Total War: Warhammer 2's Laboratory is a boss fight for your CPU

The Creative Assembly is clear about this: the free Skaven Laboratory update is going to break Total War: Warhammer 2. When you start a battle using the Laboratory prompt on the main menu you get access to a suite of sliders that let you smash through the battle limits that keep Total War playable. The question is: how far are you willing to push to achieve the most bonkers results without a crash?

Perhaps you'd like to drop the gravity? A cavalry charge into a unit of clan rats will send rats spinning into the sky. They sail over the battle in graceful arcs before landing on the other side of a hill, confused and alone. Maybe you'd like to adjust the monster size slider so you can deploy an army of 200-foot tall hydras and watch them waddle slowly over entire enemy units. No problem, just don't expect the ensuing scrap to involve much tactical manoeuvring.

The unit size slider is the one that will really make your hardware start to creak. Staging a large battle with the slider maxed out puts thousands of little warriors on screen at the same time. If your CPU can keep up with this you get the vast horizon-to-horizon battles that you normally see on Warhammer box art. The armies are so large that they bump into each other quickly and form a vast throng from which there is no escape. No redeployment; only war.

It's a good excuse to get in close, turn off the UI and spectate. The armies try their best to fight on as normal, even though they're actually participating in a monstrous meat grinder that can only be won with persistence. You can zoom in to pick out a high elf swordsman chopping down rat after rat, making a futile contribution to absurd final kill tally. Even great heroes get swallowed up in the extraordinary mass of combat.

The Laboratory lets you experiment with spells and artillery as well. You can ramp up winds of magic levels to fuel more spells, and you can increase values like impact force, projectile penetration and explosions. I set these values to max and cranked the unit size up to 10x size and then built a vast Skaven army to fight. Then I deployed a single line of High Elf mages and marched them into the heaving rodent masses. In the low gravity I cast vortex spells into their midst, sucking dozens of rats into the sky in gross verminous fountains.

It's a fun toy for a free update, and if you've ever wondered whether an army of turbo-sized High Elf dragons would beat an army of turbo-sized Dark Elf dragons then the Laboratory will give you a result, and some comical scenes featuring oversized fantasy creatures bumping in the sky like warring balloon animals. I can see myself booting up the Laboratory in a couple of years time just to test the limits of whatever futuristic CPU/GPU combination I'll be running then. Will these huge (if unwieldy) unit sizes end up being the norm in Total War games?

The Skaven Labs update is due out this week on December 14, and should tide us to the first campaign map DLC for Total War: Warhammer 2 and the release of a new historical Total War game with Thrones of Britannia next year.

Tom Senior

Part of the UK team, Tom was with PC Gamer at the very beginning of the website's launch—first as a news writer, and then as online editor until his departure in 2020. His specialties are strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.