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Total War: Warhammer brings big fantasy to a respected battle sim

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The Total War series has been doing a sterling job of recreating ancient and medieval warfare these past 15 years. Now it's heading for the fresh plains of fantasy and legend.

There are few better worlds for developer Creative Assembly to have picked than Warhammer, which combines much that is familiar about fantasy realms with a unique and much-loved lore.

Polygon recently attended a short demo of the game, which is due to be released in 2016. The demo was a pre-recorded endgame battle which showed little of the high-perspective top-down strategy of this series, and lots of the sweeping ground-level action close-ups that are also part of its heritage.

So I watched the Battle of Blackfire Pass, in which Karl Franz, the leader of the Empire faction, leads a battle against the Greenskins led by Grimgor Ironhide.

For a start, the environments are much more striking than in real world Total War games. This battle takes place in a wide ravine skirted by lava-draped cliff faces.

The armies of men gather together in familiar Total War blocks and formations. They are the Empire, based loosely on the Holy Roman Empire of the high medieval era. They bristle with pikes and medieval firearms.

Approaching from yonder hill is a very different host. The creatures of the Greenskins include all manner of orcs, wobbly-bellied giants, trolls, Arachnaroks and goblins.

On both sides there are also heroes, mages and wing-borne creatures, such as dragons. It's clear that these are all highly valuable units that are not to be wasted.

Orcs puke poison onto their victims.

The battles themselves progress much as you would expect from a Total War game. Fronts hurl themselves upon one another and grind each other down. While the humans have numbers on their side, the Greenskin battalions are usually smaller, though each unit is bigger and stronger. Orcs puke poison onto their victims, who swarm with swords to retaliate. Goblins strap wings to their backs and are fired from catapults into the fearful ranks of the Empire. It's nothing if not spectacular and gruesome.

"We've done a lot of work with the charges and the charge impacts in combat," says the game's battle designer Simon Mann. "Units are much more reactive to the charge. Defenders will brace themselves or try to strike back, whereas the attackers will leap in or charge to do a hit. It gives it a real kinetic feel."

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A line of trolls mount a devastating charge. Each is perhaps three times larger than the humans, but it only takes about eight of them to face down an enemy of perhaps 100 men. They are obviously blessed with a big Area of Effect count when they start doing their thing.

"A single entity may be strong, but they can be surrounded and taken down," says Mann. "For every strength there's going to be a weakness you can capitalize on."

But the real damage comes from those heroes, who are like super-powered agents from the previous games. They have magic spells. One conjured a giant leg that pounded down on helpless enemies, squishing them into the turf.

Chaos seeks to uproot everything

Players draw heroes to their faction which then carry out actions on the campaign map. These shamans have skill trees and level up through the campaign. They are also sent on individual assassination missions during the over-map campaign, just like spies and assassins in, for example, Total War: Attila.

Over-map campaigns are about establishing bases and territory, creating power structures that will yield and support armed units. The campaign unlocks many of the units on display in this demo.

But unlike in the historical games, there are no years. The game simply takes place in the time of the Old World, with named lords, like Karl Franz, vying for power, while Chaos seeks to uproot everything.

"We've taken out the concept of time," says Mann. "This is a timeless space. Your lord is immortal. He can't die. He can only be wounded. We want players to get to know about Karl Franz and his story and his emperor-ship. He has quite an interesting backstory to him and these quests and battles help us deliver these stories."

total war warhammer

"It's still very much a sandbox game. You can do whatever you want. If you want to make friends with the Greenskins, you can. There are diplomatic options there for you. But we're going to make it harder. We're going to keep it close to the lore, because generally they would talk to each other, but they'd never really be friends. As we're a sandbox, though, we're going to let you do stuff like that."

The magic system is based, of course, on Warhammer. "We're using a system called the winds of magic, which is from the Warhammer tabletop game," explains Mann. "There is magic around the world, and it increases and decreases depending on where you are. It's very much a geographic thing."

Everything in the game is sourced from the lore. There are no Creative Assembly flourishes. "We haven't had to add anything," says Mann. "There's so much material in Warhammer. It's immense."

As the battle progresses, new units approach on mounts. Some are riding Griffons. Others perch on the backs of boars and wolves. You wouldn't want to get in the way of any of these. The Empire fires off guns and arrows. It also has recourse to some very effective fantasy artillery pieces: medieval war machines and Steam Tanks.

"The Empire and [their allies] the dwarfs are very firearm-oriented," says Mann. "The Greenskins not so much. They're not very technologically advanced. They're a little more primitive. They love clubs and choppers or anything sharp."

The Empire seems to be taking a beating. A Goblin Shaman casts "Curse of The Bad Moon," a giant orb that destroys entire battalions of enemies. Magic is clearly very powerful when used correctly. It's a spell that is familiar to anyone who has played Warhammer.

"We've really tried to bring all the lore to life," says Mann. "We take the spells from the rule book. We're trying to bring the character of the Warhammer franchise to life."

total war warhammer

But those valuable individual units are a tempting target for enemies and must be protected. This demo doesn't show the minute-to-minute decisions and maneuvers that are part of playing Total War, but these are systems that Creative Assembly has been tweaking for years. Although the series has had its problems, especially with wait-times for the release of Total War: Rome 2 (2013), these were later ironed out in patches and largely eliminated in Attila.

Fantasy brings another new dimension to the series. Giant winged creatures tussle with one another and then attack ground forces. It's the first time a Total War game has included aerial combat. "Aerial units are brilliant at striking enemies behind the line of combat, that you wouldn't otherwise be able to get to," says Mann.

"People are going to see some really cool stuff as we expand it out. Every faction is going to play totally differently."

Total War: Warhammer is being published by Sega and is scheduled to arrive in 2016 on Windows PC.