Chaos falling

May 23, 2010

I would like to take up some time and server storage space to communicate my opinion of Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising, the first expansion to Dawn of War II, which was released on Steam and in brick and mortar flophouses in March.

Chaos Rising stinks of wee.

Let me elaborate.  DoW II was a triumph.  More than the first DoW ever did, it captured the tremendous scale of the Warhammer 40k universe.  On the campaign map, spanning the awesome gulf of space between three planets in the Aurelia subsector, the enormous tendrils of a Tyranid hive fleet could be seen slowly advancing.  Zooming in to orbit around the planets themselves, those tendrils divided into swarms, descending to devour all life below.  And further down, at the level of the pre-mission briefings, those swarms became soaring, pestilent skyscrapers.

At the mission stage, you took control of a band of ultimate badasses: spacemarines, the only kind of ultimate badasses who make Marcus Fenix, of Gears of War fame, look like a pathetic insect.  They’re ten feet tall superhumans, wielding weapons with the power to disintegrate buildings, but they have to be, because they’re facing creatures who are equally gigantic and even more fearless.

Even down at the level of each marine, you could feel the colossal forces at work; bolters, heavy bolters and chainguns spewing relentless devastation, terminators and dreadnoughts walking through walls as if they weren’t there, artillery raining hell from the sky.  It all amounted to a masterpiece of animation and sound engineering, backed up by an epic, hair-raising orchestral score.

Quite apart from all the above, it featured some particularly well produced gameplay elements.  At the time of its release, it represented the latest in a family line of well renowned real time strategy titles created by Relic, including the original DoW, and Company of Heroes. Among the traits it inherited form both games were a pervasive attention to detail, an emphasis on impressive visual effects, strongly enforced cover and terrain mechanics, and a ‘take and hold’ theme requiring the player to capture points around the map to achieve victory.

But it also represented a significant evolution in terms of the richness of content on offer.  First and foremost, the cooperative campaign, also playable in single player, which divided control of squads between two players.

Coop strategy games being an extremely rare breed, this was a very exciting prospect long before the game’s release, but it more than managed to live up to expectations.  It successfully mixed a sophisticated character development system with a much improved take on the lively and engrossing gameplay of the original DoW.

Above the fighting, there was the aforementioned campaign map, which took the concept of the playing field in Dawn of War‘s second expansion, Dark Crusade, and greatly expanded it.  Where Dark Crusade‘s map consisted of a flat jigsaw of regions offering the player a limited choice of strategic direction, DOW II‘s split the carnage over three planets, each with it’s own set of conflict zones and unique environments.

Perhaps the closest comparison would be between two-dimensional and three-dimensional chess (admittedly my only experience of 3D chess coming from having watched Spock and Riker play it in Star Trek).  A single turn in Dark Crusade would only ever demand a basic decision making process: do I attack here or over there, or do I defend that region from a Necron invasion?  In DOW II, you have to think about the context of your next move, not just its immediate pluses and minuses.

At every point, regions on all three worlds would come under attack.  Each region contained vital strategic assets, each asset bestowing a different bonus.  And these missions were frequently on a countdown, so that if you failed to respond within a set time frame, the region would be lost.  On top of all that, travelling between the planets—think of Riker moving his knight up to the third level of the chess board, placing a dumb, big-eared ferengi’s king in check—would (realistically) take time.

The combination of all these factors meant that you were forced to make complicated decisions about the priority of objectives, and consider a plan of action three or four steps ahead.  It was rarely possible to hold on to every region at once.  As in real war (again, speaking from a wealth of experience), sacrifices had to be made along the way to final victory.

All totally brilliant.

What Chaos Rising does is cock everything up.  Yes, it carries on the tradition of splendid graphical effects, putting on a satisfying Michael Bay style lightshow with enough explosions to crack open a small moon.  And yes, it does still have that signature Warhammer feel.  But there are so many things achieved in DoW II that have been bastardised or lost completely.

Starting at the beginning (as you do if you’re not a total buffoon), I was utterly bamboozled by the amount of new stuff thrown at me.   Handily, I hadn’t been away from DoW II for long.  I had completed the original campaign (for the third or fourth time) not long before, so everything was fresh in my mind.

I knew how to best deploy my squads, I remembered how I had spent skill points, and I knew what gear I had equipped.  That ought to have softened the blow, and perhaps it did imperceptively, but just a few missions in, I was up the creek (and yes I do mean that creek) without a paddle… or even a boat.

First you have to confront the new skill selection on offer.  With four skill bars—health, melee, ranged and energy—for each squad, each one now longer and incorporating two or more extra feats, you’ll need to spend half an hour on the deployment screen sifting through data after the first mission.

The second mission plops an extra (one man) squad into the mix, Jonah Orion, who is (and congrats to Relic on this point) absolutely nothing like any of the other chaps.  So, there’s another half an hour gone figuring out what the hell Jonah is meant to be, and another half calculating how you want to specialise him.

He also uses a completely new and separate set of gear types (force staves, mantles, tomes and the rest) which I was of course unfamiliar with.  All I could do was roll the dice and experiment, perhaps a joyous challenge for some, but a torturous nightmare for me.

A mission or so later, the lauded corruption system kicks in.  Suddenly there’s a barometer on the deployment screen for each squad, gauging how much of an evil shit you are.  At the outset, you’re all paragons of righteousness, waffling on about how great the Emperor is, praising the Primarchs, and quoting the juiciest bits of the Adeptus Astartes like it’s going out of fashion.  At the other end of the spectrum, you’re “lost to the Dark Gods”, wreaking havoc with Sith-like magical feats and siphoning lifeforce from your enemies like an uber vampire.

I think what Relic have tried to do with corruption is make it extremely difficult for players to stay on the side of light, and extremely easy to fall into darkness.  As it happens, I think that, as an idea to build the system from, this probably would have made a lot of sense to me if I had been present during the early design stages.  It intuitively matches our view of good and evil at the very least: that, as Al Pacino so eloquently phrases it in A Scent of a Woman, “I always knew what the right path was.  Without exception, I knew, but I never took it.  You know why?  It was too damn hard.”

What seems to have occurred is that the idea has been interpreted rather too straightforwardly, the result being that from start to finish, attempts to do good deeds often fail, and when they succeed, are usually not good enough to offset the much stronger tidal force of evil.

Of the choices you’re presented with in most missions that count toward your corruption or redemption, most are contrived and devoid of any personal involvement.  Am I necessarily evil if I pursue the primary objective (attacking the enemy base) at the expense of rescuing an Imperial Guard squad from their demise?  No, this is a top-level, strategic decision.  If, amidst the chaos of storming an entrenched enemy squad, a sacred space marine memorial statue is tragically toppled by a stray grenade, are all my squads tainted?  Are they all poisonous wretches cursed to walk the path of the eternally damned?  Only if you’re crazy.

Like the other new features, there’s also no manual or set of instructions for corruption.  One or two short tips pop up on loading screens, but these never go any further than an overview.  This led to annoying consequences in my coop game, in which a friend and I were left totally unaware of several quite crucial mechanics.  We found out about these the old fashioned way: by screwing up.

For example, squads will eventually desert you if you became too corrupt.  We bid a fond farewell to Davian Thule, who, after moaning for a while that our actions were reprehensible (not that we felt they were), left us to finish the second half of the campaign without him.  This was the Davian who we had nurtured from baby steps into a thundering juggernaut over the course of DoW II‘s almost countless missions.  He was a vital part of our team.

You’re also not told that once a squad has reached the final stage of corruption, it is stuck there permanently, never to be redeemed.  And that squad will drag the others into the mud, because corruption is like a contagion: most of the corruption abilities, when used, add to your corruption points but also corrupt squads fighting alongside.  This means that if one player wants to have a go at being a baddy, his partner had better feel the same or he’s in for a hard time.

Corruption could have been very cool.  It should have spoken to the Darth Vader fanboy in all of us, acknowledging the complexity of moral decisions which, in a fantasy world, can either lead a character to sainthood (halo and all), or fiery, lightningey wrath.  Sadly it’s probably the worst thing about the expansion.

Actually no, I take that back.  The missions are the worst thing.  Although I can point to one, or maybe two, which I geniuinely enjoyed—the first one that takes place on the space hulk had some clever little moments—they’re mostly either barely satisfactory or obviously in need of further playtesting.

The second mission stands out in my mind as being especially poor, although it’s failings are not unique.  It takes place on a barren world coated in ice and snow, and that’s a problem in itself.  Because everything is painted white, it’s often a struggle to pick out the important details, like the presence of useable cover.

It’s here that you meet the new guy, Jonah, for the first time, which ought to be exciting.  Instead, his arrival, while timely, suddenly diverts you away from the action and locks you into an in-game cutscene.  This is certainly irritating, but even worse once you realise how pointless and shoddy the cutscene is.  A bizarre choice of camera angle, a pathfinding glitch and an embarrassing battle cry from Jonah completely ruin any sense of cinematic drama.

The structure of the mission’s first half: a hike through a long, winding maze of canyons populated by frozen eldar warriors, manages to build some tension by drawing on the classic hive scene in Aliens.  Even this is wasted though, because there’s no soundtrack to speak of and the climax is so predictable.  An ambush is clearly on the cards and it is sprung in the most tedious way you can imagine.

At the top of the map, you reach an eldar base, which you must destroy while fending off the ambush.  But because you have no explosives or other weapons capable of blowing up buildings within a sensible timeframe, this takes ages and slows the pace of the action to a standstill.

Then, all of a sudden, Davian, who stayed behind to guard the corpse of a fellow space marine from looters at the bottom of the map, comes under attack.  This triggers an hourglass style timer which actually indicates Davian’s decreasing health.  What’s puzzling is how stunningly fast it decreases; so fast in fact that it will probably leave you, as it did me, concluding that you’re destined to fail – that it is a ‘fake’ objective created purely to build some drama before Davian’s final heroic death.

Not so.  You do have to meet up with Davian, and you have to make the journey back through the maze of canyons, where the eldar have finished thawing and have set up almost impenetrable blockades.  My description cannot convey how close to impossible this really is.  And if you’re too late, you don’t just lose Davian (no, that comes later when you upset him by using too many weapons with skulls on them); you fail the mission entirely and have to start again… from the beginning.

There are plenty of objectives like this in other missions, where there’s apparently no way in hell to succeed, but most of the time you’re let off more lightly with a few corruption points.  Whatever the punishment in each case though, it is clear that someone at Relic has not been pulling their weight.  It’s not right to say that this is a ‘hardcore’ experience, as if that’s a positive point.  I would classify it instead as broken gameplay.

You’d think that perhaps the invading forces of Chaos could’ve made things a touch more exciting.  But sadly, the main Chaos characters —traitorous, backstabbing whelp Eliphas and his master Araghast the Pillager—are unmitigated buffoons.

They ought to have been depicted in far more ruthless light, grand ministers of suffering and obliteration, slurping the blood of space marines and revelling in unholiness.  But Araghast especially presents himself as a mad fool, grasping at conquests far beyond his reach, and baiting our lads into ill-planned traps, screaming at the top of his lungs like a psychopath on a steroid overdose.

Apart from the characters leading the fray, the rank and file soldiers of Chaos are also underwhelming.  I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but I do know that the Tyranids and the Orks, principal adversaries in the DoW II campaign, were far more entertaining and challenging to fight.  The Tyranids were frequently next to impossible to beat because of their relentless, overwhelming savagery.  They came in hordes but they weren’t easy to kill by any stretch of the imagination.  And the Orks were a reliable source of hilarity; loud, crude and obnoxious slapstick figures amidst the inescapable seriousness of the puritanical space marines.

Funnily enough, the impression I’ve received (and this might’ve come across through selected reading) from games critics in general is that DoW II was a bit of a let-down, and Chaos Rising drags it out of the mud.  This is so magnificently insane that it makes everyday, asylum-based insanity look like minor eccentricity.  It’s sort of like saying (and forgive me for returning to my reserve of Star Trek analogies once again) that Wrath of Khan is better than The Undiscovered Countryan equally perplexing attitude.

If I were still scoring games—which I’m not because I’m far more pretentious now than I was when I wrote some of my earlier reviews—I couldn’t bring myself to mark Chaos Rising any higher than 70%.  Side-by-side with the new Aliens vs Predator—another title which has taken a huge steaming dump on its predecessor—it has sorely disappointed me.  I must therefore curse Relic, and Rebellion (who bodged up Aliens vs Predator good and proper), to eternal shame.  A plague on both their houses.