Monday, 14 February 2011

Chaos Rising, but how high?

Greetings, reader; I trust this fresh solar cycle finds you well. I have come this day to tell you a little something of the expansion to Relic’s grim, dark future strategy-RPG Dawn of War II- an expansion by the name of Chaos Rising. I am fully aware that the expansion is a year old, and that a second expansion is almost upon us, and I have no real excuse for the late date of this. Take solace from the fact that you are getting this at all.

Dawn of War, as you really should know, is a series of strategy games set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, a universe with far more horrors and staunch warriors than hope. It’s a science-fantasy setting, where humanity has spread out among the stars, and discovered that the whole galaxy is full of unpleasantness, the mighty Imperium of Man beset from all sides by daemons, aliens and traitors, and held together by the efforts of the superhuman Space Marines and stalwart Imperial Guard.

I spoke of the original Dawn of War 2 some time ago- I was impressed with the way they handled the universe (a universe of which I am fond), of the clever use of the wealth of lore. I liked the gameplay, too, the player needing to make cunning use of cover and specialised troopers to succeed. I liked the story elements, the Space Marines of the Blood Ravens chapter battling to save their recruiting worlds from the barbaric Orks, the enigmatic Eldar and the all-devouring Tyranids. Recently, and with the assistance of a Steam buddy, I managed to finally complete the single-player campaign of the original game, and so moved on to the expansion, which, perhaps foolishly, I had purchased on release date, on the admittedly shaky basis that my future self would thank me.

The sequel is set a year after the events of the original, your Blood Ravens returning to sub-sector Aurelia to investigate the re-emergence of a planet thought lost to the warp (an alternate reality overlapping ours, dangerous but critical to the setting due to its use in faster-than-light travel) and the apparent distress signal sent from the surface of a world that should be devoid of life. Fairly quickly, the marines discover the presence of the Black Legion, Space Marines who have turned from the light of the Emperor of Mankind and devoted themselves instead to the ruinous powers of the Chaos Gods. It comes to light that there is treachery within the ranks of the Blood Ravens, with traitors in the very command of the chapter and within the player’s force itself.

All this is well and good, but what does it mean for gameplay? Well, the introduction of the Chaos Space Marines means a new faction in single and multi-player games. These are similar to their loyalist brothers, but their millennia of exile brings a few notable differences- they lack some of the new and specialised technology available to loyalists, but their experience and the favour of their patron gods lends them an edge in battle, allowing them to summon daemonic creatures and auras to crush their foes.

The corrupting element of Chaos, an important element to the setting, plays a significant role in the campaign, too. The squads under the player’s command have a new “Corruption Meter”, a sliding scale marking the purity of their souls. Corruption is gained by failing objectives, such as rescuing beleaguered scout marines from foes, or using the new “tainted” wargear, items of weaponry and armour that usually have some sort of dark history, offering spectacular power at the cost of damnation. Your marines can redeem themselves by going above and beyond the call of duty on missions, completing additional objectives like assassinating an enemy commander, or taking “penitent” items that have negative effects on their combat prowess to remind them of their duty to the Emperor. Your Marines get additional abilities based upon their level of corruption, too- totally pure squads might have an enhancement to the use of healing items, those with just a little corruption swapping this for gaining health from the killing of foes, and totally corrupted units go to battle with a daemonic bloodthirst. It’s quite cleverly done, with corruption being just slightly easier to attain than redemption, tempting a struggling player to corrupt his force by degrees. Brilliantly, the total accruement of corruption is used to determine which of the player’s allies turns out to be the traitor betraying the Blood Ravens at every turn, a nifty twist in the storyline.

Terminator armour, lightning claws, personal teleporter and orbital bombardment beacon. Is he underdressed? I wouldn't tell him.

In addition to the modifications to the formula brought by the appearance of a corrupting foe, there are some simple additions made as one would expect from an expansion. The maximum level of characters has been raised from 20 to 30, letting players who had maxed their characters in the original still get a sense of progression. New types of weapons have come, too- marines can now use ‘lightning claws’, bladed gauntlets surrounded with an energy field, deadly to armoured infantry, ‘lascannons’, the setting’s iconic anti-tank weapon, projecting a beam of energy that deals ruinous damage to everything but fires about once a week, and ‘melta’ weapons that spray a short ranged stream of superheated matter to cut through anything you can imagine. These are all fairly nifty additions offering the player a little more tactical choice, which is nice in a game where this is a selling point. There’s a new controllable unit, too- a Librarian marine named Jonah Orion. Marine librarians, like the ones found in libraries, are entrusted with the preservation of knowledge and history. Unlike those, however, these ones are also deadly combatants, destroying enemies with blasts of psychic power rather than just stern looks if they are noisy. Jonah has a broad range of abilities, and as such can be used in a variety of battlefield roles- he can smite foes from afar with the power of his mind, slip through the warp to emerge within the matter of an enemy and engage his terrified squadmates in close combat, or use healing powers and protective barriers to take a more passive, defensive role in proceedings. This unit can be very effective, but does require micromanagement of his range of abilities. Lamentably, I suspect to get the most from the Librarian would require more attention and patience than I am prepared to give him.

Loyalist Predator battletanks form an armoured spearhead to be thrust to the heart of the traitorous foe.

The original game’s missions took place on three planets; a lush jungle world, a harsh desert planet, and an urbanised hive-city planet, with a couple map variants on each to keep the player entertained. With the endless randomly-generated missions, these could get tiresome if the player progressed as slowly as I did. The new game has added a couple of settings, first a frozen ice planet, the base of operations for the Chaos forces. This place plays in a fairly similar fashion to the worlds of the last game, but there are a few nice snow effects and suchlike that give it visual appeal if nothing else. The second of the new settings is awesome, though- a Space Hulk, a huge, drifting space vessel forged from the crushed remains of a number of unfortunate ships that slips semi-randomly through space, often containing secrets, always containing nasties. Drawing inspiration from the tabletop game of the same name, missions on the space hulk have the player driving his force through the maze of narrow corridors against a sneaky and deadly foe. Here, I think Relic has outdone itself. Enemies appear from anywhere, bursting from pipes or leaping from overhead, giving the whole thing a tense atmosphere. Adding to the tension, the warp-tainted nature of hulks imposes a time limit on how long your marines can remain before the corruption has a dangerous effect. There’s a real feeling of pressure on the hulk missions as you hunt through the twisted corridors for the relics you seek- your marines combat tangible horrors at every turn even while they whisper and gibber at those within their mind. It was genuinely unnerving to hear the utterly dependable Tarkus rant about how some imagined thing was his and his alone. Unfortunately, the missions aboard the space hulk are precious few, a real shame given their quality.

Chaos Rising, then, is a worthy expansion to a game I enjoyed. It has made many pleasing additions to an already solid formula. I liked the extra wargear options brought in, the storyline with its betrayal and treachery and the thrilling missions on the space hulk. Things I wasn’t so happy with included the fairly short length of the campaign, though I’m not sure whether that’s better or worse than having a hundred new randomly-generated defend missions each day. Relic did give a slightly broader mission range this time, which is also sweet. All in all, I liked Chaos Rising, and not just as a 40K fanboy, and I await the sequel, Dawn of War 2- Retribution, with eagerness.

Tune in next week/month/time I post to see my thoughts on one or more of: Dead Space 2, Bad Company Vietnam, Gran Turismo 5 and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. I can’t wait, can you!? If you know but one thing, know this- it is gonna be rad.

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