When videogame studio Creative Assembly first released Total War: Warhammer in mid-2016, it was a significant departure from the formula that had built the company into a major player, one founded all the way back in the late 1980s and grown to further prominence after an acquisition by Sega in 2005. Since the release of the first, influential Shogun: Total War in 2000, the sprawling, turn-based strategy series had become the flagship of the company, rooting itself around a foundation of historical realism in its various depictions of ancient warfare. Players were used to a certain academic flair to the series, a bookishness that enriched real-time military strategy combat set in time periods such as Sengoku period Japan, medieval Europe, Republican-era Rome, or the Napoleonic Wars.
To upend that system by tackling Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battles setting—a precursor to the arguably more famous Warhammer 40,000—was no doubt considered anathema by some of the historical die-hards. And yet, the fit was immediately both comfortably familiar and creatively liberating, retaining the core elements of Total War-style gameplay but opening up the real-time combat in particular with the inclusion of systems such as magic and rampaging, giant monsters. The result was an unqualified success, one boasting a richly detailed single player campaign and a wide variety of playable factions and high fantasy races.
That success, though, was only the tip of the iceberg. Players didn’t know it at the time, but Total War: Warhammer was just barely getting started, and what seemed like a fairly generous single player campaign was only a miniscule fraction of the sandbox strategy experience that was to come. Through the release of Warhammer II and this year’s Warhammer III, Creative Assembly just kept building upon the initial concept—new races, new factions, new Legendary Lords, new continents and gameplay mechanics, in a constant flow of novelty. And in doing so, they’ve built a newly released (beta) campaign, dubbed Immortal Empires, that can boast a truly staggering scale unlike any other strategy game the world has ever seen. Everything since 2016 has been building to this, and that’s the thing to understand for someone who has never played the game—the three Total War: Warhammer titles aren’t sequels in a series, in a traditional sense. They’re three parts of a greater whole that have only now reached the pinnacle of their aspirations. And only with all three games can you get the full sandbox experience.
Does this make for something of a large learning curve (and price tag) in taking up Total War: Warhammer III? Yeah, pretty much, and there’s no getting around that. Each release in the series introduced new factions and fantasy races, and one can only play each race in Immortal Empires if you own the entry in which they debuted. Additionally, there are plenty more DLC factions and lords that have been released over the years, and if you want to guide that civilization through the Immortal Empires experience, you’ll need to own them as well. I’m frankly not sure how much it would cost to simply buy every piece of DLC from scratch without the advantage of a Steam sale, but I can say for certain that it wouldn’t be cheap. And yet, the newly released Immortal Empires campaign is so ridiculously vast, so unique and so deep, that it would likely justify the expenditure. Nor does one have to buy every piece of DLC, although once you head down that road, things tend to snowball.
But just how vast are we talking, really? Well, where the core Warhammer III “Realms of Chaos” campaign launched in February features 9 races competing for a single goal, further subdivided up into factions led by 16 Legendary Lords, the just-debuted Immortal Empires campaign sneers at those paltry numbers. The broader game, incorporating elements from all three Total War: Warhammer titles, allows players to take control of any of 23 different fantasy races, subdivided up into factions led by 86 different Legendary Lords, many with their own mechanics and unique units. Add in A.I.-controlled minor factions, and the grand Immortal Empires map actually includes 278 factions to start off, spread across 533 regions on a slew of continents. Or in other words, there are literally more factions in a newly launched Immortal Empires campaign than there are countries on Earth right now. Quite a few more, in fact, which makes the following hype video take 13 minutes just to take the viewer on an abbreviated tour of the continents.
And oh my, the sheer variety in playstyles between those many races and factions, some of which operate so differently from one another that they’re barely playing the same game at all. Nearly any player preference can be suited to at least one of the races. Perhaps you’re drawn to the imperialistic, Asian-themed stylings of Grand Cathay, defending its Great Bastion against the neverending demonic hordes with precise formations. Perhaps you want to be among those chaotic hordes, grinding an ancient civilization to dust under your cloven hooves. Maybe you want to tinker with a high-tech fusion of gunpowder and magic as the scheming rat men known as the Skaven, or plunder the shores of any continent of your choosing as the undead, piratical Vampire Coast. Perhaps you’ll declare yourself a guardian of the magical forests as the Wood Elves, or leave settlements behind entirely as one of the horde-style factions, such as the nomadic Beastmen. And that’s not even mentioning the Egyptian skeleton pharaohs, mammoth-riding Norscan raiders, or the dinosaur-empowered Lizardmen. It’s an almost crippling amount of choice.
That really will be a limiting factor to some players—Immortal Empires may just be too damn big for some preferences (and some graphics cards), in the sense that one may never really have a chance to experiment with all the races and factions. I know this is probably the case for me, because when it comes to grand strategy games, I often end up being a completist. Lord only knows how many hours I pumped into epic, modded Rome: Total War campaigns in the mid-2000s, but those maps pale in comparison to the behemoth of Immortal Empires. Simply choosing a faction feels like a portentous selection, knowing that it may come with 50 hours of gameplay or more that still sees you explore/conquer only a tiny sliver of the overall map. It’s akin to picking up a new Street Fighter title and learning that the first character you select will probably be the only one you play for the next 500 bouts.
And even with its almost unfathomable scale as it exists in the moment, the Immortal Empires campaign will only end up growing even larger within the next few years as it’s supported with more DLC, redesigns and tweaks to various factions, in pursuit of the surely quixotic goal of balancing an equation of this magnitude. Already, relatively empty areas of the map are being eyed by fans as ripe for the introduction of new races such as the Chaos Dwarfs, and entire inaccessible continental spaces hint at Creative Assembly’s potential plans for the final phases of Total War: Warhammer’s evolution.
At the end of the day, and regardless of whatever gaudy sum I eventually dump into DLC, I’m thankful for the fact that such a wild, untethered and ambitious strategy experiment exists for me to tool around in. Creative Assembly likely deserves a round of applause for finally bringing Immortal Empires to life as the culminating feature of a game system first released in 2016. It may be quite a while before we see another strategy game even attempt to bring to life such a monumental undertaking.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for film and drink writing.