Total War: Warhammer III arrives five whole years after its predecessor and so you’d be forgiven for expecting rather significant improvements and additions to the tried and tested Total War formula. In a lot of ways TW: WIII absolutely delivers on this front. There are four new factions, Grand Cathay (based on Imperial China), Kislev (based on Medieval Russia), the Daemons of Chaos (which are divided further into followers of the four Chaos Gods: Nurgle, Slaanesh, Khorne, and Tzeentch), and the pre-order/early-adopter bonus faction of The Ogre Kingdoms.
The all-new Realm of Chaos campaign seems specifically designed to shake up the lethargy that these games sometimes fall prey to by introducing new events and mechanics that obstruct your meteoric rise to power. Creative Assembly has also made significant changes to the way tried and tested features like diplomacy, siege battles, and even the narrative, work.
Ultimately however the core gameplay will be very familiar to fans of the Total War series, you pick a faction and split your time between the two major aspects of the game. First is the grand strategy of the campaign map where you build up your settlements, muster armies, and send out your various agents to assassinate, undermine and hinder the efforts of your enemies. Then, whenever you send one of your armies to clash with another, you take the field for a real-time battle, commanding thousands of troops in epic, beautiful, and satisfying clashes that fit so wonderfully within the world of Warhammer.
Whereas the previous game centered around the Elves and Lizardmen and the Great Vortex, TW: WIII instead focuses on the northern edges of the map, where Chaos demons of desire and pestilence scour the land and the rugged human kingdom of Kislev seek to release their imprisoned bear-God, Ursun. This narrative premise is set up effectively in a first for the series: a story and character-driven prologue campaign where you take the role of a Kislevite prince as he seeks out his newly-silent deity. This prologue serves not only as a narrative introduction but a fantastic tutorial for newcomers as well as a refresher for veterans.
The way the story is presented, through CGI cinematics and the more understated animatics, is a noticeable step up from previous titles and adds a welcome layer to the player-crafted story Total War campaigns usually consist of. The voice acting is great throughout, with the prologue campaign, in particular, featuring a surprising amount of it. The many different Daemons of Chaos are a joy to behold, with performances ranging from disturbing to hilarious.
Speaking of improved production values, this is undoubtedly Creative Assembly’s most detailed and visually striking campaign map yet, the landscape has never looked so tangible without skimping on any of the fantastical elements like bear-shaped mountaintops or cracks in the ground glowing with the energies of Chaos. Battle maps have been given a similar improvement, with each map feeling far more like an actual place than a procedurally generated field. Certain story-related battle maps have incredibly flashy things happening like a magical tower in the distance that occasionally sends out screen-shaking shockwaves.
This level of polish carries over to your armies too, with the animation quality and intricate, gorgeous detail of the many different units you can recruit remaining a constant source of awe. The eyes of Warriors of Khorne gleaming yellow in the darkness of the helmets, the slathering tongues of the beasts of Nurgle, or the truly absurd siege engines of Tzeentch, all of it has been lovingly and meticulously crafted. Zooming right in as two armies clash is one of my favourite things to do in a Total War game, and it’s never been more impressive. The sound design is a huge factor in making these battles feel so immersive, the clanking of metal on metal, the screams and roars and shrieks of demons and humans and other horrible beasts, the explosions of magic and cannons. It’s wonderful.
For my first campaign, I chose the Daemons of Chaos, whose faction leader is a fully customisable Daemon Prince. Everything from his tail to his wings to his weapons can be swapped out. As you capture settlements and defeat armies in the name of one of the four Gods of Chaos you gain their favour, unlocking an intimidating amount of limbs, wings, weapons, boons, units, and powers. Your prince’s changing appearance is reflected on both the campaign map and in battles which echoes the satisfying creativity that is at the core of Warhammer.
The goal of every faction in this campaign is to travel through the dimensional rifts that occasionally turn up and take the soul of a Daemon Prince from each of the four Chaos realms and infuse them into the Tome of Fate. Doing so will allow the claimant to enter the Forge of Souls where Ursun is being held captive. All of the factions wish to reach Ursun for their own mysterious reasons (except the Ogres, they just want to eat him) and so it’s a race to see who can come out on top and meet with a God.
When you traverse the rifts into one of the four realms of Chaos your army is transported to a sort of sub-campaign map with its own rules and objectives. This is probably the most dramatic shift in campaign map gameplay mechanics in any Total War game. Slaanesh’s realm tasks you with descending through portals into a spiraling pit. Each level you go down you’re offered a more enticing offer than the last. The catch? Accepting a reward instantly sends your army back to the mortal world and you must relinquish your chance at the Slaaneshi daemon prince’s soul, potentially paving the one for another faction to claim it instead.
Each of these realms differs in aesthetic and mechanics, and it adds a lot to the overall momentum of a campaign. Having to drop everything to send an adequately prepared army into one of these realms, not really knowing what you might find on the other side, is exciting and risky. The rifts that you travel through also occasionally spawn hostile armies of daemons back in the mortal realms, meaning you could quite suddenly find your capital under siege. There are a lot of things to juggle at once and it adds a very welcome layer of challenge to the standard campaign format.
There are a number of iterative improvements to fundamental features of Total War games. Siege units have unique close-quarters attacks so they don’t become entirely useless when they’ve run out of ammo. When using targetable spells the game automatically enters slow-mo, giving you a moment to think and strategise without having to pause. Vital information like your settlement population growth and the exact reasons for various buffs or debuffs is displayed in a clear, easy-to-find way.
Diplomacy has had a significant revamp, there’s now a ‘Quick Deal’ button which when clicked will immediately show you how likely every faction is to agree to a non-aggression pact, military access, alliances, etc. War Coordination has its own screen now where you can tell your allies who or where to attack, request an army from them, or even take on missions they offer you. This system uses a separate currency that builds up the longer your alliance lasts which stops you from, for example, immediately demanding an army from a faction you’ve only just allied with.
Siege battles have also changed, the defender’s capture points now generate resources that they can use to build defenses during a battle. Spread throughout the city maps are set points where you can build little barricades to funnel your enemy to chokepoints, and towers that fire missiles making them pay dearly for every single street they take. As the attacker when you capture one of these resource points all the surrounding defenses instantly crumble. It’s a clever addition that makes sieges a little more involved for the defender and a far more risky proposition for the attacker.
Despite there not yet being a Grand Campaign, which combined the maps and factions of the first and second game into one enormous campaign, the TW: WIII campaign map is still populated with a huge variety of factions. So far I’ve fought armies of Wood Elves and Lizard Men despite neither of them being selectable as a playable faction. Apparently, Creative Assembly does intend to combine the maps of all three TW: W games in a future update, and will aptly call it “A Very Big Campaign”. This might tip things over into being too big, but it’s fun that they’re doing it.
Total War: Warhammer III is a solid new entry in this spin-off Total War series. It undoubtedly earns its place as a separate, numbered entry, even if the fundamentals remain largely familiar. The bump in quality seen across the board in the visuals, sound, faction diversity, campaign shakeups, or even just the little welcome additions here and there, removes any doubt that this should be considered anything other than the best game in the trilogy.