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PAX East: ‘Total War: Warhammer’ Hands-On Preview and Interview

On Saturday, the folks from SEGA gave us access to their demo for Total War: Warhammer. I was able to play fifteen minutes of a single battle, using the Vampire Count faction. My army of skeletons and bats marched up a hill towards a well-entrenched Dwarven army, who were hammering me with missiles and ballistae fire the entire way. It did not go particularly well for my poor army of the undead. Unfortunately gathering your entire army into a single blob and trying to smash a very defense-based enemy like the Dwarves head-on is not the best strategy.

Unfortunately gathering your entire army into a single blob and trying to smash a very defense-based enemy like the Dwarves head-on is not the best strategy. However, even an experience player attempting to play Hannibal and recreate Cannae will find that battles eventually turn chaotic, and your well-ordered ranks and files turn into mashes of heaving bodies and litters of corpses. I lost badly, but to my credit, I did pick the more difficult scenario of the two available to play at PAX.

Total War: Warhammer is a very smooth experience. Like in previous games, you can move your camera around for a detached tactical overhead view of the battlefield, or you can zoom in to get up close and personal with the creatures of Games Workshop’s universe. The graphics bring Total War to life in a way that has never been done before, and the game ran flawlessly for my demo.

After the fifteen minutes were up I had time to speak with Al Bickham, Communications Manager for Creative Assembly. We spoke about the game and how this title will be both familiar to Total War fans, but also an exciting new experience.

Why adapt Warhammer into Total War?

Because it’s awesome and we’ve never done a fantasy game before! I think there’s a lot of cultural heritage between Games Workshop and us. They made an amazing rank and file fantasy tabletop battle simulator and that’s what we’ve done on PC with the Total War games. Essential the two things fit together really well.

We’ve wanted to make a fantasy game for a few years and we’ve been talking to Workshop for a few years on and off, and now the times are right, all the companies are in the right places, we got the resources to do it, and we want to do it properly.

Just how are you getting the Warhammer experience to fit inside a PC?

We also want to recreate Warhammer in a way that has never been done before, and I think we’ve achieved that. The level of detail, not just in the models and how they move, but also in the story. Our lead writer, Andy Hall, who is standing right over there, used to work for Games Workshop himself, he knows Warhammer inside out. He’s written for White Dwarf. He’s our lore master, basically, and he makes sure the game we put out is following the Warhammer experience.

Can you describe to me the goals of the gameplay a bit?

We want a game where people can play as the various races. They can go out and conquer the world in their own way. We’ll also throw them some really interesting challenges along the way that you haven’t really seen in a Total War game before because this game is so themed around the fantasy element. We’re also not taking some kind of cookie-cutter approach, where all the races have to be the same. It’s completely asymmetrical.

Completely asymmetrical?

Some armies, like the Greenskins, they have loads of kind of light, chicken-y units, like the Goblins and stuff, they’ll rout in a stiff breeze. But they’ve also got some of the biggest monsters in the game, like giant spiders and shamans with powerful magic, and they’re fast moving. Compare all that to the dwarfs. They’re all about engineering, high tech stuff, they have amazing canons, but they’re really slow moving. They play a defensive game even when they’re advancing. And the dwarfs don’t use magic, they have no magic. They have no affinity for it. There is definitely a unique style to every army, and players will appreciate that.

If somebody’s played a Total War game before, how will this be different?

Well, they’ll have to deal with different extremes. There’s a great variety of different troop types and weapon types on the battlefield. In the demo, you played as the Vampire Counts, and they have no ranged units. You’re not going to be shooting your enemy, that’s to remain true to the faction in the tabletop game. Each army is going to have a very very different tactical approach. If you’ve played Total War before you know our rock, paper,

Each army is going to have a very very different tactical approach. If you’ve played Total War before you know our rock, paper, shotgun mix of our unit types, cavalry are weak against spear for example, there’s more in the mix. There are giant creatures, there are flying creatures, so all that gives you more toys to play with.

Now I played the demo, it was very stable, it ran perfectly smooth for me today. However, we remember Rome Total War II. It wasn’t quite finished at launch. What can you say about the state of Total War: Warhammer once it’s finally released?

I’m confident to say this is going to be the most stable release we’ve ever done. We’ve done tons and tons of testing in the run-up. Our engine has been getting more and more complex over time, it’s been evolving with every new experience. The game logic and the rendering used to work on the same CPU. We’ve since been adding more things

The game logic and the rendering used to work on the same CPU. We’ve since been adding more things with each new Total War game, causing some issues. But we’ve decoupled game logic and rendering from the CPU, so the renderer workers on one port and the game logic works on another. We have a better spread of processing across the CPU. We’re also adding more to the GPU, so performance-wise this should be a very stable release.

Since you have gone Warhammer here, do you have any other fantasy series in mind to adapt? Or any other fictional universes in mind that could be Total War games in the future?

There are tons that we’d really like to do, there’s some we talk about all the time. But we’re gonna be doing Warhammer for the next two to three years.

Oh, that sounds like you have ideas for the future in mind for this game.

Yeah, we have two massive expansions in mind for the next two to three years. The campaign map in the launch game, it’s the Old World. It’s like our world, it’s an analog to our world map, in the shapes and stuff of the continents. Effectively it’s like Central Europe, the Nordic Region down to North Africa. Our expansions will plug into the game and add more regions and content. This is just the first step, so we’re going to be really busy for awhile.

Yeah, you will be. How long have you been working on this title?

So we signed up with Games Workshop in I think December 2012. So it’s been three and a half years now. And over that time, the Total War team has expanded quite enormously because — especially for previous Total War games — the animations were mostly human. We have our own motion capture studio, that can capture tons of guys fighting at the same time. Humans are just one tiny part of this game. All the animation has to be hand-crafted, hand-keyed. So if you have a dragon, we can’t motion capture that.

Yeah, how are you going to motion capture a dragon?

Exactly! It won’t fit in a motion capture studio and they’re terrible divas, they’re awful to work with. So we’ve invested a lot to encompass the project to get those animations in, hired a lot of people to make a very different kind of Total War game.

So final question: when will this be out?

Total War: Warhammer will be out May 24. Just about a month away. The demo you played is actually using a build that’s a couple of months old, so the final game will have changes. Like the arrow trails, they’re going to be translucent and smoothed out. That was a hot topic on the forums, we introduced the option to turn the trails on and off. There are little things like that, that kind of feedback that will be added into the final version. We’re very engaged with our community and want to make a game that people want to play.

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