One of the stars of the show at EGX Rezzed 2016 was the much anticipated Total War: Warhammer, an uncharacteristic breakaway from real world history for one of PC’s most iconic real-time strategy franchises.
Interview by Nick Whitcroft
Creative Assembly’s series first began back in 2000 with Shogun: Total War, following the warring Japanese clans and setting the tone for the games to come - notably the emphasis on historical authenticity and strategy, setting it apart from titles like Command & Conquer, which were popularising the genre at the time. Suffice to say, Total War has come a long way in those 16 years.
Following our initial hands-on with the game’s early build at EGX 2015, we got a chance to catch up with the team at Rezzed this year to talk about a little more of what fans can expect from the tenth game in the series and its unprecedented crossover of intellectual properties.
We’re here with Creative Assembly’s Richard Aldridge. Richard, take us through your background with the Total War franchise?
I started way back on Empire: Total War and I think the latest was Shogun 2. Then I got the chance to work on this amazing game and I was straight in! As a senior designer I primarily look after units, UI elements and a huge array of campaign and battle issues.
So for fans of both IPs – obviously the Total War series but also the Warhammer universe, which of course has a huge amount of lore behind it – what can players expect that’s new by comparison to previous Total War releases?
One of the biggest things is the fact that the races themselves are very, very different. They play so differently from one another that it’s almost like having all your classic Total War games together. Vamps, for instance, don’t have any missile or artillery, so you have to employ different tactics –
But they’re obviously much more resistant; skeletons aren’t exactly going to fall apart when a couple of arrows whiz between their ribs.
Exactly! Orcs, on the other hand, are constantly fighting – if they’re not in battle, they’re fighting amongst themselves. Even the Empire, which to an existing Total War player might seem more familiar; yes they’ve got muskets, cavalry… but then they’ve also got steam tanks and wizards.
And that’s of course a huge unique draw of the series’ first foray into a fantasy universe – magic – and, equally, aerial units – we’ve never had anything like gyrocopters in previous instalments.
That’s exactly it. You used to form up your lines and think “I’m pretty safe here, provided I keep an eye on my flanks”. But now you can come over the top of them and it opens up whole new options for how combat can play out.
There’s also been a lot of talk about the Hero system as well. We’ve always had generals in previous games, but we now see iconic figures taking a much more prominent role; these really are characters people know and love.
We still have the generals of old – things like generals of The Empire or an Orc Warboss – but then we’ve also picked our legendary lords for each of the races and really jumped on board with their background, their narrative. You get to really experience their quest, learn about them, how they got the famous weapons like Gitsnik (“foe killer”) or the warhammer that Karl Franz has, called Ghal Maraz (“skull splitter”). And that’s really allowed us to invest time, become much more connected with those characters, develop their skill trees. And you’re not going to lose them; you might have them off for a few turns, if they get wounded in battle, but you get to feel properly on board with these guys and you’re developing them the way you want them to be.
So with campaigns that are that in-depth now, with characters at the core, do we have fully playable campaigns for all races, as we’re used to, or are there limitations?
So all the races still jump into the same campaign, as you would expect from previous games, but they all have very different victory criteria. The Dwarfs want to go and reclaim all the holds that they’ve lost to the Greenskins over a number of years. They’ve got the Book Of Grudges, which is basically Thorgrim’s checklist, for lack of a better word, so he’s like “we’ve got to get those savage Orcs out of here and crush this Empire stain there”. And of course you’ve got the ever coming Chaos presence, which the Empire constantly fears is going to come and wreak havoc. Then meanwhile you’ve got the Vampire Counts who, well, they’re quite happy for everyone to kill each other and then they’ll just raise them up for themselves.
Many people have been calling out for a fantasy Total War game for some time now. What was the mentality when the decision was first made to finally blend these two IPs with obviously really rich histories of their own?
For Creative Assembly, we had to make sure we could both make this game and continue to support making historical games, which we’re known for doing. We of course couldn’t stop that – that’s something we feel very strongly about, as we love making games for our amazing fan base. So we had to reach the point where we had the capacity to do that and, whilst I obviously can’t speak on behalf of Games Workshop, we’ve been building these games for a number of years now and trying to really polish them and raise the bar and this just felt like an incredibly good fit. They are a battle game, but they have a campaign wrapper which has never been fully realised and that’s what we’re really good at doing.
And that’s just it isn’t it – this game is, in a sense, taking Games Workshop back to its roots, to a re-imagined version of the table top fans know and love. It makes me think back to when Rome: Total War partnered up with Time Commanders and how, in the show, contestants plotted their strategy by laying out units on a physical map table. So really it’s made sense for a long time now to bridge that gap.
Exactly, it did. Because people used to meet up maybe at a weekend, they’d plan out a campaign on paper, there’d be elements of roleplaying, you’d lay out your miniatures… and what we’ve really set out to do is to bring that to life. And the nice bit about it is that you do still get to fight it out, and you get to pick and choose different combinations of units, which maybe you wouldn’t have done in the past with the miniatures because you’ve got to repaint that unit or get that additional squad.
Not to mention once you’ve built out a full army, it’s obviously not a simple thing to switch to another faction; it’s a big investment.
Indeed. Though, speaking of which, Games Workshop made a significant investment in us. They looked at us and said “ok, these guys need all our miniatures” and they were very kind and they actually provided us with the models for all these units.
Fantastic – which obviously did wonders for helping you guys create accurate reproductions in-game.
Absolutely. For the artists, that was super important – they could really pick out the details – and for us, as designers, it’s also important – we’ve got to play the game. So we’ve got a Warhammer room we all use, so we’ve been able to understand what makes one race different from the next, which units are crucial to include in the final game. Obviously we can’t include literally everything, as they’ve been making it for donkey’s years, so we’ve had to look at what would make a good, balanced army – we need some Grave Guard, we need some Savage Orcs, etc.
And it’s about a mutual respect between both franchises, isn’t it. Getting under the skin of each other, as fans of either series will immediately know if something’s amiss.
That’s exactly it. It’s a Total War game; and it’s a Warhammer game, in equal measure.
And yet somehow avoided calling itself Total Warhammer – that’s the real mystery here!
So there’s a lot of hype and the scale of your presence here at Rezzed and how busy it is speaks volumes to that. And it’s come at a great time: there have been a number of 40k releases – after the success of games like Dawn Of War, we’ve got Eternal Crusade, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada, Space Hulk: Deathwing and more on the way – and more recently, things like Blood Bowl and Vermintide have been renewing the buzz around the original Warhammer series as well. How do you feel the response has been from both audiences – lovers of the historical realism of Total War and the rich fantasy world of Warhammer?
It’s been very positive. Talking to people here and at previous events, it’s something that it feels like, as you mentioned, people have actually wanted for a long time and never quite had, so it’s bringing all their childhood memories to fruition. But also there are kids here jumping on board, who love the fantasy vibe.
It’s great that it’s been able to reinvigorate that interest. Games Workshop’s managed to evolve and stay relevant through digital media in a really good way.
Very much so. It’s a genre that’s befitting of young children right up to adults. There’s always going to be some race or some character who’s going to interest you – maybe you connect with them or you like the art style, whatever it might be. Now’s a really good time to be immersed in the fantasy genre and to Total War it’s brought something really different, really challenging and really exciting, as developers, to work on. It’s sparked us to push harder than we ever have before in different ways, as we’re determined to make this fantasy world come alive.
What we’re seeing from watching some of the gameplay too is the scale of some of these battles. The last hands-on we got was a relatively small underground skirmish, but here we’re seeing players zooming out to the point that things become just icons on a map. Is this the biggest scale that you guys have worked on?
Obviously. I mean, when you see a giant next to a goblin, he’s towering above them (and rightly so!). You’ve got zombie dragons flying in mid-air, which Manfred can wield throughout the campaign. It’s so diverse. If you’ve seen any of the vortex spells that come up, they’re about the size of a unit and can obliterate things left right and centre. It’s the same with our cities – they need to be epic in nature. People have remarked about the size of the playable area and we wanted to ensure we made truly compelling battlefields. Some of our previous areas have been perhaps too big, at times sparse, so there’s been a lot of focus on crafting these by hand. As a defender you can move your troops to engage properly with those coming over the walls, attackers will come at you with the classic ladders and battering rams but you’ve also got things like Varghulfs smashing through your gates and Fell Bats flying over the battlements and wizards on pegasi. There’s loads going on across more than one plane and we wanted the settings to do justice to that.
So what’s next and what should the guys back home be excited about as we move towards release?We’ve still got plenty of work to do in terms of balancing the units, polishing the final details, but we’ll be hitting you with some information soon on free content drops and DLCs, as we’re going to be expanding this world over the coming months. We really can’t wait to have everything ship shape for you guys!
Thanks so much for your time, Richard. It’s been an absolute pleasure!
Total War: Warhammer will be coming to PC, Mac & Linux on 24th May 2016 and will be the first in a trilogy of standalone titles, developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega.
Find more coverage of Rezzed 2016 here.