The few, the proud, the Chaos Space Marines

Warhammer 40,000 ‘Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising’ review

| Cadenza Reporter
Courtesy of Games Workshop Limited

These are just a few of the squads of Space Marines you’ll be commanding during your time with “Chaos Rising.” That’s Avitus there on the heavy bolter. He’s rugged. Maybe even too rugged.

I think it is fitting that I chose to trade my extra “Starcraft II” beta key for a copy of “Chaos Rising,” but I’m not here to discuss the details of the long-awaited sequel to “Starcraft.” Rather, playing the two real-time strategy games back-to-back is an experience that shows just how far “Dawn of War” developer Relic has strayed from the fundamental basics that have defined the genre for the past 12 years. The developer has a history of making innovative strategy games, but its latest effort, last year’s “Dawn of War II,” was an entirely different beast.

Whereas previous games were already light on base building, “Dawn of War II” eliminated it altogether. Sweeping changes carried over to the campaign, which now played like a tactical squad-based action RPG, experience and random loot included. Relic had created an exciting hybrid, but it wasn’t without teething problems. The campaign suffered from repetition and an overabundance of identical side missions, while the lack of base building was simply too far removed from tradition for a number of longtime players.

Though there’s still no base building in sight, Relic has addressed the repetitive campaign and fully embraced the RPG elements that made the vanilla campaign so addictive. The corruption mechanic, which influences both your squads’ attributes and the story itself, provides plenty of incentive for repeated playthroughs. It’s an expansion done right.

The series takes place in the Warhammer 40K universe, a deliberately over-the-top setting that includes talk of daemons, gene-seeds and lascannons. The game’s plot centered on a single chapter of Space Marines, the Blood Ravens, who successfully defended sub-sector Aurelia from the Tyranid Hive Fleet. Set soon after these events, “Chaos Rising” sees the ice planet Aurelia re-emerging from the Warp, bringing with it the impossibly evil Chaos Space Marines.

It sounds like a backhanded compliment, but the game’s story is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. True to Warhammer 40K’s maximalist style, each of your squad leaders is based on a different manly stereotype, with just as many different voice actors’ interpretations of “battle-hardened badass.” Compared to the vanilla game’s mindless Tyranid threat—imagine the Zerg without Kerrigan—the forces of Chaos make for interesting villains, while talk of a traitor among your merry band of testosterone sponges adds a healthy dose of mystery to the proceedings.

Taking cues and technology from Relic’s past titles, “Dawn of War II” is heavy on the use of tactics, abilities and micromanagement. It has a full-fledged cover system, meaning squads of soldiers will automatically huddle behind a fallen statue to reduce incoming ranged damage. Squads can set up mounted machine guns and suppress enemy units, slowing them to a crawl and forcing them to retreat. Assault space marines knock units back upon landing from a jetpack jump before drawing alien blood with their chainswords. Buildings can be leveled with explosives, wall tanks can barrel through walls, and the wreckage of said vehicles can be used as cover. It’s dynamic, violent and supremely satisfying.

But is “Dawn of War II” still a real-time strategy game? It’s nearly impossible to argue that the campaign is more “Diablo” than anything else. At the squad loadout screen, you’ll spend experience points to level up stats and unlock traits for each squad. Traits augment stats or powers—one of Tarkus’ traits extends the suppression-breaking effects of his Tactical Advance power to other squads. Oh, and there’s loot, but really, nowadays there always is. Wargear, as it’s called here, is done quite well, with rarer weapons having stupidly overpowered bonuses.

The new twist is the addition of a corruption bar to each squad’s details, which is filled by either completing certain objectives or wearing corrupting war gear. Corruption unlocks traits tainted with Chaos and can change the story in several ways. It’s well-done, but not quite as fully incorporated into the game as I had hoped. Branching objectives aren’t always present, and there’s a heavy imbalance in the bonuses you get for staying pure, as if the feature mainly caters to players who go for fully corrupt squads.

Relic went out of its way to trim almost every ounce of fat from the “Chaos Rising” campaign, making sure that each mission was filled to the brim with scripted events and varied objectives. Before purging the final Chaos daemon, you’ll have defended a governor’s mansion from an onslaught of Orks and scoured the Tyranid-infested halls of a derelict cruiser for its ancient logic engine. The campaign plunders all it can from the expansive Warhammer 40K universe, and no engagement is similar to the one before it. The breakneck pace at which you encounter new enemies and environments makes “Chaos Rising” one of the finest RTS campaigns in years.

Your hard-spent cash will buy you the new “Chaos Rising” campaign and access to Chaos Space Marines as a playable faction in the competitive multiplayer mode, which is still as exciting and unforgiving as ever. They’re the fifth faction to join the ranks of “Dawn of War II,” alongside the Space Marines, Orks, Eldar and Tyranid. Also included are two new heroes for the Last Stand cooperative survival multiplayer mode, an addictive and rather splendid encapsulation of the game’s brutal combat. I’ve spent almost 10 hours in Last Stand mode alone and only reached half of the level cap with two out of five heroes.

“Chaos Rising” really has very few missteps, and the only complaint I have is the price. If you don’t plan on playing multiplayer, $30 may be rather steep, especially when a bundle with the vanilla game goes for only $10 more. It won’t fill the gaping barracks-sized hole in base builders’ hearts, but everything that made “Dawn of War II” the most thrilling RTS I’ve played—jetpacks, chainswords, gratuitous violence and myriad tactical options—all make their triumphant return in the expansion.