First we saw the Lizardmen, and we knew that the High Elves were involved, but now we've seen the Dark Elves in action, and more interestingly, the Skaven. As more and more of our favourite armies make the transition into digital form, Total War: Warhammer II is increasingly shaping up to be a treat for fans of the fantasy setting.
This writer's personal relationship with the Skaven goes back a long way, back to Shadow of the Horned Rat, a strategy game that precedes the Total War series, influenced it no doubt, and was rekindled when Fatshark released the entertaining Warhammer: Vermintide last year. Now the pestilent faction is heading to Total War: Warhammer II, and they're doing so in style.
The first thing that struck us during our introduction, which included the opening stages played out on the campaign map, was the effort that has gone into differentiating them from other factions. Like the Lizardmen before them, Creative Assembly has gone to town when setting them apart, and the increasingly asymmetrical spread of armies continues to expand in new and interesting ways, and with it the range of possibilities open to the player (and no doubt the amount of headaches endured by designers at the studio as they try to find some sort of balance, if that's even possible).
CA certainly looks like they've had fun making the Skaven. This whiskered army has a few tricks up its flea-infested sleeve, with the scheming ratmen spreading their pestilence across the map, complete with their own exclusive stance - stalk gives them a high chance of ambushing an enemy army - and of course unique units. As well as that, enemy forces will have to enter abandoned-looking cities and explore them to find out if there are ratty occupants already in place, scurrying around in the sewers beneath the city streets. Sounds like there's going to be plenty of opportunities to spring traps, then.
That little trick manifests itself on the campaign map, but there's a battlefield move that mirrors it, whereby you can surprise your opponents with units popping up in the midst of battle, burrowing out of the earth at a choice moment. You might want to time this surprise to coincide with a big infantry charge (it looks like low-level Skaven units are very cheap), engaging the enemy's ranged units just as they start to fire volleys of arrows at your advancing ranks. Or maybe you'd like to distract a legendary lord or delay enemy reinforcements while the rest of your army moves on a specific target.
The story is like the others in that it focuses on the ominous-sounding Great Vortex that hovers over Ulthuan. The Skaven have their own reasons for wanting it, and therefore they go up against the other three factions. According to game director Ian Roxburgh, as far as the Skaven story goes, it will be unique and it will tie into the sandbox campaign. "It's something we've done a lot more in Warhammer II than any previous Total War game," Roxburgh told us. "We've done missions and quests and everything that would also tie back and refer to the narrative. So you don't have to engage with it, you've still got a sandbox game, you can play it generically, but if you want you've got extra flavour and immersion into the Warhammer world by watching the [in-game] movies, and interacting with the vortex rituals."
The units themselves look typically great, menacing, disgusting even, and they scurry around at speed (although the movement at times is not too dissimilar to the slink of certain Lizardmen units, which could make unit identification a touch more challenging when the two armies meet). Away from the scheming and positioning in the campaign, we also assumed control of a more advanced force during a standalone battle called Rod of Corruption, which showcased some of the units that we simply wouldn't get to see during the opening moves of the game. Your first armies might be frightening in terms of their sheer size, but a late-game force will have much punchier units, including some giant rodents that'll send a shiver down your spine.
As for the campaign opener, we marveled at the effort that went into the voice over work, and the artwork that accompanied it was certainly atmospheric. It's hard to make a judgement as to the campaign though, as we only got a taste of the Skaven-specific features, and beyond that it started much as any Total War campaign does; with us raising a couple of full-stack armies (which wasn't overly time-consuming in this case thanks to inexpensive units) and smashing our nearest enemies and looting their cities for food, an important resource that drives the Skaven war machine.
We did get a little look at one feature, the loyalty system that further defines these conniving, back-stabbing furry ratbags. We blithely picked a new general for our second army and immediately we were informed that this would be rodent-in-chief was already plotting to break ranks. We can imagine plenty of well-made plans coming undone thanks to infighting, and while that might be frustrating when it happens, it sounds like a wrinkle that gives the race a stronger overall personality. The Dark Elves will also have this feature.
After our hands on we were privy to a debriefing by Creative Assembly's Al Bickham, who recapped a range of features, as well as showing us the campaign map that encapsulates the maps from both Warhammer and this upcoming sequel. Rituals were a point that the studio was keen to highlight. When activated your army is buffed and for ten turns and attacked from all angles by Chaos and maybe even opportunistic neighbours. Completing the campaign appears to involve doing this a number of times. Then, of course, there's the second campaign coming shortly after launch, which will further expand the scope of the game, something that will no doubt intensify when the third and final region is added to eventually complete the set.
Overall the Skaven looks like a fine addition to the Warhammer II mix. These devious, chisel-toothed monsters look like a fun alternative for players looking to play a different campaign. We're going to reserve final judgment for when the final game lands on PC in September, but everything points to another successful foray into the world of epic fantasy battles.