When the gods are silent, some embrace their beliefs as a test or condemnation of their unworthiness. Others seek knowledge. After six years of perpetual winter and despair, Yuri of Kislev tries to find and free Ursun, the holy bear of his people. When he found the object of his people’s worship, Yuri acted without hesitation – killing him, absorbing the power of Chaos, turning into a demon, and throwing the world into war.
Total War: Warhammer 3 However, nothing to do with the prince, not even the mortally wounded Urson, whose dying roar unleashed a wave of magical destruction across the continents. It’s about Chaos itself and the opportunities it opens up for the world’s factions to pursue their own goals – for the benefit or destruction of everyone else. Warhammer 3 may not be as innovative in some areas, but it’s still one of the richest strategy experiences.
Yuri’s heresy to his beloved God was the catalyst that brought Warhammer 3 to life, albeit in a different way than you might initially imagine. After the prologue, a seemingly inconspicuous character appears: an unfortunate old man, bound to the Book of Fate, which has answers to every question of everyone except him. He was determined to sever the book’s bondage to him. A drop of Urson’s blood is just what he needs, and the old man will do whatever it takes to break free and profit from this book.
The old man uses himself as a magical advisor – and a handy guide – to each faction, gaining Ursun’s blood by helping them achieve their goals. For example, when choosing the recommended starting campaign, the old man becomes an advisor to Yuri’s demon form, Kailas, who tries to conquer the Chaos God and set himself up as the most powerful deity. Still, if it meant getting what he wanted, the old man was equally happy to try to restore harmony to the Far East.
It’s a suitably confusing narrative backdrop and dynamics that make it feel different from previous Warhammer games (or even most strategy games). There are no heroes in Warhammer 3, at least not in the usual sense. Kislev may seek to repair Yuri’s damage, but they impose outdated and oppressive beliefs on their people. Sure, they don’t spread poison and gain power by offering people’s skulls as tribute like other factions do, but they’re not an admirable bunch.
These different stories unfold in campaign mode, the grand strategy part of Warhammer 3, similar to the fantasy version of Adventure and Civilization. In terms of risk, you are building more and more conquered settlements, consolidating your presence in enemy territory, fending off attacks and forging strategic alliances to avoid conflict. You’ll also need to balance your investment in these settlements, choosing carefully between economic development and the military force needed for the next siege. In a given round, the amount of balancing and consideration is staggering. That feeling is rarely overwhelmed, though, and nothing beats the feeling of seeing a long-term plan bear fruit.
Objectives that appear on the campaign map help tell your faction’s story, and while your leader has to make big decisions at key moments, it’s never quite as level as Frostpunk. The decision dictates what gear or skills you might get, and has little storytelling, which is a little disappointing considering how Warhammer III builds some of the choices you face along the way.
Still, the campaign and various stories are engaging and feel more dynamic and innovative thanks to a stronger sense of purpose for each faction’s objectives. In Warhammer II, everyone wants the same thing: control of the vortex. In Warhammer III, Ursun is often just a means to an end—a convenient experiment for one group, or a witness to an event of divine importance for another group. It’s a subtle reminder that the values and traditions of one culture have little to do with another, and it also affects your faction’s campaign goals.
Siege warfare and waging war are still fundamental to the campaign mode, but how you handle them changes dramatically depending on your faction, keeping Warhammer III appealing even to longtime fans. For example, the new Cathay faction needs to quell an internal rebellion before challenging the forces of Chaos. Each choice affects the harmonious balance of the nation, the admittedly stereotypical yin and yang guidance system, and disrupting this balance can have serious consequences for your troops.
The other factions are a little less innovative, but still fun to play. Take the Nurgle faction, for example. Their leader, the equivalent of a sentient and evil phlegm mass, only wishes to spread the plague around the world as a gift to humanity. Nurgle is somewhat similar in function to the vampire pirates from previous games, including the ability to summon units from aether and the ability to draw power from nearby corruption levels. However, they do gain a unique poison ability on the battlefield, so it’s not purely a rebirth of the same faction.
Warhammer 3’s deep combat strategy is built on careful resource and squad management, and uses the map layout to your advantage. Flanking enemy units is key, not only because it hits a weak spot, but because demoralized enemies increase their chances of surrendering – the same applies to your troops. Granted, Warframe III combat still evolves into a “throw a thousand soldiers at the enemy until they die” scenario like most real-time strategy games, but overall it’s a smarter, more refined genre.
The variety and choice of units varies by faction, but not as much as you might think. Kislev’s elemental bears have a distinct strength advantage over soft snow leopard soldiers, as do your demons wielding two-handed weapons. The distinction between archers and unique pistol ranged units is less noticeable outside of combat preview, when one unit type is better suited to fighting enemies than the other. The sameness of demon factions is more apparent, at least in the first half of the campaign, they often just get different colors for the same unit type.
Some common real-time policy issues also drew attention. Units that defeat the target will usually sit idle until you command them again, even if there is another enemy squad nearby, and the path will sometimes short-circuit and send the group in the exact opposite direction. Warhammer III’s map could have made better use of the game’s more nuanced tactics, such as using cover and creating bottlenecks. Successfully diverting and eliminating unsuspecting enemy forces through flanking maneuvers is incredibly satisfying, although too many maps feature no features and don’t allow for such a plan.
Unit and map variety can be a little lackluster, but heroes, lords, and their powers help make up for it. Heroic units have impressively stable skills, and using them effectively often requires a complex plan. Triggering buffs or using area-of-effect skills at the right moment can propel your army to victory or successfully weaken your foes, allowing for tactical retreat and regrouping.
These units also have special abilities in campaign mode, from boosting your productivity to sometimes winning battles before they even start. Kislev’s Frost Maiden is my personal favorite, her tricks help weaken the settlement’s defenses and even give you the chance to kill enemy heroes without full-on combat.
Frankly, Warhammer 3 is an incredible package. It somehow manages to offer multiple unique and satisfying activities, and most of them without sacrificing quality and depth in the process. The campaign and combat are expertly balanced – demanding but fair – with enough variety to make playing multiple factions worthwhile. More variety would be welcome, both in faction traits and map design, but Warhammer 3 remains one of the most satisfying strategy games in recent years.