Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Codex: Tau Empire (Book Review)

Well we had Codex: Tau Empire released for the sixth edition not too long ago. Having written the 5 Changes 6th Edition Codex: Tau Empire Needs post, it seemed only right to actually follow up on it now. As this is a follow-up it won't quite follow the same format as a normal review. Instead what we're going to have is a look into how well the new book handled each suggested improvement and to what extent it took it to heart.

As with the first article, this won't be so much a look into how the game mechanics work as its background and fluff. There will be the occasional mention of the game mechanics but that's going to be secondary to how well produced the tau's history or changes are. Given the quality of stories and massive problems we've had with the tau recently, how well written they actually are is a point of major concern.

So let's take a look at how the book handled the five changes which were recommended.

5 - Advancing Technology

Was this a major part of the codex? Sweet heaven yes. If there was any one thing in this list which the book got right it was this. While it admittedly did not take the exact direction brought up in the original list, the Empire's ability to adapt and evolve is made into a huge point here. There are constant references to the tau learning from their mistakes and looking at the technology of others. Frequently many things which are brought up in the book have evolved over time or in response to something the tau have encountered.

This ranges from mention of battlesuits having been repeatedly upgraded and replaced by new models to infantry weapons. A notable example being the introduction of the ion rifle. Something which, after encountering the Imperium's strong but unstable plasma weapons, has the ability to be similarly overcharged for more of a punch. Other references are also made to prototype tech being used by characters, but we'll get to that later on.

Perhaps the single best example of their adaptability and advancing technology is the Riptide battlesuit. The background to which is emphasised as being a response to Titan and Gargant war machines, but small and fast enough to stay in line with the tau way of war. The book itself mentioning how the battlesuit was repeatedly redesigned and there were many failures in prototypes. Presumably to excuse its late introduction into the universe and the reason the Imperium has not faced it until now.
Admittedly a nice way to fit it around the tau novels and books of old without making them seem out of date. Something which should be praised rather than having the new writer hellbent upon ignoring the works of others. Or determined to make certain ones non-canon in an extremely petty retcon war.

If there is one thing this got wrong (besides not saying "tau plasma tech is immune to the Grey Knights' plasma siphon" damn it) it's referring back to older models. While the XV15 stealth suits are mentioned along with the XV25s, the exact reasons for their replacement are not listed as they were before. Furthermore the new Broadsides and similarly redesigned models make no mention of the old shoulder mounted variants. Even the Barracuda and Tiger Shark aircraft go largely unmentioned despite the recent introduction of the new Razorshark aircraft in the codex. Still it's a minor gripe for something which was otherwise done fairly well.

4 - More Characters

Let's just put this one down to a yes. Unlike the last codex which just had three characters, this one has six. Along with Aun'Shi being brought back there are new pathfinder and tank commander characters, Longstrike and Darkstrider.

Despite both sounding like heroes Marvel comics would create in the early 90s, the two are fairly well developed in their backgrounds. One being an elite commander with a long history of fighting the forces of the Imperial Guard, while the latter is effectively the tau equivalent of Sly Marbo. Both have detailed histories defining who they are are list their accomplishments. Said accomplishments range from launching a strike against a necron tomb world to shut it down to making the kill-shot on an enemy Warhound Titan. They're both written fairly competently and while their backgrounds make them look impressive they're never written so far as to be completely wanked out invincible. Longstrike for example only held off the Imperial Guard in a major engagement until air strikes could take down the majority of the armour.

The abilities of each are suited largely to the role they are supposed to take. Longstrike boosting a Hammerhead's BS to 5 and giving it the Tank Hunter skill. Darkstrider meanwhile gifts a good number of skills to any unit he joins and allows them to fall back after a successful Overwatch action, also Outflanking. The point is rather than just being out-and-out game breaking combat monsters who will kill everything in their path (looking at you Ward) you actually need to use them tactically. Opt where to place them, when to use them and suit the tau's mobile way of war fairly well.
Their new technology is also fairly interesting to see, with Longstrike having a type of pilot battlesuit which enhances his abilities even further and Darkstrider being armed with an enhanced targeting sensor. Things which are obviously new to the Empire and have been gifted to their best for field testing prior to a (presumably) wider production.

The new characters are not the only improvements. Shadowsun, Farsight and Aun'Va have all had significant expansions to their backgrounds.

Farsight specifically having a good deal more detail to his actions leading up to succeeding from the Empire and with some more ambiguity to his departure. Suggesting that it was in part due to the lack of support the ethereals were showing in his efforts to drive the orks from their space, and to something else. One specific quote from Farsight suggests that his actions might not have been of direct rebellion, but of something else:
"I've seen things you wouldn't believe - Entire worlds in flames, chains of supernovas on the edge of nothingness, the great hole in space. I am changed, an outcast now."
Interpret that however you will.

Aun'Va meanwhile has been detailed in a few more areas, no longer the eternal ethereal he is simply ancient. Having replaced a predicessor at some point as overall spiritual figure of the Empire. His role in battles has also been further excused, in part due to the new nature of the Fire Caste, and in part  due to the inspiration he gives to those he fights alongside.

Shadowsun's role as overall commander of the Third Sphere Expansion has also been more greatly detailed. There is much more emphasis placed upon her tactical knowledge and her capabilities, as well as her mastery of military conquest. Unlike the one we saw in Last of Kiru's Line, this one is actually intelligent and knows how to fight the Imperium. Not being drawn into battles she cannot win, luring the enemy into traps and trying to accomplish victories in single strikes whenever she can.
One particularly enjoyable note was the fact that the Zeist Campaign from Codex: Space Marines was something she allowed to happen. Sacrificing a number of worlds to make the Imperium think it had achieved a victory while they conquered new areas of space. Nice to know someone could turn badly written Ultramarines "WE'RE BETTER THAN YOU!" masturbation into something which actually adds to the universe.

Aun'Shi is more or less unchanged as backgrounds go, but he didn't need to be fixed or altered really.

If there is one really big misstep it's that all these characters are tau. It would have been good to see a general or commander from a race who joined the Empire becoming a part of its military. Perhaps a former Imperial Guard officer, kroot shaper or vespid queen. Someone who could display that it's not just the Fire Caste fighting and give a bit more attention to otherwise ignored races. Again it's something which is a shame, and a clear misstep, but at least what we were given was well written and fairly balanced as things go.

3- Expand Upon The Differences Between The Septs

Unfortunately this one didn't turn up in this book. We do now know more about the Septs of the tau and with greater detail about them, but it's more events and wars than something major. 

Now to give credit where it's due the expansion placed upon the septs was done well. A lot of the changes are for the better and make a lot of interesting points within the Empire. For starters each Sept was changed to not a single world but a series of colonies and surrounding planets. Making the Empire look bigger than before and the tau to have a more sizable presence as a major force in the 40K universe.

In addition to this a lot more detail has been put into what has happened where. For example Vior'la has been noted to have fought against multiple ork Waaghs! and notes specific seasons it goes through. Seasons in which the core planet of the system passes between two suns and endures raging firestorms which batter the planet. It might be more than a little similar to a notable event on Nocturne but it adds more character to the place at least. Further notes have also been added to the history behind certain worlds, such as how Bor'kan was home to the race who first joined the Empire. One who was unfortunately wiped out in a mysterious plague the tau were immune to. It's not much but it's something. Unfortunately however we don't get much beyond this.

There are no brief descriptions of what the major worlds are like, how they interact with others or what makes them stand out. They lack the distinct character which would have benefited certain armies and unfortunately while what we get is interesting it's just not enough to be satisfying.

2 - Make Use Of The Empire's Races And Buff Up The Current Ones

This is another major disappointment. I mentioned in the last article that the game was becoming increasingly close combat orientated. Noting that there was hope that with this new edition of the rules either a new race would be introduced as auxiliaries to fulfill a much needed role as a solid close combat unit. Or that the current races of the vespid and kroot would be buffed so they were more useful.

We got neither.

The kroot have been chaged to give an automatic 6+ save but have lost their additional attacks and the vespid have gained a few buffs in general still feel like a one trick pony. Something to either mop up units or jump out, fire and die. Combined with the lack of immunity to the plasma siphon among tau plasma weaponry this means that the Grey Knights can still be in charge by turn one or two and kill everything with ease. Plus that practically anything which gets into charge range is going to rip the entire tau army a new one. It's a real disappointment especially as time was taken to give the tau a whole slue of new races as part of their Empire.

Along with tau, vespid and humans a lot of new races have been noted. Ranging from sentient crustaceans who excel as engineers to mind controlling parasites who have agreed to join the Empire as equals. Presumably without mind-controlling the tau. There are at least half a dozen new races listed as being a part of the Empire but we never see them. Yeah, there's both no images for any of them nor real descriptions about their relationship with the Empire. This is especially bad with the gue'vessa (human defectors) who we get few to no details about. There are the occasional notes about ones serving as spies on Imperial worlds but besides that we don't really get information on how many there are, what their roles are or how they're regarded.

The book does at least take the time not note that auxiliaries are used, and the tau will need to start recruiting from other races to keep up their military's numbers, but we don't get much else. Again, it's more than we had in the last codex but it's far less than what we'd hoped for.

1- Balance Idealism and Orwellian Influences

Despite the disappointments of the last two areas, this one at least was done right. Jeremy Vetock did an insanely good job at balancing out the two conflicting factors of this race and went about presenting them in exactly the right way: Show them as idealists determined to unite  a warring galaxy, but leave hints of a dark side.

The foremost examples of such a dark side exist within events such as the aforementioned extinction of Bor'kan's original race. Something which could have been a tragic accident which the tau had no part in or an intentional act to give the tau a stronger power-base before moving out to conquer more worlds. While some have been removed plenty exist. Enough instances to satisfy anyone who might be interested in seeing the Tau Empire as a force as bad as everyone else. A lot of language is used to try and present the tau as a conquesting force as well. With terms such as "exploit" turning up frequently and the Fire Caste being presented as the World Eaters were during the Great Crusade. The personal attack dogs of the ethereals who are determined to end all the Empire's enemies and dropped on planets where they're required to kill everything in sight.

At the same time however a lot also presents the tau in a fairly good light. Despite the ruthlessness of their actions in many military campaigns, they allow their enemies the chance to surrender at any point and don't use violence as a first resort  They're very patient, willing to wait decades to have planets join them and tend to regard wars of conquest as being a final solution after all other efforts on their part have failed. Many of the worlds who do join them seem to genuinely be better off as a part of the tau empire, but it never goes so far as to seem like they're their third edition selves.

To put it simply the codex balances out both interpretations of the Tau Empire by effectively making them not nice, but not evil. There are still the aforementioned hints and a "join us or die" mentality but unlike many recent novels it's not so overriding they're simple bad guys. It's really the best thing we could have asked for and it's a good thing Vetock did as good a job as he did in handling a fairly underdeveloped faction of the 40K universe.

Ultimately while Codex: Tau Empire fails to go as far as was hoped, it still managed to get most things right. It's an interesting and definite improvement over what came before and while a few areas leave something to be desired, the writing quality is solid. It's something that should please all but the most ardent of people who hate the tau, and a decent update. Here's hoping we'll be seeing Vetock helming many more codexes in the future.


Warhammer 40,000 and all related characters and media are owned by Games Workshop.

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