Most real time strategy expansions follow a typical formula: they add at least one new faction, some new units, a handful of new maps and maybe some extra single-player content. While Chaos Rising, the new expansion for Relic's amazing Dawn of War II, follows this formula closely, it's the depth and quality of the new campaign, units and maps that sets it apart from most expansions.
Dawn of War II players have been treated to a bevy of free updates that have added new modes like Last Stand, and THQ has wisely decided to make most of the multiplayer content found in Chaos Rising available to every Dawn of War II owner through a patch. That means whether you buy the expansion or not, you'll have access to new units and maps. It might sound like a foolish business decision, why buy the spaceship when you can get the stardrive for free, but there is a fairly worthwhile incentive for paying the purchase price: you get access to Chaos Rising's new single-player experience as well as the Chaos Space Marine faction in online multiplayer.
Chaos Rising's single-player campaign centres on the Chaos Space Marines, a faction of dark magic wielding anarchists who are the antithesis of the self-righteous Space Marines. If you simplified their beliefs, you could condense them down into the Light Side and the Dark Side, but there's actually a pretty strong backstory to their struggle. The Space Marines, who value order, consider Chaos to be one of the greatest threats to the known galaxy. The Chaos Space Marines are all considered heretics who have turned their backs on the Space Marines' beliefs.
The campaign, which clocks in at about nine or twelve hours of play time depending on your difficulty setting and whether or not you opt to import your save from Dawn of War II, is a satisfying addition to the main game. Everything about the story, from the pacing to the voice work, nails the dark, oppressive Warhammer 40k vibe. It also doesn't hurt that Relic has maintained their superior animation and modelling work, which is really no surprise when you look at past titles like Company of Heroes and the original Dawn of War.
But what caught me off guard was the inclusion of a new morality system. The RTS genre isn't exactly known for offering meaningful choices, and most attempts boil down to a contrived "good vs evil" mechanic. It's usually the difference between punching a lost puppy in the head or helping him find his way home. But the moral choices in Chaos Rising don't feel nearly as transparent or contrived, and even if they do, you're too busy fighting giant bugs, space "orks", space elves and demonic madmen to really notice it.
Yes, your "choices" are blatantly simple, like earning corruption points by destroying a revered statue, but most of the time, you're dealing with challenging optional objectives that highlight how tough being a "good" guy in the world of Warhammer 40k actually is. One particular mission comes to mind, where falling back, a very useful mechanic which saves squads from certain death, will earn corruption, because doing so would show weakness and true Space Marines show no such thing, but of course, showing resolute courage is meaningless if it ends in death.
There are even two endings and some missions only appear depending on which side of the morality scale you fall on. What firmly sells Chaos Rising's morality mechanic is that Relic has cleverly integrated it into the mission structure. Before, mission objectives grew repetitive far too often, as you defended the same satellite array for the eighth time. Now, missions almost always carry optional morality objectives that will either condemn or redeem your squads, adding a subtle layer of complexity to your actions.
Unlike most other morality systems with one universal bar that starts in the middle and swings one way or another, Chaos Rising has multiple morality bars. Each squad commander has one and it represents how far towards the maddening forces of Chaos he's fallen. This not only alters the overall story, but also each squad's capabilities in battle. As a squad commander's morality bar rises, eventually they'll hit a milestone that unlocks a new ability or augments a preexisting one. What was once a battle cry that merely stunned "daemons" now also damages them, or perhaps you'll nearly lose innate health regeneration for a passive ability that returns health and energy to your commander with each kill.
Morality goes further than that, though. Much of the new gear for squad commanders is tainted with chaos energy or imbued with redemption, the game term for "good" points. Some of the better corrupted or redemption gear requires your commander to be at a certain level of righteousness or damnation, while other pieces add corruption or redemption points after each battle. But choosing your equipment loadout is just the preparation, even if it is highly addicting.
Between all the new abilities, gear and a fresh addition to your commanders via the Librarian (think futuristic Gothic space-wizard) I was never left wanting for extra tactical options. It also helps if one resists the temptation of giving up too much equipment for extra experience across all available squads, you can sacrifice unwanted gear for XP, and I abused it early on, only to regret it later when I realised that a specific weapon I needed had been converted into experience.
All the equipment wrangling can be a little daunting at first, but eventually I was completely absorbed by the process. My newly acquired meticulous nature with Chaos Rising made choosing which squads to take on my next mission a prolonged experience in head scratching. In fact, part of me is considering another re-play solely to try different squad combinations. Thankfully, the game suggests useful weaponry (rockets, anti-infantry, melee, etc) for each mission, helping to avoid frustrating trial and error scenarios.
With all the time spent in single-player it was fairly easy enough to jump into online matches to play as the Space Marines. While I've actually played online before, that was almost a year ago now and between being rusty and all the balancing tweaks since then it took me a while to re-acclimate myself. While I enjoyed several online matches, I actually have to admit that Last Stand is still my favorite mode of play.
For the uninitiated, Last Stand involves up to three players controlling a single commander against waves of increasingly harder enemies. It's basically a survival mode based, in a small arena map. You get to earn experience, level up and gain new pieces of equipment and abilities. I was sadly disappointed to find out that Chaos Rising didn't add even a single new arena map to Last Stand, though.
At the very least, Chaos Rising does add two new commanders, bringing the total to five. The Chaos Sorcerer and Tyranid Hive Tyrant are great additions, although it does seem odd that a Tyranid commander is locked into the Chaos Rising expansion. Still, with all the other free stuff there's no room to complain about that, I just wish Relic would've spent some more time on growing Last Stand.
Truth be told, "growth" is a great way to describe Chaos Rising. The ideas first presented in Dawn of War II have been tended and nurtured to, in some cases quite literally, branch out for the player's benefit. Chaos Rising is a great first expansion, and while new players looking to try the single-player should start with the original game, it's an instant purchase for those of you looking for some good online RTS mayhem.