In The Creative Assembly‘s new strategy game, we’ll find out if the rats will inherit the Earth. The Sega-owned developer has revealed the Skaven, a rat-like, fourth playable race in Total War: Warhammer II, which Sega will launch on Steam on the PC on September 28.

I attended a preview event where I was able to play the beginning of the Skaven single-player campaign in Warhammer II. By playing, I learned that the Skaven can put tremendous pressure on the other factions like the High Elves, the Dark Elves, and the Lizardmen. They breed fast in subterranean lairs and their foot soldiers are expendable.

The Skaven are bad news because they’re vermin who can spread fast, and other factions may not realize it until too late. Al Bickham, communications manager at The Creative Assembly, said in an interview with GamesBeat that the Skaven can secretly build their underground lairs in the ruins of other cities. Other factions simply see a ruin, but the Skaven could be building a massive rat city under that ruin. And when the opposing factions move onto the ruin, they may get a nasty surprise, Bickham said.

Of course, the Skaven might best be reduced to the familiar RTS strategy of the “early rush.” In a multiplayer game, a faction pursuing the early rush strategy hopes to grow a certain kind of unit fast and send them at the enemy base early, before the other faction can build up its defenses. The early attack overwhelms the unprepared base and wins. You could see the Skaven faction executing this strategy on a grand scale, creating a lot of rat cities while the other factions realize that they aren’t growing fast enough.

But players can stop the early rush strategy by defending their bottlenecks properly and building units that are powerful enough to stop the weak rat units. As a result, the Skaven player has to be just as careful about creating powerful units, strong armies, and strong fortresses.

Hands-on battles with the Skaven

That’s my overall take on the faction, but there were many interesting details in the hands-on battles. I started out watching a short intro video and then dealing with an opening scenario. If you’re new to Total War, you can turn out tutorial advice.

The campaign map features a Skaven city in the north and a High Elves outpost in the south. The High Elves have been caught with their forces split, while Queek Headtaker has a relatively powerful rat army in between them. He attacks the High Elves and rushes them. The High Elves scatter, but then reinforcements arrive. Queek has to move his forces to a ridge so they have a height advantage. And he also sends some fast-moving ogres into the trees.

Luckily, Skaven missile soldiers arrived as reinforcements. I positioned them on the ridge and set up a line. The elves attacked, but pretty much shattered as they tried to make it up the hill. And that showed me that the Skaven could take down the elves, so long as you tie them down with weak rats and then wreak havoc with heavier units or flanking attacks.

Above: The Skaven war machines

Image Credit: Sega

After that initial battle, I had some time to rest. So I recruited more foot soldier rats. In no time at all, I had a growing army. I created a new army in the ruins where the underground burrows were, and soon enough I was generated a lot of rat soldiers. They came in handy for the next battle.

For this next contest, I once again moved my weaker force to high ground, occupying a hill. But this time, the High Elves had both archers and artillery. Fortunately, I had Rat Ogres, who were fast-moving units that were like cavalry. I hid them in the woods and then hit the elven artillery from behind. They wiped out the artillery quickly and then hit the elven archers. Then the elven front line hit my line on the hill. Some of my rats broke and ran, but they rallied and came back when the regained courage. It was a very bloody battle, and it turned out to be just a Pyrrhic victory. But the lesson was a good one. Even the weak rats can win a battle against the better warriors among the elves if they have the high ground and the element of surprise. That’s what I like about Total War, as tactics, timing, and the environment matter in the outcomes of battles, which are touch-and-go affairs until the very end.

Above: The Skaven Doom Wheel

Image Credit: Sega

I also fought a couple of stand-alone battles, including The Rod of Corruption, featuring the rats against the High Elves, and Destroyer, which pit the Dark Elves against the High Elves.  In the Rod of Corruption, I was able to use a “Doom Wheel,” a contraption of the Skaven. It was kind of like a lawnmower that ate into the ranks of the elves, running back and forth. It was hilarious.

And in the Destroyer battle, I was able to lead the Dark Elves with a bunch of creatures, such as a giant flying dragon. The dragons aren’t invincible, but they can cause a lot of fear on the battlefield.