Rise of the Tomb Kings is the first factional DLC for Total War: WARHAMMER II and I can tell you already that it’s among the best packages for Creative Assembly’s Warhammer Fantasy setting and Total War adaptation. While it doesn’t add mini campaigns personalized for the faction such as Beastmen and Wood Elves received from the first Total War: WARHAMMER, I’m more inclined to compare the Tomb Kings’ scope as resembling the Norsca DLC to a certain extent. We’re definitely comparing two different climates and faction alignments but I will do my best to explain exactly what makes Tomb Kings just as interesting as those savage warriors from the frozen wastelands of Chaos.
For starters, Rise of the Tomb Kings overhauls the region I previously referred to as “deserts of Araby” in my review for the base game. No, the lore-accurate term would be, the deserts of Nehekhara, since Araby is just the northern coastline of the Southlands continent within the Warhammer world. Before the DLC I’m reviewing today, those sun-scorched and desolate landscapes were the home of the Necrarch Brotherhood. A ragtag collection of necromancers and vampires which could never claim ownership of those deserts. They were quickly evicted or enslaved by the titular Tomb Kings, also undead but far more capable of waging warfare within the desert climate and inherent obstacles such as the attrition which involves sand storms on a massive and far deadlier scale than anything witnessed on other continents. Few nations could survive let alone prosper in such harsh conditions but I guess that it helps that the “rightful owners” are no longer caring about starvation, dehydration or even resting. If you would ask them, they’d agree that they’ve slept for too long as it is.
In other words, the dead have finally risen in Nehekhara but unlike their prophecies of a bountiful Afterlife, the Tomb Kings and their servants have awoken to a world deeply plunged into Chaos and decay. The latter state of being, quite literal since the once mighty and proud monarchs of those deserts, are now skeletal corpses or mummies. Animated by a desire for conquest or revenge, depending on the subfaction. In general terms, the Tomb or Priest Kings as they also fancy themselves, are among the oldest human civilizations from Warhammer’s fantasy realm. I do not wish to spoil too much lore-wise, but I can summarize the entire faction as having an obsession with death even before they became the undead that they’re feared in present times. It’s a fantastical adaptation of Ancient Egypt and it even emulates the historic notions of a mortuary cult, specific pantheon, architecture and military tactics (minus the giant murderous statues, obviously).
The aforementioned subfactions within Rise of the Tomb Kings are the most numerous for a single race in Total War: WARHAMMER II. There are four of them and each features a Legendary Lord and various bonuses that are meant to offer quite a lot of replay value, should you wish to start another campaign with this DLC in the future. We’re talking about the Eye of the Vortex campaign here. Just as with the base game, I’ll presume that you don’t own the first Total War: WARHAMMER, but if you do, then Tomb Kings can also be enjoyed in the Mortal Empires campaign that fuses the series’ maps into a single and very large one. But for our Vortex campaign, I’m glad that these magical mummies are not concerned about the High Elves’ “blue whirlwind” at all and just wish to focus on the same principles and ambitions from when they were still alive and kicking. In-fighting seems a way of life for the Tomb Kings that are putting pride and wealth above reason or a common goal. Perhaps that’s why they have no desire or notion for confederating among themselves. Only never-ending wars of conquest.
Arguably the most powerful and prominent of the Rise of the Tomb Kings DLC subfactions, Khemri is being represented by the greatest king to ever rule over Nehekhara. Settra the Imperishable is a Legendary Lord whose primary concerns are the reunification of his once mighty desert-spanning empire and the utter destruction of Nagash’s traces from the known world. In case you’re wondering who that fellow might be, well he’s the Arch-Necromancer. The man who literally wrote not one, but nine books on these grim subjects of Necromancy and Eternal Life. Those are the campaign goals for this DLC, but more on that in the gameplay section. Settra has every reason to despise the Arch-Necromancer since Nehekhara began to literally crumble during the many wars of domination fought between Nagash and the Priest Kings which opposed his tyranny. Khemri was the historic capital of the desert empire and Settra belongs to the first dynasty of Priest Kings, from a grand total of six. Each weaker than the one before it.
The second subfaction in lore importance and my personal favorite from Rise of the Tomb Kings, represents the Followers of Nagash. Yes, from a faction of already fiendish undead, I decided to play most of the time I’ve spent thoroughly testing the DLC, with the ones that are regarded as the epitome of evil by all other Tomb King subfactions. I have discussed about Nagash and his mastery of necromantic powers, but it’s important to understand that even such a powerful character required equally skilled and loyal servants to his cause. Arkhan the Black is now known as the Liche King or Mortarch, yet his own magical abilities are second only to his master, Nagash. If all Tomb Kings seek out those accursed Books, then why not play with the Legendary Lord who possess one already? In fact, the Ninth Book of Nagash is available only to the Followers subfaction and Arkhan is the only character who may use it. This book grants access to four Vampire Counts units that can’t be recruited by any other Tomb Kings (lore-wise, they have little love for vampires anyway).
If the first two subfactions are based firmly within the deserts of Nehekhara, the remaining two are outside the traditional territories of the Tomb Kings. High Queen Khalida is the only female Legendary Lord from this DLC and a welcome exception from the strict rules of a male-dominated society, such as the case was with the Priest Kings even during their natural lifetimes. Our undead Cleopatra seems to be just as interested in snakes as her historical inspiration. Originally, the ruler of Lybaras (a city that’s not simulated on WARHAMMER II’s base game map) she has set up a new headquarters in the Copper Desert of Southern Lustria. While she may have been a vassal (semi-autonomous satrapy ) to the Great King Settra, Khalida has travelled to Lustria along with her vast armies, in the noble quest of eradicating all vampires from the continent. If you’re familiar with the Eye of the Vortex campaign, you might know already that the Vampire Coast is within decent striking distance. The High Queen is hell-bent on exacting revenge upon Queen Neferata of Lahmia’s curse (or dark gift, depending on whom you ask) of vampirism.
Last but perhaps not the least powerful of the four Legendary Lords, the Grand Hierophant Khatep is one of the spiritual leaders of the Mortuary Cult and he’s embarked on the path of self-exile in Naggaroth, after failing to stop Nagash from destroying the once prosperous kingdoms of Nehekhara. From the Ashen Coast, Khatep seeks redemption by acquiring the scattered Books of Nagash found across the frozen wastelands of his adopted home. If you want an additional challenge, even if the Tomb Kings are fairly difficult in the early game phases, then the Grand Hierophant will cater to you needs for further digital punishment. The Druchii will not take kindly to undead incursions, as they’re already fighting with or against Chaos on all sides.
Creative Assembly power their projects with in-house graphics engines, but you knew that, so let’s just focus on performance and visual aspects. Rise of the Tomb Kings is in no way performing worse than the base game and I also can’t tell if the most recent CPU and OS patches released to mitigate Meltdown and Spectre exploits, have decreased my frame rate. All games from the Total War series (and most grand strategy titles on PC) rely on the CPU to a bigger extent than on the “traditional” gaming reliance for GPUs. I ran the game maxed and on 2K resolution during my playthrough of the DLC as well. Obviously no crashes or glitches but I did notice that DX12 (still labeled in-game as “Beta”) can shave off more than 5fps in comparison to the DX11 mode and with zero noticeable improvements. I am truly disappointed to admit that DirectX 12 remains a gimmick even after three years since its official introduction.
What is really of importance for this DLC, is that Rise of the Tomb Kings adds all the visual assets you’d expect from a proper factional expansion pack. The aforementioned Vampire Counts troops are an extra feature to Followers of Nagash, but all subfactions have their very own unit roster with unique looks and gameplay mechanics which transcend animations or a couple of new spell effects. Fighting in their natural habitat, the desert, Tomb Kings not only avoid any attrition but also can use the sand storms to their full advantage. Both as a perform-able Rite and as a temporary bonus upon capturing a settlement (after gaining the Third Book of Nagash), deadly sand storms can whittle away opposing armies on their long and arduous journey towards any cities within Nehekhara or wherever the Tomb Kings have resettled themselves. Any Ancient Egyptian structures that might come to mind, are also present in this DLC. From the obligatory pyramids and obelisks, to ruined temple complexes and giant statues of sphinxes and other mythological creatures. The attention to detail is something that I’m always appreciating and expecting from this particular developer.
Likewise, the sounds are on par with the visuals. Soundtrack has been expanded, same as the voice acting since we are talking of a new race after all. No sound recycling in our case. The cutscenes could have used more variation, but I still prefer the new art style inaugurated by Total War: WARHAMMER II. Skilled drawings indeed, but still featuring the ominous narrator from the series’ predecessor. That “old man” seems to be everywhere and at all times. If you still haven’t discovered his true identity or motivations yet, don’t expect me to spoil them to you.
Apart from the Books of Nagash I kept referring to already, the Tomb Kings can simply focus on their constant efforts for conquest, since there’s no pressure to reach a strict deadline such as the race for the Vortex might have implied in the base game. In the same manner, even the acquisition of five (the minimum requirement) or eight of those books, cannot really influence your plans to a large extent. True, there are some nice bonuses which can hasten things up, but by the time you’ll possess several manuscripts, you’ll also field a lot of full stacks (20/20 units within a single army) so it’s not like anything the AI can throw at you, will still represent much of a challenge. In fact, even the subfactions regarded as “hard”, don’t really raise the stakes by much. Patience will get you on the same road taken by Settra, even if you play with his arch nemesis, Arkhan the Black.
Why, you may ask? One of the unique factional bonuses of the Tomb Kings, is that they pay no recruitment costs or upkeep for any of their units or heroes. The weakest troops they can muster (literally raising from the dead) also have no limits in terms to recruit-able numbers. So you can essentially send one full stack after another at your foes and if they fail in the intended task, you can resurrect them and get back into fighting shape in the span of just several turns. That’s something that not even the Skaven can achieve, since those ratmen rely on food supplies and monetary costs at all times. Not to mention that besieging a settlement with three well developed armies at your side, few defenders can survive. That is, if you’ll even reach the siege phase. The Necrotects are Tomb Kings’ answer for undead engineers. These heroes can “heal” the constructs (monstrous statues and the most powerful units at your disposal) and tear down enemy walls so that you won’t even have to wait one turn until the inevitable battle and victory, if you play your cards right.
These desert-dwelling undead can steamroll across the map and unifiy Nehekhara under a single banner within 50 turns. The economy isn’t much better than what I’ve had to deal with in Norsca, but at least you can focus all those gold coins into buildings and not worry about paying for existing or new troops. A new form of currency is introduced in Rise of the Tomb Kings and it is unique to this DLC faction: Canopic Jars. Again, taking a historical cue from Ancient Egypt, these Warhammer jars are also hosting the internal organs of various individuals of importance or not. Their in-game use is purely related to technological advancement of the Research Tree (well divided by the former Priest King dynasties) and for crafting new items (magical or nor). Legions of Legend are a new addition to the unit roster and strengthen the Regiments of Renown already implemented since the first Total War: WARHAMMER. From an army of skeletons, mummies and statues that may not offer as much visual diversity as Imperial troops, you can sure use some more variation in terms of unique units than can stand out on their own.
As closing arguments, I shall focus on the less pleasant aspects of this DLC. I really wanted to finally play with Nagash in some capacity, no matter how limited. Any fan of the Fantasy Warhammer setting, can agree that the Arch-Necromancer is instrumental to the lore’s very structure. Total War: WARHAMMER II did right the wrong of its predecessor which didn’t feature the Skaven, but I expected that a fully licensed DLC for the long-awaited Tomb Kings, might showcase the very character which shaped the faction into its current decaying state. Apparently, no. Nagash remains at large, so to speak. Even the Horned Rat makes a cutscene appearance in the base game, but the Followers of Nagash better get used to just following Arkhan instead. This was a mild disappointment, coming from a fan that even played some crude, third party Tomb Kings modifications for the initial game, several years ago, back when Creative Assembly wouldn’t even hint at an official representation for this unique, albeit often overlooked faction.
And once again, players get next to no late or end game rewards. You gathered all the Books, claimed the Black Pyramid as your own? Congratulations, pal! That’s it? Yes it is. You can now simply conquer the rest of the known world or not. It’s your choice but you didn’t expect Nagash to pop out of a cardboard box, did you? Guess we’ll just have to wait for Total War: WARHAMMER III, then. At least I sincerely hope he’ll make an appearance in that unforeseeable future. Rise of the Tomb Kings is still an excellent DLC even without the central character I’ll surely miss for now. For new and series veterans alike, the new faction adds enough flavor and personality, to stand out from the races already present. And if you weren’t a fan of the Vortex to being with, then why not forget about it altogether and focus on what Total War games have achieved so well in the past and present? Conquest on a global scale.
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.