Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising
It opens with the boys back in town. Avitus, the intolerant heavy weapons guy, is entrenched within a bunker behind an all important command point. Cyrus, the philosophical scout, is cloaked and waiting in the wings. Tarkus, the grisly battle-hardened veteran, occupies an adjacent building. The reason: swarms of traitorous Imperial Guard are rushing the makeshift defence, streams of machine gun fire relentlessly rattle on your position and all available cover has been crushed underneath the weighty boots of the mutinous heretics. Even the ground is being charred in the attack. Where is your character, the Force Commander, in this madness? Going toe-to-toe with the hundreds-strong rush. And winning.
Space Marines are hard. They're eight-feet tall, years of genetic engineering ensures they're barely human anymore and they'd even give anyone from Scotland a good shoeing if they dared to naysay their Chapter. Even after eliminating an entire Tyranid swarm this time last year they're still kicking ass and chewing gum in the name of the Emperor. I'd have demanded a lengthy holiday at the very least.
A few hours in, your band of Blood Ravens come across an old ally - who was presumed dead at the end of the last game - who tells the team he's been fighting the Eldar non-stop and by himself for the entire year. Nobody congratulates him or expresses even the tiniest hint of concern: this is just a normal experience for a Space Marine. They don't mess about.
But now the threat is themselves. Or, more specifically, a new faction of Chaos Space Marines who've only gone and warped an entire planet right smack-bang into the middle of the precious Aurelia sub-sector. They bring with them a whole bevy of dark magic, rusty armours, nefarious daemons and a new corruption meter that turns the whole game a little bit Bioware.
This is expressed in two ways. Firstly, during most missions you'll be given the occasional command - save some fellow Space Marines from death or protect a shrine to the Emperor, for instance - that must be upheld to preserve the honour and integrity of your deployed squads and with failure dishing up some corruption points that further push you down the path of the dark side. Along the way you'll gain some grimy Chaos-themed abilities that overwrite your previous (and still quite good) Space Marine set.
Secondly, certain bits of loot are corrupted and wearing them will also add to the aptly titled corruption meter. They're usually incredibly powerful bits of kit, however, which causes you to stop and seriously think about the temptations of the evil way. On the opposite side you've got purposely-gimped items that redeem your character in the eyes of the Emperor, which would stop and make me wonder why everyone seemed so determined to worship such a masochistic monarch if I didn't suspect the game would detect my dissent and somehow punish me for it.
On top of both of those you've also got ample amounts of bog-standard regular items. It's safe to say Relic have gone a bit swag crazy this time round: there's now so much loot, including a new ultra-rare purple tier of item, that you don't even know what to do with most of it, leading to a couple of instances where I ended up selling everything (and making a ton of XP, helping me quite easily hit the new level cap of 30) just because my inventory screen was getting too cluttered to focus.
At the core it's much the same as it was before, so this stoic group of intergalactic space racists are still far too macho to faff about with base building and economy management. The singleplayer campaign stretches across a considerable few hours and, for those that might have missed Dawn of War II, plays closer to something like Diablo with a cover mechanic than a traditional RTS game: you deck out four squads with your sparkliest loot and, after deploying them to a planet, go about cracking skulls, pillaging loot and staining that aforementioned gear with the blood of any and all that oppose you.
With a smaller price tag and a thinner scope, Chaos Rising manages to trim away most of the chaff that blighted the original. There aren't nearly as many throwaway random missions where you defend some sort of ambiguous outpost from an enemy for a very important reason that can't possibly be explained, for instance. Missions have more structure, a bit more dramatic flair - though by drama I mean more things tend to either explode or collapse, not that Avitus and Tarkus have the occasional heart-to-heart - and a better explanation for why exactly you need to be standing in buildings and firing so many bullets.
One of the reasons it works so well is that these characters have now been properly worn in. Each is about as stereotypical as they come, including prophetic and wise Librarian newcomer Johan Orion, but Relic do an admirable job of tying the team together and fostering a real sense of personality in a genre whose memorable characters have yet to stray beyond the letter K or: the baldy moustached villain and the icky hive-mind insect alien woman. There's even a shocking (and well executed) twist near the end of the game.
Over on the multiplayer side of things you're still looking at ostensibly the same experience as before, albeit with each squad peppered up with a few new units (though these are available to vanilla Dawn of War II owners via a mandatory patch) and the option to use the Chaos Space Marines. Who are all brilliant; far more complex and involving than mere Space Marines with horns and rusty armour. They were sorely lacking from last year's instalment.
It's still rock hard, so frustration can easily stem from the uncanny ability of most players to completely annihilate anyone who hasn't been playing online for days on end. That's par for the RTS course, mind, though one of Dawn of War II's biggest failings for new players is that the radically different single-player mode is woefully unable to segue players into multiplayer domination battles.
In terms of raw content, the expansion also adds the customary chunk of new maps - including greater support for modes other than 3v3 - and allows more than just Space Marines to play Last Stand, a 4-player co-op survival mode that was added to Dawn of War II post-release. But, again, these bits and bobs have all been patched into the vanilla game, leaving the only all-exclusive new feature the ability to play as Chaos.
And the excellent single-player game, of course, which is easily one of the best RTS experiences on the market. The team at Relic have spent years polishing and refining their current mould and, despite some high-profile attempts at imitating the formula, are clearly the champions of the engaging niche they've created. Starcraft II might be looming on the horizon, but for now I'm more than satisfied - both online and off - with my troop of grisly Space Marines. I'll also be very surprised if even Blizzard can manage to top Relic at single-player.