So, apparently even Space Marines sometimes find themselves in the middle of a moral dilemma. Not in the traditional sense of course, as the dilemma here takes shape in the form of armour and weaponry corrupted with the evil forces of Chaos. Although providing tasty bonuses in attack, defence, and other stats, equipping a corrupted item will sooner or later result in Avitus, Tarkus, Thaddeus, or another one of your ‘insert name-us here-us’ party members succumbing to the forces of Chaos. With the rise of the Chaos Marines and corruption threatening to destroy the purity of the Space Marines’ recent victory over the Tyranids, the path to victory presented in this stand-alone expansion is literally covered with Faustian bargains - in the form of awesome loot, with awesome stats.
Dawn of War II was a definite departure from the RTS styling’s cultivated by developer Relic over recent years. Starting with the first Dawn of War title, and perfected with their WWII based Company of War series, developer Relic helped define the 21st century real-time strategy game with a string of fantastic games that helped integrate a fully robust 3D environment with equally robust gameplay. Dawn of War II on the other hand felt like an experiment, albeit one that paid off handsomely. With the core engine and battle mechanics kept similar to its RTS counterparts, with cover based tactics, flanking and use of specific unit skills, everything else was based on classic action-RPG concepts pioneered by titles like Diablo, with character levelling, loot finding, and yes, even some grinding. Chaos Rising builds on this foundation whilst addressing some of the faults that could be attributed to the relatively simplistic nature of the original game.
One of the key complaints that players had with Dawn of War II was the repetition of campaign maps and the side-missions, where templates were simply copied and pasted, leading to several identical looking missions. This of course sounds a lot worse than it was, as the style of gameplay, following an action-RPG template, lends itself to repetition and a clear focus on the immediate battles and encounters. Chaos Rising takes a page out of the RTS handbook by introducing mission objectives as a means to design each campaign map and encounter. This leads to an overall shorter campaign, but also one that feels a lot more varied and focussed in the story it’s trying to tell. The introduction of corruption into your party, leads to many alternate objectives and outcomes where usually the easiest or simplest way to approach a target, location or other objective, is the path of corruption.
But what is corruption, and should you really care? Cleverly, this is kept very clear cut with a story that simply proposes that as a Space Marine your duties are that of doing good, which usually means killing various races, in this case the Chaos Marines. Corruption is what led to the rise of the Chaos Marines, who are essentially demon-possessed Space Marines with the same penchant for killing various races, but this time in the name of evil and not the Space Emperor. Dabbling in corruption leads to immediate stat boosts across all skills and abilities. You can try and counteract the long term effects of corruption, or simply ‘go along for the ride’. It’s not really a stretch to succumb to the allure of equipping a piece of kit that will slowly corrupt one of your party members, especially when you’re rewarded when you do so.
The approach is very clear in its challenge to the player, almost taunting you to try and stay pure, trying to trick you into thinking it won’t get you anything apart from an inflated sense of self worth, which unfortunately doesn’t come in the form of a +1 to all skills item. Or will it? Probably not, but avoiding corruption early on does lead to some benefits later in the game.
This new element coupled with a loot-drop rate that has increased by an obscenely nonsensical percentage (say, like 10,000%) means a lot more time spent in the post-mission command centre, going over each item and character layout. More time spent customising your squad’s layout and going over various stats may sound cumbersome and it would be if its implementation was simply throwing dozens of white, green, and purple Chainswords and Bolters at the player. Instead, the objective-based mission structure means that where in the first game you could stick to one squad layout for the duration, trying out new tactics both offensive and defensive plays an integral role in being able to survive each mission in Chaos Rising, especially if you plan on playing the part of pure Space Marine and avoid the oh-so-sweet allure of corruption. This is classic refinement, and cements this new style of play created by Relic as a winner, no question about it.
Chaos Rising won’t win over people who didn’t care for Dawn of War II, as even though there’s a feeling that the level of overall strategy has been increased, the RPG elements have been increased to the point where a fair classification would be to call this game an action-RPG, one where the real-time strategy is simply the battle engine. The story is more character driven; taking the characters developed in Dawn of War II and expanding their roles to inject a more “this time it’s personal” flair with the war against the Chaos Marines. Importing your characters, skills and items from Dawn of War II adds substantially to the immersion, a definite plus for any RPG expansion.
But a drawback to this new threat is less time spent with Orks, Tyranids, and the Eldar, who only really make cameo appearances throughout the campaign. And as mentioned earlier, the campaign length is shorter, covering approximately 15 or so missions of varying length. This would be fine if the title was purely a strategy game, but as this series plays more and more like an RPG, one can’t help but feel that the focus should have been expanded to make for a more lengthy campaign. But being modestly priced and leaving the player with a feeling that the next chapter in this story is around the corner, helps keep these feelings at bay, for the most part.
Apart from the campaign, the introduction of a new race also means new maps, locations and units for the multiplayer component. Much like its predecessor, this portion of the game feels like a separate product, as it keeps some traditional RTS gameplay in the form of unit creation and the capture of strategic points with the battle mechanics of the main game used on a much larger scale. It’s definitely RTS in nature, and coupled with the benefit of being based on a regularly patched and balanced core, it still proves to be a lot of fun, even after being essentially the same thing for over a year now.
Secondary to the standard multiplayer mode is Last Stand (provided as free downloadable content for the original Dawn of War II), which comes with two new heroes to control in Chaos Rising. Following the structure of the campaign, three players team up and take control of heroes whilst trying to survive wave after wave of enemies in a specific arena. There’s no other way to put it other than to say that Last Stand works. It’s simple, easy to pick up and play, and extends the life of the game for those who might not play the competitive nature of the main multiplayer component. The action-RPG lends itself to co-op more so than most titles and its inclusion here with Last Stand and even the co-op campaign (to an extent) shows that Relic are continuing to experiment with the Dawn of War II formula, and succeeding.
Where to from here is now the question. There was a chance that Chaos Rising would make evident some gaping holes in this strategy/RPG hybrid, proving that the way forward would be a step back to strategy. Although not an expansion in the classical sense, Chaos Rising features changes and refinements however large or subtle, across the board. The great thing is that these changes all feel natural, and goes to great lengths to help keep the gameplay feel fresh a second time around. This new direction for Dawn of War is a winner, and one that should continue to impress with each new instalment.