Total War: Warhammer 3 Preview – Bigger, Bolder, And Better Than Ever

The flickers of war crackle in the ether as Katarin of Kislev leads legions of stalwart soldiers into the god of blood and slaughter’s treacherous and putrescent domain. Alongside the vast imperial power of Grand Cathay, Kislev forms one of humanity’s last bastions as the Realm of Chaos encroaches on the world as we know it, threatening malevolence and mass destruction with each passing moment. As Katarin, I spearhead the charge towards Khorne’s first wall, manned by mindless grunts in such sheer force that the wall itself is invisible beyond the maelstrom. Our approach is slow, measured, and precise, right up until the point of contact – from the exact moment we clash, all Hell breaks loose in the transitory and turbulent Realm of Chaos.

Total War: Warhammer 3 is bigger and bolder than its predecessors. After spending a couple of hours with it a few weeks ago, I can confirm that it earns the right to bear that illustrious title – this is well and truly total war, both in terms of scale and stakes. Everything you loved about Warhammer 2 is present here, except it has been reimagined, revamped, or refined. Often trilogies stumble at the final hurdle, but the admittedly curated snippet I played through is a glorious leap over it, a confident demonstration of pizazz that is gorgeously – and, in the thick of battle, gore-geously – emblazoned with the word “definitive.”

Warhammer 3’s entire campaign transpires in the Realm of Chaos, in which Kislev and Great Cathay – based on Russia and China, respectively – are pitted against four chaos gods: Khorne, the aforementioned god of blood and slaughter; Nurgle, the plague god; Slaanesh, the lord of excess; and Tzeentch, the changer of ways. According to Creative Assembly lead battle designer Jim Whitston, the Realm of Chaos was “the perfect fit for this game,” and was the result of intensely going through lore in order to evoke the atmosphere and feeling of each individual chaos deity.

“This was part of why we decided to evoke each of those chaos gods separately in terms of them being a separate playable race,” Whitston says. “That’s really allowed us to look at… what is it about Tzeentch that makes him different from Khorne or Nurgle? They have an entirely different army makeup and spell lores available, heroes available, monsters available, and attitude to how they go about things within the campaign and on the battle map. It’s been really exciting to have a chance to explore all that stuff in depth.”

My preview focused entirely on Khorne, so I can’t speak to how effective the disparity between each of the four chaos gods is just yet, but I can attest to how imposing Khorne’s proprietary domain feels in terms of both aesthetic and atmosphere. It’s the visual manifestation of cracked skulls and coagulated blood, a prototype of Dante’s seven circles of Hell cast away and left to be drowned or droughted for all eternity. Every second spent there is weighted beneath the harrowingly pervasive sense of dread born of how grimdark the entire premise is. It’s blood and slaughter incarnate, made even more gross by the fact its inhabitants sup power from the unbridled chaos permeating the air at the end of the world.

The design isn’t just surface deep, though. Once you get your bearings – which are barely borne at the best of times – you’ll obviously need to start actually playing Warhammer 3, which is when the previously mentioned sense of a “definitive” core gameplay loop becomes clear. The AI here is far more clever than before – I lost twice during my preview, both times in the final moments of battle, and I’m fairly decent at strategy games. I don’t mean to say it’s overly difficult – it’s not. On the contrary, it is easy when you know what you are doing and do it well, but borderline impossible to recover from a chain of silly mistakes. I say “borderline” because the battle is never truly lost until you’re dead and buried. I almost pulled off a Pyrrhic but still legitimate victory on my second attempt to usurp Khorne, only for my Elemental Bear – the unchecked queen on my chessboard – to be improperly positioned in the last skirmish.

And that was on me. On top of improvements to artificial intelligence, unit control is more intuitive and responsive than ever before, making for an overall cleaner integration of war on both sides. It is fluid and dynamic and at all times chaotic (eh?), and it feels strange going back to previous entries in the series after playing a battle from this most recent one. I also feel it’s worth mentioning that the visual fidelity is smooth and uncompromising, which is a huge feat given that this was a remote preview, meaning it was streamed. The streaming software may have let me down once or twice, but Warhammer 3 absolutely did not. On the topic of sensory excellence, the audio design is larger and more bombastic than ever before, too – it’s an integral part of play to the point that you don’t always consciously notice it. Instead, it feels completely natural, which is probably the highest praise a soundscape can earn in a game of this kind.

The only thing about Warhammer 3 that is worth criticizing is not even necessarily a damning critique. Like the majority of Total War games, Warhammer 3 has clearly been developed for a dedicated but relatively niche audience – yes, millions of people regularly engage with this series, but it’s not going to be easy for a more casual player to adjust. The tutorials are solid, while rules and instructions are articulated well – but I would hope there is a dense tutorial section prior to the Khorne fight. If not, this will be a phenomenal game for an entire community of Total War fans, but an almost unplayable one for people who are attempting to get into the series for the first time.

Don’t get me wrong, this is ultimately a game that has a large focus on replayability, and is therefore something that people generally need to be willing to engage with at length. While the mission design may be ostensibly simple – capture three locations and defeat a boss – the scale of the all new Domination Battles demands not just perception and precision, but a willingness to learn and relearn tactics in order to improve and eventually win battles that you have lost ten times before. Contextually, the toughness works, too – this is the Realm of Chaos after all, a mysterious and magical domain that doesn’t abide by the same rules as our own world. It’s teeming with pure, undistilled malevolence, and if the battles weren’t grandiose, the stakes wouldn’t be either.

From what we’ve seen, Total War: Warhammer 3 looks like it’s going to be both the culmination and defining entry of Creative Assembly’s Warhammer series. It is big and bombastic, grim and gorgeous, and tense and tumultuous in the best possible way. If you’ve been hoping the saga would end with a bang as opposed to a whimper, it looks like the stars have aligned in your favour. Total War: Warhammer 3 is due to launch later this year.

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