When Creative Assembly kicked off its latest Total War: Warhammer 3 preview event, I did not expect to learn that the game will have eight playable races at launch. I also did not expect to lead into battle the Daemons of Chaos, dedicated to Chaos Undivided. But after taking both them and Cathay for a spin through the first 50 turns of its flagship grand campaign mode, and learning more about what replaces Warhammer 2’s Vortex, I’m eagerly awaiting its full release.
Narratively speaking, Total War: Warhammer 3’s campaign revolves around the search for Ursun, the Bear God of Kislev, who has been wounded and imprisoned deep within the Realm of Chaos by Be’lakor, the game’s main antagonist. The wounding of Ursun kicks things off, each race seeking him for its own reasons, whether to restore him, end his suffering, or turn him into a tasty meal.
All races start the grand campaign in the mortal world, but as Ursun periodically wails, he creates rifts that spew Chaos corruption into the world while allowing all races to send expeditions into each of the four Chaos Gods’ domains. Push far enough and you’ll fight their champions which, when defeated, drop souls. Obtaining all four of these souls is the only way to face off against Be’lakor in a final climactic battle and decide the Bear God’s fate.
Venturing into Tzeentch’s domain, his penchant for tricks became immediately evident. The path to his champion, the Librarian, is anything but straightforward, as navigating the Changer of Ways’ fractured realm involves the use of paired portals. You, however, do not know which ones are linked before unveiling their symbols, which you can do by interacting with glowing spots on the map or defeating one of the god’s defending armies.
Going blind is an option, but other factions also seek to claim the souls for themselves. In addition, the rift collapses after a set time and you’ll need to wait before another opens. Not only can you choose which god’s champion you aim for when you first enter, but you can also jump between the four gods’ realms by using specific rift gates.
Navigating Tzeentch’s domain fits the god’s fickle nature thematically, but I am worried that the portal mechanic could get a bit annoying after a while. While inside, you essentially have a choice between racing for the champion’s soul or attacking other factions doing the same thing.
The latter has repercussions both inside and outside of the Realm of Chaos – which ultimately acts as a broken-off part of the map – where your kingdom can and likely will be attacked while you’re busy hunting daemons with at least one of your armies.
Nurgle’s Realm, by comparison, is much flatter and populated with stronger armies of the Plague Lord’s minions. It also deals consistent attrition damage, so you’ll have to seek out spots on the map that replenish your troops or switch stances to keep your units topped up. This can give other factions enough time to summon the Gardener themselves, but going into the fight with a weakened army is one way to reduce your chance of winning.
Warhammer 3’s eight race is led by the very fallen Kislevite that wounded Ursun. Now a Daemon Prince serving Chaos Undivided, his race has access to units from the rosters of all four Chaos Gods, being able to mix and match them pretty much from the get-go. You can also name your Daemon Prince, which is a neat little touch as far as customization goes.
The race makes use of Daemonic Glory, a resource that can be earned by defeating enemy armies, conquering settlements and dedicating them to a Chaos God, completing missions, as well as passively from buildings.
Split across five tracks, one for each god and a fifth for Chaos Undivided, they replace research, unlocking weapons, armor, and body parts that let you customize your legendary lord on the fly. At certain thresholds across each track, you also gain access to new, stronger units from that god’s roster. Once you reach the end of a track, you can dedicate your Daemon Prince to a single god or Chaos Undivided for additional hefty bonuses.
It’s very much possible to fight one battle as a tanky, plague-spewing beast wielding a two-handed maul, then fight another as a crow-sorcerer of Tzeentch equipped with deadly pincer arms, worthy of any champion of Slaanesh.
Dedicating conquered cities determines what you can build and which units you can recruit. Even with the structure pre-requisites met, however, you’ll still need to reach the required amount of Daemonic Glory to unlock them in the first place. Over time, you may want at least one major city dedicated to each of the four gods, to tap into the faction’s full range of building and unit options.
Getting enough Daemonic Glory also lets you use certain abilities, like Tzeentch’s teleport stance (which behaves similar to the dwarven underway), Nurgle’s plagues (which act as simple buffs/debuffs and don’t come with the spreading mechanic of the faction proper), or Slaanesh’s seduce units ability, which lets you pay gold before a fight to have enemy units temporarily join you, weakening your opponent.
Having the ability to mix and match body parts – each change reflected on the Daemon Prince’s character model – and units from across all four Chaos Gods’ rosters feels great and comes in handy since you’re automatically at war with all non-Chaos factions you encounter.
The visual spectacle of your shape-shifting avatar smashing into enemies as armored Khornate warriors fight side by side with a surprisingly cheerful Beast of Nurgle, and deadly yet seductive Daemonettes is a sight of which I didn’t get enough.
Grand Cathay, on the other hand, plays closer to a traditional Warhammer faction, although it does have its own specific flavor. As Miao Ying, you have to split your attention between defending The Great Bastion that separates Cathay from the twisted deserts of the Chaos Wastes while pursuing Ursun when rifts open.
At the start of the campaign, the Serpent Gate – one of 3 gateways that Cathay and its allies can reinforce – is breached by Tzeentch. Your first efforts see you retaking it while dealing with rebel lords on your side of the wall.
The Great Bastion’s threat level rises as enemy activity in the Chaos Wastes increases. You can reduce it by turning the Wu Xing Compass towards the Bastion itself or by eliminating the Chaos Armies belonging to the specific faction designated as a threat.
During the first 50 turns, I always dealt with marauders whose armies weren’t necessarily impressive. You can also try to raze the enemy settlements near the wall, but heavy attrition and a high likelihood of getting ambushed make it a tougher proposition, at least in the early game.
The Wu Xing Compass is one of the faction’s distinctive mechanics, letting you direct the Winds of Magic every few turns to benefit Cathay. Whether you choose to improve your defensive efforts or increase control in your provinces and attrition for invading enemies, reaching the latter stages of each direction’s progress bar comes with bigger bonuses. Although the mechanic itself doesn’t feel particularly involved, it’s a welcome quasi-reactive tool that can help you during the campaign.
Ivory Road trade caravans let you recruit master traders, and dispatch them on missions across the map. The further they travel, the bigger the profits they make. These armies move individually, but you will have to give them your attention when they bump into enemy forces or when an event pops up.
These range from having new units joining them to finding shortcuts, but you’ll also get to decide if sacrificing one of your units is worth not fighting the hungry local Ogres. Owning territory through which they travel grants safe passage, according to the developer, as does that of allies.
Harmony is another major mechanic Cathay uses. On the campaign map, buildings, research, and events tip the scales towards either Yin or Yang. When they’re perfectly balanced, they grant a set of buffs and bonus abilities to use in battle.
When one is higher than others, you get fewer bonuses but also debuffs, which get worse the more off-balance you get. In battle, keeping your melee and ranged units close to each other also improves their abilities, which may take some getting used to.
I didn’t quite click with Grand Cathay’s playstyle, although I will say that the map and two siege locations I saw looked absolutely gorgeous, as did their unit models. Their armies initially rely on peasant units and weaker infantry, but do look likely to get more interesting later on, with their flying war machines and ranged infantry.
The developer also noted that outposts can be built in allied settlements, letting you recruit units from their rosters. There will also be a campaign multiplayer mode that supports up to eight players and simultaneous turns, and which covers grand campaign or two smaller maps meant to be completed in an evening. Mortal Empires support is also coming post-launch, but there’s no release date for its likely gargantuan map just yet.
After 50 turns spent with two of Total War: Warhammer 3’s factions, I’m excited for its final release. The prospect of being a very bad demon boy already had me on board, but the Daemons of Chaos just added lots more fuel to that fire.
More importantly, if each faction comes with as much flavor as them and Cathay, the trilogy’s conclusion has the potential to avoid the tedium that set in while waiting to be repeatedly sieged in the later stages of Warhammer 2’s Vortex campaign. We’ll see just how well it comes together on February 17, when the game launches on PC.