Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II - Chaos Rising is the first stand-alone expansion to Dawn of War II, 2009's popular real-time strategy/tactical role-playing game based on the Warhammer: 40,000 universe. Leaving core gameplay essentially unchanged, Chaos Rising adds a new single-player Blood Ravens campaign, the Chaos faction for multiplayer games, two new heroes for the Last Stand game type, and several multiplayer maps. Although you don't need the original DOWII to enjoy the campaign, you'll probably want both games for multiplayer, since Chaos Rising alone won't give you access to the original four factions in multiplayer matches. Even with this caveat, however, Chaos Rising is a gem of an expansion that shines on its own, thanks to immersive gameplay, robust cooperative play, and a delightfully evil tone.
The single-player campaign, which you can also play cooperatively, with a friend controlling half of your squads, brings back your party from DOWII. This includes characters such as Avitus, the rage-filled devastator squad leader, and Captain Davian Thule, whose disembodied spirit pilots a dreadnought battlemech. If you'd like, you can import your existing characters from DOWII, but be warned that they'll arrive without their best war gear, including their terminator armor, which has been damaged and can't be equipped until later in the campaign. Chaos Rising also adds a new character, Jonah Orion the librarian, a versatile and highly customizable spellcaster more at home on the battlefield than at the circulation desk. These simple but robust characters, combined with an intriguing storyline, varied battles, and the cooperative option, make the campaign the highlight of Chaos Rising.
Chaos Rising's campaign forgoes base building in favor of real-time battles, followed by breaks to customize your characters' skills and equipment, listen to intelligence briefings and determine which squads will deploy to your next mission, and (optionally) communicate with your team members and superior officers. In addition to experience points, your characters can now gain corruption points, which grant them access to corrupted war gear and twisted, magnificent new powers bestowed by the Chaos gods. Corruption comes from a variety of sources, including wearing tainted war gear, using Chaos powers, betraying the Empire or your Space Marine brothers, and prolonged exposure to dark energies. Similarly, you'll get plentiful opportunities to redeem yourself and earn the right to wear war gear that requires a pure spirit; however, being good gives you only one special ability per character, so the dark whispers of the void can be very persuasive. Another reason to give in to the dark side is that the "pure" ending cutscene has a tendency to crash to desktop. Although you'll notice in-game consequences for becoming corrupt and evil, sadly you don't get any additional missions as a result, which can be a bit of a letdown if you spend the entire campaign plotting to turn against your commanding officer and do battle with the incorruptible dreadnought Davian Thule.
Your band of intrepid Space Marines must do battle against the Eldar, Orks, and Tyranids over the course of the campaign, but the new Chaos faction is your primary antagonist, not just on the front line, but within the ranks of your own chapter. While fighting the forces of Chaos, you soon discover that one of your own has turned traitor and heretic, working to undermine the Blood Ravens from within. Consequently, your adventure focuses on both driving the Black Legion from Imperial space and unfolding the foul conspiracy infesting the chapter. In Chaos Rising, you'll revisit some of the planets from DOWII, but thankfully, you won't play the same map twice, which keeps the gameplay fresh and engaging. The downside is that the campaign is only about 10 hours long. However, it does have some replayability if you take a different approach to corruption, use alternative skill and equipment builds, or deploy different squads to the battlefield.
After you finish the campaign, you'll want to collect some "skulls for the skull throne" and try out Chaos in multiplayer or skirmish mode. Their units range from psychotic humans, such as the Chaos Space Marines, to grotesque demons, such as the monstrous Great Unclean One, who can fling enemy infantry to their deaths with his agile intestines. Additionally, you can customize several of your units by devoting them to different Chaos gods, who in turn grant unique blessings. For instance, Havocs, the Chaos version of Devastator squads, can earn a rate-of-fire bonus for their loyalty to Tzeentch, while Chaos Predator tanks blessed by Nurgle gain health at the expense of speed. Furthermore, each of the three heroes dedicates himself to a distinct Chaos god, granting you access to both special Chaos powers and the ability to build shrines to his master. The melee-heavy Chaos Lord favors the blood god Khorne, whose shrines periodically spawn powerful demons; the defense-oriented Plague Champion prefers Nurgle, whose shrines heal allies and reinforce your units; while the fragile but potent Chaos Sorcerer lets you build shrines to Tzeentch that shoot bolts of energy at incoming enemies.
Aside from the addition of the Chaos faction, multiplayer gameplay is largely unchanged in Chaos Rising; just like the original, it's fast-paced and compelling. Its few additions include a free-for-all game type, several new maps adapted from the campaign, and two new heroes for the Last Stand cooperative survival mode: the Tyranid Hive Tyrant and the Chaos Sorcerer. Happily, Dawn of War II and Chaos Rising owners can play both Last Stand and traditional multiplayer matches together, but you'll be restricted to playing the sides that come with your game, so if you have only Dawn of War II, you can play as one of the original four sides (and the original three heroes in Last Stand), while if you own only Chaos Rising, you have no choice but to play Chaos (and either Hive Tyrant or Chaos Sorcerer in Last Stand). Therefore, even though Chaos Rising is a stand-alone expansion, you'll probably be tempted into buying both games, one way or another, in order to take full advantage of multiplayer. One disappointment is that Last Stand is still limited to one map. However, the new heroes definitely revitalize Last Stand gameplay by introducing new strategies and spells, like the Hive Tyrant's level 1 ability to summon three Genestalker allies and the Chaos Sorcerer's delightful spell that clones an enemy unit, even an enemy hero, to fight for you.
The graphics, sound effects, and music live up to the high standard set by Dawn of War II and are characterized by a close attention to detail. From the disgusting spine protruding from the Great Unclean One to the barbed-wire-covered fortifications in the fully destructible environments, Chaos Rising doesn't skimp on the visuals. Meanwhile, the voice acting is a favorite in the sound department, creating a unique sound and feel for each of your party members as well as the rumbling, ominous voices of the Chaos forces. A cacophony of weapon fire and explosions tend to dominate the soundscape, but even they can have a pleasing sound when it means that your units are slaughtering the enemy en masse. Finally, the music does a nice job of accompanying the action and heightening drama, but you'll be hard-pressed to remember it once you've exited the game.
One frustration that Chaos Rising inherits from DOWII is Games for Windows Live. Not only does it take ages to set up, but Games for Windows Live also makes talking to your online friends and inviting them to multiplayer games far more complicated than it ought to be, especially since the game also uses Steam. In addition to creating a velvet rope between you and your friends, Games for Windows Live falls short on its random matchmaking function, often setting you up with players who, if their latency is any indication, are playing on the dark side of the moon.
Chaos Rising is just about everything you'd expect from a Dawn of War expansion, boasting terrific gameplay, visuals, and effects, and adding a great new campaign, a well-developed new faction, and new war gear, heroes, and multiplayer options. Given the shorter campaign, the $30 price tag may seem a bit high; however, Chaos Rising's replay value more than justifies the cost. Remember: As long as the enemies of the emperor still draw breath, there can be no peace.