The New Hybrid Tower-Defense, Tactics Mode of 'Total War: Warhammer 3'

An assault on the Realm of Chaos spotlights a new type of narrative battle in 'Warhammer 3.'
May 14, 2021, 1:00pm
Katarin
'Total War: Warhammer 3' screenshot courtesy of Sega

Total War battles broadly come in two flavors, and each has familiar dynamics. There's the siege battles, where one army storms the battlements of another, and there's the open field battle, where two armies maneuver and clash across a map until one is finally routed. With Total War: Warhammer 3, developer Creative Assembly is continuing the series' interweaving of narrative set-pieces with a special new kind of battle, the Survival Battle. To be reductive, it's Total War-meets-Tower Defense but that really undersells how engaging and how different the battle type is compared to what we've gotten used to in Total War games.

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It's also really, really hard.

The setup for the remote preview session I played the other week was straightforward and went to the heart of what's new in Warhammer 3. I was playing as one of the major new factions in the game, Kislev i.e. Fantasy Baltic Kingdom (they're mostly Fantasy Russia, but Winged Lancers were apparently too cool to leave out, so the army has a pan-Baltic vibe). They're the faction centered in the reveal trailer, and their whole deal is that they are one of the kingdoms that lives along the border of the Old World and the Chaos Wastes. For the purposes of this battle, the Kislev army was invading the Realm of Chaos itself, basically mounting a frontal assault on the gates of hell.

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It looks like in the apocalyptic showdown between the mortal realms and the Chaos gods that sets the stage for Warhammer 3, there will be a few battles like this in the campaign. So while the battle I fought showed Tzarina Katarin leading her Kislev forces against the Brass Citadel, presumably there will be a lot of different scenarios in this vein in the final game. However, they are all effectively designed "missions" and not the largely dynamic encounters of the main game.

And it turns out a little scenario design can go a long way! Basically, you have to break three lines of defenses: a thin outer gate, and more stoutly defended inner gate, and then a heavily defended stronghold where a powerful Chaos demon serves as the final boss of the battle. The catch is that you want to keep each of those positions under your control, because each control point gives the Chaos army a powerful bonus as long as they control it. So your assault turns into a much harder task of simultaneously continuing your forward advance while maintaining lines of defense at each of the positions you've captured. Making matters worse, since you're basically attacking along a single axis, you're being flanked constantly as fresh Chaos forces spawn in from the fringes of the map. So you can't just set up your defensive units and continue the advance. You have to be constantly marching to smash one attack before it can join up with another, turning the entire battle into a grim juggling act.

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The Kislev army I commanded felt like it was well set-up for this kind of battle. Their army has a lot of infantry that mixes ranged and melee attacks at its core, and then some devastating elite cavalry that will run circles around enemy units who are entangled with that infantry. In fact, their makeup seemed a lot like the Dwarven army from the first game, except with cavalry in lieu of heavy artillery and air units. It was pretty spectacular watching waves of demons break against fusillades from Kislev Streltsi, or be ridden-down by charging Winged Lancers.

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The visual drama was definitely punched-up by the fact that for this battle, many of the Chaos units were under-powered, tissue-paper versions of themselves compared to what they would be in a normal campaign battle. So the battle had the feel of an scene from the Lord of the Rings movies where hordes of monsters would be cut down by small bands of heroic human warriors, whereas in a campaign battle the math on "demon vs. dude" tends to be a lot worse for the dude. It also kept the emphasis on quickly demolishing waves of enemies rather than watching the units fight long slugging matches until one is finally wiped out.

Even with that help, though, the scenario was on the edge of manageable. There was so much ground to cover, the enemies were coming from so many directions and through so many different choke points, that I was constantly being overwhelmed. The upshot was that was Chaos units were defeated, I got injections of "supply" that I could spend on unit upgrades and, crucially, fortifications. At predetermined spots on the map, I could build barricades and obstacles to funnel the enemy, and different flavors of tower that would blast any enemies within range. 

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This worked pretty well in the early stages of the mission but as I made my final drive on the objective and got absorbed with fighting a lot of far more deadly monsters, these defenses crumbled almost without my noticing. It wasn't until I saw a bunch of my unit cards flashing with the "routing" icon that I realized my blocking detachments were being overwhelmed. That forced me to warp reinforcements to those control points… which meant I had no reinforcements to commit to the attack on the final objective.

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In fairness, the developers did warn us, in their preface to the session, that this was a mode where it often paid to pause or slow down the action to take in the state of play. This was definitely a mode where I realized I should have dusted-off those neglected camera presets and maybe used pause to turn the game into a turn based tactics game.

As my attack crumbled and a handful of elite units slowly gave ground to a giant unkillable (at least for me) Chaos demon while the Tzarina fired off the last of her ice spells to try and stem the tide, I was already thinking about what I'd do differently next time, what I now understood about the logic of this mission. It was a good problem, and it felt like there were a lot of approaches I could have taken to solving it. 

More importantly, the survival battle feels like a good twist on the Total War formula. In general, I've never been particularly interested in their "historical battle" options or special missions, but this was probably the most I've ever seen Total War feeling like the great real-time tactics games of the 90s that the series ultimately supplanted, games like Myth: The Fallen Lords or Ground Control or maybe even, if we want to really go back, Shadow of the Horned Rat. It was novel, yes, but it didn't just feel like a novelty, and they seem like a great thing to introduce to Total War's sometimes shaky endgames.

Total War: Warhammer 3 is due later this year.