The end of the world always seems nigh in Warhammer settings, but for Total War Warhammer III and its development team at Creative Assembly, it really is the end of an era. The upcoming strategy game is the culmination of a trilogy, and as is the norm for the license, the stakes are devastatingly high.
I had the pleasure of spending some time with a new preview build of Total War Warhammer III, and as a newcomer to the series—and lapsed Warhammer 40 000 fan—I was captivated by the experience. You needn’t have much familiarity with either flavour of the franchise to enjoy the ride, as the stakes are laid out remarkably well in each faction’s campaign introduction.
The Bear God Ursun is dying, and the various factions of Total War Warhammer III are lined up to seize its power for themselves. A grizzled old narrator introduces us to the situation before deciding he would like just a drop of that dying god’s power for himself, to free him from a curse, and so he throws his lot in with your society of choice. And then it’s off to the proverbial races, building your army and civilization to take that power for yourself.
To achieve victory, players must strengthen their base in typical real time strategy form. Build up settlements, oust settlements and resources from others, and enlist mighty armies. However, this is all preamble to the true objective.
Throughout matches, Ursun’s death throes from deep within the realms of Chaos will tear open rifts in reality, allowing armies to enter each of the Chaos Gods’ dimensions and claim the soul of the Daemon Prince who dwells within. Once a soul from each god has been claimed, the way will open to the final showdown and the chance to claim godhood.
It’s an interesting way to up the ante in an RTS game, but admittedly, I almost forgot about these objectives at times—so caught up was I in the turn-to-turn business of running an empire.
This “one more turn” addiction is a hallmark of the genre, and Total War Warhammer III leans into it hard with its faction-based special mechanics. The first playable race in the demo was Grand Cathay, keepers of the Great Bastion. Under the immortal-dragon-turned-human Miao Xing, this faction can dispatch caravans across the campaign map to earn coin and other diplomatic benefits. These caravans function almost like choose-your-own-adventure tales at times, as you choose how to respond to various random encounters that pop up.
Grand Cathay also has access to the Wu Xing Compass, which influences the Winds of Magic. Every few turns players can set the compass to one of four positions to change the myriad benefits it imparts, depending on their circumstances and priorities. They must also be mindful to balance the nation’s yin and yang values as they research technologies and build units.
The second playable faction was Total War Warhammer III’s surprise eighth army: the Daemons of Chaos, led by a newly arisen Daemon Prince. While the four Chaos gods are represented with their own armies—Khorne, Nurgle, Tzeentch, and Slaanesh—the Daemons faction is an incredibly customizable hybrid of all four.
The Daemon Prince begins a campaign as an unaligned champion of Chaos Undivided, a “equal opportunities destroyer.” He has access to a skill tree that draws from the other factions, and can curry favour with these various forces by dedicating settlements to them, equipping their gear, or building their units.
Will you favour one god over the others and lock in with them, or maintain balance between them? Regardless, your enemies will never know what they’re getting into at the start of a game, such is the faction’s level of customization. The prince himself changes to reflect your allegiances and the equipment you choose, making your choices as much thematic as practical.
I have a slight bias toward Khorne from my Warhammer 40, 000 days, so I ended up centered in its favour while trying to show the other three factions some love along the way, and the results were incredibly fun. I’m genuinely excited to try other combinations in the full version, to say nothing of all the other factions and their unique leaders as well.
In terms of presentation, I found the UI a little daunting despite the tutorials, and was still locking down a few concepts late in the demo session. The team at Creative Assembly is in the final polishing stages, but the campaign map itself was tremendously impressive. Though approximately twice the size of maps from previous games, it loaded details seamlessly as I navigated around it.
One hallmark of the Total War series itself is its focus on real-time military combat, and oddly that transition was the most jarring, with a lengthy pause to load the battle engine. It’s an impressive mode, to be sure, but whenever I utilized it to attempt changing the negative forecast, I felt like I couldn’t really change the tides of fate. Ultimately there weren’t enough hours in the day and too much else to see, so I stuck to auto-resolving scraps and look forward to experimenting more on the frontlines of the full release.
There are a couple elements that will shake up the formula for returning veterans, like the ability to build outposts in your allies’ cities. This allows you to requisition units from those territories in addition to those you raise yourself. And if you don’t care to indulge in the Forge of Souls’ campaign mode objectives, you can always aim for a Domination victory instead by crushing your foes into the dust.
Total War Warhammer III’s multiplayer, however, has received some earth-rattling new upgrades. Simultaneous turns are an option, allowing each player to act in real time instead of waiting for their chance to act. When members of your party engage in battle, other players have the option to control allied units or the enemy and directly affect the outcome.
Depending on the number of players, there are a handful of different scenarios to shake up your session. Up to eight players can partake in the Realms of Chaos mode from the main campaign, really intensifying the race to claim four souls and Ursun’s power. Three players can partake in the “Something Rotten in Kislev” campaign, focused on an attack upon the faction’s Motherland by dark powers, and in a similar fashion, up to six players can take on the various factions of Cathay in the “Darkness & Disharmony” campaign.
All told, Total War Warhammer III is shaping up to be an intense, long-lasting strategy experience for genre and Warhammer enthusiasts alike. The political intrigue is palpable after only a few short cutscenes, while the playstyle combinations appear limitless. I could sink a lot of time into simply replaying the two factions and leaders I had access to in the preview, let alone all the others that will be available when the game launches next month.
Total War Warhammer III launches February 17 on Windows, Steam, Epic, and PC Game Pass.