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Key art for the lizardmen faction in Total War: Warhammer 2. Creative Assembly/Sega

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Total War: Warhammer 2 review

The gods demand sacrifice

Total War: Warhammer 2 is a strange beast.

Speak the concept out loud and it sounds straightforward: Take the historical know-how of the Total War series and graft a 34-year-old tabletop franchise on top of it. Then, pop off early for a pint. But rather than phone it in, the team at Creative Assembly have created a real-time strategy game that feels truly epic.

Not only is Total War: Warhammer 2 an excellent wargame, but it stands apart from its predecessor with four new factions and a brand new campaign featuring a novel end-game twist. It’s a flawed game, to be sure, but where it falls short, it does so through an unwavering commitment to its source material.

Can you really blame a game based on the byzantine lore of Games Workshop’s Warhammer universe for itself being byzantine in its presentation? Turns out, you can. Or, at least, I’m going to try.

A Lizardmen lord marches into battle atop a monstrous dinosaur. Creative Assembly/Sega

The Total War: Warhammer series is based on the Warhammer hobby miniatures game that dates back to 1983. Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s second term as prime minister, tabletop aficionados have been able to purchase, paint and play with massive armies featuring all manner of unspeakable horrors rendered in pewter and plastic.

The tabletop game is simple enough. Players gather dozens of miniatures into a singular unit, allowing them to form up in ranks and share statistics in battle. As that unit is wounded, individual miniatures are removed, and the unit as a whole becomes less powerful. Where Warhammer has excelled is in building up lore all around itself, creating a kind of baroque bastion that rivals the towering achievements of the legendary armies portrayed in Tolkien’s own Middle-earth.

Total War: Warhammer 2 features four of that universe’s iconic factions, including the High Elves and the Dark Elves. But the real stars of the show are the Lizardmen, one of Warhammer’s oldest races, and the Skaven, skittering, plague-riddled rat people who are an absolute fan favorite.

Skaven siege engines march on a citadel held by dark elves. Creative Assembly/Sega

The Lizardmen fight like ancient Greeks did, packed tightly into ranks and marching ceremoniously toward their foes. Of course, the ancient Greeks did not possess two-story tall ankylosaurs with laser guns strapped to their heads. These megafauna set the Lizardmen faction apart and make every one of their battles something spectacular. By the end of the game, I must have sent at least 50 feral stegadons tearing through glittering lines of High Elves, and it was a joy to watch every time.

The Skaven, on the other hand, take the field like an army of ants. Their low-level units are nothing more than different gradations of meat shield that literally pour out of the ground in front of advancing armies. Meanwhile, a few precious, high-tech units linger along the enemy’s flanks and rear doing the real work of war from afar. They are as different from the Lizardmen as you can imagine and require an almost manic attention to maneuver to keep the leading elements fresh.

The way these four armies fight isn’t simply cosmetic. Like other games in the Total War series, Total War: Warhammer 2 shines at the tactical level. Deploying your forces before battle is a delightful experience, and once the pausable real-time action gets going it’s magical. I was excited each time I got to hide my cavalry in the trees, waiting until the perfect moment to spring a trap that totally enveloped the enemy’s forces from the rear.

While many of the battles you fight will be meeting engagements or ambushes in the field, the game also features elaborate siege battles fought along castle walls. I spent eight or nine turns encamped around enemy cities building massive war engines while I starved out the garrisons huddled inside. When the time was right, the battles that unfolded seemed straight out a storybook. In one assault, I knocked in the enemy’s gates along the eastern wall while slow-moving towers landed my most powerful troops along the battlements to the west. Once lodged, my troops ground hundreds of enemy fighters between them before high-fiving in the middle and moving on toward the city center.

An army of high elves set against the spectacular backdrop of an elven aqueduct bridging a steep valley. Creative Assembly/Sega

After a while, however, the cracks in these same tactical battles start to show. Sometimes the action slows to a halt while heavily armored infantry pound on each other in the middle of the map. Most annoying is the invisible grid system that sits below every map, limiting the options you have for fine control of your troops. But it’s a compromise that’s been present in every iteration of the Total War franchise to date and you simply have to make due with it.

More annoying, however, are the game’s menus. There are just so many of them, and each one is more unfriendly than the last.

Each faction has two leaders to choose from, each with a different starting location on the map. Each one fights very differently in the early game, and each one has a different upgrade path. But to tell what those differences are, you need to go three layers deep in each character’s menu. You need to read — a lot — and keeping a notebook handy isn’t a bad idea because there is an awful lot of content to keep track of.

Add to that an equally complex settlement upgrade system, lords that can equip magic items and attract followers, hero characters having little adventures all around the map and a cavalcade of missions and mini-goals and the game can become exhausting. Fatigue eventually set in for me, which led to making poor choices, which led, inevitably, to needing to start a new campaign.

Between spells and armor and items and followers and long-term goals, Total War: Warhammer 2 is a marathon. It is a game that demands patience and attention to detail, and one that is unforgiving to those with time for neither. But, if you’re able to plow through the low-level content and build your empire up and out into the world for 150 turns or more, the end-game is remarkably rewarding.

The goal for every faction is to engage in a series of rituals that will bring about the subjugation of the Great Vortex in the northeast corner of the map. But, once players begin that final ritual, the entire world turns against them. It is a race against time to complete the steps before your empire is destroyed.

It is a brilliant narrative turn and a highlight of my year in gaming. I just wish it didn’t take so long to get there.

Wrap up:

Pairing the tactical brilliance of the Total War series with the rich lore of the Warhammer universe is a natural fit, and Total War: Warhammer 2 fulfills the promise of that combination. It is a deep and challenging experience with an epic story to tell. It is also one of the most overwrought games of the year, a game where complexity seems to be piled on for complexity's sake. That is a feature, however, and not a bug. The tone and pace of Total War: Warhammer 2 matches its lore. The density of the whole package can make it all feel like a chore at times, but that’s also what makes it such a satisfying strategy experience.

Total War: Warhammer 2 was reviewed using a final “retail” Windows PC download code provided by Sega, as well as multiple late-game saves provided by Creative Assembly. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.