Thanks to Total War: Warhammer 3’s prologue, I finally understand the series

I’ve always been terrible at Total War games. Neither real-time combat nor the wider strategy of conquering the map has ever felt completely under my control, and inevitably any campaign I start fails due to my sheer incompetence.

It was okay when they were all historical – I just avoided them because the Romans and Napoleons are boring anyway. But ever since Creative Assembly started releasing some of the best Warhammer games on PC, it has been a physical pain for my brand not to be able to host the series.

I am a longtime Games Workshop fan and find these games the most wonderful celebration of nostalgia. They not only breathe new life into the Warhammer Fantasy setting, but dig into every corner of it, drawing on material from decades. Units and characters are taken not only from old mini ranges and army books, but also from comics, novels and obscure magazine articles. Any game that can regularly bring back memories of reading The White Dwarf from cover to cover in me earns loyalty, no matter how often it throws me right to the front lines.

So no matter what, I had to give Total War Warhammer 3 a shot. Obediently, I downloaded it, expecting once again to enjoy the attention to detail but barely scratch the surface of its tactical depth. But here! CA may have finally found a way to attract even a fool like me.

(Image credit: Sega Creative Assembly)

Before you start the game’s campaign, you are invited to play the prologue. This mini-campaign will take you through the events that begin the main story, namely the journey of a Kislevite prince in search of the missing bear god. If he can’t find it, the nation is doomed to eternal winter. Even though they all seem to tolerate cold weather well, this seems to be a big problem. So he sets off for the Chaos Wastes with Prince Yuri and a few of his most loyal men.

Narratively, the prologue provides the perfect context before you start building an empire in earnest. Yuri’s story leads straight into the main campaign, and it’s nice to be properly introduced to it all, rather than feeling thrown into the middle of a mythical battle for the fate of the world with only a short cutscene to cheer you up.

It’s not the best storytelling – and brings up the specter of one very similar, well-loved RTS campaign, with its tale of a hero fighting corruption, for a not-so-good comparison. But as always in these games, it shines with attention to detail, especially in how the ill effects of Chaos gradually show more and more in Yuri’s character model as he descends further and further into hell.

(Image credit: Sega Creative Assembly)

More important to me, however, is that the prologue serves as a smoother mechanical transition into the game than ever before. All of the usual difficulties are stripped down to bare bones and gradually reintroduced as you progress. Battles start out simple, and as they add more unit types and scale-up, the game explains the logic behind each piece of the grand strategy puzzle in detail. Lastly, I actually understand things like the swordsman and spearman role, or how the right use of factions can make hectic battles much more manageable.

Outside of combat, the prologue follows a mostly straight-line chasm of frozen mountains. It’s much smaller and more focused than the full campaign map, making it the perfect sandbox for learning the basics of diplomacy, building, when to split your forces, and choosing which enemies to focus your efforts on. The Total War: Warhammer meta layer is certainly the less intimidating aspect for me, but it can be impenetrable in its own way – it’s hard to know when your losses in combat are actually the fault of choices you’ve made outside of it. Some time just to play around with these systems without threats from all sides is very welcome.

(Image credit: Sega Creative Assembly)

The more caustic readers are probably already itching to comment, “It’s just a textbook, dumb dumb”, but it all seems a lot smarter. Taken together, the tight scope, carefully crafted scenarios, and even the story being told do more than give you information, they help you uncover the spirit and purpose of the game—the “why,” not just the “how” of a Total War campaign.

Jumping from there into the main game, I find that I’m still useless in combat. But now for the first time I feel that I understand how to become better. The ideas that the prologue taught me are just the foundation I need to start learning as I go, experimenting with mechanics whose context I finally understand.

At this rate, I could really conquer the Old World… after all.

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