Let me summarise my highs and lows as a Wood Elf general in one phrase: I'm very much a Dwarf guy. You know where you are with Dwarves. Or rather, you know where they are - all the way over there on that ridge, Ironbreakers in front, Quarrellers behind, Hammerers poised to waddle down the flank like a glacier performing a legal U-turn. Dwarves don't do manoeuvres, they do gunpowder and big helmets and spurning alliances because somebody's ancestor forgot to return the lawnmower. Micro? Well, I dare say some of those fancy northern Dawi tribes can find a use for it, but I've always set my watch by a good, solid shield-wall.
Wood Elves, it turns out, really, really do micro. When they aren't doing micro, they also do getting knocked flat by a gentle breeze. A big round of applause, please, for Total War: Warhammer's definitive glass cannons. They're being added to the game via the Realm Of The Wood Elves DLC and I've had an early play with them.
In hands other than mine, the Wood Elves could be an absolute terror – the Old World's finest ambushers and mid-ranged combatants, rising out of the grass to pepper an advancing phalanx or crash through a rearguard, only to evaporate like the morning dew when you bring your tougher troops to bear. As you'd expect, the heart and soul of their line-up is the humble archer, and the first thing you need to know about Wood Elf archers is that they can shoot while moving. Zoiks.
The second thing you need to know is that archers can be outfitted with a spicy array of arrow types – rapid-firing Swift Shiver Shards for use against cheap, dense infantry, poisonous Hagbane Tips for units with big health bars, and incendiary Starfire arrows for those with poor leadership. And the third thing you need to know is that they are probably all around you, right this moment, waiting to pounce.
The Wood Elf army is absolutely awash with fast-moving Vanguard units and Stalkers, allowing it to harry an opponent more or less from the get-go. This is just as well, because Wood Elves don't pack much in the way of long-range artillery, though one of their Legendary Lords, Orion, does a passable impersonation of a Grudge Thrower – hurling his enormous spear through formations or calling down mystic bombardments from the heavens.
The Wood Elves have access to some fearsome cavalry units – I particularly rate the Sisters of the Thorn, who are both serviceable in the fray and able to shield nearby allies or encumber foes with sorcerous undergrowth. But more fearsome still are their evergreen acquaintances, the spirits of the forest. At the top of this food chain are the Tree Kin, monstrous infantry roughly equivalent to Chaos Spawn and Minotaurs, and the Tree Man, a giant that can plunge its roots through the soil to perforate nearby units from below.
With such mighty specimens at your side, you might be tempted to get bogged down in open combat, sending fliers such as Great Eagles and hawk-riding bowmen to shut down your enemy's cannons and catapults while you move in. It may be the last mistake you make. The elves can dish it out like few other races, but they certainly can't take it. The nearest thing they have to a defensive sponge, Eternal Guard spear units, reacts to a Beastmen charge like butter to a blowlamp, and even gruntier monsters such as the Fairy Liquid-spitting Green Dragon may break for want of sturdy back-up. If you plan to win with this race you'll need to monitor each unit carefully, dancing them in and out of contact to maximise charge and flanking bonuses while blackening the sky with projectiles.
Creative Assembly's choice of demo mission, a later battle from the Seasons of Revelation mini-campaign, proved a bruising introduction to all this. It puts you and an ally army back to back on a hill-top, fending off a Legendary Beastman general (who I've been asked not to name). In theory the elves are in their element here – the map is thickly forested, the Chaos deployment zone is flanked by cliffs where you can position missile cavalry, and there's an impassable ridge in the centre to split the advance in two. Nonetheless, I was quickly overwhelmed as I tried to shatter the Chaos lines, crashing Wild Riders into the advancing flank only for them to be swallowed up by the weight of numbers.
Unhelpfully, the Beastman general in question can render himself and his Chaos Spawn entourage invulnerable for a minute or so, obliging you to keep sniper heroes and damage-dealers in reserve, even as your army rolls on its back. In the course of a couple of goes, I managed to rout my opponent a few times only for axe-wielding Beastmen to stamp all over my archers while the Chaos Spawn chewed through my Tree Kin. Like I say, give me a nice fat stack of incurably resentful Ironbreakers any day of the week.
Away from the battlefield, Wood Elves appear to play like a mix of Chaos and Greenskins - a raiding force that travels across the campaign map swiftly but puts down few roots. They're the only race in the game that can conquer any settlement, regardless of faction, but your building options beyond the Wood Elf heartlands of Athel Loren are limited.
You can erect three types of lookout post over a conquered settlement – a mustering site that sells global units for local prices within that province, a structure that speeds army replenishment, and a trading post that unlocks local resources for exploitation. While this allows Wood Elves to establish footholds in regions that are inaccessible to other factions, it also (seemingly) lumbers you with a massive fixed weakpoint: lose Athel Loren with all its infrastructure and it's probably game over. That said, you shouldn't be too fussy about securing the realm's perimeter – being feckless hippies, Wood Elves can't build settlement walls, but Athel Loren's waystones have “weird and curious” effects on any armies operating within its borders.
While it may be tempting to bunker up till your economy and tech are sufficiently mature, conquest is necessary because flipping settlements is the only way you'll get Amber, a specialised Wood Elf currency. In the included Season of Revelation mini-campaign, which sees the elves cleansing the home realm of trespassers, this is used to nourish the central Tree of Ages in return for empire-wide perks. Problematically, it's also required for certain units and upgrades.
Those who choose Orion as their Legendary Lord will be able to buy elf troops using gold, but you'll need Amber for tree spirit units and associated upgrades. Conversely, those who pick the treeman general Durthu need Amber if they want to field Elf archers and cavalry. It creates a strong stylistic divide at the outset, with pressing ramifications towards the midgame. Will you open with an army of durable timber warriors, or squads of nimble skirmishers? And when will you begin to fold the other half of the unit list into your empire?
The Wood Elves have another big advantage when growing their dominion – the Wild Hunt, which becomes available after you erect the Wild Heath structure and promote a Lord to the office of Herald (there are seven other offices whose applications I've yet to discover). As the name suggests, the Hunt is essentially an old school rampage, comparable to a Greenskin Waaagh but with a rigid timing mechanism. Every 20 turns, the Herald and their forces are endowed with copious movement, melee and ranged attack buffs, allowing the savvy general to cut a swathe through neighbouring kingdoms for a few turns. Where a Greenskin player must attack continually to gather momentum, this is a foundation for precise, controlled aggression. And dramatic reversals. Imagine finally cornering an elusive Elf army only to find that every last archer it contains has turned into Legolas.
I doubt I'll ever be a skilled Elf general, even given a gentler on-ramp – this is a race for the twitchier tactician, whereas I am the kind of strategist who likes to pop downstairs for a biscuit while my frontline slowly erodes an assailant to dust. But I am already an Elf admirer. The chief virtue of Total Warhammer remains the diversity and personality of its races – big, bold archetypes that stick in the mind where the factions of previous Total Wars can't help but blur into one. The Wood Elves are shaping up to be another spicy addition to a cabinet of weirdoes. I'm looking forward to finding out how they fare against dwarven artillery.