Dawn of War Retrospective Part 6: Chaos Rising

Well, this week’s running on thin pickings for covering for the free video game reviews and I need to have this written a bit in advance (I’m writing this on the Thursday before it goes live, at the time of writing), so…back to the retrospective!

So, after Dawn of War II proved that Relic Entertainment still can do the 40k galaxy well, the company was somewhat busy. On top of the release of Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor a mere two months after Dawn of War II, Relic also took the plunge into MMO gaming with Company of Heroes Online, a free standalone game in the series that was in open beta from the 2nd of September 2010 until it was cancelled on the 31st of March 2011. I haven’t been able to play this game, for fairly obvious reasons, but it sounds like it was basically Company of Heroes with a few minor changes to favor the slightly different approach being utilised for an MMO version of the game, which may have made it a hard sell on audiences who could have been understandably going “What’s the point of this game?”

Still, that’s in the future. In March 2010, Relic Entertainment produced the first expansion to Dawn of War II titled Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising, and you don’t need to be a huge 40k fan to be able to guess what race was added back to the series (it’s in the title!).

Where do I think it stands? Well…I’m going to be honest and say that I think it’s the worst Dawn of War game produced by Relic Entertainment, although not for a lack of trying on their part. They add a lot of new things which are actually pretty cool, they take the story of the series in a direction which fans will recognise as starting to bring some of the loose threads from the original games together and they have a lot of interesting ideas…but, in the process, they do some things which hamper the game in ways which JUST drag it under Dawn of War II for me.

Let me state the obvious and say that the game, functionally, hasn’t changed much since Dawn of War II. There’s no real changes of note to the interface and, beyond raising the level cap from 20 to 30, there’s not a lot of note in terms of how the game works which is different from the previous game. It’s a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” on a technical level, really: it’s the deeper stuff where the more noticeable changes have occurred.

From a story perspective, the story is one which is actually pretty good, but does have a few head scratching moments from me as a lore fan. The game has your forces investigating the return of the planet Aurelia from the Warp and stumbling across far deeper and more troubling signs that reveal that there are traitors in the Blood Ravens chapter…and one of them is on your force! Nothing really that deep on a complexity front, I’ll admit, but the story has changed from a “defend the sector” style to a more investigative and personal one which is actually surprisingly interesting to play through. The head scratching moments, unfortunately, are a bit more extreme than might be expected, because having a planet return from the Warp is usually something which warrants an investigation from the Imperial Inquisition, not the chapter who recruits from planets in the same sector, and it begs the question of why the Inquisition did not make a fuss over the issue, since I’d have thought having a planet lost to the Warp would have resulted in a full investigation of the sub-sector for taint and the return of the planet having an investigation as well, with exterminatus a valid option on both occasions. It’s definitely lore nitpicky stuff, though, and it’s not too big an issue unless you’re a cynical complaining nerd like me.

Speaking of story stuff, there are two new additions to the game which are worthy of note. The first are two new locations in the sub-sector: Aurelia itself, which has become an ice world, and a Space Hulk (think a giant flying city full to the brim of lethal creatures that clearly were created from watching too much Aliens and you’re on the right track). You don’t really get a lot of maps over the course of the campaign with either of them, unfortunately (indeed, you only have two missions on the space hulk!), and Aurelia itself isn’t too different from the usual maps, but I feel that the lack of stuff on the space hulk is a huge disappointment, as it offers a lot of really interesting tactical challenges which you don’t really get in the rest of the game and it also serves as a nice throwback to Games Workshop’s original game of Space Hulk in a fun way as well. The second new addition is the corruption mechanic. See, as part of the campaign, your squads can gain corruption for various actions (using corrupted weaponry, using some items, doing actions which are beneficial to Chaos forces, refusing to use units which have requested to be part of some missions and not doing/failing some missions) and, depending on how much corruption you gain over the course of the campaign, the traitor on your forces will be different. There are only two units which can never be the traitor on your force (Davian Thule and the force commander) and there is an option if none of your units generate enough corruption to be the traitor, but the rest of your forces can be the traitor if they generate enough corruption. All of them have fairly understandable reasons for turning to Chaos (save perhaps Thaddius, who basically decides that it would be perfectly sensible to trust a daemon of Chaos…yeah, totally don’t see why that’s a bad idea!) and some of them can get downright tragic if you know your 40k lore in the slightest (Tarkus’ turn, in any other setting, could easily have been commended by his superiors as a case of choosing to save others at the expense of his own soul and Jonah Orion’s turning is downright painful because it’s not his voluntary decision to do it, unlike the others), which really shows the excellent writing on display in the game. You also gain redemption through similar methods as you can gain corruption, although it doesn’t really have a huge impact in game compared to corruption unless you’re trying to go for the full purity ending.

You’d expect this variety to be really good for the game on paper, but there are three problems which I have with the campaign. The first is that there’s not as many missions in Chaos Rising. Now, admittedly, it’s good that Relic decided to remove the constant random missions that became a grind towards the end of the previous game, but it also means that, if you get stuck with the game at any point, you don’t have a lot of other options except to keep replaying the mission you get stuck on and hope you get levels while playing that, which limits your ability to improve your forces if you hit a brick wall because of leveling issues, or playing a tiny number of optional missions which might not even be there in some cases. The second issue is that the campaign is still focused on the Space Marines, which means that you’re still basically playing the same game every time with little to help keep each new playthrough unique beyond the traitor (which isn’t resolved until the end of the game anyway) and the corruption/purity stuff (which doesn’t add a huge amount overall except for traitor stuff). The third issue is that the game ramps up in difficulty a bit quicker than is reasonable, with the final mission in particular being a pain in the backside even on easy because it takes an hour AT BEST to complete, and you can’t quit a mission once you start it. To put this in perspective, I’d played the original game, so I knew what I had to do and what worked and didn’t work for me, and I still found the difficulty got a bit ridiculous even before the halfway mark, with more than a few occasions where I had to resort to falling back to reinforce my forces up to full strength multiple times per rally point (and, again, this is on easy difficulty!), so imagine what it would be like to play the game if you had never played the previous game (which is possible, as Chaos Rising did not require you to have the previous game in order to run it)! Admittedly, I’m not exactly a tactical genius, but, if I’m struggling on what is meant to be the difficulty which introduces you to the game and I’d played all of the previous games in the series before I got to this one, that’s still a problem! I even gave up on finishing the game after spending THREE HOURS (nearly four) on the final level (I’d already seen the endings in the past on YouTube videos, so I knew what happened anyway) only to lose due to one attack from the final boss hitting me when I retreating back to a nearby rally point, wiping out my last active unit, and getting told to redo the whole mission from the very start, which I was not amused with, to say the least. Again, this was on easy difficulty!

Yes, I know it’s not professional to review a game without having actually finished it. Considering what I’ve just said about the final level, though (and that’s not even covering some of the stuff in it I could mention, that’s just the final part I’m on about!), can you really blame me for going “Nope, fuck this!” and moving on?

Anyway, the multiplayer of the game is fairly interesting. While it doesn’t focus so much on base building, it’s worth noting that it DOES still have a base in it, although said base is just one building and two turrets. In multiplayer, you have to capture strategic points across the battlefield to give yourself requisition and power while also keeping within a population cap, which isn’t a huge difference from the previous game on paper. It’s when you get down to the details, though, that things really start getting different. For starters, the power resource is one you can enhance by building a relay on it and adding three generators around it, but, if you lose the resource, you also lose the generators to the enemy (who gets the power you were from them), which can make it a surprisingly tough choice over whether to add generators or not to a location if you’re not convinced you could defend it. You also have to be at a base to reinforce units (although a few units will allow you to reinforce if your army is next to them, like the Land Raider Redeemer), which makes pushes into enemy bases more risky. You can add stuff to units while on the move, but it’s usually just adding squad leaders or weapons (which you can only pick one of per squad) in the case of units or general wargear in the case of character units. You also have to select which hero unit you are going to use in the game, with the units falling under three categories: offense, defence and support. I actually like this move on some levels, as it makes each hero unit more important and allows for some degree of specialisation in the forces, but it rarely adds to much in the long run. I’ve mentioned to HVN that I view it as MOBA-lite gameplay in a way and I think I might actually be onto something, as, if the commanders were more specialised and you were only able to play as the commander you select (with the rest of the game being automated), what you would get would actually not be too far removed from what you see in games like League of Legends and Dota 2. Of course, MOBAs actually pre-date Dawn of War, which I didn’t realise when I made that comment originally, but hey, food for thought for aspiring games developers and modders out there…

Of course, my big complaint is that the multiplayer is noticeably slower than the previous game and you’re actually somewhat punished for offensive tactics due to the nature of the game meaning that base attacks are flat out bad ideas until tier 3, which can take a good while to get towards due to how slowly resources are given to players. I get why it runs like that, but I honestly prefer the faster pace of the previous game, despite the tactics related to it arguably not being quite as deep as what is on display here. Still, it’s fun enough if you approach it with the right expectations and, to be fair, it’s not badly done at all, just not what I personally enjoy from RTS gaming.

A feature I forgot to mention in the last review, but which seems somewhat relevant to mention now, is that you can also play Dawn of War II and its expansions with a friend in single player. How it works is that you have control over your force commander and two units while they have control over two units. It’s actually not a bad idea, I’ll admit, but I don’t see it being a feature most people will end up using simply because it doesn’t really add much to the game overall, and I’ve never found a need for it myself. It might be better if the other player was allowed to bring an entire force of their own rather than just taking control of two units, but that’s just my take on it.

Overall, I have to say that Chaos Rising is the expansion that Dawn of War II deserved to have and is well done, but the single player is let down by an unreasonably harsh difficulty curve towards the end of the game, a smaller number of missions and a campaign which doesn’t diverge enough to make it highly replayable and the multiplayer, while still fun, isn’t exactly going to scratch the itch fans of the original series will have. It’s worth playing if you like Dawn of War II, but I honestly think that Relic were capable of better than they demonstrated with Chaos Rising. Maybe I’m being harsh, considering Chaos Rising is hardly bad at all and does a lot right, but I feel like there were some missed opportunities in the game and some rough edges which needed refinement that, had they been capitalised upon, could have made the game even better.