs of playing this game, they’ve never really expanded cosmetics and only limited it further. The army painter for instance, has been removed from the beta completely.

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Gold plays another role, and that’s to speed up your progression. Some commanders, like Alexander cost around 8000 XP, but you can buy them instantly for 2000 gold.

Remember the Unit XP that gets stuck on a unit forever? You can convert it to free XP by paying gold. The conversion rate is 1 gold for 25XP so if you have a unit with 2000XP with nothing to spend it on, it’ll cost you 80 gold to transfer it. Then you can spend that free XP on whatever you want. Ultimately you’re just redirecting the time you’ve already spent on something to something else, so it just speeds things up a bit.

You can also buy silver with gold, the conversion rate there is 10 silver for 1 gold. So that’s pretty standard stuff.

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Before moving onto the larger issue with how this is handled, I wanted to talk about value for money in the founders packs. Founders packs are your gateway into the beta and let you buy starter kits containing units, gold and premium access ranging from $10 to $100. They also offer beta keys for use, so one can assume these will change when we get to open beta. Currently though, in terms of gold value, I’ve worked out roughly how much each pack is worth: 

I’ve said I’ve worked out that $10 is around 3500 gold by looking at the tiers in the founder packs and comparing them.

For instance, 30 days of premium is valued in game at 2500 gold. Founder pack 1 is $10 and gives you premium + 1250 gold.

Another example is :

For 30 dollars you get 2 units, 2 customization items, beta access and premium.
For 40 dollars you get 2 units, 4 customization items, beta access and premium plus 3500 gold. So basically, 10 dollars is worth around 3600.

This means that I can judge the founders packs against what you’d be able to just buy in the game.

Essentially, if you drop 99.99 you’re getting the best value by far, but at 69.99 you’d be better off just buying gold in the game and spending it how you’d want. I think overall the $10 founder pack is a great price to just get the game and get playing immediately, but in general I would wait until it’s free to play and then just buy the amount of gold you feel ok with. Buying these packs ties you into certain units and things taking away flexibility to buy what you want later on.

Ok so the wider issue here of course, is asking whether or not they’ve slowed down the game progression to encourage more gold purchases. The answer is a pretty obvious yes, but to what extent?

Progression (Time)

The time to reach Tier 5 is around 10hrs of playtime from my experience. Because of how the score system works, giving you points based on morale damage and actual damage it means you’ll earn a bit more each tier as the values get higher and higher for the more powerful units. It seems this rate is around 10-20% with each tier. However, the gaps between tiers in terms of what it costs to unlock stuff is an exponential curve. To go from Tier 1 to Tier 2 you need 800XP. To go from Tier 5 to Tier 6 you need 41,200 XP. To go from Tier 9 to Tier 10 you need 378,000 XP.

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For me, an average game earned me around 700 XP per battle at Tier 5. You will earn around 20% more with each tier though so you’ll be earning more as you go. However, the time needed to go from Tier 5 to Tier 6 is was around 8hrs because you need to play 58 battles, each one lasting an average of 8minutes.

When you’re up in the high tiers you’re looking at around 3000-4000XP per battle and 14-20hrs to go between Tier 9 and 10. That’s with just one unit and that’s ignoring upgrades that won’t progress you to the next unit.

So essentially we’re looking at very long times between tiers, this actually can’t be sped up if you’re looking to achieve it as fast as possible, but if you deviate and play with other units, you can spend gold to redirect the XP back where you want it.

What this large gap between high tiers in effect does is break apart the players. The amount of players who will reach tier 10 are people that put in 100hrs or so into the game. When those players reach that number, they’ll be banded with Tier 9 players and Tier 8 players and will be able to completely destroy them. It’s something that happened in the beta on a smaller scale. As a Tier 5 player, I regularly came across Tier 7 players and there was nothing I could do to beat them, even if I singled one unit out on its own. I’m hoping this is due to lower player numbers in the Closed Beta, but I can’t imagine it won’t be an issue at higher tiers in the open beta because the time gaps between tiers are so large.

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As well as that, the time gap means pretty unbalanced games as you progress. If most people are playing Tier 6 they probably only have 1 or two units at that level, and that resulted in me finding a 7 player cavalry game, which devolved into a massive mess in the centre. Made for a great stream though.

My fears for this game is that low player numbers will cause greater division between tiers and that will cause high tier players to band with low tier players, and further unbalance the game, making for a frustrating experience and lowering the numbers further in a snowball effect. I urge Creative Assembly to stop flexible tier banding altogether and put in place a hard limit on keeping tiers the same. At absolute worst seeing 1 tier higher isn’t too bad as teams can work together to take them down, but two levels higher is impossible to deal with. And if 1 team has a higher tier player, the other team should have that as well.

Final Verdict

Total War: ARENA at it’s core is a very fun battle game unlike any other game on the market. It’s a fast paced RTS game with a strong focus on teamwork. Unfortunately, it’s tagged onto an existing engine from an older title causing it a bunch of technical issues. It’s also wrapped up in an anti consumer free to play model that is designed to get you frustrated so you’ll spend money. The game has had a troubled history switching publishers and platforms, meaning friends can’t always play together and the development team seem to focus on the wrong things compared to what the community want.

Personally I would’ve loved it if they charged for the game and had cosmetic micro transactions to sustain development. They need to focus on enchancing teamplay not pushing players apart. I honestly don’t think the future looks bright for this game, but I’ll be sticking with it as I do find the core of the game fun, and we’ll see whether or not the playerbase will be there to support it.

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