The relentless rat-nuzzlers at Total War studio Creative Assembly have done it again, by which I mean they’ve released a paid DLC somewhat overshadowed by a simultaneous free update. The free Wood Elves faction overhaul, and sort-of-free-if-you-own-certain-content Legendary Lord Drycha, are the most enjoyable new additions, and this turns conversations about monetary value into nebulous, slippery things, like a basket of soaped-up eels, which makes a reviewer’s job a bit tricky.
There is still some great new paid content, though. Both the new Wood Elves and Skaven units in the paid DLC portion are tremendous fun, even if the campaigns that introduce them are fairly lacklustre.
The Skaven changes are less dramatic, so before we cover the Wood Elves, let’s make like Londoners in the 17th century, and have a heated conversation about some rats. Clan Moulder are the new addition, previously represented by a handful of monstrous units, but now granted their own faction and campaigns, headed up by Lord Thrott the Unclean. Thrott is the thiccest of rodents, eternally hungry, and with a penchant for unholy biological experiments. This manifests in a handful of new monsters, the monster-buffing packmaster hero, and the ‘Flesh Laboratory’ upgrade system.
The Flesh Laboratory allows you to spend a resource called growth juice – which you earn through winning battles or from sporadic deliveries – on horrific and useful mutations for your army. Some are practical, like reduced upkeep and combat buffs, and some are pure Skaven silliness, like turning your monsters undead or letting them emit huge flesh explosions. You unlock new mutations by building on top of old, but if you push a unit too far, you end up with horrific creations that rot away from the inside. Tasty.
The Flesh Lab does what the Skaven do best, really, which is offer ways to break the game in consistently entertaining and devious ways. Much like the previous Skaven lord packs, the new Moulder mechanics provide both power creep and comic relief in equal measure. The campaign itself, which involves weakening the Wood Elves by destroying key settlements as a timer ticks down for a final battle, feels a little too streamlined, but running a pure Moulder army is still a blast. For the Skaven as a whole, adding new speedy flankers and anti-large options makes an already powerful race potentially terrifying in the right hands.
The new Wood Elves campaign, starring the Sisters of Twilight, works well as an introduction to the new faction mechanics, but doesn’t offer much that’s unique to the Sisters themselves. They’re a great lord choice, in terms of design and dialogue, and they’re enjoyable to spend time with, but a campaign mechanic that involves upgrading special items feels half-baked.
Wood Elves now claim campaign victory by improving the health of magical forest settlements then performing rituals. This is achieved by capturing, razing, or allying with surrounding settlements, as well as fighting ambient quest battles that are usually accompanied by a dilemma. These dilemmas and fights are the best part of the Sisters’ campaign, ensuring a steady variety of foes that keeps their tall, defensive playstyle varied and (on higher difficulties) quite challenging.
Personally, I love playing tall in Total War, and I love the thematic weight of swiftly crushing anyone who messes with my forests, like some sort of psychotic Lorax, so the faction rework is a real treat. The new dilemmas also continue the Warden and The Paunch’s trend of having longer segments of great writing to bring campaign events to life.
The new Wood Elves units fill out some real tactical gaps in their roster, too. Great Stag Knights are a monstrous shock cavalry that hit like a truck riding a bigger truck, but tend to melt if you leave them in combat for too long. Zoats are take on large monstrous enemies with healing and armour spells, perfect for screening out and flattening flankers. Bladesingers are terrifyingly efficient anti-infantry, anti-armour blenders, and new hero Ariel is a powerful spellcaster. Altogether, they do add more micromanagement to an already micro-heavy faction, but continue to make the Wood Elves very satisfying to try and master.
The best vehicle for these new features is vengeful branchwraith Drycha’s new Mortal Empires campaign. To play it, you’ll need to own both Warhammer 1 and 2, as well as the Realm of the Wood Elves DLC. Drycha has similar objectives to the other Wood Elves factions – to restore the Tree of Ages – but goes about things very differently, being either ambivalent or outwardly hostile to the other elves. Tree units are buffed, but elf units are effectively brainwashed into fighting for her, so suffer penalties. She can also recruit beasts like spiders, wolves, and manticores. The result is an extremely unique, flavourful campaign experience, with a lot more freedom than either of the paid offerings.
In implementing a host of well needed, though less immediately eye-catching, changes to the core of the game, the release of the Twisted and Twilight and its accompanying patch are less a glorious crown of blossoms and more a solid network of oaken roots. The DLC campaigns themselves feel more like tutorials for Mortal Empires, but there’s so much character in both the new factions, you might not even notice. It’s not the best DLC we’ve seen, but it does make Total War Warhammer II into a better game, however incrementally.