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Kislev forces charge at Greenskins in Total War: Warhammer 3 Immortal Empires Image: Creative Assembly/Sega

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Total War: Warhammer 3’s Immortal Empires redefines ‘sandbox’ video games

It might not be my desert island game yet, but it’s off to a good start

Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

If a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it still make a sound? The developers at Creative Assembly seem to think so.

Immortal Empires, the DLC for Total War: Warhammer 3 that launched in beta today, is an exercise in creative abandon. It comprises an enormous fantasy map replete with dinosaurs, mammoths, vampires, and sentient terracotta statues, in which you play a small role in a far grander scheme. So many video games unfold around you, and exist only in what you can observe. But In Immortal Empires, you can only guess at the trees falling on the other side of this massive world — until you’re suddenly staring at a sea of toppled forests.

For those who haven’t spent the better part of the year poring over every new reveal, Immortal Empires is less an expansion and more of an accumulation. It combines each of the trilogy’s three maps, and all 86 of its playable factions, into one digital facsimile of Warhammer’s original fantasy setting. It’s basically a parody of Earth:

Warhammer fantasy’s Old World Immortal Empires Image: Creative Assembly/Sega

As in the rest of the Total War series, you play half of Immortal Empires on the turn-based campaign map, in a Civilization-esque game of city construction and economy management. Once your armies clash with those of an opposing faction, however, you’re dropped into real-time strategy battles between hundreds, sometimes thousands of troops. As opposed to Warhammer 3’s base campaign, which offered a more scripted experience wherein you had to complete specific challenges alongside the usual process of empire-building, Immortal Empires is focused solely on the collision of 278 factions on one sandbox map.

a dwarf army in the Southlands in Immortal Empires
My Dwarf army facing off against their mortal enemies, the Greenskins.
Image: Creative Assembly/Sega via Polygon

In 2022, what does the term “sandbox” even mean? It’s used to describe everything from open worlds to management sims. Hitman 3 is a sandbox game because you replay static levels with a revolving suite of toys. Far Cry 6 is a sandbox game because you can rig its physics system to produce a domino-like set of explosions. Fortnite is a sandbox game, I guess, because you can rifle butt John Cena in the face. As is the case with most video game labels, this one is amorphous. But at its core, it implies a certain level of player agency: You can experiment all you want, because the game is, first and foremost, about you.

I call Immortal Empires a sandbox game, however, for the opposite reason entirely. This is a world in which you can spend a dozen hours improving your cities, negotiating with your neighbors, and expanding your borders across an entire continent, only to discover that two, or three, or four other AI factions have spent their time doing the same in a different hemisphere. It’s a startling reminder of playing games with my childhood friends in literal sandboxes, each of us content with the machinations of our own make-believe worlds, only to discover that we were all playing by different rules. When my friend maneuvered his cadre of G.I. Joes to confront my army of Lego minifigs, it didn’t matter that the size difference was unfair; we were playing in the same sandbox. My only hope was that my third friend could bring his Bionicles in to save the day, or that my fourth friend, an isolationist who had been quiet in the corner, might seize the chance for new territory and attack the aggressor’s flank with her Mega Bloks dragons.

Lizardmen approach a settlement with High Elves in Immortal Empires
My Lizardmen army helping their High Elf allies as they assault a settlement held by Kairos Fateweaver.
Image: Creative Assembly/Sega via Polygon

Like those thrilling episodes of youthful imagination, Immortal Empires is a factory for emergent stories, and it’s driven by a similar asymmetry. In the two weeks I’ve had access to the DLC’s beta, I’ve played as six different factions. My first, as the Dark Elf pirate lord Lokhir Fellheart, was a series of raids along the coast of Cathay (the Warhammer equivalent of China). The first 30 turns or so were leisurely battles against meager city garrisons, in which my Dark Elf armies, known for their prowess with ranged weapons and all sorts of gruesome monsters, tore through the peasants on the nation’s eastern borders.

Soon enough, however, the sub-factions of the Cathayan Empire diverted forces from the Great Bastion (a fantasy version of the Great Wall, built to keep daemons out of the mortal realms) to combat the nuisance pillaging their flank. They eventually confederated into one massive force of riflemen, cannons, rocket batteries, floating artillery, and shape-shifting dragons, and battered me up and down the coast. My crucial mistake? Unlike Cathay, I had not bothered to make friends.

Now, consider my second campaign, as the Lizardmen leader Oxyotl. The intelligent, bipedal chameleon was once sucked into the Realms of Chaos and forced to fight his way out, so his campaign objectives are all about preventing the possibility of the same ever happening again. By using his magical abilities, as well as his army of dinosaurs and mace-wielding crocodiles (yes, I’m serious) I teleport to random spots around the map, fighting the daemonic hordes of Khorne, the pestilent swarms of Nurgle, and the bloodthirsty vampires of Sylvania. Because I’m not concerned with expanding my empire, my neighbors trust me. We trade resources and recruit each other’s units. Occasionally, I’ll build a temple in their cities that allows me to teleport in to repel invaders. By the time the evil sorcerer Nagash has summoned several armies of resurrected Egyptian pharaohs in the deserts of the Southlands, I’ve helped form a coalition that can battle the undead threat.

Lokhir and Oxyotl are only two of the playable factions in Immortal Empires. There are 86 of them. Some fans have made wheels to help players select their first leader because, well, there are just that many.

A Dread Saurian in Immortal Empires
“Gaze upon my Dread Saurian, and despair.” — Percy Bysshe Shelley, probably
Image: Creative Assembly/Sega via Polygon

I’ve done my best, these past couple of weeks, to not let Immortal Empires’ grandeur distract me from its flaws. For all of the AI’s clever maneuvers on the campaign map, it still can’t seem to consistently figure out how streets work during siege battles. In fact, said battles are a constant source of headaches. As Waypoint editor Rob Zacny points out in his review, they’re not only awash with broken pathfinding and easily exploitable bugs, but their frequency is also a hindrance to the overall pacing of many factions’ entire campaigns. Their high towers and jagged cliff faces can also play havoc with the bird’s-eye-view camera.

Even so: I can’t help but marvel at the scope and imagination with which Creative Assembly has brought Warhammer’s fantasy world to life. And maybe I can forgive Immortal Empires for occasionally not working properly because it’s so packed with factions that already bend the rules by design. There are leaders whose army buffs I haven’t even touched, and parts of the world I haven’t yet set foot in. But if my past few campaigns have taught me anything, it’s that there are trees falling everywhere, and they’re making quite a lot of noise.

Immortal Empires was released in beta on Aug. 23 on Windows PC. 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.