Relic looks to be following the same expansion model for Dawn of War II as the company did for the first game in the series: release an expansion, with a new race and new campaign, add new units to the existing multiplayer rosters, and make all of it standalone - you don't have to own Dawn of War II to play Chaos Rising. It's a good model, and Chaos Rising is another reminder of just how in depth Relic's knowledge and commitment to the universe of Warhammer 40,000 is.
But, it might just also be showing some signs that the franchise is getting a little long in the tooth.
The infernal powers
The new race getting added to the Dawn of War II pantheon is... Chaos. Not surprising, really, given the game's name, but it certainly is good to see the antithesis of the noble Space Marines make a return.
The game takes place after the action of the first one, and it's even possible to transfer over your squads - complete with weapons and unit upgrades - from the old campaign to this new one. Alternately, you can choose to simply start with your squads as they are, at level 17. Either way, the first few missions will drop enough gear on you that your most epic possessions start paling real fast.
Within the first few missions you'll be re-introduced to all the old characters, and even a new one - the mighty Librarian Jonah Orion. And when you hear 'librarian' don't for a minute think meek, dusty old men... Marine Librarians are warriors in their own right, and wield incredible psychic powers to boot.
The game takes place on the same planets, too, but in addition there's also two new ones that bring a whole new look and feel. There's the snowy Aurelia, the old sector capital, and planet that only recently reappeared from the Warp, and the space hulk Judgement of Carrion. These both offer a lot more variation than the original release, and there are more varied missions to boot - which stops the end-game becoming a slog of one well-worn map after another.
Along with Chaos, all the races from the original title return to the campaign. The Eldar are up to mysterious shenanigans, Orks just like a fight, and there's even Tyranids in some thrilling space-hulk-based missions. There's a competent story linking each mission together, but let's be honest - this is all about blowing stuff up in the name of the Immortal Emperor of Mankind.
Chaos makes for a great opponent, and most of the Gods from the tabletop game are represented here to stunning (and sometimes really, really gross) effect. There's bloodthirsty Khorne, the mutable Tzeentch, and the plague-ridden Nurgle.
Annoyingly, the one God that's missing is Slaanesh - but given its worshippers are mostly known for nasty sex and letting their breasts hang out... we can understand why Relic might be happier just ignoring them.
All that said, though, while being standalone might make this feel more like a sequel, and the campaign content leans that way too, it is just DoW2 with some new stuff tacked on. The gameplay is not really changed in any way, and the single player can at times feel a touch samey - stripping the base-building and all that entailed from the game was a solid move, but it also takes some of the juicier ways to define a race or faction out of the equation.
What's more, the one really new gameplay mechanic, which is meant to represent the corrupting influence of Chaos, really doesn't deliver. Effectively, Relic's introduced a form of morality measure into the game. Certain conditions and choices will swing you toward the Chaos Gods, and certain equipment can do likewise - this is juicy stuff, and very appropriate for the setting, but it doesn't seem all that balanced. There's just not quite enough reason to stay loyal; the rewards for purity don't add for the rewards for betraying humanity. Of course, we'd never fall to the Dark Gods, no matter how great the rewards - Atomic is an entirely loyalist publication.
The game also feels a lot harder, too. Given the deep lore of both the 40k universe, and the backstory built up in the DoWII, new players could easily feel both overmatched and quite lost. Even we found some missions to be a real challenge. Tough missions are all well and good, but when it leads to you simply watching health bars and power cooldowns rather than the incredible action you're controlling, it seems a little empty.
Then there's multiplayer, which, like Chaos Rising's single player campaign, is much like the original. This isn't a bad thing, but again, because a lot of the game feels more sequel-like, you get this odd sensation that things are a little too like the original release. The new maps are certainly welcome, however, and Chaos offers even more variation. It's still good, don't get us wrong, but playing competitive 40k online is always an odd experience for people who play it on the tabletop.
Relic knows its stuff, though, and when you look at all that you get in the expansion, it's hard not to be impressed with the package. Dawn of War II remains a unique combination of tight strategy, RPG-like loot gathering and advancement, and incredible devotion to the source material.