(Image credit: Creative Assembly)
I’ve always been dreadful at the Total War games. Neither the real-time battles nor the wider strategy of conquering the map have ever felt quite under my control, and inevitably any campaign I start fizzles out because of my sheer incompetence.
That was fine back when they were all historical—I just avoided them, because Romans and Napoleons are boring anyway. But ever since Creative Assembly started making some of the best Warhammer games on PC, it’s been physically painful to my brand to not be able to embrace the series.
As a lifelong Games Workshop fan, these games are the most wonderful nostalgia-fest. Not only do they breathe new life into the Warhammer Fantasy setting, they delve into every little corner of it, drawing on decades of material. Units and characters are drawn not only from the old mini ranges and army books, but from comics, novels, and obscure magazine articles. Any game that can regularly give me flashbacks to reading White Dwarf cover to cover has my loyalty, no matter how often it kicks me right in the frontline.
So, despite it all, I had to give Total War Warhammer 3 a chance. Dutifully, I booted it up, expecting to once again revel in the attention to detail, but barely scratch the surface of its tactical depth. But lo! CA may have finally found a way to bring even a fool like myself into the fold.
Before you get started with the game’s campaign, you’re invited to play a prologue. This mini-campaign leads you through the events that kick off the main story—namely a Kislevite prince’s journey to find a missing bear god. If he can’t find him, the nation is doomed to an eternal winter. Even though they all seem fine with cold weather, this would apparently be a big problem. So it’s off to the Chaos Wastes with Prince Yuri and a few of his most loyal men.
Narratively, the prologue provides a lovely bit of context before you start empire-building in earnest. Yuri’s story leads right up to the main campaign, and it is nice to be properly introduced to it all, rather than feeling dropped in the middle of a mythic battle for the fate of the world with only a quick cutscene to get you in the mood.
It’s not the finest storytelling around—and evokes the spectre of one very similar, beloved RTS campaign with its tale of a hero struggling against corruption, for a not super favourable comparison. But as ever with these games, it shines in the attention to detail, particularly in the way the malign influence of Chaos slowly manifests more and more on Yuri’s character model as he descends further and further into hell.
More importantly for me, though, the prologue serves as a gentler mechanical ramp into the game than the series has ever had before. All the usual complexities are stripped right down to bare bones, and gradually reintroduced as you progress. Battles start simple, and as they add more unit types and grow in scale the game carefully explains to you the logic of each piece of the great strategy jigsaw. Finally, I actually understand things like how the role of a swordsman differs from a spearman, or how the proper use of groupings can make hectic battles far more manageable.
Outside of combat, the prologue takes place along a mostly linear chasm of frozen mountains. It’s much smaller and more focused than the full campaign map, making it the perfect sandbox for learning the ropes of diplomacy, building, when to divide your forces, and choosing which enemies to focus your efforts on. Total War: Warhammer’s meta layer is definitely its less intimidating aspect for me, but it can be impenetrable in its own way—it’s hard to know when your losses in battle are actually the fault of choices you made outside of it. Some time to just play around with those systems without threats all around is very welcome.
Snarkier readers are probably already hungry to comment “This is just what a tutorial is, dumb dumb,” but it all feels much cleverer than that. Put together, the tightened scope, carefully constructed scenarios, and even the story being told do more than just feed you information, they help you discover the spirit and intent of the game—the ‘whys’, instead of just the ‘hows’ of a Total War campaign.
Jumping from there into the main game, I discover that I’m still pretty rubbish in a fight. But, for the first time, I now feel like I understand how to get better. The ideas the prologue taught me are just the foundation I needed to start learning as I go, experimenting with mechanics I finally understand the context of.
At this rate, I might actually conquer the Old World… eventually.