Sunday, October 19, 2014

Dark Eldar: 7th edition codex review

The Dark Eldar are the latest army to advance into 7th edition, complete with a Raymond Swanland cover image.

Since the release of the new Dark Eldar codex, the internet has been abuzz with the complaints of angry Dark Eldar players.  Much of this consternation and anger has been focused towards the actual rules in the book, with detractors claiming that it was a shallow and superficial update.  While the book brings the Dark Eldar into the 7th edition, each unit received only a bare minimum of attention, with most units being virtually identical to their previous renditions with minor point cost adjustments and, in some cases, the trimming down of special rules.  And instead of adding a few new units (like the Ork codex), they simply removed some, including almost all the special characters, like the much loved Baron Sathonyx (and Duke Sliscus who I just converted…), and, to the shock of many, even Asdrubael Vect (most assumed he would be the book’s Lord of War, but instead they did not get one). Having read through the book, I can confirm that all of the anger is founded in reality, though anyone who has been following this blog for awhile will know that it rarely tends to dwell too heavily on the rules side of Warhammer 40k. So, this review is more to delve into the imagery of the book. If the rules are a bit underdone, surely the presentation is still top notch? Games Workshop has excelled at that for years. After all, the 7th edition rulebook was one of the most impressive books that Games Workshop has ever released (excellent printing, binding, image curation, etc).  I hate to be the bearer of bad news but, despite Games Workshop’s pedigree, the art direction in the new Dark Eldar codex mimics the rushed nature of the new rules much more than it does the quality found in the new core rulebook.  I would like to use this post to talk about what makes me say this, and comment about the new 7th edition codex format.

Like many of the more recent codexes, each of the unit  illustrations have been replaced with photographs of painted models (the unit illustrations had made up the majority of the artwork in the older codex books). And while the photographs are good, they are far less interesting than illustrations since they are simply the stock GW models with the ‘Eavy Metal paint jobs, images that most of us have seen for years (or could look at on their website).  Gone is the dark, brooding atmosphere seen in the GW illustrations of old, the best of which (from the greats like Karl Kopinski and Paul Dainton) expanded on the ideas showcased in GW’s miniatures, adding interesting flourishes and interpretations to the units.  There have been countless GW illustrations in the codexes that have inspired me to attempt conversions in their likeness (some of the Dark Angel images come to mind), and those illustrations where the primary reason I would buy a new book.

The sorts of dark brooding illustrations that used to fill Games Workshop's books have been an endless source of inspiration.

While the new wrack models are great, a picture of the painted models fails to capture the harrowing intensity and savagery seen in the older illustration.

Even with the unit artwork being replaced, there is still a fair amount of artwork on display in the codex. Unfortunately, the majority of it is not overly impressive. One of the new two-page spreads (one of the only new pieces of artwork) leaves a lot to be desired.  It depicts a Dark Eldar raiding party battling Imperial Guardsmen and Space Marines. All of the Dark Eldar are laughably oversized, their stature rivaling that of the Space Marines they are battling. Nearly all of the new artwork in the book is distinctly different in style from what is typically seen in GW’s books, more closely resembling the art that Fantasy Flight Games uses (much more cartoony). Most notable are the illustrations showing off the color schemes of some of the notable Kabals and Wych Cults, where they recolor the same few images repeatedly.  And while I admit it is nice that they have some artwork that depicts different color schemes, it is a shame that they are so lackluster, particularly when they are repeated over and over again throughout the book.  These pictures are not terrible, but their weapons are so oversized it seems as though it may have been a joke on GW’s part.  For lithe, agile warriors, why do they have splinter rifles that are as large as the warriors themselves?  I suppose we can count our blessings that none were illustrated with splinter cannons, they would likely not fit on the page.

On the left is the original image as it appeared in the last Dark Eldar codex, the right is the recolored one in the new book.  For reasons unknown to me, they nearly completely recreated the Reaver in the foreground, making him look more like the plastic models, losing a lot of his character in the process.

While the lack of new artwork is disappointing, what upsets me most about the new book is their alteration of some of the fantastic artwork seen in the previous Dark Eldar codex. The old codex has an illustration of Reaver jetbike pilots battling tyranid gargoyles that was always a favorite of mine.  While the illustration returned in the new codex, it did so in a completely different form.  Aside from adding some reds and purples to the color palette, the jetbike and rider in the forefront of the image were heavily modified.  The jetbike was increased in size and altered to look closer to the actual plastic models.  The rider was all but completely redone, bulking out his arms and leaving his head unusually small.  By doing this, they removed what made the image unique and original, and ultimately much of what I loved about it.  I am not sure why they had to modify the images at all; adding color is nice I suppose, but not at the cost of compromising the original artist’s vision.  It seems as though they changed them simply for the sake of changing them, rather than to improve them.  Gone are the days of Games Workshop crediting their artists.  It makes me wonder if they even told the creators of the pieces that they were going to modify them with some lazy photoshop work?  Surprisingly they even modified some of the worst artwork in the old codex and managed to make it look even more awkward. This is particularly true with one of the pictures of a Dark Eldar warrior stalking forward with a raider flying overhead. The added color emphasizes some of the flaws in the image like the half-hearted ork casualties and the missing driver of the raider above (see image below to see what I am talking about).

Where is the driver of the raider skimming overhead this warrior? And where is the bladed rudder at the stern of the raider?

What have they done to the tail of that poor Talos? Was there really anything wrong with it before? Now you can’t even see what heavy weapons it is supporting. 

It is also interesting to note that the artwork in the supplemental codex: Haemonculus Covens is nearly all completely new and of a higher quality than that seen in the Dark Eldar codex (this is particularly true when you compare the images of individual wracks to the pictures of individual warriors and/or wyches seen in the Dark Eldar codex.  A similar thing happened with the new Ork codex and the Waaagh! Ghazghkull Supplemental codex.  Maybe a trend is forming where GW focuses their best new work into the supplemental books?  Only time will tell.

Two of the profile images of the basic soldiers from Haemonculus Covens and Dark Eldar respectively.  The wrack images are far more interesting and exciting looking, and also are not simply recolored to show the different Kabals.

As with all the new 7th edition codex books, Raymond Swanland illustrated the cover. Swanland draws heavy influences from Jes Goodwin’s Archon model from the last Dark Eldar release, depicting an Archon wielding a soul trap and a husk blade (complete with a 4 eyed devil-horned helm).  It is a neat illustration, but like most of his others, it is a little pedestrian. Rather than adding his own vision of what an archon might be, he simply recreated a model.  As a result, it really is not going to inspire anyone to create any exciting conversions or explore the Dark Eldar’s rich, if not perverse, background.  Ultimately, I feel this is a shame because some of his first covers (Chaos Space Marines (cover of Blood Gorgons!), and Dark Angels) actually had him flexing his creative muscles, resulting in much more memorable pieces.  Inside the cover is an excellent two page spread of wyches locked in combat with Cadian guardsmen, but the printing is so dark that it is difficult to make anything out.  It ends up as just one more element that makes the book look rushed and unconsidered.

Despite my reservations about the sheer number of photographs in the new codex books, I am pleased that not all of the models displayed in the codex are the ‘Eavy Metal ones.  They include images of several different Dark Eldar armies (Kabal of the Flayed Skull, Lords of the Iron Thorn, etc.) from members of the Games Workshop Studio (I think?).  This helps give the reader several potential color schemes other than the ubiquitous blacks, reds, and turquoise of Asdrubael Vect’s Kabal of the Black Heart. What makes these images even more exciting are the small conversions seen throughout the armies photographed. A conversion shown in a codex? Surely not?  Way back in 3rd edition, conversions and Golden Daemon entries were common in codex books.  Their inclusion served as a source of inspiration, showing other peoples’ vision of the army.  This sort of thing started to disappear from Games Workshop’s books in favor of simply displaying the stock, out-of-the-box, models.  And if you have been in the hobby for any length of time, you really do not need to see the same ‘Eavy Metal models time and time again.  So, I found the inclusion of other peoples’ armies extremely refreshing, and for the first time in years, I actually looked at the model section of the codex.  It helps that the photographs are very nicely taken too, displaying interesting and dynamic views of the models.

For the first time in years, Games Workshop included some people's conversions, this one actually getting the new plastic Archon's pose to almost work.

The pictures throughout the book are very well done, with interesting angles and compositions.  They even focus on non 'Eavy Metal armies.

At this point I have largely just been talking about the art and photography in the book and have made little mention to how the format of the codex book has changed with the new edition of 40k.  Starting with the ork book, the books have undergone some significant revisions, the most notable of which is combining the unit descriptions and their special rules with their points cost and force selection.  And while I rue the loss of that extra section for artwork, I think is simplifies and streamlines things.  No longer do you have to flip between two sections of the book to get all the relevant information for the unit.  It does make the task of determining all of the possible choices for each unit type (HQ, Troops, Fast Attack, etc.) a little more challenging, but I think that is a very minor thing compared to the convenience of being able to find all of the important information for a unit in one place.

Looking back over what I have written in the post, I realize that everything has come off exceedingly negative. While I am certainly disappointed by many aspects of the book, I am still happy GW released another codex for the Dark Eldar.  After they had such a groundbreaking release back in 2009, pretty much anything would be in its shadow.  They have changed around a number of the units to make them more playable (looking at you mandrakes) and added a formation allowing you to take 6 fast attack choices! With the razorwing shifting to the fast attack slot I believe I will have to look into assembling some (they also have much fewer pieces than the ravagers, so they will go together much faster). Furthermore, GW did a great job of printing and binding the book as usual, so hats off to them for that. With a little luck I will actually play some games with the Dark Eldar with this new ruleset!

- Adam Wier


  1. Hmm, this post has really made me rather thoughtful about several of GW's recent decisions regarding the design, layout and composition of a codex:

    For one, I wholeheartedly agree about the artwork: A Codex should not only provide the rules you need to play a given army, it should also be a repository of background and artwork that gives you an impression of the look and feel of the army. Artwork can be an immense help here, especially in the cases where it doesn't limit itself to picturing battle scenes (I remember an article in WD a while back where it was expressly stated that a Codex allowed the artists to explore elements of the background that don't actually appear on the table). Replacing more and more artwork with photos of miniatures therefore makes everything that isn't the rules feel more and more obsolete. But, as you said, it seems like they are actively trying to shift this part over to the background-related supplementary publications (which makes sense from a business perspective, but still seems like a bit of a dick move).

    What's more, touching up the art to better reflect the models does have a "Ministry of Truth" feel to it somehow: I mean, who's actually taking offense if the art doesn't look like a perfect representation of the models? I'd much rather see the artistic integrity being kept intact, for crying out loud...

    This does, however, seem to be part of a bigger paradigm shift: Axe all the characters/units that don't have models, show no more pictures of conversions, have all the artwork perfectly represent the current models or replace the artwork with photos entirely -- it does seem like there's a bigger plan at work here, although I'll be damned if I can make sense of it...

    1. Yeah the element that bothers me the most is how they seemingly do not respect the artists’ work and change things for no real reason. It seems to be an attempt to sell more models by giving a very accurate depiction of what models you can buy, but in doing so they are leaching out a lot of what makes each race interesting. I like seeing different interpretations of the inhabitants of the 41st millennium. I do not think the sculptor’s vision is the only one, and it is not inherently better than the illustrator’s, so when I see an illustration that is just a depiction of a model, I feel it is a missed opportunity, potential creativity and inspiration untapped.

      The seemingly unlimited creative energy that used to be displayed through writing, artwork, models, conversions, and painting are slowly being reduced to just models and their paint jobs (likely because it is cheaper and easier?). And ultimately I feel this makes the hobby a lot less interesting than it had been. Thankfully the internet has allowed like-minded individuals like yourself to share ideas and express their own vision of the grim darkness of the 41st millenium, so the loss is not nearly so hard to handle.

    2. The more I think about it, the more I realise that the function of artwork in GW's publication is to provide something that the mere models cannot: Like I said earlier, one particularly important thing is that the art can focus on stuff we never get to see on the table: everyday Imperial life, the city of Commorragh, what a Craftworld looks like, the High Lords of Terra,...or what a unit actually looks like the midst of battle.

      The other function, for me, is to inspire: to give me new ideas for conversions, colour schemes and what have you. If you take both aspects away by relegating the artwork to showing 100% accurate representations of actual models, you might just as well leave it out altogether.

      This also shows how much 40k (as well as WFB, for that matter), have been about the artwork: Sure, it's the models that draw you in, but the art really sells the setting and makes it clear that this is something else. It seems strange that they would compromise one of their biggest areas of expertise like that...