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One of Cathay’s legendary lords in dragon form Image: Creative Assembly

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Total War: Warhammer 3 is a decisive victory

The ambitious trilogy reaches a new zenith

In 2016, two exalted British institutions joined forces — Total War and Warhammer. The U.K.’s largest games company, Creative Assembly, teamed up with high-street champion and world-class purveyor of plastic miniatures, Games Workshop. Like when you have a fully-stacked army being reinforced by another stalwart battalion, there was only ever going to be one outcome here: a decisive victory.

The last in the series and the end of an epic trilogy (minus numerous DLCs of course), Warhammer 3 continues to build on the sturdy foundations laid six years ago. While the previous games explored the two largest landmasses of the Warhammer Fantasy world, this new one sets its eyes on the periphery. And it’s often at the edges where the most exciting stuff happens. If the original games’ offerings were the big boxed starter sets, Warhammer 3 is the obscure, foot-long creature staring at you from inside the locked glass shelf in the corner. This is what it’s all about — not humans versus orcs, but a great bloodthirsty demon riding a dog-shaped Juggernaut.

The new campaign takes place in the northern extremities. Although you’re free to jump in anywhere, the game recommends starting out with the prologue, as it not only acts as a tutorial or refresher, but sets up the entire narrative framing for the main “Realm of Chaos” storyline. Here, we’re introduced to a young Kislev prince heading north on an expedition to find a lost god — a giant bear called Ursun, whose silence has caused the bitterly cold Kislev motherland … to grow even colder. Something must be done!

A snow leopard of Kislev bounds toward its prey Image: Creative Assembly/Sega

The prologue is a linear affair, and it’s perfect for beginners and returning players alike, funneling you through the northern wastelands and introducing you to Total War’s many little intricacies — settlements, buildings, technology, armies, and so forth. By the end of this mini-campaign, the stakes are in place for the massive, infernal campaign that follows: Ursun is revealed to have been kidnapped by a Big Bad, the young prince has turned into a Daemon Prince (and the leader of a playable faction), and the great god-bear’s desperate roars have begun opening up rifts to the Chaos Realm.

More narrative framing comes from the series’ returning advisor: an old, robed wizard with a cursed book. Keen to break free of the tome’s prophetic magic, he aligns himself with one of Warhammer 3’s eight main factions, advising them in the early-game and narrating the cutscenes as you progress further towards your faction’s goal: to save, or in some way exploit, the dying god-bear. But to reach Ursun, you’ll first need to travel through unstable, intermittent rifts. Using these, your main army can teleport to each of the four Chaos Realms, face the trials that await, and secure the daemon souls needed to reach Ursun.

These dangerous forays keep the campaign tightly focused throughout. The Chaos Realm’s influence on the map grows over time, with armies and daemonic agents pouring out to corrupt your territory. They also bring the most powerful and influential factions into regular contact, which is excellent, as they can too often become locked in their own respective skirmishes, miles across the map from one another. It’s a race to secure all four souls, after all, so it’s beneficial to travel to the same realm as your fiercest competitors in order to deny or otherwise mess with them. Traveling to the Realm of Khorne, for example, puts you in a compact little map and tasks you with filling up a blood meter by beating down armies. The easiest solution is to quickly batter the scions of Khorne, but the more ingenious play is to wait for your mainland adversary to make their move, before sweeping in to ruin their day.

A Khorne army marches toward its Kislev foes Image: Creative Assembly/Sega

Only after winning enough battles can you travel to “The Brass Citadel” to face off against Khorne’s champion. These big “survival” battles — there are four, with another in the mazes of Tzeentch, in the ringed pleasure palaces of Slaanesh, and in the plague-ridden Nurgle wastes — are brand new to the series. The quest-related battlefields are stunning, making the most of the purple and pink vibrancy of the Daemon factions. Even the sickly yellow-greens of Nurgle offer an appreciated breather from the more commonly dour, apocalyptic hues. The scale is also upped considerably in these battles, as they force you to push back or defend against multiple army waves. The balance is readdressed by allowing you to construct barricades and fortifications, tower defense-style, as well as bring in temporary reinforcements.

This new fortification system is also present in siege battles and small settlement engagements, and it’s probably the biggest change to the overall Total War formula. Capturing points on the map builds up your resources, which you can then spend on fortifying defensible areas. It’s a compelling tactical addition, bringing Total War closer to other real-time strategy games where it’s not just about wiping out an army, but capturing points, defending them, and using resources wisely. It does, however, also take away from what Total War battles always seemed to be about: careful, tactical positioning within a semi-realistic environment.

In terms of its campaign, Warhammer 3 does a grand job of tying things together, peppering you with narrative nuggets, and giving you motivations beyond conquering the map. Forget the Chaos Realms, and you’ll be overrun. Ignore your neighbor’s successes, and they’ll be granted the boons of Slaanesh and legendary weapons of Khorne whilst you’re left with nothing.

Of course, on top of ironing out the fundamentals, the biggest draw of Warhammer 3 is the new playable factions. The two human choices, Kislev and Cathay, were the ones I expected to like least. But, as it turns out, they’re both fantastic. Kislev inhabits a kind of fantasy Siberia. They come with thick, faux Russian accents, authoritarian Ice Courts, “Great Orthodoxy” religion, onion-domed cities, and even a Rasputin look-alike. They’re cartoonishly silly, but also a lot of fun to play. Once you have an army of Snow Leopards and Bear Sleds, it’s hard to field anything else.

The forces of Nurgle fill the battlefield with plagues and viruses Image: Creative Assembly/Sega

There’s also Grand Cathay — another simple fantasy caricature, this time of Ancient China and Chinese myth. They can deploy everything from flying lantern war machines to giant terracotta sentinels. They also have the Great Bastion (the Great Wall) to keep the hordes of Chaos out, and are all about establishing caravan trade routes (via what the game calls “The Ivory Road”) as well as keeping “harmonious” balance. Mechanically stripped of all context, it’s a dynamic addition. For every building constructed or technology researched you gain an amount of “Yin” or “Yang”. When they’re in perfect balance, your empire is granted a bonus. Harmony even applies to battles, where you’re rewarded for balancing units and formations. Coming off of Total War: Three Kingdoms, I’m sure Creative Assembly has done considerable research into Chinese history, but Cathay — and Kislev too — are definitely throwbacks. Throwbacks to the early 80s, that is, when a bunch of white British nerds were sitting around somewhere in Nottingham trying to flesh out their make-believe fantasy land, and one blurted out: “Why don’t we do Russia or China?”.

While both human factions offer unique twists and evocative back stories, the five Chaos factions feel like the main event. When is it not fun to play the bad guy? Each daemonic horde has its own peculiarities, and Creative Assembly has done an excellent job at making each of them feel different. The Daemon Prince mixes and matches body parts instead of equipment, depending on which Chaos God he chooses to placate. The armies of Khorne, with their skull piles and bloodletting, are like a great wrecking ball, building up momentum as they wage war and raze settlements. Slaanesh, the sexy hedonists of the Warhammer world, are all about seduction, compelling enemy units to swap sides pre-battle and tricking weaker factions into vassalage. Nurgle (the comedic choice owing to the fact they’re kind of cute and funny despite the oozing grotesqueness) spread plagues across the lands while growing their buildings like tumors. The final Chaos faction, Tzeentch (which I now know how to pronounce, thank you Creative Assembly), are … truthfully, I have no idea how they play.

You see, Warhammer 3 is big. In fact, It’s a giant monstrosity. It’s the equivalent of walking into a Games Workshop for the first time as a child and having your eyes roll back into your head from the sheer awe of the place. A thousand boxes, a hundred armies, dozens and dozens of different little bits and bobs. A whole wall of rulebooks! It’s not the most understated of hobbies; and there’s never been anything subtle about a 12-inch figurine that’ll set you back 80 quid. It’s rampant maximalism, is what it is, but it’s also bloody good fun. And it’s hard to imagine a better video game translation of Warhammer Fantasy and all of its large-scale mayhem than this weird, sprawling, endlessly fascinating thing they’ve dubbed Total War: Warhammer 3. And to think, at some point, Creative Assembly will release a brand new “Immortal Empires” campaign, which will feature all three maps and every faction from all three games, all twisting and turning in on themselves and curling at the corners of the world. Now that sounds like Chaos.

Total War: Warhammer 3 will be released on Feb. 17 on Windows PC, Mac, Linux, and PC Game Pass. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Sega. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.