I got into miniatures way too late to appreciate Warhammer Fantasy Battles. Yet I would agree that the world rather than the game is the main attraction of the fantasy counterpart to Warhammer 40K. So while it’s super sad that Games Workshop (under the thrall of Tom Kirby, may he never find peace) exploded the Old World and replaced WHFB with 15-year-old’s first fantasy setting (Age of Sigmar), we had reasons to rejoice: WHFB was finally released for official Total War treatment. Too bad both of the games in the series were made with the most cowardly decisions at every step.
Meanwhile, Dominions 5 is a fairly niche game for the discerning gamer. Its graphics never approached current gen. It has an interface that can only be described as friendly and good looking when compared with to games about obscure Cold War conflicts sold in websites that haven’t seen a design uplift since the start of War in Iraq. Illwinter Games Design are well known for their humongous game manuals – and you’ll need them if you want to play the tutorial. Dominions is a fucking badass game that kicks ass.
It’s hard to describe the intangibles that make Dominions good and Total Warhammer II bad, but I’ll try. After all, I have established myself as Destructoid’s favorite cranky uncle; who else is better suited to tell you kids why a game of graphical sophistication that barely surpasses Dwarf Fortress is better than AAA cooperation of some of the biggest names in video and table top game market?
Lore: Not Just An Afterthought In The Game Development Process
When you really get into Warhammer Fantasy, you fall in love with the world. Instead of regular fantasy Middle Ages, the human Empire is firmly set in the Early Modern – and while their armies don’t boast serried ranks of pikemen, they have some dashingly attired infantrymen, heavy knights, cannons, more firearms than you can shake a spear at, and even a steam tank. That realm alone looks more badass the Mantic’s Heroes of Might And Magic V-ripoff humans and Fantasy Flight Games’ Runewars: Totally Not Warcraft 3. But then you start getting into the lore, and you find that Empire is modeled after the Holy Roman Empire, one of the most batshit insane political formations in human history, to the point where the Vampire Counts faction have at least a few members that are actual Imperial nobles. We’ve barely scratched the surface of Empire, and it’s already cool as hell – and the game world offers a dozen other factions!
So it’s only natural that Total Warhammer games don’t reflect any of that work or love. Total Warhammer I shipped with the campaign map where Altdorf, the grandest city of empire and probably in any Old World human realm, is a level I settlement. Where the political make up of Empire has no impact on any game mechanics and you don’t even have contacts with your neighbors (because map exploration is a sacred cow of game desing). Oh, and if you visit the mountains, you can meet such iconic dwarven states like Kharak Andrin, Kharak Akthraz and Dwarves. Just… Dwarves; it’s like meeting the human realm of Humans. There’s very little effort put into making the world feel like an inhabited place. Hope you like playing Empire as Karl Franz, the Emperor Who Can’t Even Give His Soldiers Shields.
Meanwhile, in Dominions, you have writing that speaks research and authenticity in the same way that Glorantha, a fantasy game written by an
Swedish anthropologist who wanted to get laid with goth chicks (who doesn’t?) and best known for the King of Dragon Pass PC game, does. This has a lot to do with one the game developers’ interest in hostory of religions. Each and every text in the game breathes that flavor, including the short nation intros and unit descriptions. Once you start the game, your capital province already is a super developed metropolis surrounded by neutral lands all just aching to be conquered. You can immediately build all the regular racial units, from the lowliest arrow fodder grunts to magical generals and blessed units, as long as you have the money. You don’t feel this sense that nobody paid any attention to connecting fluff to gameplay.
On The Virtue Of Not Playing It Safe
However, Dominions never had a story campaign – and Total Warhammer II famously does. Unfortunately, it’s a campaign that brings out the worst memories of Dawn of War 2 Retribution. That one had a campaign for every faction – even the Tyranids! However, all of them ran the exact same missions in the same exact sequence, with minimal changes to account for different faction. And that’s the essence of Total Warhammer II campaigns. All factions get the sudden urge to mess with the magical Vortex keeping Chaos from overwhelming the world, all of them start gathering McGuffin resources and racing to cast rituals before the other races do and gain the control of the Vortex. Even the tasks they get are essentially the same; an extended tutorial with some changes to account for different faction and location. It’s safe choices and handholding all around.
Dominions looks at that and asks you to hold its beer (the beer then explodes into some unmentionable mad deity that had been imprisoned by the previous Pantokrator). The game presents 20+ factions per time period. Oh yes, if you want to play a game that basically takes place at the dawn of civilized world, you can lead a nation of wild men who started settling cities or cave-dwelling bat-winged humans that used to guide the sun through their caves at night. This era will have the most powerful mages and plentiful magical shenanigans and the mortal soldiers will soon be forgotten in favor of summoned monstrosities.
If you want a more grounded game, you can choose to play a Middle period game. Those 20+ factions of the early one? They had evolved with the times… if being conquered, smacked down by their own hubris, mixing up with some another faction or just becoming a king shit player can be called evolution. The flavor text paints the world with all the colors of the wind; you’ll see the people that were so powerful in the early age become the slave soldiers of their conquerors while some realms are formed from remnants of two wildly different peoples. Mages will be weaker, but better at research and your soldiers will be tougher, with better weapons and armor. If you really want to go wild, the Late period has all your medieval high fantasy tropes, with widespread use of steel, and magic being less widespread, but a lot easier to research.
And remember, that’s eighty-odd factions that seem like both an organic part of their world and unique in each era. And that’s before you even design your pretender god or start running into the surprises on the randomly generated map. Each nation has some named heroes that will randomly join you during the campaign; some realms more than others rely on their unique magic summonables. Or you can play Dreamlands – Cthulhu nation gone fully insane – which has a military that’s 50% slaves, drives local population insane, spawning free (insane) commanders and trash troops. The game just never lets up.
Dominions never holds your hand, either. If you start an Ascension campaign, you’ll be trying to secure Thrones of Ascension: places of powerful magic that, when claimed by your nation, provide powerful worldwide effects. But the way there is totally up to you. The game doesn’t start with duh-level missions that tell you to conquer a region or send out scouts. You’re free to do what you want, only reacting the needs of your nation and the situation at hand.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Meanwhile, back in Total Warhammer II campaign, you will be promptly asked to declare war on realm from your own faction, all in order to take their McGuffin-producing town (how do buildings and locations produce shards of ancient star gates, ancient tablets or arcane scrolls?). You do that as High Elves, as Lizardmen, as Skaven, and as Dark Elves. Boy, I totally feel the uniqueness of each nation! And the McGuffins sure are important: functionally identical in all of the nations, they act like time-to-ritual counter and nothing else. Collecting gold has more involving mechanics than finding ritual fodder.
On the other hand, TWII improved on one thing: choosing your subfaction means starting as a different realm in a different place. If you want to play as the great (and greatly xenophobic) Slann mage Mazdamundi, you’ll spend a lot of time in Lustria, WHFB’s South America. However, if you want to play as Kroq’Gar, the greatest Lizardmen warrior, you’ll start on the east coast of WHFB’s Africa, as that is where he was sent by Mazdamundi. One plot battle will teleport Kroq’Gar back to Lustria, just for that one battle. Battle-teleportation was something that already rudely tore you out of the game in TWI – and that’s not to say anything about these battles against armies that crop out of nowhere, do nothing until you beat them and have zero ties to what’s happening in the world – but with the samey campaign structure, it’s especially egregious. They don’t even bother to fluff it like Mazdamundi teleporting you, cross the map for one battle and return.
Incidentally, those plot battles are an amazing way to hamstring a player, since he has to devote resources not only to dealing with regular campaign map, but also to fight these battles that don’t affect anyone else.
Oh, and all of the writing that mentions McGuffins is very painful in its attempts to stick a square peg in a triangular hole. I doesn’t read like something magical that would make you interested in the world and the conflict; it reads like underpaid writer wanting to get this poor justification of game mechanics over with.
Sigmar Bless This Mess
Rituals/McGuffins also feature one of the easier-to-fix issues that would have made the world feel a lot more real, had anything been done. Once you collect the required number of McGuffins, you can start a ritual – the are five in total in the campaign. Three randomly selected cities will be involved in casting it, and a Chaos army will spawn nearby in an attempt to disrupt the ritual (because… power or something). However, if you want to fuck up an opponent, you can always pay for a mercenary (read: NPC) army to strike a ritual city. It will spawn near one of the enemy’s ritual settlements and attack.
The thing is that those armies are inexplicably of your faction. So if you, a High Elf prince, order a hit on Mazdamundi (because Lizardmen want to preserve the Vortex for reasons different than those of elves or something), a High Elf army will appear on his doorstep and likely suicide itself on the defenses. If you order a hit on Skaven, an Elf army will materialize near their capital, even if Skaven cities are usually hidden on the map, appearing as ruins until discovered. How are these armies appearing on the other end of the world? Why are we so happy to waste High Elven lives in these suicide attempt?
Here’s the blindingly obvious fix: make the mercenary army be of the faction it is sent against. You can claim that your faction contacted local malcontents/pretenders to the throne/assholes and offered them a bunch of gold to attack the ritual city. It would work wonderfully! Skaven are well known for their backstabbing, High Elves are not beyond intrigue, Dark Elves all about intrigue, and even Lizardmen can have disagreements.
We Must Dissent/Ascend
Meanwhile in Dominions, the most usual victory condition is taking Thrones of Ascension. Those are usually guarded by strong NPC forces and, depending on the level of the Throne, provide various bonuses to your realm and even worldwide effects. But even without Thrones, you have magical spells and items that are more evocative and interesting than anything found in Total Warhammer.
Oh, you found a sword that gives you 5% to attack? Well, that barely rates as a trinket in Dominions. Soon, your mages will be crafting maces that explode with fire damage on hit, armor that makes you fly or become etherial and skulls that whisper XP points into the ears of your heroes. Ritual spells – cast on the campaign map – can be as small potatoes as scouting for magic sites and as grand as make all seas and rivers in the world freeze over, trapping underwater nations in their watery realms. In between them are spells that make clockwork soldiers, breed monstrosities elevate soldiers into heroes (say hello to general Dragon, kids!).
In the end, Dominions, a game without a hand crafted campaign or the resources available to a AAA studio, is a game that gives you world with more life than Total Warhammer can even hope to have. Heck, when you consider morale mechanics, Dominions has better combat too. That’s why you don’t wait for mods to play Dominions, that’s why you don’t play Total War unmodded.