The Total War: Warhammer series is full of absolutely insane battles when you look at it at a glance.
Dinosaurs vs. magical elves, ratmen vs. sentient tree people, and hordes of undead mummies vs. a giant pirate ship that walks on two legs. But in Total War: Warhammer III, Creative Assembly is looking to up the ante by introducing a new type of battle that promises to be more epic in scope than any other entry in the franchise to date.
I spent a couple of hours playing through this new battle type, known as Survival Battles, at a preview event a few weeks back. While I did not play any part of the campaign, Survival Battles form a critical backbone of the Warhammer III setting. In short, each faction in the game has to journey through the four Realms of Chaos (Including the four factions that make up said Realms) in order to find the MacGuffin/fulfill the win conditions for the campaign. And to guide me through this new quest battle, I went hands on with a new faction: The ice-bound human nation of Kislev.
Though Kislev has been a part of Warhammer lore for decades, it’s never been fully fleshed out before. Fortunately, Games Workshop was in the process of expanding Kislev on the tabletop, which allowed Creative Assembly to peer over their shoulders and have their own input into the process. The result is a faction that feels unique even within the large number of factions that already exist in Total War: Warhammer.
For one, all of Kislev’s infantry units, with one exception, were hybrid units that could switch between ranged and melee at will. Take the Steltsi for example: they make use of armour-piercing rifles at a distance, but have a greataxe in place of a rifle stock that allows them to shred enemy infantry that gets too close. The Ice Guard wield magically enhanced glaives and bows to take out larger units. Even the basic Kossars, who may be the lowest tier unit in the entire roster, can swap between bows and axes. While the infantry aren’t as strong as those belonging to factions that have more specialized units, they are flexible, which grants Kislev more tactical options in combat.
“Kislev is a really interesting faction because on paper they look fairly simple in that you’ve got standard line infantry,” said Jim Whitson, Lead Battle Designer on Warhammer III. “Except they’re hybrid units. So that immediately adds a bit of tactical depth as to how players are going to play with them. Are they going to pelt the enemy with this alt fire before charging in, or are they going to go straight into melee and use that broad range of supporting units that they’ve got.”
Elsewhere, Kislev’s shock cavalry packs a mighty punch no matter what form it takes. Winged Lancers are the standard cavalry unit, using lances to tear apart enemy infantry — though they don’t tend to last long in a sustained fight. The highlight is easily the War Bear Riders, which are basically men riding polar bears into battle, who are more than capable of surviving most scrapes. Kislev also has a monstrous unit in the form of the Elemental Bear, which are apparently spiritual bears that the land itself uses to defend against Chaos invasions.
Kislev also makes use of two unique lores of magic: the Lore of Ice and Lore of Tempest. Simply put, the Lore of Ice is the anvil of the two, focusing on weakening enemy units with spells that slow them down or deal damage over time before they reach your frontline troops. The Lore of Tempest is more like a hammer, with spells that increase charge bonuses and melee attack complemented by breath and wind abilities that deal damage quickly. I only played with the Lore of Ice in my battle, thanks to their legendary lord Tzarina Katarin, but it made a massive difference in surviving the onslaught of demons throughout the fight.
And what a fight it is. This Survival Battle was set outside Khorne’s Brass Citadel, a place filled with giant skulls that spout never-ending fountains of blood. Blood for the blood god, skulls for the skull throne is meant to be taken literally as it turns out. The objective in each Survival Battle is to conquer a handful of capture points throughout the map before going toe-to-toe with a boss unit at the very end. As you capture each point, waves of enemies will spawn that will force you to defend each area before you move on to your next target. By waves of enemies, I mean dozens of units swarming your armies — I counted over 4,000 casualties inflicted by my army at the end of one Survival Battle alone. Not including the time I paused the game, it took 40 minutes of in-game time to march up the map and slay the final demon.
“We wanted to push that envelope even further to really get that authentic flavour”
“Although our existing land battles are pretty epic in their scale, we wanted to push that envelope even further to really get that authentic flavour,” Whitson said. “To really push the number of enemy units you’re up against and the challenge that you’ve taken on at that point. Obviously that increases the burden on the players’ troops. So we provided a bunch of new mechanics just so players can choose their own path and deal with that challenge.”
Previous quest battles in Total War: Warhammer were relatively straightforward; you bring in an army of your own composition, engage a predetermined enemy army, and with few exceptions were fought very similarly to normal battles. Survival Battles, meanwhile, add a host of options for you to upgrade and manage your army in the middle of combat. As you fight a Survival Battle, you gain supplies through capturing points and killing enemies that can be spent on a variety of upgrades, improvements, and defenses that can tilt the tide of war in your favour.
For example, you can summon reinforcements once you capture a point thanks to a series of magical portals that call in outside units that were not part of your existing army. What’s more, you can teleport damaged units out of combat in order for them to regain strength so you can summon them again later. But if you don’t want to waste time sending them away, a unit’s health, stamina, and ammunition can be recovered at the touch of a button. Or their armour and weapon strength can be upgraded individually just in case you want to see your max rank Tzar Guard deal a horrific amount of damage to a Bloodthirster.
Each capture point also has a number of static fortifications that can be constructed in order to give you an edge over your opponent. These range from simple towers that fire arrows and sturdy walls to cut off choke points, to magical towers that blast apart enemy units and traps that weaken enemies if they fight in their radius. There’s only a handful of fortification options all told, but they add another layer to the battle that makes them feel more important in scope than they otherwise would.
While all of these tools are useful, the key point is that you won’t have enough supplies to upgrade and build everything. And these battles are tough; I was frequently outnumbered and had to create a rolling series of defenses to ensure that my units remained in good condition throughout the battle. By the time I faced the Exalted Daemon that was the final boss at the end of the fight, I had an army of over 30 units that was split between taking on the demon and his accompanying army and holding off the neverending tide of demons that harassed my backline. It was brutal, bloody, but above all else, satisfying when I came out on top.
“It’s really important to keep refreshing players’ palates throughout that long campaign“
Creative Assembly aimed to make Survival Battles feel epic, and I can honestly say that they’ve fulfilled that mandate based off of the one that I played. This new quest battle will occur a handful of times throughout each campaign, and as Whitson explains, are meant to serve as a culmination of a particular phase in each faction’s journey.
“These battles take place within the context of an epic campaign that can take 200+ turns,” Whitson said. “And we feel that it’s really important to keep refreshing players’ palates throughout that long campaign. So by offering them new battle types and new experiences in the short, medium, and long term, the fun is in juggling all of those different challenges with something new and fresh coming along. Whether that’s a new faction that you haven’t encountered before with their own individual rosters and gameplay mechanics, or, you know, whether it’s one of these new battle types or something else. We want to keep pushing on and striving to make this the best strategy series on PC.”
More on Total War: Warhammer III will be revealed in the coming months. And with this new type of quest battle headlining its campaign, I can’t wait to see just how it will play out in full before the game launches later this year.