Developers do listen, you know. If you thought Relic were consciously ignoring the common complaint that Dawn of War 2 was too lightweight, its maps and challenges too relentlessly similar, you’re wrong. Of course, they might get Chaos Rising, the first expansion (albeit standalone), wrong in new and interesting ways, but by all accounts they’re very conscious that, largely speaking, DOW2 didn’t net the same sky-high review scores most of their previous oeuvre has. Chaos Rising is a bigger, broader game, leaving the tactically-rewarding but rinse and repeat skirmish mentality of the parent game’s missions in favour of 15 heavily story-led, handcrafted levels. (There are plenty of non-mandatory, bonus-laden sidemissions, in case your reactive to the number 15 was to start writing something sweary and in capital letters). Each of the main missions is scripted up the wazoo, doling out new challenges and objectives at the point where, in DOW2-plain, the mission would have ended. The Blood Ravens are going on an adventure...
You’ll even have some new toys and mechanics to play with in some missions – for instance, barking marching orders at a platoon of Imperial Guards, or hurling multiple Predator tanks at the enemy. It’s aiming for spectacle and diversity, not simply military masterfulness. At a guess, we’re going to see a similar approach from Starcraft 2.
There’s a bit of a split in terms of how people think about Dawn of War games and story. Go all the way back to the original Dawn of War and you get a few talking heads between missions and a cutscene before and after, but quite transparently there to link and nothing more. As the expansions wear on, and especially by the time we get to Dawn of War 2, the Blood Ravens, the Space Marine chapter created specifically for DOW and since added to Games Workshop’s official Warhamer 40,000 codex, have been fleshed out with hero figures, lore and mystery.
For some people, myself included, this stuff kind of washes over them as a generalised Let’s Kill All The Bad Guys purpose. For others – well, the true nature and history of the Blood Angels is a big deal. Chaos Rising is going to get into that quite a bit, concerning as it does the sudden emergence of a long-lost Imperial planet. This mysterious orb apparently holds archives that fill in the Ravens’ hitherto unknown history, which they’re obviously keen to find out about. Trouble is, the place is also crawling with The Black Legion, a cartel of murderous Chaos Marines. Is there a link? Only SPACE WAR can answer that. So, the more scripted structure serves another purpose beyond giving each mission more of a backbone.
That said, while it’s a more directed affair, it also introduces the concept of choice to Dawn of War. While, tactically-speaking, that’s been there since Dark Crusde, I don’t mean choice in terms of choosing where you’re going to attack next, and how you’re going to do it. I mean in terms of being a bit Bioware. Chaos Rising introduces the Corruption and Purity meters, each of which grants your squads various buffs and penalties depending how far you lean in one direction. This being, fundamentally, a real-time strategy game, this isn’t going to affect conversation options and whether an ork with a dilemma about abortion is going to chat to you or not.
What it does is affect your abilities, the ones you’re already accustomed to from Dawn of War II. Melee bonuses or weaknesses, healing powers or – in the case of Scout Marine boss Cyrus’ highest-end Corruption bonus – strapping a bomb to one of your squad and sending the doomed soul running into the midst of the enemy. The idea is that, no matter which path you head down (and there’s plenty of room for a mix of both), the game doesn’t turn in your favour. With every pleasurable new power must come painful sacrifice. Hopefully some manner of tentacles too.
That said, Corruption isn’t gained by being out and out evil, but rather by bending or dishonouring the Space Marine code. For instance, you might stumble across a Shrine to the Emperor, from which hangs an especially tasty piece of wargear. Grab that, and you’ll be able to biff that much harder. No-one’s hurt by taking it, either. But you’ll have defiled His Sacred Image, which causes you to become slightly Corrupted, and thus more potentially open to the heretical influence of Chaos. It’s a choice between the long game and the short game.
Neatly, you’re not permanently corrupted by your less pious decisions – there’s scope to make choices, or don particular equipment, which replenishes your purity. Optional side-missions can also tip the good/nasty scales – for instance, one to go and rescue a bunch of alien-assaulted Imperial civilians. It’s a bit of hassle for minimal reward, but it’ll wash away some of that Corrupt-o-meter. Is it worth it? Your call. It’s always matter of deciding to be Pure, or Corrupted, or to find a middleground in which your sense of reward and your sense of duty are balanced enough to quiet your conscience. It’s a very RPG mechanic for an RTS to try – but DOW2 is nothing if not determined to be more RPGlike.
The light side/dark side stuff even extends to loot – for instance, a piece of armour that pushes up your purity if you wear it for a while, but carries stats so poxy that you’re going to find missions that much harder. Or one that has ace stats but pushes your I’m A Dick rating sky-high. Interestingly (and presumably so no-one finds particularly cool pieces of loot are totally useless to them), some stuff can, when trashed, transform into something new rather than yield bonus XP as it did in DOW2. Trashing a Corrupt piece of wargear will in some cases turn it into a Purity-blessed one, but with its own positives and negatives. The Diablo-like hunger for Wargear is a big part of Dawn of War II, and, while it’s not to traditional tacticians’ tastes, it’s being amped up in CR. There’s a new tier of Elite-level stuff too, denoted by now-familiar purple text, which’ll really keep the lootfiends busy.
Probably the most interesting element of the Corruption/Purity balancing act is that it’s not universal – each of your seven squads (including the new Librarian, Jonah Orion) climbs the good/bad ladder separately. As well as each gaining new skills depending on what they’ve been up to, they’ll look a little more Imperial or Chaotic, and they’ll have different things to say. There’s a bunch of fun things I’m going to keep under my Spoiler Hat, but suffice to say the story’s affected by your choices.
Oh, and the story picks up a couple of weeks where DOW2 left off – to that end, you can import your old savegame, and have your Marines begin the game at whatever level and with whatever wargear you left ‘em with. If you don’t, they’ll all kick off around level 17, with a decent clutch of pre-assigned goodies. Either way, expect to be drowning in decent new loot very quickly, as the new level cap is 30.
So: an expansion that’s not gone for the easy road of some new maps and a new playable race. I’d by lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed we don’t get a campaign in which we play as one of the other factions – Space Marines are cool, but they have an unfortunate habit of stealing the focus in any 40K game. Still, it’s good that Relic are building up their cast of characters – Cyrus, Avitus, Davian Thule et al are on their way to being more memorable than most RTS characters, apart from the ones with big bald heads and small beards.
There’s also going to be a revised multiplayer mode, most notably adding Chaos as a playable faction. I’ll have a piece about that side of things up on Eurogamer in the next few days, which I’ll link to here once it appears. I’ve also got a bit more to say about the new Librarian character, who I’ll do a new post about very soon.