Playing Total War: Warhammer 3 as the series’ weirdest, most ambitious faction

Total War: Warhammer 3 begins with a bear betrayed. The Kislev bear god, Ursun, specifically. Shot with a cursed bullet by the prince originally intent on rescuing him, the furry deity is now trapped in the Realm of Chaos, prisoner of the powerful daemon Be’lakor—the campaign’s Big Bad.  

From his prison, his roars of anguish create wounds in reality, through which the brave or foolish can make trips into that nightmarish land—to save him, to steal a drop of his powerful blood or to demand a boon. Everyone’s got an agenda. 

Like its predecessor, then, the Warhammer 3 campaign is a race. Everyone’s trying to get to the bear first. It’s a good excuse for some wars. Kislev, Grand Cathay and the armies of the Chaos Gods are all involved in the scrum, but there’s another launch faction that Creative Assembly has been keeping under its hat: the Daemons of Chaos, led by the corrupted prince who nearly killed Ursun. In a series known for its experimental, asymmetric faction design, this daemonic horde still stands out as distinctly weird and ambitious. 

Back when Creative Assembly was looking through Games Workshop’s army books, it initially decided to split the Daemons of Chaos up into four distinct forces. “It’s a bit of a strange army book because it’s really four armies rolled into one army book,” explains lead battle designer Jim Whitson. “We felt there was enough content in terms of the roster of spell lores, the characters and so on for each of those gods to have their own unique playable race with their own suite of unique features.”

That’s how Warhammer 3 ended up with distinct armies for Khorne, Nurgle, Slaanesh and Tzeentch. In splitting the army up, however, Creative Assembly couldn’t recreate the magic of the tabletop game, with the minions of all four gods in a single horrible horde. The solution? Create a brand new customisable character, and give them a unified daemon army to command.   

Frankenstein’s daemon

After shooting his deity, the mortal prince was transformed into a daemon, allowing him to take a new form: all muscles and horns. But this form is fleeting, and can change over and over again as he earns glory for his evil benefactors. Ragnar—you can change his name, but I went with the default—is unique among Total War’s leaders in that his appearance is not fixed. Dedicating his achievements to specific gods unlocks new, hideous body parts and weapons, giving him bonuses and potent abilities, like summoning reinforcements via portals or poisoning enemies.

Creative Assembly has been experimenting with gear for a few games now, but the vast number of ways to augment Ragnar is unprecedented for the series, and much more in keeping with an RPG. Many of these augmentations are themed around a specific god, but within these styles is a lot of variety. You can mix and match all this stuff, too, so you can fly over the battlefield wearing threads and limbs from all over the Chaos pantheon. There are billions of combinations, Creative Assembly boasts, and while I have no intention of trying to do the maths, there’s definitely a bewildering number of options, encouraging you to make frequent adjustments as you try to counter the strengths of your opponents.  

This reflects the tabletop game nicely. As Whitson notes that there isn’t a single daemon prince, but rather a model that players can tweak depending on what the battle calls for. “It’s very common for players to take that model and to kitbash it and make it the way that they see a daemon prince being.” So when you’re swapping your daemon’s arms for nasty scythes or giving them a huge mace, it’s just like using magnets to change the limbs and loadouts of your physical models.

Just as you can customise your daemon prince with stuff connected to the other Chaos gods, you can also field their units. Instead of having his own troops, Ragnar can command Nurgle’s pestilent monsters, Khorne’s berserkers, Slaanesh’s S&M friends and Tzeentch’s mystical bird-lovers. If you want the most daemons for your buck, this is your army.

This is, naturally, a big balancing task, but one that Whitson says the team has become comfortable with. They didn’t just research the books; they played with the armies so they could get to know them intimately, and figure out how to transpose them from the tabletop to PC. And with two games behind them, Creative Assembly has refined its process, making it easier to handle a complicated faction like the Daemons of Chaos. 

Blood and boils, it’s the way forward.

“We made some big steps in internal testing,” adds lead campaign designer Mark Sinclair. “We run auto runs overnight, so the game essentially plays itself without any human interaction. And we’ve developed a lot of new tools that allow us to process that data and interpret it in better ways. So we can really see which factions are performing better than others, and then tweak the numbers and run those tests again the next day, so it really makes our lives easier.”

Starting out in the chilly Norsca region, my little army was already full of abominations, but you can never have too many gruesome horrors. To get more, I needed to earn Daemonic Glory. Sacrificing captives, building specific structures and making choices through events can all earn you more respect from whatever god you’re aiming to please, which unlocks new gear and units. Eventually you can pick a patron god, letting you access their top tier stuff, or you can stick to playing the field and trying to encapsulate the broadness of daemonkind. This is what I opted for, though I found myself favouring Khorne and Nurgle the most: blood and boils, it’s the way forward.

Like the Chaos gods, the Daemons of Chaos begin at war with everyone aside from the followers of Chaos. They aren’t the most diplomatic bunch, Khorne least of all, though Slaanesh enjoys messing around with mortals and can manipulate them. This isn’t to say that diplomacy isn’t important; indeed, Warhammer 3 is the most diplomatic of the trilogy. 

“We had a big diplomacy overhaul in Three Kingdoms and Troy, and players were really receptive to that,” says Sinclair. “So we thought, yeah, let’s take all of that stuff, all the new features like region trading, the whole UI rework, quick deal and things like that, that make diplomacy easier to use and more understandable. And then we added this outpost feature.”

Outposts are one of the biggest reasons for making friends in Warhammer 3. I was surrounded by Norscan tribes, and while I was at war with one of them, I could forge alliances and make agreements with any of them, since they generally love a bit of Chaos. The moment I made my first alliance, I got the option to create my first upgradeable outpost, netting me two new recruitable units drawn from the Norsca roster, with more to come if I upgraded.

I confess I felt a bit guilty whenever a battle started and I looked at my opponent’s plain army and my horde of toxic toad monsters, Chaos-infused motorbikes, dancing imps, leather-clad sadists and whatever I borrowed from my mates. There are so many ways to construct an army with this faction, but I went with the Rule of Cool, filling my armies with all sorts of eye-catching nightmares. 

After 30 turns and well on my way to subjugating or befriending all the northern tribes, I started to stare hungrily at Kislev and the Empire. But Warhammer 3 had something else in store for me. Ursun roared, and the way to the Realm of Chaos opened.

Holiday in Hell 

“We knew going into it that the realms couldn’t operate as normal kind of territory, as you’d see in the mortal realms,” says Sinclair. “You can’t just go into the realm of Khorne as Kislev and start capturing cities and building them up and taxing the population. That doesn’t make sense. So we knew we had to kind of create brand new gameplay for this.”

If you visit the realm of Slaanesh, he explains, you’ll be faced with temptations as you descend through each circle—”and some of them are going to be extremely tempting”—and if you accept one of them, you’ll be kicked out of the realm with your prize, though not the one you were trying to get initially. Temptations are things like big bonuses to your economy or the growth of your empire, so they’ll be hard to pass up, but if you give in you’re risking letting your opponents get to the heart of the realm before you, putting them one step closer to winning the campaign. 

See, each of these discrete maps is protected by a daemon prince. By defeating them and taking their souls, you’ll get access to the prison where Ursun is being kept. I make it sound simple, but it ain’t. The realms are inherently hostile, even to other daemons. When you explore one, the whole map is against you, not just the armies hanging out on it. If you survive for long enough, you’ll reach the climactic survival battle. Unlike regular battles, these scraps see you facing waves of enemies while holding capture points, constructing defences and summoning more troops.

It’s worth noting that the new elements introduced in survival battles do slip into other fights, like the reintroduced minor settlement battles, which now have a lot more texture. You can construct temporary fortifications within the settlement, for instance, and you can do so at any point in the battle. But you do need to control the area first by taking or holding onto a capture point, putting an increased emphasis on the battle’s objectives. And the settlements themselves are often quite elaborate, with Creative Assembly crafting visually striking towns that have lots of elevation and different routes to the capture points. Despite the name, these battles don’t feel minor.

“It’s all part of the fantasy theme,” says Whitman. “We wanted to push the verticality of those maps because that’s a bit of a fantasy trope, and to provide a large enough footprint that there could be some emergent gameplay rather than, ‘Oh, it’s this layout, I always go down this route here,’ pushing the variety depending on the defending troops and so on. And you’ll get a different kind of outcome within the battle in terms of the way it plays out. And the towers and barricades that the defender can deploy during the course of that battle rather than just in the deployment phase immediately means that the battle is changing its form even as you play out and it’s a much more interesting proposition.”

As this is a race, you’ll want an army working through the Realm of Chaos at all times, which means dividing your forces for most of the campaign.

Back to the Realm of Chaos! Nurgle’s domain is where I decided to go first. It’s all tentacles and tongues and puss—exactly what you’d expect—and looks nothing like anything else Creative Assembly’s designed. Upon arriving, my army immediately started suffering from attrition, which is a big problem when there are multiple Nurgle armies waiting to jump you, not to mention the faction armies racing to the area’s final battle. Instead of making a beeline straight to the fight, you’ve got to hit up various locations to get boons that will allow you to better survive the plague-infested land.

As this is a race, you’ll want an army working through the Realm of Chaos at all times, which means dividing your forces for most of the campaign. And you’re probably going to want to pick your best army. This is naturally going to have a big effect on your economy, and make it harder to defend your territory in the physical realm. It’s an extra layer of tension and complexity that I really appreciate, but long-term I’m worried it might start to become a pain in the arse to have my attention constantly split and always be worried about attrition—and will I really be up for doing the same four boss levels again in future campaigns? In the early game, though, I love it. Tricky and tense and extremely novel, reconfiguring the familiar Total War experience into an epic journey—I hope it lasts.

Playing through these first 50 turns as the adaptable Daemons of Chaos was a treat, but I do hope it doesn’t dilute the experience of playing the other daemonic factions. When you can effectively play all four in one, the appeal of playing as the lonely Chaos gods is less obvious. Of course, they’ll have their own unique faction twists, campaign goals and starting locations, so they might still be up to the challenge of drawing me away from my customisable pal. There’s more than just Chaos, too, and tearing through gormless warriors as Grand Cathay’s leader—a shapeshifting dragon—is an excellent way to blow off some steam. 

Balancing act

Cathay has an interesting start, with the empire facing a rebellion while trying to stop the hordes of Chaos monstrosities from breaking through its huge wall. Its mix of magic and technology gives its fights a distinctive flavour, especially when you make your leader transform into a dragon, but there are campaign hooks, too, like the concept of Harmony. Much of what Cathay does is connected to balance, so when you’re starting a construction project or recruiting a unit, you’ll want to look at which side they push you towards and try to keep things even, netting you broad bonuses and a special ability that lets you summon the spirits of your ancestors. If you don’t maintain this balance, buildings become less effective and province control drops.

The economic side of Total War is usually one of the least engaging parts, but Cathay has the potential to change that through the Ivory Road system, where it sends trading caravans to distant lands. The rewards for a successful trip are a big pile of gold and a massive bonus to diplomatic relations with the faction your caravan visits. The rewards are nice, but the journey is also important, as caravans can be waylaid by enemies or encounter new units or heroes to aid them.

Creative Assembly has made some tweaks to the broader economy, too, Sinclair explains. “You’re entering the Realm of Chaos, and you’re conquering each realm, and that leads to a problem where you’re sending your main army away, and you need another army or multiple armies to defend your territory. So to accommodate that, we’ve given the player a lot more money in the background, which is going to allow them to recruit more armies and have more defences.”

This is why, even with only 50 turns to play through, it felt like I was much deeper into the campaign than I really was. I had multiple big armies featuring expensive units, and I already had a powerful infrastructure ready to recruit whole new armies at the drop of a hat. Money might not solve everything, but having lots of it does mean you don’t have to fret so much. 

It’s the most fun I’ve had with Total War’s early game. Hell, it’s the most fun I’ve had looking at Total War’s menus. I spent a significant amount of time pondering what tails to stick on Frankenstein’s daemon. Right out the gate, you’re confronted with all sorts of unusual systems and spectacles, building your very own monster and watching armies getting crushed by a lightning-spewing dragon. And just when you’re getting a handle on things—boom!—time for a trip into the Realm of Chaos. Appropriately for Warhammer—a series obsessed with large numbers and large fights—it starts big, and then it keeps escalating. 

Source: PC Gamer

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