There’s a great deal to love about Creative Assembly’s Total War: Warhammer 2, but where naval encounters are concerned the game is currently floundering on the rocks. The studio has taken a differing approach to conflicts at sea across the course of the Total War series, with no single variation really standing out as the true answer.
Medieval 2 had dedicated naval units that would fight auto-resolve battles. Empire perhaps came closest to a satisfying set of real-time clashes, emulating line-of-battle and wind-based tactics of the period. In theory, Rome 2 had some exciting ideas about reinforcements able to arrive at land conflicts by boat (and more real-time naval battles); but they were so horrendously broken and awkward at launch that the whole experiment was soured.
Indeed, Rome 2’s oceanic failures may explain why the first Total War: Warhammer dispensed with real-time naval warfare entirely. The decision was pretty easy to justify too, because the Old World map has a distinct lack of water. The majority of playable factions are land-locked, and only the later releases Bretonnia and (especially) Norsca really have to pay a whole lot of attention to the coasts. If two fleets meet, combat is auto-resolved based on the strength of the forces.
This raises significantly more problems in Total War: Warhammer 2. The New World map is effectively four separate continents; Naggaroth and Lustria (joined by a narrow landmass), Ulthuan, and the Southlands. It also has a few smaller islands dotted around the place. Total water coverage is a lot greater than in the first game, and there’s plenty of incentive to voyage across the waves.
That naturally results in more naval clashes, and reveals that pure auto-resolve really isn’t a satisfactory approach for the sequel. On more straightforward difficulties it can just about be manageable, although since the auto-resolve weights many of their units as barely existing you can forget winning any naval battles as Skaven. At anything above Hard, the stat and resource boosts mean the AI can steamroll you in almost every sea fight. 70-30 battles the player would have at least attempted in real-time (and maybe pulled off a great victory) are automatically taken out of your hands.
With so much water on the map this is pretty rubbish, and reduces long-term ocean strategy to the singular plan ‘always go to sea in massive force’. It’s exacerbated in the case of Dark Elf Black Arks, because those are supposed to be gigantic fortress-ships on the back of mighty sea creatures. But rather than sparking a thrilling siege at sea, they still use the same auto-resolve mechanic.
While we’re on the subject of Black Arks, they’re missing a couple of important functions. As a support unit, they’re solid. They’re mobile recruitment centers for your invading forces, and they can bombard the battlefield with various abilities. But their in-fiction function is really coastal raiding; something they can’t do at all in Total War: Warhammer 2. The troop recruitment stuff is overly clunky too. You’ll need a decent stack in the Black Ark to keep it alive (even with the justified auto-resolve boost they get), but the game then makes it as awkward as possible to really use that army, which, of course, is gobbling upkeep the whole time.
Full, real-time Warhammer naval battles would, admittedly, require a massive investment of time and money on Creative Assembly’s part. Every faction with an established navy has a suitably bizarre selection of units. Dwarfs and Skaven have submarines. Dark Elves cruise around on the back of sea serpents. Everybody has their own special rules. You’d basically be committing to the creation of an entire sub-game around naval battles; something Games Workshop quite literally did with Man ‘O War. That, combined with poor results with naval combat in the past, probably guided Creative Assembly’s hand. The rumour that Total War: Warhammer forgoes naval fights due to the existence of another Man ‘O War PC game seems to have been debunked.
But understanding why Total War: Warhammer 2 has no real-time naval fights doesn’t help much with the present situation. Assuming they’re off the table (or … the sea), how could ocean encounters be improved?
It didn’t take long for people to discover that the first Warhammer game had unit cards for naval vessels in its files (seen here in a Reddit repost). Somebody took the time to make those, which perhaps suggests that at some point in development a system at least similar to Medieval 2 (auto-resolve but with specialised naval units) was being considered. If that type of system made a comeback in Warhammer 2 it could theoretically be an improvement. Auto-resolve would still mean the biggest, best navy wins, but at least there would be a few weird and wonderful Warhammer ships represented ‘on paper,’ and there could be a little more additional strategy around securing a city with a shipyard and churning out some vessels.
Other outside suggestions tend to focus on turning naval clashes into pseudo ground battles, either by introducing maps that look like a pair of ships separated by choke-point planks, or just dumping the respective armies on to a helpful nearby island. Those aren’t ideal solutions, but having some sort of ‘flee to nearby landmass/force enemy ships to run aground’ option could just about provide explanatory cover for turning sea fights into land ones. Both would be better than pure auto-resolve.
This may be a case where Total War: Warhammer 2 mods provide some alternatives. It surely won’t be long until some Black Ark battle maps are available in the Steam Workshop. Whether the Warhammer 2 files are sufficiently open and flexible for modders to attempt even more ambitious aquatic projects will remain to be seen.
Those potential changes vary pretty wildly in scope. The easiest and quickest official ‘fix’ probably involves altering the auto-resolve calculations to be more favourable to the player at sea. Far at the other end of the scale would be a massive, paid-for DLC that adds every faction’s naval vessels in real time combat. Somewhere in between are the ‘fudge’ solutions of naval encounters having a real-time land fight option, or new maps that are basically static ships.
Creative Assembly hopefully have plans to do something with naval encounters in Total War: Warhammer 2, because at present the New World map contains an awful lot of water and plenty of chances to run into another dissatisfying auto-resolved boat fight.