There’s been some controversy regarding information released on the new regional occupation system of the upcoming Total War: Warhammer. You can read the official developer post about it here. But as a long term fan of this series, I thought I’d share my own thoughts -
The game I’m most interested in playing this year has to be Total War: Warhammer. I’ve been a fan of the Total War series since the release of the original Shogun, but as much as I’ve enjoyed the historical based titles, I’ve always wanted to see the release of a fantasy based variation.
But I’m more than just interested in this upcoming title for its fantasy world and characters. I’m also interested to see how this game can shake up the franchise and provide a unique and fresh Total War experience.
Because in many ways, I’ve grown rather weary of what many view as the ‘traditional’ nature of Total War. It’s probably why I’ve enjoyed the smaller, yet more focused experiences of expansion titles such as Napoleon, Fall of the Samurai and Attila, to the larger, more expansive core titles.
These titles may not have offered the scope or variety of Empire, Shogun 2 or Rome 2, but they all introduced new dynamics and features to the campaign which, for me at least, provided a more engaging experience.
For me, the Total War ‘formula’ was only about the combination of turn based and real time strategy. The ability to see the translation of the campaign map to the battle map. I never viewed the ability to conquer every region upon the map as a core component to the series because in the 15 years I’ve been paying these games, I’ve never actually done so!
I’d imagine many fans of this series would agree that Total War has always had issues with long term campaign engagement. In other words, the beginning of a campaign is always more interesting than the end. Attempts to combat this issue in the past have been met with mixed results – the Realm Divide of Shogun 2, the Civil War of Rome 2, or the Hun invasion of Attila.
The problem is simple – 50 to 100 turns into a typical Total War campaign, a player is often so powerful and wealthy that conquering the rest of the map is inevitable – victory all but guaranteed. The loss of an army or region is but a minor set-back. There remains little to no risk to the player or their empire, and the chance of failure – the chance to lose – is all but non-existent. Which is why I’ve never conquered the entire campaign map in any of the Total War titles. Because beyond a certain point, there’s no more challenge to your expansion.
The problem is simple enough, so is the solution, equally simple? If the player is growing too powerful, too quickly, then why not restrict how powerful the player can grow? Why not place limitations upon the player to prevent them from ever reaching that tipping point where a campaign ceases to be an engaging challenge, and instead becomes an inevitable chore?
It doesn’t seem like such a radical notion, but in terms of Total War, it’s quite a fundamental departure from the traditional campaign formula of the series. And that’s why, with the announcement of regional occupation restrictions in Total War: Warhammer, it’s caused quite the stir within the community.
In the development post, there’s various discussions about how the team came to this decision, including discussion regarding Warhammer lore. I won’t discuss Warhammer lore here because as I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past, I know practically sod all about the licence. I’m looking at this purely from the perspective of campaign gameplay.
In other words, I really couldn’t give a f**k if it’s consistent with Warhammer lore or not. My only interest is this – will this new system solve the issue of long term campaign engagement? Will this provide a unique and fresh Total War experience? I honestly can’t say. Nobody can, not without playing it. But we can sure have a swell time debating the matter!
As I normally do, I’ll adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach to this new system. I don’t believe doing something different is doing something wrong. Certainly there’s truth in the old adage of ‘if it ain’t broke’, but I feel it’s time for Total War to take a risk and fundamentally shake up its core gameplay. That said, this wouldn’t be the first time Total War has done so.
In many ways it’s not a surprise that Total War: Warhammer is changing aspects to the Total War ‘formula’ because the series has done so, to one degree or another, with nearly every major release. The transition from the 2D campaign of Shogun 1 to the 3D campaign of Rome 1 was a fundamental shift in how Total War was played, and was also considered quite controversial at the time by many players.
The introduction of gun line warfare in Empire was a major shift in how a player would approach the real time battles. Shogun 2 introduced more major changes, particularly with region development. In previous titles, settlements could be constructed as the player saw fit, but Shogun 2 introduced restrictions on what could be built and where, in addition to limiting building slots per region.
At the time, this change, much like the recent announcement of occupation restrictions, was met with controversy, a concern that the developers were ‘taking away’ options from the player. I’m sure many still feel this way. But personally, I loved the transition to a restricted building system, because it fixed another issue I had with previous games in the series.
In Rome 1, for example, it was possible to turn nearly every settlement into an economic and military powerhouse. Losing a region had little to no impact on your economy or ability to train new forces. But in Shogun 2, the restrictions in place forced the player to consider very carefully how each settlement should be constructed. Should it focus on economy or military? And losing a region, such as a region with a valuable resource, was far more of a concern, even as the campaign progressed.
It’s a great example of how artificial restrictions placed upon the player resulted in far more strategically important choices. And restrictions on regional occupation feels like a natural progression of this system. In the development post, Game Director Ian Roxburgh argues - ‘Simply painting the map your colour is not always a route to victory, and is arguably the least strategically interesting.’ And I agree, as this has proven true throughout the entire series.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the recent Age of Charlemagne DLC was the introduction of new victory conditions tied to imperium, rather than simply taking ‘X number of regions’. With the addition of new technology and building chains to support this system, it was possible to approach and complete a campaign in a variety of ways, not necessarily through war and war alone.
Obviously, war will play a key role in Total War: Warhammer, but with the introduction of unique characters, quest chains and likely race specific victory conditions, I’m hopeful that we’ll have a far more dynamic and strategically interesting campaign than simply ‘take X number of regions to win’.
Continuing our discussion of how the Total War series has evolved, Rome 2 provides another great shift, with the introduction of the regional province system, a new army recruitment system, army legacy and campaign ‘stances’, battle map capture points, and an entirely new (if somewhat broken) political system. It also introduced a controversial new system of its own – agent and army limitations. But like the settlement building restrictions of Shogun 2, I’d argue this new system didn’t ‘limit’ the experience, but instead forced the player into making more important strategic choices regarding when and where to strike.
Total War: Attila refined, expanded and improved upon many of these systems whilst also introducing new dynamics of its own, particularly the ‘horde’ and ‘raze’ mechanics. There were many who were wary of the horde system but it proved to introduce an entirely new way to play and approach a Total War campaign. And when playing as the Huns, you couldn’t conquer any regions, yet such a restriction introduced a unique and fresh gameplay experience. The ‘raze’ system, though not particularly well balanced upon release, also introduced a new dynamic and strategic option to the campaign.
The point I suppose I’m trying to make is that beyond the combination of turn based and real time strategy, there’s never been a consistent or core ‘formula’ to the Total War series. Nearly every game has, for good or for ill, changed, chopped, cut and added features in an attempt to provide a unique experience.
And I must give it credit for that, even if the changes it’s made haven’t always been to my personal tastes. It takes balls for a developer to take risks with an established formula, particularly in a series as long running as Total War. And yet, that’s what the developers have done with nearly every major release. It’s a risk, because as much as change and innovation is desired, it is also feared.
But fearing change can also lead to stagnation, to the repetition of a tired formula and the loss of interest in a series. I think it’s a great testament to the series when, at the time of writing, there are five Total War games in the Top Games list on Steam by current player count. It’s why, when you ask what people’s favourite Total War game is, that you’ll get such a mix of responses stretching to every title in the series.
Because each entry in the series is unique in its own way, due the changes to its formula. And Total War: Warhammer is set to continue this trend. I can’t say I’m in favour of, or approve of the changes in this upcoming title until I’ve played it for myself, but I am in favour of change, because I feel that change, on the whole, has benefited the series rather than harmed it.
And that’s why I’m willing to keep an open mind about the new region occupation system. Do I share concerns regarding replayability? Regarding the possibility of a more ‘rail road’ experience? Of course! But I’m also interested to see if this system does provide a fresh Total War experience. I feel that many of the controversial ‘restrictions’ that have been incorporated into the series down the years have enhanced the campaign rather than detracted from it. And I hope this new system does the same.
How? Well, previously, despite alternative options, occupying a region was always the best long term choice. There was no downside to doing so – you gain new land, a new source of income and a new foothold from which you can expand your empire. As a result, campaigns often followed a repetitive pattern of expand, conquer, replenish and repeat.
The new system of regional restrictions may change this in two positive ways. The first, as I’ve already discussed, is that it will serve to limit player power and prevent the player from ever growing so powerful that mid to end game conquest is no more than a tedious and inevitable chore.
The second, is that the new system will force the player into making different strategic decisions regarding particular regions. Even with multiple options available in previous games, occupying a region was always the best long term option. By taking that option away, the player will be forced to consider the alternatives.
This system will also undoubtedly influence how you advance into certain territory. Without being able to capture a string of settlements on the way, your armies will be all the more vulnerable the further they advance from your borders. The player won’t have the safety net of retreating to a friendly nearby settlement. They’ll have to consider very carefully how far they’re willing to push their forces into hostile territory.
Of course now, I’m simply speculating. I don’t really know how this new system will work in practice. But I see potential here, so I’m keeping an open mind. I want mid to late game campaigns to remain fresh, exciting and challenging. And maybe this new system will provide that. All we can do now is wait and see.