By Andy Brown
Six years ago, Creative Assembly took a big risk. The Horsham-based studio is best known for the Total War series, which transforms slices of real-world history into sandboxes for players to conquer, but in 2016 the developer released Total War: Warhammer, a fantasy outing that introduced vampires, goblins and demons to the traditionally-historic series.
Today, you need only look at Total War: Warhammer‘s two sequels and numerous downloadable content (DLC) to see the risk paid off. Now a trilogy, the series was capped off earlier this year with Total War: Warhammer 3, an apocalyptic finale that scored the full five stars in our own review.
The cornerstone of Creative Assembly’s Warhammer series is Immortal Empires – a game mode that fuses each game’s campaign maps into a single, vast sandbox. When the ambitious project launched as a beta in August, it already boasted 86 legendary lords to play, hundreds of rival factions, and over 500 settlements to besiege across the world. There are few games that can rival Immortal Empires’ scope, and that’s hammered home by the below tour of its map, which takes 13 minutes to work through several continents.
Speaking to NME, Total War: Warhammer series director Ian Roxburgh explains that plans for Immortal Empires had been drawn up “right at the beginning” of the trilogy, as the development team quickly realised it would be “impossible” to capture the scale of Warhammer‘s lore with a single game. In the early days, embarking on a three-game project the size of Warhammer was intimidating. “It raised a few eyebrows when it came up,” recalls Roxburgh. “It was quite a far-fetched plan at the time – we did second-guess ourselves a few times.”
Richard Albridge, game director for Total War Warhammer‘s downloadable content (DLC), says he initially found it “daunting” to balance the expectations of Warhammer fans and existing Total War fans who knew the games as a historical series.
“Working out how [Immortal Empires] would work from both angles was a lot of effort, because it hadn’t really been done in that way before,” explained Roxburgh. “Making three games is one thing, but somehow bringing them together into a single game at the end was a whole different thing,” he continues, describing the process as a “headache for a number of people to get this to work.”
However, the pair point to the first Total War: Warhammer‘s launch in 2016 as a sign they were onto something good. “The release of the original Total War: Warhammer was a real booster at that point,” says Roxburgh. “If that had been received negatively, that might have put a downer on it – but there was such momentum!”
Roxburgh adds that although Warhammer was met with a fantastic reception from fans, the successful launch meant even more to Creative Assembly. “[Total War: Warhammer launched] on the back of Total War: Rome 2,” says Roxburgh, a game which he admits “went down very badly with our hardcore fans” thanks to a buggy launch. As a result, Roxburgh says the popularity of Warhammer provided “a real turning point for us as a company, to see fans on board.”
“When you get that positive sentiment, it gives you that drive, momentum and confidence to go along with that grand plan,” he explains, while Albridge agrees it made “such a difference” to see fans enjoying the Total War/Warhammer blend.
However, the six-year gap between Warhammer 1 and 3 offered a new challenge. Albridge points to evolving technology and player expectations, and says by the time Creative Assembly reached Warhammer 3, it had “a lot of content that was simply outdated, from a technological or gameplay point of view.”
“When we were making some of the original content – say, Wood Elves, or Bretonnia – all those much older races, we didn’t have that so much in mind,” he continues. “It wasn’t really where we were back then. [With Immortal Empires] we took it upon ourselves to wipe the slate clean and build it fresh, using new technology.”
For Albridge, much of his work has been conducted after the launch of each Warhammer game. The DLC lead, who is responsible for reworking older races and adding factions and characters that didn’t make it to each game at launch, describes his job as coming in to “sprinkle a bit of stardust” on Roxburgh’s foundations. Over the last six years, Albridge has brought many of Warhammer‘s most colourful characters to life. Some have been iconic – think the Tomb King’s eternally-grumpy Settra – and some have been more left-field picks, like Vampire Pirate Luthor Harkon (who launched with his own sea shanty).
Albridge explains that he likes to keep an eye on what players are asking for, and says certain updates in Warhammer‘s history – including Warhammer 3‘s massive Chaos rework – are thanks to players pointing out the race needed a bit of sprucing up. “I really enjoy bringing content that people are looking forward to so that they can be really excited and enjoy that, but I also like putting the odd curveball in there as well,” teases Albridge, who admits that’s getting increasingly difficult to pull off because players “put their lore hats on and do a lot of digging into the source material, just like we do.”
The success of Total War: Warhammer meant that Games Workshop, the company behind the Warhammer series, has allowed Creative Assembly more room to dig even deeper some less fleshed-out source material. Albridge recalls asking if a retinue of ancestral dwarfs could be ghost dwarfs (they could), and later working with Games Workshop to create Cylostra Direfin – a vengeful Brettonian opera singer who returned from the dead to lead a crew of zombie pirates.
But the biggest example is Warhammer 3‘s Cathay race, which was created without any official army book to base it off. “I’ll be honest, Cathay is not something we would have conceived of in the first game,” admits Roxburgh. “It’s not like there’s even an old, outdated army book or anything – there was nothing. But as Rich and the DLC team start to do things like [Direfin] you start to raise the conversation.”
Right now, there are still plenty of established characters to arrive in Immortal Empires. Two “spicy names” in the Warhammer series – fan-favourite Skaven schemer Thanquol and and undead necromancer Nagash – have “bounced around a few times,” but Albridge says the DLC team has “one or two things up our sleeves” that players may not have sussed out just yet.
For Roxburgh, the scope of Warhammer remains simple, if ambitious. “It was always the whole world with everything in it,” he laughs. “It’s nice to sit back, remembering ten years ago, and know it’s actually been achieved. It’s everything we wanted it to be at the time, which is quite rewarding – and we’re hoping fans feel the same.”
Total War: Warhammer 3 is available on PC.