When Great Warlord Queek Headtaker fell in battle, it wasn’t a particularly heroic end. Nor was it especially brave; he was fleeing from the battlefield when an enraged dinosaur trampled him. But the Skaven, Total War: Warhammer 2’s [official site] long-teased and recently revealed fourth race, don’t have much use for bravery or heroism. They’re sneaky, untrustworthy rodents, and for 30 turns of the campaign, I led them to several unchivalrous victories and one devastating defeat.
That’s not a lot of turns in a Total War game, but Warhammer 2’s campaign is surprisingly busy, hectic even, so that a great deal can happen in a relatively brief amount of time. Conquest, civil war, nautical adventures -- there’s no rest for wicked rats. And these things are often driven by faction-specific features, making each race potentially even more distinct than those in the first game.
“Right from the word go, that was the mission statement for Warhammer 2,” game director Ian Roxburgh tells me. “It’s no longer a case of everyone having a slight variation to try to make them seem different. Now, each race is almost like playing a completely different Total War game.”
Marching across the campaign map, I’m reminded of the 4X games that Total War already shares quite a bit with, in great part thanks to a new focus on exploration. The map is full of ruins and caves and all the sorts of places where you can’t swing a cat without hitting an adventurer, and contained within each is the potential for treasure and boons. They glow, beckoning explorers, and make the map more than a place where fights start.
The actual adventures that take place within these points of interest are simple affairs, a pop-up and some colourful flavour, but they do change the flow of the early game. Lords and their armies have more to do, and more importantly they have new ways to increase their power. There are fewer of those wasted turns where you’re just waiting for troops to finish training or for those first key buildings to get constructed. And through quests and advisor tips, I found myself gently nudged towards these diversions.
“There are far more narrative elements, not just to hand-hold, but to bring the world to life,” says senior designer Eva Jobse. “While you’re playing you’re discovering new game aspects and we’re introducing new systems one at a time so players aren’t overwhelmed.”
This is why my scrappy band of Skaven found themselves in the middle of the ocean, heading towards the capital of their enemy, entirely unprepared. Conquest on a whim. I was drawn towards a shipwreck just off the coast, and I sent my rat pals scurrying and then sailing over to it. Inside the shipwreck was a chatty undead pirate captain and some treasure, but I suddenly became more interested in what was ahead of the sunken ship.
Off in the distance was the Fortress of Dawn, the main base of operations for one of the pesky High Elf factions. We’d already come all this way. The siege lasted a single turn before the Elves decided to launch an attack of their own. The balance of power wasn’t exactly in my favour. Early on, the Skaven are a bit pitiful, with armies full of expandable Skavenslaves and poorly-trained Clanrats. My starting army did have a couple of secret weapons, however: magic and fire.
Warpfire Throwers blasted the Elves with green flames, breaking their spirits, and huge spears of magical lightning scattered whole units. The Skaven might look silly, but they’re pretty serious about killing. The Menace Below ability, which allows Skaven to summon another unit of sly rats in a specific place, is especially handy when facing irritating Elven archers. There’s something rather satisfying about seeing rats suddenly swarm them as they erupt from the ground in their droves. It keeps them occupied too, unable to use their superior range against the rest of the army.
My Skaven claimed victory, but the scrap would have undoubtedly gone even better had I been able to field the higher tier units I’d later get to send on rampages. The Skaven have some of the strangest units I’ve seen so far in Creative Assembly’s Warhammer adaptations. The Hell Pit Abomination, for instance, is a horrifying mutant rat monster that almost looks like a dragon - it's dragon-adjacent maybe - until you look closely and realise it’s a warped mass of pink flesh and crude technology. A hydra would be a more appropriate comparison, by way of Frankenstein, covered in heads and stitches as it is.
If only I had those heavy-hitters when Queek and his scrappy pals finished their ocean voyage and returned home. Not for the remnant of the High Elves, who were quickly dispatched, but a new enemy slithering towards the rat warrens. The Lizardmen were coming. I didn’t feel threatened at first, not with my hidden Skaven settlements. Built underground, these rat cities show up on the map as standard ruins, so enemies can only discover a city and the units within if they explore the ruins or try to settle there. But I couldn’t stay hidden forever.
The Skaven have a ravenous appetite. When they’re not fighting, they’re eating. And it’s only when they’re well-fed that they really come into their own. Fat rats grow faster, so their settlements can be upgraded; they become bolder, no longer fleeing at the first sign of trouble; and public order increases, reducing the risk of rebellion. The latter is especially important since the Skaven naturally spread corruption, lowering public order.
“Other races have a corruption element,” Roxburgh explains, “that will give you better public order and it becomes a more valuable region. With the Skaven, however, the more corrupt the region becomes, the more you’re drawing resources out of it, and public order becomes more of an issue because the rats don’t have as many resources to use. But, at the same time, the Menace Below ability is bigger because you’ve got more of a rat presence. So you’ve got this dilemma when playing as the Skaven.”
Since the quickest way to fill up Skaven larders is through violence - raiding, sacking and fighting - I found myself sending my army out once more. But I had another, equally important reason to send my rats scurrying out into the open as well: Warpstones. Each faction has a ritual currency that it has to collect throughout the campaign - Warpstones for the Skaven - and when enough currency has been gathered, a ritual can be kicked off.
“The Warpstone for Skaven is one of the driving forces behind unlocking the ritual that affects the Vortex,” Roxburgh clarifies. “Other races don’t have Warpstone but they have other types of currency. Different races will use theirs in different ways, so it’s all taken in a unique way.”
These provide large campaign-wide buffs and put factions one step closer to being able to control the Vortex, the game’s main objective, but the ritual can be disrupted by armies attacking one of three cities involved in the ceremony, and they also make the forces of Chaos appear, homing in on one of the ritual sites.
And that’s why Queek marched east with his vermin chums, towards a ritual site that would let us mine these all important stones. It was a contested area, with armies of Lizardmen clashing with another Skaven faction. My second Lord, Snickitch, followed. I needed to keep him occupied as his loyalty had started to wane. Skaven, like the Dark Elves, are shifty backstabbers, and unhappy Lords can cause problems by rebelling. Sending Snickitch to war nipped that in the bud, at least temporarily.
The Skaven feel challenging not because they’re underpowered but because there are so many things to juggle, and it looks like each faction will have just as many moving parts. For the Skaven specifically there’s loyalty, hunger and the twist on the corruption system, and that’s on top of the general campaign elements like ruins and rituals. But Creative Assembly are trying to keep it all from being too overwhelming or difficult.
“There’s always somewhere you can fall back to,” says Jobse. “So even if your province fails, there’s always some fallback mechanism. Losing territory or a battle isn’t the end of the game. You can consolidate your forces, build back up, go out and try again.”
In the early game, however, the Skaven do have a slight uphill struggle. “They do have a lot of crappy, unarmoured units early on,” adds Roxburgh. “The Slaveskaven. Even the Clanrats are relatively crap. And you’re coming up against Lizardmen and High Elves. High Elves will shoot you to bits. It forces you to think outside the box, and that’s where using things like the Menace Below ability really comes into its own. The subtleties of the Skaven can be used to overcome what, on the surface of things, is a big challenge from the early races.”
Regardless, I was confident that the Lizardmen would go the same way as the High Elves, but just to be on the safe side I spent some food so I could use my ability to summon more Skaven mid-battle a greater number of times. It wasn’t enough. Sure, the battle started off well enough, but a fight with the Lizardmen is all about endurance, and that’s not exactly something the Skaven have in spades. See, the scaly beasts can fly into a rage at the drop of a hat, fighting on and on without giving a thought to their safety. They weren’t breaking, and my rats were starting to run away. Then it happened. Queek, engaged with some spearmen, decided to call it quits. He turned tail and ran, but not fast enough to escape a charging dinosaur. Poor, squashed Queek.
He’d recover, of course, and all was not lost, but my time lamentably was up. I’m already planning my revenge. Big plans! Plans involving cataclysmic rites. These should not be confused with the aforementioned rituals, though they are similarly powerful. Each race gets four rites that confer special characters and spells upon the faction, and the Skaven get some pleasantly devastating ones. Take the DOOOOM Engineer, for instance. They’re a special hero unit who can be summoned and then directed towards an enemy city to unleash a huge earthquake, damaging structures and lowering its level.
Next time, the Lizardmen won’t know what hit them.