Version tested: PC
Oh, how to deal with a big fat spoiler? Half the people reading this will be itching to hear what it is, while the other half would rather I burned off all their body hair than even hint at it. It's especially tormenting in the case of this standalone expansion to the Games Workshop strategy role-playing game, because its best feature is in itself a spoiler.
You'll feel outraged when it happens, because something you've quite probably come to rely on is taken irrevocably away from you. That's exactly why it works so well. I was furious when it happened to me, because it occurred just after I'd unlocked an excellent-sounding new ability that relied on the thing in question.
Never got to try it, because of the turn the storyline took. Spitting teeth, I was. It's testament to how much Chaos Rising makes you invest in the people and powers it stars. This is not a simple matter of having certain branches of the tech tree cruelly snapped off. It's about giving you things to care about.
Only on a cartoonish level, of course. Dawn of War II's cast of Space Marine heroes, returning here with a couple of additions, don't really have any personality beyond Clint Eastwood Guy, Angry Newsreader Guy, Sinister Whispering Guy and Tired Robot Guy. To developer Relic's eternal credit, pairing these broad sci-fi stereotypes with immediately memorable and distinct abilities mean Avitus (big guns), Tarkus (small guns), Cyrus (stealth), Thaddeus (jetpacks), Davian Thule (mech suit) and newcomer Jonah Orion (psychic) genuinely lodge in the mind.
I can't think of any other strategy game in which I could name that many characters off the top of my head. Sure, studied players of WarCraft III or Starcraft could beat that number easily, but I'm talking about names and faces that worm their way into your memory without any effort, in the same way the catchphrase-spouting Colonial Marines did in Aliens.
Then again, it's a stretch to call this a strategy game - even more so than it was with Dawn of War II. Famously, Relic decided to drop a big fat dollop of Diablo-like role-playing onto its respected RTS series, turning it into a game of experience points and weapon drops as much as it was one of flanking and cover.
The latter element is further reduced in Chaos Rising, as you quickly end up with so many explosively powerful abilities that there's almost no room for the old mainstays of warfare. The campaign picks up where DOWII left off, raising the level cap from 20 to 30, and so the new abilities complement rather than replace the old ones.
Tactical use of the environment is increasingly important depending on what difficulty setting you're playing, of course, but rapidly and carefully deploying your 15-odd powers is what really turns the tide of battle. You've shaped your little Diablo guys into the forms you want - not just in terms of the loot you've equipped, but also to what extent you've twisted their unwitting little souls.
Chaos Rising is a game of choices. Will you open a defensive gate by disabling its hard-to-reach power generators, or just kick the whole thing down and hang the consequences? Will you take a lengthy detour from your next mission to save an imperilled ally planet? When an army of brother Space Marines wrongly believe you to be a traitor and turn against you, will you slay everyone you meet or sneak around them? Will you pet this cute puppy, or kick it into the nearest canal then tell the little girl who owns it that it always hated her anyway?
In theory, it's Corruption and Redemption rather than good and evil, but hell, you know the score. Each of your squads corrupts individually, bar the morally unshakeable Dreadnought Davian Thule, and as they do they gain access to even weirder, nastier powers. There are penalties to using them, but the upsides are very up - for instance, the Librarian loses his healing ability, but is eventually capable of hypnotising enemy units to fight for you, or summoning a small horde of big, red naked demons.
Thing is, you're not simply deciding to be Shiny Pure Guy or Dark Malicious Nutter. You're juggling a whole bunch of micro-factors in your mind. You might want Jonah's sinister Subjugate power, but you also want Avitus to remain Pure so that he can wear an especially powerful suit of Terminator armour that requires him to have an untarnished soul.
Optional quests and deliberately lame items can remove corruption - but ignoring or rushing side-missions and donning especially tasty wargear will push it up. This system is simultaneously joyous (especially due to the increasingly confused squad leaders' bickering about your/their actions) and a little annoying.
There are a few too many Corruption-gaining conditions, such as not taking certain characters on a mission, deciding not to take an otherwise-optional diversion and activating special powers that twist the soul of everyone you've got in play. Sometimes, it's a bit like being bullied - do this chore, or I'm telling your dad!
Then again, it's a pretty good reflection of the stony-faced, sleepless dedication to the Emperor that all Space Marines are required to demonstrate. It's just a bit of a shame that it's so numerical - you're told Tarkus will be corrupted by a specific number of points if you take him on this mission. Really? He knows exactly how evil he'll become just by looking at the planetary shuttle and thinking about what he's in for?
While DOWII has always been a statistical balancing act, it's a shame the slide towards Chaos isn't more organic. I'm pretty sure Nurgle isn't worried about numbers as he's busy subsuming entire galaxies in pestilence.
Still, it's a great way of making you care about your troops, and adds a welcome layer of thoughtful management to the frantic loot-collection. Decisions on and off the field now carry import; it's rarely a matter of killing everything on the map and then equipping the highest-level stuff in your inventory.
The mission structure has been overhauled to be less shallow, too. Chaos Rising is mercifully free from the infuriating repetition of its predecessor, each main mission a happy bundle of scripting, spectacular environmental destruction and brief mid-scrap cut-scenes.
Relic has come up with a clutch of ways to raise the stakes, sensibly giving up on any lingering pretence that DOWII's single-player is anything like a traditional RTS in favour of plunging you into enormous fights that, while they might look unwinnable, are invisibly tilted in your favour. DOWII's handful of rinse-and-repeat arenas seem like a slightly boring dream once you're brain-deep in Chaos Rising.
The story's good too, mostly due to that thing I can't tell you about, and because your lovely/nasty actions will affect its outcome. Again, it's a long way from being strategy as you know it, but there probably hasn't been a single-player RTS campaign this enjoyable since WarCraft III. And it's also playable in co-op.
There's no saving it all up for skirmish and multiplayer here - by removing the old rules, Relic is able to rocket-launch the story missions to brand new places. It's what Dawn of War II should have been, though sadly it's a little on the short side. I hit the raised level cap a good few missions before the end, which killed the impetus a little.
What of the multiplayer itself? Well, it hasn't enjoyed anywhere near as sweeping changes. It didn't need to, either. While the removal of base-building from DOWII multiplayer felt like a slap to the face of some Dawn of War fans, it made the classic build-and-bash model a little more accessible and a little more tactical.
That approach is maintained here unwaveringly, but with the addition of Chaos as a playable faction and a few new units and tweaks for the four returning races. In many ways it's not a dramatic difference, but it makes a game that once felt a little small into the size it should be. The choice of factions, and in turn the battles, feel significantly bigger - scale through visual variety rather than headcount.
There was always a Chaos-shaped hole in the game, and it's been filled with twisted aplomb. That said, I didn't find their units quite as wild as I'd hoped, as Relic has largely concentrated on using Chaos-ised Space Marine stuff. The abilities and tech trees are different, but as a visual force they can look over-familiar.
However, keep at it and you can summon the giant ball of apocalyptic, vomiting pus that is the Great Unclean One, Chaos' super-unit. He's the most startling, impressive and horrible thing in the game, and there's no pretending that Chaos are just Space Marines with rustier armour once he's on the field.
They absolutely need to be here, but if you didn't get on with DOWII's multiplayer before, their pestilent presence isn't going to provide a way in. Flock instead to the revised Last Stand mode, a co-op standoff against waves of attackers, now playable as any of the game's five races. It doesn't have the last appeal of the multiplayer, but it's a splendid and instantly rewarding way into playing DOWII in company.
All in, Chaos Rising is about as generous an expansion as you could possibly want. The single-player mode could stand to be a lot bigger, but it's gone to incredible lengths to address the main complaints about Dawn of War II. If you passed over DOWII on release, the Gold package released simultaneously with this makes a beautifully fatted offering. The strategy element might have gotten even more lost in favour of spectacle and looting, but it's absolutely worth it. As an epic, brutal adventure in the ever-adored 40K universe, there's nothing to rival it.
9 / 10