Mortal Ambitions: Creative Assembly & Their Quest for Epic

By Marcello Perricone 06 Dec 2017 0

Yesterday, Creative Assembly gave us an update on the development of Total War: Warhammer II's content. According to Brand Director Rob Bartholomew, the team is aware of the issues that have made the launch of the mega-campaign add-on Mortal Empires less than smooth.

The ambitious project that seeks to unite Warhammer II's New World with Warhammer I's Old World was one of the main selling points of the sequel, and Creative Assembly put a lot of eggs into that particular hemisphere-sized basket. What launched, however, was arguably an unfinished product that according to our own TJ Haffer, "unfortunately (...) does feel a bit like an open beta at the moment". Copy-paste objectives, bad faction balance, and poor implementation of the Vortex rituals all contributed to a less than stellar release, full of "little head scratch moments here and there that seem to be more a product of oversight and rushed release than design". Of all those, none was more egregious than the world map, which sacrificed the huge expanses and tactical possibilities of Mallus' unique geography for a reduced, cramped version of the planet.

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In the update, Bartholomew said that "there are rather more moving parts to the Mortal Empires campaign than [they]’d first anticipated", before adding that the scale of the DLC and the bugs "conflated a lot, and as a result it’s perhaps getting harsher treatment than it deserves". But has it? The truth is, Creative Assembly has long struggled with scale and ambition, and this is the latest in a recurring line of biting off more than they can chew.

Back in 2009, the Horsham-based company took the biggest leap in the franchise to date with Empire: Total War. An ambitious project, it pushed both the time period and the scale of combat to new heights, including most of the world as a map during the XVIII century. While critically acclaimed, the game is infamously known to be buggy, and a bit of a mess, and a marked low-point for Total War series as a whole. The following year, CA unveiled the significantly better (and considerably more focused) Napoleon: Total War, which managed to redeem itself enough so that most players left Empire and never looked back.

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For their next project, not only did they go back to their roots but they wisely decided upon a more focused experience, setting a main game during the Sengoku Jidai period of Feudal Japan. The land of the rising sun proved to be a great setting for one of the best entries in the franchise, and every expansion to Shogun II expanded the time period while keeping to the same geographic area. It was a concentrated effort, and stood in stark contrast to the careless ambition that plagued most aspects of Empire: Total War.

But two years later, history repeated itself. Total War: Rome II also had a disastrous launch, full of bugs, missing features, and underdeveloped aspects that soured the game permanently to a large portion of the playerbase. Even though it is arguably the best historical game in the series and still has more players than all other historical entries combined, Rome II to this day is wrongly considered by many one of Total War's biggest disappointments.

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The problem is, this isn't an unreasonable point of view. It took Rome II years to build up to what was promised at launch -- hell, it took six years to get an update that finally made politics work in a sensible manner -- and the recently released Power & Politics update still fails a little bit short. Family trees and dynasties are completely absent, factions that are not Rome might as well be duplicates of each other, and city sieges like the Carthage demo are still inaccessible to most players due to the way unique cities sieges behave.

And now CA is once more swimming into deeper waters. The hugely successful Total War: Warhammer was an undisputed (although surprising) hit, to the point it's affecting the historical franchise even when in shouldn't (such as the MOBA-like battles where a whole unit dies in seconds instead of minutes). However, this is still Creative Assembly, and they had the brilliant idea of uniting the Warhammer trilogy maps into one gigantic playable world, full with every single race of the lore.

 

Personally, I think that is a great idea. There is nothing wrong with ambition, and the mega campaign is a novel concept that has not been done before. Problem is, unbridled ambition breeds unforeseeable results, and the Mortal Empires campaign is an example of what happens when someone underestimates both the challenges ahead and one's capacity to overcome it.

I have no doubt Creative Assembly will be able to fix Mortal Empire's problems, but this continued struggle with competently rolling out their ambitions certainly doesn't bode well for the future of the series, historical or otherwise. As someone who has spent over a thousand hours with the franchise and loves Rome II, I can't stress this enough: change the way you tackle "epic" projects, or keep suffering the same fate.

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