Total War: Warhammer II Preview: Playing With The Skaven

I had big plans for this article. I wanted to come to Total War: Warhammer II as a relative RTS newbie who cut his teeth on Firaxis’ suite of user-friendly strategy games, bridging the gap between my fellow Civilization enthusiasts and the sort of people who understand what “4X” means. Thanks to a comical series of travel mishaps (I spent literally 21 hours travelling that day), I arrived in San Francisco for my preview appointment, with only 40 minutes left in my gameplay session before the event closed shop. I say all this not to complain, but to inform my readership so they have context for the rest of this article.

Let me be frank: with few exceptions, 40 minutes is not enough time to preview a strategy game, especially if this is your first time with the series in question. As a result, here’s my biggest takeaway from Total War: Warhammer II: I need more time with it before I can say anything substantive. I’m not being hyperbolic, this isn’t one of those times where I have a deep itch to play more of a game I’ve just previewed, I simply believe that I cannot make informed criticism until I play more of the game.

But damnit, I’m going to try anyway.

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Total War: WARHAMMER II Skaven Race and gameplay images – via Creative Assembly

Previewing strategy games is challenging because the sum of the complete experience is so often the only thing that matters, arguably more so than any other genre. In strategy, gameplay on the micro exists in service of the macro; everything you’re doing moment-to-moment is done with a much larger goal in mind. Those goals stack on top of each other, to the point where all decisions made during single, otherwise innocuous, turn is in service of [X] which itself is in service of [Y]. So when you’ve got such little time to preview a strategy game’s campaign, all you can speak to is the tutorials—you’re only allowed to see the trees, with the forest just out of view.

My short time with Total War: Warhammer II’s campaign was spent with the Skaven, a violent tribe of ratmen looking to corrupt the game’s world and gain control of the Vortex, a torrent of magical energy that acts as the game’s MacGuffin. No matter which race you choose, there is a definite objective in Warhammer II, along with some cutscenes that add flavour to the game’s story.

In order to control the Vortex, the Skaven have to conduct rituals by lining up three settlements and using them as a sort of magical conduit. Theoretically, that’s a great way to make settlements integral to the campaign. They aren’t just resource generators for your army, they’re also necessary to move the story forward. So you have an incentive to protect your own settlements while also trying to pillage your opponents’—, which is great design. In a game called “Total War,” every aspect of your empire should be working towards your victory. The map game is turn-based, while the combat is real-time and requires constant attention lest your army fall before the might of your enemies, so the game delineates tone for the player rather than forcing the player to adjust their playstyle depending on what part of the map they’re looking at.

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Total War: WARHAMMER II Skaven Race and gameplay images – via Creative Assembly

Although who knows, maybe all this falls apart in the final product. Maybe it’s super frustrating to protect your settlements, maybe city management is too involved and pulls the player’s attention away from the army metagame etc.

Again, 40 minutes.

Knowing my time was limited, I made a point of trying out Total War: Warhammer II’s one-off combat encounters. I was only able to play one in full (a Dark Elves vs High Elves brouhaha), but I really enjoyed myself! It was a solid look at mid/late-game combat, with plenty of high-concept units and flashy particle effects. I’ll always prefer the back-and-forth of turn-based combat, but watching my army fight in real-time, zooming in to watch their individual deaths happen before my very eyes then zooming back out to watch them swarm like ants, was tremendously satisfying. I only wish I could control the camera with the mouse, using WASD to swing the camera around never felt intuitive.

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Total War: WARHAMMER II Skaven Race and gameplay images – via Creative Assembly

At first, I hadn’t quite decided which race I would play when the full game drops, but we were shown early footage from the High Elf campaign that sounded very promising. High Elves have a currency called “influence” they can use to, well, influence other factions in the diplomacy metagame (another part of the game I did not see for myself). I’d love to utilize all the tools the game has to offer, so I think I’ll run High Elf when Warhammer II launches this September. Unless everything past minute 41 sucks, in which case I’ll be running away from this game at top speed.

If you liked Total War: Warhammer, I feel somewhat comfortable saying you’ll like Warhammer II. The game’s not even out yet and I’ve only seen a fraction of it, but this full-on sequel is coming out less than a year after the first one—I would bet cash that Warhammer II plays almost identically. For the rest of us, Total War’s real-time combat is undeniably solid, but even a non-truncated preview would only scratch the surface of what the campaign has to offer. Wait for reviews if you can.