Blood Brothers: Why Co-op is the best way to experience a Total War campaign

By Marcello Perricone 26 Apr 2018 0

There are few experiences in the strategy genre that are as satisfying as a Total War game. The ebb and flow of high intensity battles and low key logistical campaigning feed into an ever-evolving world of changing circumstances, creating an exciting adventure that feels completely different every time you load back into a playthrough. However, solo play only goes so far -- “everything's better with friends”, goes the maxim, and Total War proves it.

About six years ago, I began my first Total War co-op campaign. I had already tried Napoleon’s multiplayer with friends, but the competitive-only focus put us off and essentially turned an engaging campaign into a hundred-hours long PvP session. After Shogun 2 came out, we decided to give it another try, and never looked back.

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Thanks to the unique mix of real time engagements and turn-based strategy, Total War games capture the same enrapturing flow of XCOM and the "one more turn" temptation of Sid Meier's Civilization without their respective burnout intensity and long stretches of nothingness. It's perfectly balanced for multiple long sessions, and that magic superbly translates into co-op without missing a beat.

The campaign plays pretty much the same in multiplayer as it does in single player, with each faction taking turns one after the other. Co-op players are tied in an unbreakable alliance and get full view of each other’s land and units, allowing them to keep track of happenings in foreign lands. During battles, players can share command of troops, with the owner of the forces gifting units at will to his partner at any point during the engagement. It’s flexible, robust, and frankly, perfect.

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During my latest Warhammer II playthrough, I took the role of the High Elf Tyrion, Heir of Aeneris and commander of the forces of Ulthuan. A friend of mine, forced by Warhammer II’s Eye of the Vortex requirement, played as the twin brother Teclis, the High Loremaster of Hoeth looking for ritual way stones on the other side of the globe. When the campaign started, we were literally half a world away from each other, with the Great Ocean and vast expanses of jungle between our two empires -- but still, we were working towards the same goal.

The right distance is key in Total War -- choose empires too close together and you get in each other’s way; choose empires too far apart and you may as well be playing solo. The secret is playing factions that are close enough to meet each other about halfway through the game, where the infrastructure is consolidated, and immediate threats are taken care of. Once you’ve both had enough leeway to do your own thing, is time to start joint operations.

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Even before our armies ever met in the field of battle, me and my coop partner were already fighting together -- in early skirmishes, he would control my phoenix and harass the enemy into melee range, where I took direct control of Tyrion and the battle line. My archers took out ranged units who tried to bring down the phoenix, while his Elven Prince helped Tyrion and his Sea Guard to wipe out any foes that crashed into each other.

As both battles and armies grew in size, we diversified the delegation of duties: he took control of half my melee line and all the harassing units, while I took charge of the heavy hitters. My artillery opened fire into the enemy army, thinning out their ranks as they closed into melee range as his phoenix kept fast moving units pinned down. My archers pelted the incoming troops until they reached his melee line, and once they were committed, out came my Dragon Princes heavy cavalry crashing into the flanks and sending foes scrambling. Those that stayed died. Those that ran were cut down.

The way Total War handles tactical battles in co-op is brilliant, allowing players to delegate specific categories or part of a main force just like real generals do. With one less duty or flank to worry about, battles become much more tactical, focused affairs, and require less scrambling or haste to pull off. It’s fun, engaging, and wonderful when it all comes together.

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Co-op also helps offset some of Total War: Warhammer’s biggest issue, which is the MOBA-like nature of battles. Gone are the proper tactical affairs of Rome II and Shogun -- units now require a lot of micromanagement and die or rout in seconds, which easily puts off a Total War veteran like myself. During our battles with Teclis, I was able to either take control of whole portions of the army or focus on the finicky dragons, freeing my friend to storm a wall or rain down magic from the sky without panic. His ability to control Teclis’ many powerful abilities was severely facilitated by the lessened burden my command provided.

More interestingly, however, is the bond that it creates. Total War co-op can be an extremely intense experience -- you’re looking at dozens, if not hundreds of hours spent with someone. Most people shy away from such a commitment, but those brave enough to venture into it are rewarded with a close connection that transcends normal gameplay.

Like soldiers forged in the fires of war, players who manage to successfully complete a Total War campaign share a special bond. The endurance, intensity, and chemistry required to see it through the end is enormous and achieves in hours what often takes months. You may enter a game mere strangers on Steam, but you come out the other side as brothers.

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Of course, as anything in life, it is not perfect. Creative Assembly clearly dropped the ball by failing to offer some amazing co-op opportunities, like an early quest that sees a player-controlled Tyrion army reinforced by an AI-led Teclis. Instead of giving control of the reinforcing AI army to the coop player -- like Rome II and Shogun did before -- Warhammer II forces your partner to watch the AI control a facsimile of his own character, utterly shattering the immersion the game builds so well.

Even so, Total War’s campaigns still are one of the best game experiences I’ve ever had, and after several co-op campaigns in Shogun 2, Rise of the Samurai, Fall of the Samurai, Rome II, Attila, and Warhammer I and II, I still come back to it time after time. It remains a mainstay on my hobby arsenal to this day, and I recommend you add it to yours, too.

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