Despite having only reviewed Dawn of War: Soulstorm and Dawn of War II, two of the now six titles in the series, I have played to completion every Relic-developed Warhammer 40,000 title to date. Even then, I can admit that Warhammer is something of an acquired taste; its hulked-up armored troops might be more palatable post Gears of War, but the over-the-top pomp and rhetoric can just as easily turn people off with their blatant ridiculouslessness. If you’ve made it to this release though, I can only assume that you find the universe as charming as I do with all of its impossibly large guns, tweaked Roman iconography, and chainsaw swords.
Relic’s handling of the lore really is one of the unsung achievements of the Dawn of War series. Instead of relying on a fan-favorite chapter, they created their own and put them in a period of time where their actions can’t ‘break’ the admittedly already wobbly continuity but lead them into larger, known events. By setting their series within and yet slightly apart from the universe, they created immediately approachable stories that were easy for newcomers to get into and filled with wink and nods for long-time fans to enjoy. They also nailed the presentation and spirit of the franchise by treating the source material with a great deal of respect. And now, with Chaos Rising, Relic has dipped into its own lore to further the adventures of what have become some of the genre’s more memorable characters.
To the newcomer, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II - Chaos Rising (Chaos Rising) is a self-contained experience with enough references to past events so that everyone will quickly get up to speed as to the hows and whys they find themselves in sub-sector Aurelia. You quickly learn that you, as commander of an elite squad, fought off a potentially calamitous invasion and have since been called back to investigate a distress signal. Veterans will know all about the Tyranid invasion and immediately recognize familiar faces and locales, as well as appreciate the ability to import their maxed commander and take advantage of the new level cap bump up to 30. New commanders will start at level 18 and be able to allocate a small pool of experience points towards the categories – stamina (health), strength (melee), ranged combat, and will (energy) – whose abilities peak their interest. So the basic setup is still the same: you lead an elite squad of three sergeants, seven total, who each specialize in a field of combat and have special abilities therein. Mission performance is still graded based on fury (percent of enemies killed), resilience (percent of sergeants who weren’t knocked out), and speed, which average into an overall score. The game is as chaotic and violent as ever.
The core mechanics are easy to grasp, with each sergeant having access to those weapons, armor, items and special objects that fit their role. So if you want to snipe a rocket-toting Ork, then you put Cyrus and his scouts into infiltration mode and have them creep around obstacles and use the snipe ability; if a map has a lot of choke points, then you select Avitus and his heavy weapon squad to set up a fallback point if things get out of hand. But there have been some fundamental changes as well, and many for the better.
While I still wish Dawn of War II had gone more towards the Company of Heroes’ tactical route, making cover even more important, Chaos Rising finds a novel way of sidestepping that complaint by largely ignoring the actions necessitating such actions. Instead of focusing on squad combat, the commander and his sergeants are now so strong that the game has gone even further towards being a party-based role-playing game with a core group of power-wielding characters and a few hangers-on. Especially with the new solo Librarian, Jonah Orion, who happens to be awesome, the game is focused much more on the leaders rather than their support squads. The result is that now you don’t feel as if all of the soldiers count as they did before, only that they are sufficient enough fodder to keep their commander from falling. The greater prominence makes sense when you take into account the level at which the squad starts at in the beginning; it would be difficult to balance out why a commander at level 25 was having just as much trouble with a squad of Orks as they did at level 15. Still, it’s a shame the cover system has been set by the wayside when it was so close to being just right.
The overall design is also more focused. Dawn of War II consisted of a series of missions, some mandatory and some optional, that involved repeating the same actions: fighting bosses, defending and capturing structures. Chaos Rising sweeps that approach away and combines all of the elements into a tight campaign. Indeed, the campaign is so focused that it is almost too short. The new Chaos Corruption System does give it some legs, offering new powers and multiple endings depending on how far you fall; and I have a feeling many will do what I did and immediately start with a new squad, which does have a tougher time, to see what the opposite experience is like. Now, instead of jumping from one objective type to another, they are combined to where a summons to reinforce embattled Imperial Guardsmen will lead to one of those frustratingly erratic bosses as from before; the constant change of pace keeps the lengthier missions fast and exciting. Grinding has in general been abandoned for advancing the storyline at a brisk pace, keeping interest high until the end. Relic also kept the ability to trade in dropped loot (‘wargear’) for experience, which not only acts as a strong incentive to go after every enemy – loooooot – but it also picks up the slack to ensure that the main commander’s level cap is reached by the final mission; my new commander reached it a few missions prior.
The introduction of the Chaos faction will also provide an incentive to continue. Throughout the campaign, several objectives are given which will either corrupt or redeem the squad. Each alignment provides different traits and abilities that lock out one another as you veer towards being an agent of Chaos or a righteous hand of the Emperor. The implementation is a bit trite, with the alignment-shifting objectives clearly pointed out and subtlety thrown out for a blatant ‘I’m killing people and I’m crazy!’ The shift does bring more than just a swapping of powers though as dissention appears within the squad. Thaddeus, commander of the heavy melee infantry, will voice his concern about straying from the path while the stoic David Thule, a marine whose gene-seed is now encased within a giant armor husk (with massive guns attached), will be the most vocal regarding his disapproval. But the call of Chaos is strong, and even the wise Librarian can become corrupt. It’s a shame that the squad’s appearance doesn’t really change alongside their shifting mannerisms and powers, because I’d love to see some gnarly versions of each slowly take form. In the end, as wild of a faction as Chaos is, it ends up coming across as a little tame.
Relic has also continued to deliver a solid campaign that ends on a cliffhanger – a specialty of theirs. As mentioned earlier, they have found a way to integrate many of their own stories into Chaos Rising, bringing their entire run full circle. The characters from Dawn of War II are the more obvious returns, but the real treat is whenever you realize all of the nods to Dawn of War: Dark Crusade. Keeping in mind that Dark Crusade is going on four years old, seeing several characters reappear, and as prominently as they, do is a real treat. The old squad, who should by all rights be as engaging as a silver ingot, somehow remains endearing with their stiff banter and calls for glory. A new addition that has added a bit more personality are the side conversations where characters share information or press another on a subject. And of course an epic struggle is set up for the next release, which I freely admit to already anticipating.
I did, unfortunately, have some technical issues. Pathfinding had some hiccups which led to a few messy skirmishes as a squad would take the long way around, and Avitus’ crew got stuck between objects and would often be late to respond to orders. Some cutscenes also had light flickering. Oh, and I encountered a particularly nasty crash just as I defeated the last boss with full Chaos alignment. This one is especially painful because it happens in mid dialogue, which means you have to repeat the entire mission again, including the ridiculously long final battle. The crash has several topics dedicated to it on Relic’s forums, and at least one seven-page thread has a few Relic employees commenting that they are working on the issue, but as of the time of this writing there is no fix. Their advise is to reload and replay the mission, which worked for me but hasn’t for others. Although the game does allow for mid-mission saves, they are of the save-and-exit variety and not a means of circumventing any persistent crashes. Relic is known for supporting their products, as the lengthy Company of Heroes updating process illustrates, so I would expect a patch in the near future.
Multiplayer was also beefed up with additional support for the base mode and for the fairly recent The Last Stand mode. The Last Stand is essentially Horde Mode but with some interesting role-playing aspects, in that you can take a character from one of the five races (Eldar, Imperium of Man, Ork, Tyranid, and Chaos) and level them up with new gear and abilities by fending off waves of enemies with two friends. The various multipliers and unlockes make the mode incredibly addictive as you are constantly unlocking and mastering new techniques. The base mode has also been updated with additional commanders, units, and the addition of Chaos Space Marines. One to six players can take part in public or private matches – AI taking over for non-player commanders – in Annihilate, Free For All, Team Free For All, and Point Condition.
Commanders are broken down into one of three combat types, each with powers focusing on their field of expertise, and, along with their squad, have powers and items that can be purchased alongside structure upgrades. Multiplayer isn’t a traditional strategy design in the base-building sense, but you do get a hint of that as you acquire points, build upgrades, and train troops from a headquarters. In addition to all sorts of craftworlds and chapters being selectedable there is also an Army Painter mode, so that you can customize your commander and troops’ multiplayer look – a nice nod to the tabletop game. Multiplayer stats are also tracked for all modes, making for a very robust component.
Dawn of War II – Chaos Rising is a no-brainer for fans of the series and heartily recommended for fans of the genre. The nagging pathfinding issues and end-game crash soured things a little, but the overall package of a tight campaign combined with multiple endings, new alignment system, new units, series-encompassing storyline, and rejuvenated multiplayer make Chaos Rising an incredibly strong release. So while it may have a few problems that need to be patched out, and I do feel for those affected, it’s also a complete blast and a treat for fans of the franchise.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)