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Total War: Warhammer 3 Shadows of Change – developers want people to play out their fantasies

Richard Aldridge talks Shadows of Change at gamescom 2023
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In just a day, the Shadows of Change DLC for Total War: Warhammer 3 will be released on PC, and I’ve met game director Richard Aldridge at gamescom 2023 to chat about the upcoming content pack, which has caused much controversy in the community due to its high asking price and Creative Assembly’s reaction to the outcry, which was perceived as a blatant threat to stop supporting the game – one that seems highly unlikely. Aldridge, of course, doesn’t decide any of that.

His arena is the game itself, but it’s not like there is less criticism floating around among users on this aspect. Aldridge promises “a ton of bug fixes” to accompany Shadows of Change with update 4.0, which launches alongside the DLC. Improvement should also arrive for garrisons: “There has been some strengthening of garrisons. We’re trying to get to that sweet spot that’s proved to be very hard to find, but there should be some improvement there.” It’s a delicate and careful operation – the developers don’t want to overbuff city defenses.

Total War: Warhammer 3 Shadows of Change artwork.

Shadows of Change is the first DLC on the Total War: Warhammer 3 roadmap released in 2023.

Update 4.0 delivers in other areas as well: “We’ve got more landmark buildings, everybody loves those. The long-awaited achievements – it’s a bit of a shame that they took so long, but they’re here now.” Fresh difficulty settings for battles come with the patch as well, hopefully helping out some players in finding the right customization level for them.

In terms of difficulty, Yuan Bo, the new Legendary Lord for Grand Cathay, is going to be one of the easier choices, Aldridge tells me: “Newer players will have a slightly easier time with him, he offers that as well. Mother Ostankya doesn’t, she is quite a bit more challenging. We want that difference.” The Jade Dragon has opened Shadows of Change’s marketing phase with a short novel introducing his character as well as The Changeling, the Legendary Lord coming for the Daemons of Tzeentch in the DLC.

Yuan Bo is more or less Grand Cathay’s regent, among other things. He’s wearing many hats: administrator, spy master, executioner. That’s why many of his abilities on the campaign map support other Cathayan characters, making him a prime choice in a multiplayer campaign. “It makes sense for his character, being that emperor-like figure, that the good that he does other characters can benefit from,” Aldridge says.

Total War: Warhammer 3 artwork of Yuan Bo with a Jade-colored Dragon in the background.

Yuan Bo, the Jade Dragon, is on a secret mission assigned to him by the Dragon Emperor.

He was a bit of a surprise pick for many players, who expected the Monkey King to appear in his stead. However, Aldridge says, the team is always looking for the right time and combination, for a good theme around a content pack, when determining its characters – and CA still has a lot of choice from Games Workshop’s universe. It wasn’t the right time for the Monkey King, yet.

Yuan Bo quickly found his followers in the community, though. He’s an interesting guy and he’s got a very intriguing starting position in Immortal Empires – Lustria. This is something users expected his sister, Yin Yin the Sea Dragon, to tackle, but now it’s Yuan Bo wading through the thick jungles and dealing with the Lizardmen to take over specific temple cities in the name of his father. And that’s key: This is a mission from the Dragon Emperor. No other child could be entrusted with this outside of perhaps Miao Ying, but she’s got an equally important job. While The Changeling is playing Tzeentch’s great game and Mother Ostankya is focused on protecting nature from Chaos, the Dragon Emperor has his own grand plan and his old enemies, the Lizardmen, possess the key. Aldridge is aware that every piece of lore coming out on Cathay is “heavily scrutinized,” so cooperation with Games Workshop is close.

The team wants players to have as many varied options for playthroughs as possible, hence the decision was made to ship Yuan Bo over to Lustria and Mother Ostankya to Naggaroth: “A lot of factions have been focused on Chaos since we started this game, so now you’ve got some different combatants. And that’s really what we want to do, give options where they make sense and diversify player experiences.”

“How many Kislev characters do you want in Kislev?,” the game director asks. He adds: “We are always ready to change things around as well, if it’s not quite right as it is.”

Every Legendary Lord in Shadows of Change comes with a series of unique campaign mechanics alongside smaller reworks of their core factions. All of these will be available in both the Realms of Chaos and Immortal Empires modes: “It’s nice that we got these features in both campaigns, because I know players often say: ‘Oh, why don’t you have this in Immortal Empires? It would be nice to have that.’ So when we started on this one, we wanted to make sure that we can get all the content everywhere for players to use. And we use the map to differentiate the experiences as we go.”

Total War: Warhammer 3 Jade Lion.

The Jade Lion and Jet Lion are new additions to Cathay's roster.

For Grand Cathay, the Harmony system that “was too fiddly” has been curtailed. Instead of a realm-wide balance between Yin and Yang, players merely need to balance out each province. Cathay gets some adorable new units as well: “The lions have been a particular favorite of our animation team. They are big statues, but they were like: ‘Can we do more playful kittens?’ And we went: ‘Hmm, okay.’ So now they sort of bounce across the battlefield and have some nice characteristics to them.” They do behave pretty much like my clumsy Maine Coon on the hunt, but at least he’s only got 8.5kg on him instead of being a giant statue of Jade or Jet.

I ask about the development of Yuan Bo’s kit, since it couldn’t have been easy to transform all of his titles and responsibilities into game mechanics: “I think the battle-side made sense quickly. When we read about him being judge, jury, and executioner, that was relatively straightforward and of course we knew we’d have a [dragon] transformation,” Aldridge explains. “In terms of the campaign features, he does things that the others don’t notice or don’t see and he changes the landscape around himself, changes Cathay in what it is, so he’s probably doing stuff that isn’t by the book. So what we were thinking about was breaking some of our own rules and changing the systems to allow for that.”

He continues: “That was really the philosophy we adopted. And then the team really wanted to use that theme of balance from the core faction, but not using Yin and Yang, because as I said that’s always been a bit busy and difficult, and that’s where steel and stone comes from. It’s still a balance, but now it’s kind of about the growth and power of the nation and the fact that he needs to have both for Cathay to survive.” The team took some learnings from the Forge of the Chaos Dwarfs DLC into account for this resource-based aspect, which the team “really enjoyed” making.

Some parts of kit will need watching, though, in particular his Execution ability in a multiplayer context: “I think so, I think so. His name gives you a certain expectation and we’d rather walk on the side of giving you the fun first and then bringing it back down than underdeliver.”

Yuan Bo brings a lot of new things to the table, but even his way of breaking the rules remains a part of the traditional empire-building formula. The Changeling is a completely different beast – he doesn’t conquer cities at all: “The team was ambitious with that. We could have tried to make him an empire-building faction with a different twist to it, but we really wanted to push for this manipulation game, where you can get your enemies to fight each other and you can just sit back and watch.”

Total War: Warhammer 3 The Changeling.

The Changeling is a sneaky bugger and won't play like any other Legendary Lord.

“I think where we ended up is going to be very interesting for some players, just because they’re so naturally focused on painting the map and he just doesn’t do that. He doesn’t play by those rules. Equally so, he gets to go to lots of different places and do things that you may not have thought were possible,” Aldridge tells me. “He’s a star, he deserves that. He’s a very famous character in the lore and we wanted to give him that different campaign experience. Nevermind the fact that he’s changing into all those other legendary characters as well and take on all their strengths and weaknesses. But he’s still a formidable daemon on his own, so you’ve still got that choice.”

Things aren’t set in stone entirely, when it comes to The Changeling, just with some of Yuan Bo’s skills: “There’s still a few bits and bobs we want to do with him. We still want to make some adjustments for multiplayer, just to make him more appropriate for the cost levels. Another thing we’ll want to know how people feel about is what version of a character he should turn into. What I mean by that is: Should it be someone on a horse or a dragon or whatever it might be, or just on foot? Because in the lore, he obviously changes from one humanoid form to another. It’s not quite appropriate that he should become a horse, but for gameplay reasons it definitely makes sense. We’ve gone to Games Workshop as well to make sure this meets their standards.”

Last, but certainly not least, is Mother Ostankya, a hag hellbent on purging Chaos and protecting nature. Parts of her line-up like the Things in the Woods are inspired by Mordheim, another GW game set in Warhammer Fantasy. There are already lots of references to it hidden on the map, and fans should expect it to have continued influence in the future.

Total War: Warhammer 3 The Things in the Woods.

The Things in the Woods are inspired by Mordheim, another Games Workshop title.

I ask about Baba Yaga’s infamous chicken hut, which some fans expected to see in the game as Ostankya’s mount: “She is Mother Ostankya, she is not Baba Yaga. Sure, there are some similarities, but she is her own person. She doesn’t have that element of the lore, so that’s why you don’t see it.”

We fanboy a little about Aekold Helbrass, the free Legendary Hero coming with the update, and Aldridge says: “He’s cool, right? He’s got life about him. It’s unusually nice for a Chaos character. He was fun to animate with his windblade and he’s got a cool silhouette to him. It was nice to get him in and we’d like to get more of these types of characters into the game over the course of time to pay homage to some of the older material where we can.”

Aekold isn’t just a unique addition to the Daemons of Tzeentch roster, he’ll be available for Vilitch and the Chaos Undivided factions as well. This, too, is a decision based on fan feedback: “What we have done with Aekold after taking note of what people have been saying, is let people live out their fantasies a lot more even when some things may be a bit more strictly aligned to a given faction or god in the lore. So we’re going to let them mix and match Aekold a bit more between Tzeentch and Warriors of Chaos.”

And Aekold is not the only content piece from the DLC you’ll find all over the place, Aldridge tells me: “We’ve done the same for the Cockatrice and the Vortex Mutalith Beast, which can be used by Chaos Undivided, the Incarnate Elemental of Beasts, which you get to rock out with in your armies if you’re a Beastmen fan, and as them you also get to take Tzaangors in. And this is something to expect as we go forward. We want to try and get as much of this stuff as possible in as many places as possible for everyone to play out their fantasies and role-play and have the coolest armies they can have.”

Concluding our time together, I ask Aldridge about bringing the Incarnate Elemental of Beasts to the Lore of Beasts as a high-level spell, another cool suggestion in that vein that the community brought up: “Yeah, it’s definitely doable. We’ll definitely put it on the list.”

“The ever-growing list,” I say. “The ever-growing list,” Aldridge laughs.

Total War: Warhammer 3 Shadows of Change is out on August 31, 2023, on PC. We have more gamescom 2023 coverage for you on