Total War: WARHAMMER II – The Shadow and The Blade adds a batch of new units and a couple of new legendary lords. It accompanies an FLC legendary lord and some revisions to the rules that ostensibly help the game move a little better. And, for a reasonable price, the new lords, accompanying start locations, and features bolster campaign difficulty and fun.
Where to start? As I mentioned in a previous review, reviewing expansions is difficult, largely because one must separate the new content from the old, and then talk about the synthesis between the two. DLC are similarly difficult to examine for the same reasons. Total War: WARHAMMER II – The Shadow and The Blade not only adds new content but will be released alongside additional free content and a new patch that should shake up gameplay substantially. Given the vastness TWW2 and the relative size of the paid DLC, I think it’s worth talking about the DLC in the context of all of the new changes, because none of the content exists in a vacuum. Having had a chance to get my grubby hands on the game early, I thought I’d share my impressions thus far.
Graphically and audibly, little has changed for existing content beyond bug fixes. Old legendary lords have new and interesting artwork, which I recommend checking out. The new models, on the other hand, are very nice, indeed. Malus’s possessed form looks suitably malicious, just as Snikch looks like a shabby rat-ninja, as he should. Sadly, Malus’s transformed appearance is the best part of his mechanics, so far as I’m concerned – more on that later. Where I think Malus’s campaign really shines is in the thematic elements around his demon’s whispers. That is, throughout the campaign, a haze flashes on the screen, accompanied by the demon’s taunts and temptations. I could see where that might get old, but I didn’t find it particularly intrusive or irritating. I’m also not very fond of Snikch’s voice… but that might just be individual preference.
The mechanics themselves are a whole new matter. Under the hood, turn times do feel better, but loading into and out of the world map still feels the same. Campaign mechanic wise, it seems like both Malus and Snikch are designed to make life difficult, despite the new patch’s changes to black arks. Malus, for example, has a constantly refilling possession-meter that applies global, punitive debuffs when too full and dis-allows the new use of his new transformation mechanic when too empty. Snikch doesn’t have it much easier - he has to decide whether or not to complete missions similar to an agent (at the expense of being removed from the map as if wounded) or remain on the map to lead his army… because he can’t do both. Even a rite that restores all armies’ health and allows LLs to come back instantly can’t wholly mitigate Snikch’s time away (typically a few rounds) more than once every thirty turns.
It should be mentioned that Snikch’s agent-type mission rewards are brokenly powerful, which probably serves as appropriate balance for removing himself from the board. Towards end game you can use him to, I don’t know, just take another Skaven city or army, with a 100% success rate. With the new Skaven campaign, it seems as if the player must decide how best to allocate Snikch’s time, whether on the battlefield and leading armies (he’s a beast in melee, especially against other lords), or remain in the shadows, unleashing rat-tainted black ops on the world.
I briefly mentioned Malus’s special mechanics. His game is a struggle against demonic possession, between a hate-filled demon bent on demony things, or a hate-filled Druchii bent on Druchii things (I think they hate each other because they’re so alike). Nevertheless, the theme of duality plays out even in his initial choice to sell his capital city or retain it and operate in two theaters. I only played the Vortex campaign with Malus and found that retaining Hag Graef made my life very difficult. On the other hand, I readily admit that I suck as the Druchii. And Skaven. And really anyone who isn’t already undead. Nevertheless, I found myself floundering in the southeast corner of the map, unable to really get a foothold against elven enemies there. Of course, had I realized that black arks can attack settlements, I might have fared better. Serenity now.
I spent the majority of my Vortex time as Snikch, which I think gave me a much better impression of his armies and allowed me to hack my way toward endgame. Campaign balance still seemed off as I progressed through the campaign (All dinosaur armies love armies full of tasty rats). I played with both in scenario battles, and I have to say I think the Skaven ended up on top with regard to the new units. Don’t get me wrong, I think the medusae and their nifty shrines are really cool and powerful, but those new rat drills are boss. In combat, the drills are very weak in direct melee. Their special abilities, however, are game changers – one ability freezes enemies in place, like a wide-ranging net ability, and the other is a massive Area-of-effect, damage over time effect that quickly whittles away enemy health. Pop both on a massive melee and you have massive damage on a horde of enemies that can’t run. And don’t get me started on how nasty those drills are on walls. Can’t stand toe-to-toe with longbeards on a city wall? Well, just one of these bad boys will reduce an ancient, artisan dwarven wall to powder in about nothing flat, yes-yes. The globe mortars are nice, sure, I had way more fun with the drills.
I also liked the idea of playing a ninja-themed army. Eshin have probably been my favorite Skaven clan since Mordheim was a thing, and it was nice to see them get some love. I can really see a creative and effective general using the smoke bombs and quick rat units to surprise an enemy with unexpected hit and run tactics. Well, I could see it if it were me, but I’m not that skilled, so I more or less waited for enemies to get close enough to ninja them to death.
The new Bretonnian FLC is interesting, albeit not necessarily up my alley. Repanse de Lyonesse starts in proximity to Snikch and Arkhan, which gives her plenty of opportunities for things to fight. I didn’t get to play her, what with the focus on the DLC, but against her as Snikch, she wasn’t really much more than a bump in the road. She held Arkhan in check fairly well, but in typical Skaven fashion, a well-placed declaration of war and subsequent ambush battle ended any ambitions she might have had of, you know, living. Having a Bretonnian option for the Vortex campaign, though, is very interesting and worth exploring for those who love their crusades and the joy of lightning fast turn times inherent to the Vortex campaign.
Shifting gears to the Mortal Empires campaign, the new content means expansion to the Mortal Empires map. The map has grown eastward, allowing for Malus to start in roughly the same geographic place he starts in the Vortex campaign. Again, I didn’t play Malus in Mortal Empires, but I did start a Vlad von Carstein campaign and immediately booked it to the new Desolation of Nagash because why not? Fans of Nagash and his bony goodness will recognize many familiar places and names, which undoubtedly augur the return of the Great Necromancer in the form of a DLC or FLC at some point in the future. The buffs for undead for the tier five landmark building are quite impressive. I will say that I’m not entirely certain that changes made to the Vampire Counts will alter the Empire’s domination of the Old World. Within only a few turns about half of the provinces in the Empire had declared war on my bald vampiric progeny, which made for some interesting fun when I confederated shortly afterward, but that’s not the focus of the current article.
As it stands, Total War: WARHAMMER II – The Shadow and The Blade and its accompanying FLC and patch do make substantial additions to gameplay, but mostly for Skaven and Druchii players. I hope that at least one thing came across in my narrative, and that’s that I had fun doing this piece. Exploring the new units, even if I didn’t really the same level of experience with these factions as I do with the vampires, was a blast. Where I think the DLC shines is in expanding the world and campaign options, especially for those looking for new and greater challenges than to what they’re accustomed. Additional troops to the armies will no doubt serve as great fan service, as will expanding the role that black arks play in the campaign. Where I think this DLC staggers is in how useful Malus’s possession and transformation ends up being. I much prefer predictable, global army effectiveness to sub-par in-combat buffs, maybe Malus has the challenge that you’re looking for.
Who is this DLC for? Anyone who owns Total War: WARHAMMER II, really. I mean, let’s be honest – if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already bought it or are trying to justify your impending purchase. In the unlikely event that you’re on the fence about this, ask whether or not you really enjoy the Skaven or Druchii experience. If you don’t ever plan on exploring the two factions beyond the base game or prior DLC experiences, then you can probably hold off. If you like rat ninjas (and I question your taste and sanity if you don’t), then it’s worth a spin.