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We learned recently that the creators of Total War, The Creative Assembly, have scooped Games Workshop's Warhammer fantasy license. This is tip-top news. Warhammer is all about massive battles, Creative Assembly are really, really good at massive battles. It's a great match.
CA have set up a new develop team to produce games for the "multi-title" deal, but what would such a series look like? We're rather fond of Games Workshop's game of little fantasy men doing dice-war on tabletops, so we've rounded up a few features we'd love to see from an proper, epic Warhammer fantasy videogame.
When it comes to depicting clashes between thousands of men, the Total War series has few rivals. The Creative Assembly have steadily increased the detail and fidelity of Total War's skirmishes, and for Rome 2 they've built a massive mo-cap studio to make soldiers' movements more realistic. This makes them a perfect fit for Warhammer, which has always been about massive battles with massive units massively killing each other without remorse or restraint. They've got the tech to push well beyond Mark of Chaos' scraps, let's see it happen.
Warhammer generals wade into battle wielding weapons that have slain demigods, clad in armour that can turn aside cannon fire. Why would an ordinary soldier turn up to fight such a being? Extreme drunkenness, probably. Whatever the scale of the battle, it wouldn't be a Warhammer barney without some absurdly powerful power dressers taking out entire units single-handedly. The Creative Assembly worked some hero units onto Shogun 2's tech trees to mixed reaction from fans. An extension of the loadout functions on show in Shogun 2's profile avatars could be a good way to work in hero customisation. Relic's Dawn of War 2 heroes are a good model for gear systems that keep champions interesting and powerful over a long campaign.
Unit customisation and champions
Painting Warhammer's tiny models takes bloody ages. Tabletop armies are commonly fielded half-daubed in undercoat, shedding flock from poorly layered bases. Putting the time in to field an army that you're invested in really pays off in the long run, though, so let's have some of that. Virtual paint jobs can be applied with the click of a button in a game, and there should be room for players to design their own banners and name units.
I'd like to see Total War's the unit veterancy system leveling up unit champions, picking out heroic individuals from squads as a campaign progresses. If they become accomplished enough, you should have the option to promote them to General, giving players a way to foster new leaders in the heat of battle instead of a tepid menu screen.
This is a greater daemon called the Bloodthirster. He's like a giant cow with wings, an axe and a flair for the dramatic. According to Games Workshop, "the skies turn the colour of blood" when he appears and "the ground erupts with skulls and fountains of gore around it." He's the angry, fighty embodiment of a heavy metal album cover, and he's pretty much the reason you play as the corrupted race of Chaos.
Warhammer stretches familiar fantasy cliches to absurd extremes. That's a big part of the appeal. These monolithic juggernauts of mass destruction aren't just show pieces, though. They embody the personality of the race they represent. The Bloodthirster is a living avatar of the the bestial rage of his kin. The Wood Elves deploy a ten foot tall green hobo because they have spent years consuming Athel Loren's kaleidoscopic selection of mushrooms and don't know what's real anymore. Lizardmen fill a box full of dinosaurs and then bolt it to the back of a giant Triceratops. Creative Assembly strapped cannons to the backs of elephants in Medieval 2, so they're almost there already.
Randomised campaign twists
Rome: Total War worked a game-changing twist into its campaign that kept its twilight turns interesting. CA have experimented with similar ideas in Fall of the Samurai, which required factions to settle down and declare allegiance for nationalist or renegade forces for a final all-out territory scrap. This is good stuff, but it funnels the campaign into a prescribed final scenario. This is useful if you're trying to maintain a degree of historical authenticity, but a fantasy license should allow for boundless outcomes. The Wood Elves should be able to break out of their wood and occupy Brettonia. The Skaven should have the opportunity to consume and spread disease across the entire map, as is their wont. My favourite Total War stories are the ones I made myself in the vast, glorious sandbox that is Empire: Total War (much improved since launch thanks to CA updates and work from the terrific TW modding community). It'd be a treat to have similar opportunities on the Warhammer world map.
Those game-changing campaign twists may still have a part to play, mind. Terrible things can happen quite suddenly in the Warhammer universe. An unnoticed Orc WAAAAGH (an unstoppable angry green mob that grows bigger then more it loots and pillages) could roll in from the mountains and start washing through territories. A necromancer could get his hands on a long-lost item of power and start raising the dead in your homesteads. The incidental social events and scenarios that popped up in FotS could be expanded to deliver exotic challenges with more tangible rewards (claim territory X to gain a heart-seeking sword for your general), introduce new antagonists, and convey more of the exuberant character of the Warhammer universe.
A sense of humour
What has two legs, two tails and a thousand teeth? A LIZARD ON A DINOSAUR. Look, it has a MACE. And the dinosaur is WEARING A HAT. Warhammer is famous for its grimdark portrayals of eternal war, but it's often hilarious. Orcs and Goblins are considered to be the race of choice for generals who enjoy ridiculous, unpredictable battles, but the sense of humour that gives us units like Squigs and the Doom Diver Catapult can be found throughout the Warhammer universe. It's tough to work in wisecracks when you're presenting the brutal historical meat grinders of Rome and Shogun, but the Warhammer license gives Creative Assembly good opportunity to cut loose a little. Lizards riding dinosaurs. LIZARDS RIDING DINOSAURS.
I'm all in favour of a complex meta-game playing out on a strategic world map, but much of what makes Total War's infrastructure management interesting just doesn't fit into the Warhammer setting. If I'm in control of the Empire, I don't care about taxation rates, or ideological niceties like education and wellfare, I want to build the biggest damn steam tank my engineers can think of.
Many of Warhammer's races are just too weird to conform to the economic norms of a historical strategy game. Does an Orc Warboss tax his Goblin workforce? Of course not. If someone asks him for a pay rise, he'll probably just eat them. Do Dark Elves build schools for little Dark Elves? How efficient are they at mining ore? Nobody cares.
The only infrastructure we should be concerned with is the infrastructure of WAR. I want to build better spies to figure out where I should do war next. I want to research new tech to do war better. I want to find out how to breed demonic steeds so that I can do war faster. I want to build sacrificial pits and pledge souls to Nurgle to do war dirtier. Even when you're not waging war, you should be preparing for war, which is why you also need...
Everyone hates everyone else. This is a central tenant of Warhammer fantasy and GW's futuristic edition, Warhammer 40,000. Nobody has any real friends, but uneasy alliances can be wrought, and should. Some races, like Chaos and The Empire, are mortal foes who just can't be in the same room together without someone smiting someone in the name of Sigmar/The Mighty Khorne, but you should be able to tag along with a roughly aligned group to put down threats, and it'd be especially nice if they fought alongside you in battle from time to time.
The alliances should feel painfully fragile. If a spell goes awry and wipes out an allied unit, there's a chance they could turn on you there and then. Imagine if the process of cementing treaties had your generals marching out in front of opposing armies to seal the deal, giving both armies present the opportunity to betray their would-be friends and get in a surprise attack. That'd move those diplomacy screens back into the battlefield, letting you hash out terms in the fraught atmosphere of a military standoff.
Magic that backfires
Magic is extremely powerful in Warhammer. Mages can move scenery around to crush their enemies, speed up entire armies with a word and tear chunks out of the earth with great lashes of elemental energy. There's a twist: Warhammer's spell casters are incompetent.
According to the lore, magic is a wild force that can be directed, but not tamed. A pompous High Elf mage can miss a syllable and send that hill crashing into his own knights. Goblins shamans can get carried away and physically explode, taking out friends and foes nearby. Chaos sorcerers who misjudge a demonic pact can melt into a fleshy puddle or become warped beyond recognition by a possessing spirit. A streak of luck can decimate the battlefield, or gift your foe a great advantage.
There will be a temptation to tone down magic in the name of balance, which is probably wise, but part of me wants to experience the full, chaotic representation of Warhammer's magic system. The wonderful, crunching impacts of Fall of the Samurai's off-map bombardments could be incorporated into some delightful spells.
Alternatively, just make Mordheim
Perhaps there is no grand Total War-esque RTS on the way. Maybe The Creative Assembly are working on something smaller and more manageable with the Warhammer fantasy license. That's okay. It'd be great to see a proper High Elf force dice up the Empire en masse, but Warhammer presents good alternatives for smaller scale conflicts.
I've been a nerd for quite a while, and I reckon that Mordheim is the best thing Games Workshop have ever done. You control a small squad of about a dozen characters as they scour the ruins of a cursed city in search of precious Wyrdstone. Your warriors gain personality traits and terrible injuries as they level up between battles. If your general takes a terrible beating he can become horribly scarred and cause fear among is foes in future fights. Your men can lose arms and legs, or perform courageously enough to be promoted. As you amass a bit of coin, you can start hiring freelance mercenaries with their own strange back stories.
Imagine XCOM, but with much more emergent character development between missions, set in a dark, ruined city full of giant rat men, devout witch hunters and battle-hardened glory hunters wielding flintlock pistols. It was a bit of a pain as a tabletop game, as you needed a ton of scenery to represent the city. A game would do a much better job of representing Mordheim's warped, sinister cityscape and the evolving state of the treasure hunters camped within.
Those are our thoughts. What would you like to see from Total Warhammer?