‘Total War: Warhammer 3’ Has Everything You Want, and Some Old Flaws You Don't

I propose to move immediately off these works.

By some measures, the Total War games are about as good as they have ever been. Three Kingdoms was a magnificent and beautiful game that had as interesting and varied a strategy layer as its tactical battle layer. Warhammer 3 polishes to a mirror shine the base components of the previous installments and throws some excellent twists into the mix via faction and campaign design. It seems like it should be another golden age for the series.


Except that Total War’s busted siege mechanics keep spreading their roots through the game, undermining so much of this excellent work and causing some of the sturdiest parts of the Total War formula to crack and crumble. The snappy pace of a Total War campaign, with its brisk, high-stakes field battles, swift expansions and counterattacks, has slowed to a tedious crawl. Too often Total War games devolve into siege after siege that make sustained offensive action an impossibility and substantially moot the results of those field battles that have been the series’ bread and butter for decades. 

The dawdling and repetitive pace of the early stages of a Total War campaign leech a lot of the excitement from what should be Warhammer 3’s crowning glory: the world-spanning, faction-uniting Immortal Empires campaign. In it, the maps from all three games are condensed and woven together into an enormous world map packed with every faction in the series. It’s an astonishing thing, one that serves to highlight just how much cool stuff and how many weird factions developer Creative Assembly has packed into this series over the past several years.

Immortal Empires.jpg

But a lot of the excitement of this sweeping scale is locked behind a depressingly narrow formula for starting positions and a whole lot of sieges and castle assaults that too often give the game the feeling of driving a sports car over a highway covered in speed bumps.


After experiencing a fair amount of awe and excitement poring over the faction selection screen and all their possible starting locations, I took the game's recommendation and started out as the human Empire under Karl Franz, who is Warhammer’s answer to what might have happened if the Holy Roman Empire had been ruled by a clever gym rat. I found myself facing the now-rote opening scenario for every faction in a Total War game: pinned near my capital, facing a weak rebel army and with a series of nearby settlements to take.

The rebel faction was too weak to mount much of a threat and their positions were easy to roll-up at first, but after a few turns I found myself with a familiar dilemma. My army had fought a field battle and two assaults in three turns, and so it was pretty badly banged-up. The rebels were rebuilding their army in a settlement to the north through a forest road, but to the south they also controlled Axe Bite Pass. If they managed to get that rebuilt army into position with the stronghold, they’d effectively be unbeatable. I did not have the economy to build up the kind of forces needed to win an assault against a full enemy army and a full garrison.

Total War  Warhammer III Screenshot 2022.08.22 -

So while my main army struck north and fought yet another bloody battle that meant it would be several turns before my units were back at full strength, I also started building a second army that could reinforce my main army and join the attack on the stronghold.


Naturally, the rebels were able to crank out another army immediately despite being down to one settlement and having lost two previous armies in battle. The rubbery bounce-back quality of minor powers in Total War is nothing new at this point, but it does mean that the closing stages of a war involve a lot of tedium as your weakening forces have to smack around one army of fresh conscripts after another, usually as part of assaults on the series’ increasingly well-defended settlements. Those dynamics are grating enough, but they are also associated with a slew of odd rules and mechanics that have slowly bled into Total War over the past few games to make siege warfare both harder to understand and more obtrusive.

Once my main army had been rebuilt, I moved it to lay siege to the stronghold of Axe Bite Pass. Then, to make sure I would have the numbers in my assault or to ensure I could throw back a sally by the army and garrison I’d pinned inside, I sent my reserve army forward. As they advanced to set up this coup de grace, somehow the garrison was able to assail my own smaller reinforcement army and force me into the very siege battle I had been trying to avoid and should have been able to avoid until I was ready. Instead, I was forced to fight an assault, which has been made overwhelmingly favorable to defenders in Warhammer 3 via some (admittedly very cool) tower defense mechanics that create all sorts of obstacles, hazards, and kill-zones for invading armies.


It had taken seven turns to hit this situation, which was in large part the product of a circular process by which the series has attempted to improve sieges over the years. Total War has tried to make castle assaults more central to each new game, serving to highlight their recurring issues, necessitating further improvements that end up making sieges and city defense even more decisive than before. 

At best, all this emphasis on forcing more siege assaults has conferred a massive defender’s advantage on the campaign layer, turning even lopsided campaigns and small wars into painstaking grinds. At worst—and these systems are too often at their worst—they misbehave in counterintuitive and frustrating ways that turn what should be straightforward maneuvers into marathons of quicksaving and quickloading.

The prime offender in all of this is a special type of settlement, a gate, that is typically found guarding strategic choke points. The idea was to create one-way doors for whoever controlled the gate, while creating a kind of barrier that could not be neutralized via sieges and would have to be taken via the kind of overwhelming assaults that have always had an outsize presence in Total War marketing campaigns. Unlike a fortress, which can be surrounded and then bypassed, a gate by its nature cannot be fully invested by besiegers. The door is sealed tightly against enemies while, behind it, the defender can have armies and supplies moving freely as normal.


For some reason, this has never worked correctly. In particular, gates are vulnerable to an exploit where, if they are already besieged and if there is a valid target for an attacker’s army to attack-move against behind the gate, that enemy army can bypass the gate as if it were wide open. If there is a settlement within marching distance of the gate, the gate can be bypassed in this same way.

If these sound like edge cases… well first, Total War campaigns are long and a lot of stuff happens in them and even things that are things you’d only see once every couple hundred turns end up being constant nuisances. But the very nature of the gates also means that these issues won’t just be edge cases. The way the gates dictate the flow of action around them makes them more central to the campaign layer than other settlements, and so they draw these kinds of misfortunes to them. 

To handle some of these issues, Total War: Warhammer 3 has given the gate garrisons the abilities to intercept armies moving nearby. Now attackers using these exploits can find themselves attacked by the gate’s garrison, which is something that garrisons historically have been unable to do in this series. They have always been passive defenders to be whittled down via a siege or beaten via assault, only taking the field if there were a friendly field army nearby to reinforce or lead a sally outside the walls. But a field battle would force garrisons to yield their greatest advantage, namely their defensive fortifications, so Warhammer 3 fixes this by letting the garrison intercept and attack an enemy army which then, perversely, forces that army into an assault on the walls in order to defend itself.

I have rewritten that paragraph three times trying to come up with a version of it that makes intuitive sense and it can’t be done. Just know that the game is similarly perplexing to play.

Which is what really rankles about this situation. It’s totally understandable that Creative Assembly’s designers had a neat idea for a new type of defensive structure, and that in implementing that idea they discovered some deep-seated issues. That happens in game design, especially with games as complicated and dependent on legacy features as Total War. What’s harder to accept is that even after all these issues have been discovered, the studio has continued to make these types of structures and encounters more common and central to their games.

As I fed my troops into this meat grinder, the whole situation reminded me of how my game as Cathay began to unravel as my defense of its Fantasy Great Wall of China placed the broken gates center stage again and again and the tower defense mechanics of Warhammer 3 went from a charming novelty to a hellish loop. Or how, before that, a reworked map in Three Kingdoms actually added more gates to the mountains in the central and western parts of the map and effectively split Three Kingdoms’ incredible campaign map into two sections: one where the game broadly worked and you could make informed decisions as a strategist and tactician… and a section where the game basically stopped working, and huge impassable obstacles might disappear at any moment and throw plans into utter chaos.

What began as a small glitch around a special and relatively scarce type of settlement in Warhammer 2 has now become a source of chaos and investment-breaking unpredictability in three different games, one that actively made Three Kingdoms a worse game than the masterpiece it had been a few months after release. Now Immortal Empires has laid out a banquet for Total War: Warhammer players, but the clunky design of its siege systems and the plodding pace they impose on its campaigns have built high walls around it. With a lot of patience and forgiveness you can scale them, but it is Immortal Empires’ misfortune to serve as a reminder how much this series has drawn on those accounts since Warhammer 2.