Monday, 26 September 2016

Failbetter Games Announces Sunless Skies


Sunless Sea was one of 2015's big sleeper hits. While it lacked the innate promotional campaigns of a big Electronic Arts published title, or the excited memetic strength of the likes of Undertale, it was nevertheless a staggering success. Receiving rave reviews from mainstream media and fans alike, and was one of our very few 10/10 grades, Failbetter have gone from strength to strength and we're expecting to see a full expansion later on next month. However, the developer has been shifting their focus elsewhere, and fans of Fallen London will be leaving the waters for the heavens in their planned sequel: Sunless Skies.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Grey Knights: Just who was Janus anyway?


A mystery is only an effective story until someone gives away the answer. Whether it's an Agatha Christie novel or the X-Files, a cryptic tale with a hundred possible outcomes will keep a person hooked for weeks on end. It will keep an audience constantly invested in just what might happen next, and with online communities booming with a constant flow of members, it's easier than ever to keep a devoted fan hyped with slight hints or story advancements. While an answer is always needed of course, a careful hand can execute a stunning end or leave fans guessing for years on end without feeling disappointed. They just need to be competent enough not to pull a Lost and leave legions of fans ready to part the scriptwriter's head from his shoulders.

The point is that, for as detailed and well founded as Warhammer 40,000 is, readers tend to be invested in the unknown. Whether it's the fate of the Ordo Chronos or Cypher's true allegiance, the ability to have a well founded but extremely malleable canon has served the lore well over the decades. There are a hundred unanswered questions, theories, quests and half-hidden truths throughout the Adeptus Astartes alone, and a fair number of chapters were even built upon such half hidden answers; the Grey Knights being the quintessential example of these armies. While the chapter has seen some exceptional stories (Ben Counter's trilogy) and some exceptionally bad lore (take a wild guess) one recent question has kept fans hungering for answers - Who was their first Chapter Master? Who was Janus?

While we admittedly only know a few, very limited, details about just who the leaders of each chapter were following the Horus Heresy, Janus was a special case. His chapter had no direct link to a prior legion or legacy from that war, little was made clear about him save for his importance and name; but most pressing of all were his origins. Was he a new recruit, someone trained to lead this chapter from a young age, or was he a survivor of the Great Crusade? More importantly, if so, was he even a member of the loyalist legions?

One very popular theory for a long time was quite a curious choice - Many claimed that Janus was, in fact, Omegon. Recognized as the hidden twin of Alpharius, a number of Horus Heresy tales had depicted the primarch undermining the Alpha Legion's efforts. Apparently more willing to directly assist the Emperor's legions than Alpharius, a few short stories even suggested that his conflict was bringing the legion to the brink of civil war. Naturally, fans leaped on this and started joining the dots. 
These ranged from the meaning behind certain names (Janus in particular was a Roman god of two faces, emphasizing the beginning and ending of things I.E. Alpha and the Omega etc.) to picking out certain new details. In the (absurdly excellent) Mortarion's Heart, the Death Guard daemon primarch hinted at something dark in Janus' past, all but outing him as a former member of the Traitor Legions. There were whole essays written on the subject, quite well researched and intelligent ones, which pieced together countless details to suggest this was all but inevitable.

Unfortunately for the fans, they turned out to be rather wrong though. Praetorian of Dorn threw a rather large spanner in the works, not only forcing Omegon to take Alpharius' place but strongly suggesting that he would remain adamantly loyal to Horus' traitor forces. Combined with a surprise death, it all but confirmed that Omegon's place at the head of the Grey Knights was impossible. This was something which irked some groups to no end, and probably would have created a minor firestorm of fan-rage were it not for John French's outstanding penmanship.

Of course, this leaves the big question now - Who exactly was Janus if not Omegon? Many think that this would be Nathaniel Garro thanks to Mortarion's comments, and this would make sense. Garro was an experienced Captain, he held a distinguished position among the Knights Errant, and was trusted with a number of extremely tightly guarded secrets. That said, while he would certainly take a prominent position, there are character traits which clash with this theory. For starters, Garro was far more morally upstanding than many of his contemporaries, to the point where he actively opposed killing innocents even when the situation demanded he do so. Not exactly a character trait which befitted a Grey Knight. Furthermore, he was a staunch traditionalist and, while the Imperium slid backwards somewhat, the new age also demanded a very different kind of leader to guide them. Combine that with his unwillingness to keep too many secrets hidden from his allies, and his reputation as a frontline officer with a few minor micromanaging issues, and he doesn't seem like Chapter Master material.

Instead, we need to look at some else. Someone important to the series who was both a member of the traitor legions, a proven captain and a level of objective ruthlessness balanced by self control few could accomplish. We need to look to Garviel Loken.

Now, let this be clear: What's going to follow is as much a mixture of guesswork and estimations as the Omegon theory. A great deal about this makes sense, but at the same time it could easily be disprove thanks to the story going in another direction. That said, this would thematically and personally make a great deal of sense. For starters, Loken is someone who has already abandoned his name once. Becoming the madman "Cerberus" following the Isstvan III Atrocity, he all but completely buried his original persona beneath a new identity; one he required to help defend himself amid the hostility and insanity of that conflict's bloody aftermath. When he returned to being "Loken" he was still shaken to the core, to the point of practically feeling fear as a mortal would and wasn't the same man. Unlike Garro, Loken seems like a figure who would more willingly accept a mask, and even erase his original name.

Loken was also much more willing to work with his subordinates and offer them tasks he would personally perform. During Horus Rising and Galaxy in Flames, the battles there depicted him readily turning to his Sergeants and fellow Captains to coordinate attacks and perform vital duties. While more often than not serving on the frontlines, he knew when to step back and allow for others to take his place. In addition to this, in keeping with Mortarion's comments about Janus retaining a high rank within a traitor legion, Loken did have the Warmaster's ear at one point. He was valued enough to be offered a chance to return to the Sons of Horus despite all that had taken place, and even displayed an uncanny ability to combat daemons he encountered.

More-so than anything else though, Loken's role as Janus would fulfill a certain thematic quality for the series. Loken introduced the Horus Heresy books speaking of being there when "Horus slew the Emperor" in jest, and witnessing the end of one era. Taking on another guise, leading the Imperium's new forces into a darker age while fighting for the light, perhaps even speaking to new recruits of the Siege of Terra; it would be extremely fitting for the opening words of the series to be the same closing lines at the end of all of this. Perhaps there would even be a chance for him to reflect upon whether the Grey Knights could succeed where the old legions failed, or even seeing something of the Luna Wolves in them.

This is, of course, just one possibility. There are countless others which have been discussed, from Saul Tarvitz (because some people will simply not accept he is dead) to Rogal Dorn, but Loken seems to make the most overall sense. Still, if your own suggestions or theories, please feel free to list them in the comments of course. It's been quite some time since we've had any lengthy discussions over the lore.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Bioshock - The Collection (Video Game Review)


The title of these games is a falsehood. While they might tote the name “Remastered” a more honest publisher would have branded them “Retextured” as that really is just about all that has been done here. What we have here is akin to a very extensive graphical upgrade mod, boosting the basic visuals but doing little to nothing to fix long standing bugs or improve a number of very basic features.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Black Crusade: Angel's Blade Part 2 - The Rules (Warhammer 40,000 Campaign Book Review, 7th Edition)


As mentioned before, Angel's Blade unfortunately has a bit less variety to it than Traitor's Hate. While the previous book might have been extremely Black Legion focused in the rules department, it did ultimately have segments built to favour secondary legions or the lore. In this case however, what we get is lots and lots of Blood Angels, and this unfortunately lacks some of the variety people might have wanted. That's not a knock against the chapter of course, but simply having a First Company detachment isn't quite so fun or unique as a single Dark Apostle whipping a mob into a frenzy and creating an unending tide of Chaos fodder.

The lack of originality here is well worth mentioning as many of the old criticisms made last time rear their heads here as well. Many of the same formations show up, just with a different paint job, quite a few rules are carried over, and even the psychic powers are once again lifted wholesale from Codex: Angels of Death. As such, you'll have to forgive me if some of this stuff is brief. It's not even a case of "been there, done that, worn the T-shirt" so much as "... half my wardrobe consists of this stuff." It's even more irksome when two forces which are supposed to be dark mirrors of one another have so many abilities which are utterly identical to one another.

So, with that cheerfully pessimistic start to this review, here's a look at the core contents of the book:



New Units & Detachments

Those who read the story no doubt know what's coming - The Death Company. Fielded in unprecedented numbers, with almost a full hundred astartes falling to the Black Rage, it was only natural for the book to put this aspect first and foremost, covering something which no codex could accomplish. 

Oddly enough though, it's not the one the book offers first billing, instead favouring the  "Angel's Blade Strike Force". This is a formation which mashes together elements from across the Blood Angel's chapter, but it's an odd choice to put before the more unique option. 

Still, for what we get, the decurion is okay. Hardly remarkable, and certainly playing it safe even when compared with the Black Legion mob from last time, but not all that bad either. While the initial Command Benefit (or special rules, for that is ultimately what they are) titled The Angel's Virtue is just an opportunity to re-roll results on the Warlord tale, the following options are much more fun. The Red Thirst allows models from the detachment to increase their Initiative by a single point, allowing your standard troops to hit the foe that much harder in the opening phases of a fight. A useful thing to be sure if you need to beak a massed foe quickly. The Sons of Sanguinius meanwhile is a booster for any Blood Angels unit which finds itself badly mauled in battle. Once they are cut down to half strength, each and every model in the unit gains Zealot.

While the former rule is titled the "Red Thirst" it is a push to break away from some of the usual Blood Angels cliches while sticking to their combat doctrines. What it suggests is a force which is varied, is versatile and covers a wide array of combat doctrines, but excels at hard hitting assaults and goes down hard when their back is to the wall. Overall, not too bad.

As for the Death Company choice, we have the "Lost Brotherhood Strike Force" which is admittedly far more limited by comparison. Compared with its predicessor, it seems to be almost treated like an afterthought, something to be thrown in at the last second. We don't end up with a few fun ideas, a number of interesting unique formations asking things like "So, what happens when the First Company veterans fall?" or focusing upon their differing heritage in some way. No, instead it's just a single Death Company Strike Force backed by a bunch of Auxiliary units carried over from the Angel's Blade. Hell, even the bulk of their Command Benefits are identical, only switching out Sons of Sanguinius for Unleashed Upon the Foe. As such, they lose the Zealot focused rule - understandably - but gain the ability to move 6" towards the enemy right after setting up your models. Yeah, something which kicks in to have the Blood Angels Hulk out in favour of a single bonus move. Not exactly the best trade-off even when the unique Relics are taken into account, but it is admittedly made much more attractive thanks to the fact Stormravens are dedicated transports which can be taken by the entire Strike Force. Yeah, even Death Company need heavy artillery and air support once in a while.



Formations

As usual, we'll be covering these one by one, starting with the Command formations and working our way down to the auxiliary options. It's really in no particular order besides that, but expect us to stop periodically to discuss some of the really fun ones.

The Golden Host - Or as I like to call it, "The Angelic Pimp-Hand." This is basically an opportunity to combine together anyone clad in golden armour and send them into battle. As such you have the option to take Dante or the Sanguinor at their head and then back them up with between two to five units of Sanguiary Guard to inflict some real damage. 

As you can imagine this is a very fast moving sledgehammer force, as you have plenty of jump packs and plenty of power weapons to call upon here. The formation further emphasises this by allowing them to assault immediately after Deep Striking right out of the army's reserves. While this does mean they're entering battle in a disordered charge - robbing the unit of that lovely +1 Initiative rule - it at least means you don't have a massive blob of points caught out in the open. It's going to hurt no matter how you cut it, but the negatives and opportunities to counter this abrupt charge do help even things out somewhat. 

Leaders of the Angelic Host - And welcome to another of our cliches, the specialist leader mob. We have seen this in just about every damn book from the vanilla codex to Curse of the Wulfen, combining a Captain, Librarian and Chaplain (well, Sanguinary Priest in this case) into a single unit. While the rules do sometimes differ a little from one section to the next, it's never enough to make it seem like a single idea tailored for various seperate chapters. 

While it does give you the opportunity to switch out the generic HQ choices to Tycho, Mephiston and Corbulo with a command squad and a Storm Raven, what else is there to say? It's either gloriously stupid, or just downright stupid.

Chapter Ancients - Dreadnought spam. Really, that's it, this is just Dreadnought spam wheeled out once again as a major choice. While there is admittedly a little variety on offer thanks to the Blood Angels being involved here, meaning you have access to Furioso, normal, or Librarian choices, this is once again something we've seen before. 

It's a damn shame that this is something we've seen far too many times before, as the actual formation itself is pretty fun  to use in its own right. The big difference this time is a certain special rule where, once per game, you can switch out movement for an extra round of attacks either in melee or at range. Useful for sure, especially given the power fists they wield, but even then it needs to be pointed out that we keep seeing this idea over and over again. Traitor's Hate alone used this idea three times in three separate formations, and at this rate the idea is quickly going to wear out its welcome.

Battle Demi-Company - This is exactly what it sounds like and, again, you know what's coming if you've seen any other space marine book in the last few years. To be completely fair, this one is at least justified as it's supposed to reflect a standard Codex approved company, and all the units within it. As such, players are gifted a nice mix of a Dreadnought, three Tactical Squads, an Assault or Devastator Squad, and then a Captain and Command Squad or Chaplain and Furioso Dreadnought.

So, what does it offer this book in particular? Well, oddly enough, it actually screws over the Blood Angels by robbing them of something which would have worked well with their focus upon speedy assaults. Unlike almost every other version, Blood Angels players have to make do without Objective Secured or free transports upon taking two of these formations. It's a choice likely planned for balance reasons but instead it just comes across as baffling, singling out the army most suited to this way of war and saying they can't have their fun. Hell, it wouldn't be all that bad, even with their innate bonuses, and if anything it might have just given them enough of an edge to level the playing field against more gun-happy forces.

Archangels Battle Demi-Company - Welcome to the elite of the elite, the hard hitting warriors who are given the right to don Tactical Dreadnought Armour. So that's s Terminator Captain, five Vanguard Veteran squads, or the same number of Sternguard Veterans, Assault Terminators, and normal Terminators, and 2 Furioso Dreads. It's a nice and very varied range of units, with plenty of ranged and melee options alike. No more or less than you would expect from something like this in all honesty, but it's nice to see they didn't leave anything out while knowing where to draw the line. Librarian Dreadnoughts might have taken this a few steps too far.

The big gimmick here is that it speeds up Deep Strike attacks and offers a few basic benefits. You can bring on reserves from the first turn - well, start rolling for them anyway - and you only roll a single D6 for scattering while Striking. This, by comparison, is pretty bland and it would have seriously benefited from some more inspiring ideas. Even that oddly absent Objective Seccured would certainly be welcome here, even if a few more fun ideas could be wheeled out in its place. I mean, hell, an "Assault Drill" would be enough to make them stand out a  bit, and that's hardly all that original these days.

Death Company Strike Force - So here we have a bunch of screaming madmen with chainsaws. Well, even more screaming madmen. You can have up to three standard units of Death Company marines, a single one of their infamous black clad Dreads and a company Chaplain at their head. Really, this is unfortunately very straight forwards as there's little really done to play with the ideas behind the Death Company or experiment with just what they might be capable of. While the formation bonuses of an extra attack while the marines are within 12" of the Chaplain is equal parts broken and hilarious, it seems very underwhelming for all the hype the story made when it comes to such a force. 

Much like the Golden Host this is a fast moving sledgehammer of a formation, where you trade out characters and an early strike for extra ferocity. While some will likely cite the unfairness of being unable to Deep Strike into enemy lines, charging in actually benefits the Blood Angels a little more. With a few lucky rolls you end up not only with a very big bullet magnet who can keep getting back up, but also one who can dish it out in combat. As such, it's a charging bull capable of keeping your more flimsy units from being blown up. So, it's underwhelming, but still inherently useful.

Archangels Orbital Intervention Force - Ah, now here's your Deep Strike option. Offering players the option to drop masses of Terminators - both the shooty and stabby versions - into battle, three squads are left at your disposal. While they must be deployed via Deep Strike right out of the reserves, each has a few benefits to keep them alive. They all deploy as a single unit - which will admittedly hurt you quite badly with some ill luck, tying up a large chunk of your army for the game - and have a few nasty surprises upon arrival. The vanilla ones can shoot twice upon storming in, while the Assault variants can charge the second they show up.

Now, personally, this seems to be a step too far. While for the most part this is balanced, having access to both at once of that final bit is unfortunately a little too harsh. It means a Blood Angels player can immediately have twenty shots from bolters hammering into any chaff squads nearby, and then two units of Terminators with Thunder Hammers weighing into combat right afterwards. Between the two, it's going to wreck a vast chunk of a person's army and personally it's a step too far. Instead, there should have been a limiting special rule forcing a player to choose one or the other. While, yes, this would still be powerful, it would limit some of that overall initial impact and leave a bit more room for counter-attacks as needed.

10th Company Ambush Force - This is one you'll want lots and lots of snipers for. While the formation offers players the ability to take up to five units of Scouts or Scout Bikers, the former are far more tempting thanks to its special rule - Everyone has stealth if they don't infiltrate, and everyone has Precision Shots. This means that you can use the formation in a manner akin to the infamous Kroot sniper horde tactic Tau Empire players wheel out, albeit at a higher expense and durability.

On the one hand, it's unfortunate that this lacks anything in terms of co-ordination with allies, the ability to harass an arriving army or any real espionage options. On the other though, as basic rules go, this one is okay. It's enough to cause some real strife for anyone attempting to advance forwards via infantry swarm, and the Stealth rule is a nice natural deterrent. Still, like the others, the big issue of creative stagnation hangs heavy over this one.

Lucifer Armoured Task Force - Right, three guesses as to what this one does. Really, go on, guess. If you predicted this would have a Techmarine and up to three Predators, or Land Raiders then congratulations, you're aware of how often this bloody thing shows up. This one is unfortunately one of those ideas which keeps showing up time and time again, and quite a few of the old tropes rear their heads alongside them. However, there are a few new things which are going to turn a few heads of loyalist players, and send everyone else running for the hills. What is it? Everything here has Scout to edge forwards and cause all kinds of hell, and each tank has Fast. Yes, even the Land Raiders.

While normally I would add more to that, what in the hell can you possibly say to something which basically gives an eighteen ton assault tank a nitrous injector? It largely speaks for itself in the gameplay department.

Stormraven Squadron - Welcome to the airborne option, offering players the chance to attack their foes with two to four Stormravens at once. However, unlike the previous seek and destroy option the Heldrakes benefited from, locking down and driving back enemy squads, the Blood Angels instead favour something else - a multi-gunship missile spam which would make Honour Harrington proud. Once per game, the gunships can all opt to fire all of their missiles simultaneously, hammering everything in sight and blowing anything unfortunate enough to be targeted to hell and back. Worse still, as you might guess, this does not limit movement nor shooting for that turn, so you can merrily inflict this and then mop up whoever is left at your discretion.

Now, as welcome as the variety is, this is going way too damn far. For starters, there's no limit on as and when it can be used, so the Stormravens can drop down out of reserve into an enemy deployment zone, target anything close by, and unleash two turns worth of ordinance before they have a chance to get moving. There's no limit upon focusing their fire, possibly running out of rockets, nor even some general stopper to prevent them laying waste to an entire army at once. This just reminds me of when these damn things were first introduced, steamrolling entire armies in a single turn, and almost makes me think someone wanted a return to those "glory days".

Rapid Assault Force - This is a very broadly defined formation, as it covered just about anything which can move faster than a guy on foot and isn't a tank. You have the option here to take one to three units of Assault Marines, Bikes, Attack Bikes or Land Speeders, and go from there.

More than anything else, this is probably something players will use as something of a dump option to get around spending too many points on attaining the Strike Force's benefits. After all, with one core formation and a single Land Speeder you have lots of marines all with Zealot and that extra +1 Initiative. Quite the thing to have in low cost games indeed.

Fire Support Force - This is the polar opposite of the above example, instead focusing upon taking one to three units of Devastators, Vindicators or Whirlwinds without much in the way of real benefits at all. Unless you have a serious need too ape the Imperial Guard and spam artillery, this one is entirely forgettable.



Death Company Warlord Traits and Relics

Despite the limited focus, the Death Company did gain a few things to help them stand out and draw in new players. 

Blood-Augur - Once per game players are permitted to re-roll any dice for any test, from Reserve rolls to basic armour saves. In effect, this is just a proxy for having Corbulo in your army. It's a nice bonus for sure, but a little directionless.

Beacon of Rage - All Death Company units within 12" of the Warlord immediately gain  Fleet when your're charging into combat. This is definitely the most useful of the various choices as it means you can leap forwards those final few inches and have your warriors in combat before the enemy army can fully react.

Caged Fury - The Warlord gains Rampage, because we needed at least one unremarkable abrupt rule addition in here apparently.

Infectious Tanacity - Your Warlord gains Feel No Pain or, more likely, immediately has his own save upgraded with a +1 effect, which makes for a good stonewall when facing bigger, tougher foes. You can't do much more than keep them locked in combat when facing this army, after all.

Black Fury - The Warlord gains Rage. That's it. Moving on.


Visions of Heresy - All friendly Death Company units within 12" of the Warlord now have Hatred: Chaos Space Marines and Chaos Demons.  A bit overly specific, but the focus upon lore related rules above all else  is certainly welcome.

Overall, actually not too bad at all. While three of the choices are unremarkable average, the others are relatively fun and stick close to the lore. We've certainly seen far worse and, unlike other examples, this is focused enough to fit into just about any and all tactics involving the Death Company. You won't be stuck with some useless rule which doesn't benefit your army structure or plans for your Warlord.

So, that brings us onto the Relics, and we do have quite the selection to look into here.

Reliquary Armour: This is a set of Artificer Armour which grants the wearer Adamantium Will and Crusader, giving them a great edge in combat. Expect whoever is wearing this to go down hard, and at its price it's definitely a must when playing higher point games.

Guardian's Blade: A Relic Blade on steroids with a few new rules. This grants your HQ choices an AP2 Power sword which has access to Armourbane while being Two-Handed. This is the sort of thing you want to help slay bigger, beefier walkers in melee, so it's probably best kept for assaulting Dunewalkers or the like in melee. A bit pricey but good overall.

Blood Shard: A horribly overpriced weapon which grants Counter-Attack to the wielder. Useful for sure, but given that is its only claim to fame, thirty points is simply far too high to really consider it worth taking.

Baal's Vengeance: This is the first of the two ranged weapons, but as this is a melee focused army, someone was smart enough to focus upon flamers above all else. So, what you have here is a Hand Flamer with Poisoned (4+) and AP6. Not all THAT great really, as most of those affected by this will be brought down easy enough in combat as it is.

Fyrestorm: This is a bit unremarkable but not bad either, as it's just a Master Crafted Inferno Pistol with a 12" firing range. Good for some tanks or foes, and not too badly priced either.


The Guilded Crozius: As this is understandably limited to chaplains, this is something intended to work whilst augmenting anyone close by. While it hits hard with Master Crafted hits at AP3, it grants a further +1 to Feel No Pain rolls on a entire unit. Stacked with the right Warlord trait and it's a definite win for any Chaplains looking to give someone a really bad day.



Verdict

There's little to say overall here which hasn't already been made clear - It's competently made but very run of the mill. If you're a Blood Angels fan and want a few new ideas or formations, or even want a Death Company themed force, it's well worth a look. However, if you're happy with what you've got, this one isn't really going to change your mind or add much to your army. Give it a look if you really want a few competitive ideas, or want to see a good spin on a few of the more overdone concepts of late, but don't feel you need to rush to pick this one up.

Unlike last time, there won't be any part three for this one. These two parts have covered all the essentials and, while it has its promising points and redeeming factors, there's little to really discuss further when it comes to the story. Probably the only thing worth highlighting is the fact that a lot of Forgeworld models are brought into the book, to help strengthen the story rather than to shill them. This is a good thing, it helps broaden the universe and gives the writers more freedom to craft their tales, and that's that.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Ember (Video Game Review)


There’s a very exact blend of story, action, and risk which makes an excellent Action RPG. Screw up anything from the top-down view to the risk factor in facing hordes of enemies, and chances are you’re going to ruin your game. Nailing this exactly is what made Dungeon Siege such an enduring pillar of the gaming industry, and failing to capture that special blend of violence it was what helped truly ruin Sacred 3. N-Fusion Interactive seemed to understand this and, thanks to their careful efforts, Ember proves to be the stunning success Diablo III should have been on launch.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Black Crusade: Angel's Blade Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Campaign Book Review, 7th Edition)



And now we reach the other side of the coin. 

After Traitor's Hate focused upon the heretical followers of the Dark Gods doing what they did best, it was only natural for Games Workshop to shift their attention back to the Imperials. With the Black Crusade taking its toll on both sides, this particular chapter in the dark conflict was divided up, first focusing purely upon the Black Legion and its allies, and now it's the Blood Angels turn. 

After managing to turn the tide against the Tyranid Hive Fleets threatening their homeworld, several hundred warriors of the chapter race to respond to a vital distress call. The Black Legion, Crimson Slaughter and Kharn the Betrayer have fallen upon the Diamor System. No one can fully explain just why they have broken away from the Thirteenth Black Crusade, or know what they are searching for, but their savagery is unprecedented. Heavily outnumbered and already tested by Leviathan's tendrils, the Blood Angels and their Mechanicus forces must fight to try and turn the tide on this foe.

So, is this an excellent opportunity for Rashomon style storytelling, or a chance to give more lore to the armies involved? Or is this Games Workshop simply chopping up a single book to try and make twice the moolah? Let's find out.


The Good



Right from the very start, one of the big things Angel's Blade has working in its favour is the sense that this is a part of a bigger universe. Directly following on from - and tying heavily into - Shield of Baal, the book repeatedly offer shout-outs and call-backs to the previous event. It's not enough to make anyone who didn't read that book feel left out (though seriously, read it if you want to see one of these campaign events at their best) but the way it's presented makes it clear there's more to this tale. Even the occasional explanations to keep people up to date are hardly clunky, and quickly tie into the background explanation of who the Blood Angels are, and the Black Crusade's events. This is the sort of "forging the narrative" Games Workshop so often touts at its best; it keeps many of these crises divided up and episodic, but leaves enough room for their impact to carry over from one to the next.

As with Traitor's Hate, there's more of an effort to present certain segments of the story as if they were akin to a novel. As before, this does help it in some regards, with certain moments proving to be much harder hitting than if they were listed in other ways. The character introductions and certain battle sequences stand out as an especially great highlight, when introducing the Death Company onto the battlefield. While this might be generalizing a little, players focused primarily upon the stats in front of them tend to forget about the meaning of a unit. As such, the Death Company is unfortunately seen in some circles as merely an excellent bonus for an army. Here though, their emergence is treated with all the disgust and horror it deserves. 

After a sorcerous attack causes almost an entire company to fall to the Black Rage, it's not merely brushed off. This is a full tenth of an already hard pressed chapter gone, with their number reduced to little more than bloody madmen. There's a sense of dread as they confront the task, and while quickly dealt with, we see the effort required by multiple Chaplains to bring them under control and get them into a combat worthy formation. While it's relatively understated, the entire event does reflect the horror of this curse and how it affects the Blood Angels. Yet, despite this, it also reflects just how massive a boon it is to so desperate a conflict as the Diamor System; something reflected both in the wider scope of things and a few personal viewpoint accounts.


The assault itself is described as a "weapon of merciless annihilation" and once they hit the Crimson Slaughter find themselves hard pressed by warriors who just refuse to die. Both Kranon and Draznicht are detailed fighting these warriors, and even with their daemon enhanced abilities, they are hard pressed to combat them. Kranon hacks off the forearms of one warrior, only to get repeatedly headbutted as the warrior goes down, while all we get from Draznicht is a distant yell of "... they just won't stay dead!" This is between loud grunts of pain suggesting whoever he is trying to kill is loudly beating the fury of the Emperor into him as they die. While this could easily have turned into some event showing the Death Company as near invulnerable badasses, the book balances out this issue by remembering that these are the sorts of guys who are looking to die. While certainly effective, their antics are nevertheless reckless, and their numbers start to rapidly dwindle throughout their frenzied rampage. Each one surely dies with a good five or six foes around them, but that hardly matters when the enemy outnumbers them ten times over.

Obviously the curse of Sanguinius plays a big role in this book with so many of the Death Company present in a single battle. Yet, despite this, Angel's Blade does a far better job of handling this element than many of its contemporaries. From the Fifth Edition onward, the Red Thirst and Black Rage went from a key part of the chapter's identity to the only thing which mattered, thanks largely to some supremely sub-par writing. This has led to unfortunate comments about the Blood Angels being emo-marines (supplanting the usual chapter known for this trait, if only for a short while) who are perpetually crying about their inevitable fate only to Hulk out and then die. While this is admittedly an exaggeration, it's only a slight one in the case of certain books, but thankfully this particular tome avoids such a fate. There's no weeping, no cries against their curse, no obsession over falling to the Black Rage. They acknowledge it, realise it, are disgusted by its use as a weapon against them, and then press onward into battle. Even many of the big name heroes typically associated with it are given something else to to (read: crack traitor skulls) and in the case of others it goes without any mention. Suffice to say, it's a breath of fresh air after several years' worth of sagas obsessed with it.


The overall story here is much more coherent than anything found in Traitor's Hate, at least in terms of loyalist activities. There are much stricter divides between passages, time skips and the like, and the overall tale flows much more naturally from one event to the next. Better yet though, there are also a number of very distinctive points which directly link into the prior book. Yes there the obvious ones such as the arrival of the Khorne Berzerkers, the orbital bombardments and Titan assault, but also smaller scale things. Moments like a Dunecrawler being flipped over by a single warrior (not nearly as dumb as it sounds, honestly) to a specific advance throughout a side street cross over from one tale to the next. It's subtle, but these minor moments help better reinforce that each story ties into the other, runs parallel to the other, better than any big note or example. They're milestones in the book, helping to map out the overall tale to its very end.

Finally however, there are a surprising number of obscure or odd bits of lore added into the book which have otherwise been long forgotten by the masses. An especially prominent example surrounds the technological level of the Adeptus Mechanicus. Their own book downplayed their capabilities, understanding and even traditions as little more than basic nonsense. Here though, a surprising number of old and obscure ideas show up, with the concept of a human mind being "backed-up" onto a cogitator and re-used by a ranking Magos being high on the list. Even without that though, the tactics, direction and even a few names of the Princeps involved in the battles all stand out as small shout-outs to older works. Yes, it's not much, but it's a fun reminder that Games Workshop does keep track of its lore, even if it doesn't always treat it with the respect it deserves.


The Bad


There's a lot of it unfortunately, and we need to get through the lot. now, for starters, It's true to say that this story is far more coherent than Traitor's Hate, but it's far from perfect. For starters, the tale here begins partway through the other story, only kicking in shortly after the Blood Angels arrive in force. There's little to no grounding or establishment of the conflict prior to that point, and while there are a few general updates to help a reader keep track of events, they're in for an extremely rough start. In fact, without Traitor's Hate, more than a few readers will likely be lost once things get moving. Equally, the ending is just as abrupt and rather unsatisfying. Whereas the previous book ended with the promise of bigger things to come, this one just peters out, and ends on little more than a "well, we won, I guess" moment. Even a last second twist in the narrative sadly means very little, and there's little in the way of lasting impact. Even the threat of a cage of daemons is underplayed, and reduced to the point of leaving a few recruits on the planet to keep an eye on things, asking the Grey Knights to clean up what's left, and little else.


While the narrative might also have been much more coherent, it also lacks the variety of the other book. Rather than covering each and every Imperial faction and giving them equal time in the spotlight, we only get the Sons of Sanguinius throughout the entire book. So, fans of the Adeptus Mechanicus, the Imperial Knights, the Skitarii and their like, all are thrown under the bus. While they do play a major role here and there - particularly a massed Titan assault which ultimately routs the traitor forces - that's about it. Even the named characters outside of the astartes do little besides die and mention stuff before being outdone by the marines. Welcome to Warhammer's worst trend in a nutshell.

The story on the whole also lacks many of the much more awesome moments you'd hope for. After all the time we spent gushing over Traitor's Blade and its depiction of Kharn, you'd hope there would be some equally outstanding moments here. However, what we largely get is mostly some fairly genetic descriptions of fights and a  couple of reasonable duels. While they're by no means bad on their own, and there are some good tactical ideas, the fact that they follow on from such an outstanding example of combat insanity seriously hurts this book. Even as hundreds of Blood Angels, thousands of combat servitors and multiple Titans were assaulting a city, with the elite First Company teleporting directly into their stronghold, it still read as if it were a step down from the past volume. They were always too overly detailed to retain that instant fun "punch" moment which sticks in your mind, and as a result it lacks staying power. So, Kharn and his lads killing a Titan in a couple of paragraphs? Yep, works well. The Sanguinor killing a Lord of Skulls in about a full page on his lonesome? Entertaining at the time, but too drawn out by far.

The book also has this irritating issue of shifting about the timeline in certain places in order to try and remain coherent with Traitor's Hate. Much of this is towards the beginning, where Angel's Blade desperately attempts to fix things and keep any potential new readers up to date. A wise move but thanks to the botched execution, this sadly leaves new readers somewhat confused and those familiar with the prior book flipping through pages trying to check what took place when. Even after this does ultimately even out, there remains a few oddities and inconsistencies in how events play out. This starts to become more and more obvious as the story pushes towards the finale, and the named characters start meeting a swift and bloody end. After a surprisingly effective run throughout the majority of the book, dropping the ball here means it sticks out all the more prominently. It's like looking at a page of a Games Workshop book which lacks skulls. After seeing pile upon pile of them for page after page, you're going to notice the sudden lack of rachidian ornamentation.


Of course, things just happen to be screwed up somewhat by the story diverging at various points from the prior storyline. As there's a large chunk of the tale where the Blood Angels aren't bothering to show up, all of a sudden there's another force of Black Legion forces for them to head off and play wack-a-mole against while storming their stronghold. This takes up a good chunk of the book, and it not only adds to later skewed time-frame of events, but robs said events of much needed detail. Because of this there's no room for thoughts of the heretics, reactions or even anything to truly expand upon events. As such, we end up with the same problem as before with the book lacking a great deal of impact and investment thanks to only showing one side. When a certain sorcerer teleports out, mere inches from being killed, it's not engaging but irritating because it lacks any true drama or focus which might allow it to become truly engaging.

Finally though, we have the problems surrounding mortality rates. Oh, not the fact that lots of soldiers on both sides die, that makes it a solid story, but what harms it is the sheer lack of any real impact. In Traitor's Hate, the invading Chaos forces outnumbered the Imperial defenders many times over and were actively seeking to unleash bloodshed. As such, the staggering number of cultists or astartes who ended up blown in half by a few well placed bolter rounds was understandable. Plus, those who did take heavy casualties or losses were covered to a reasonable degree, noting how hard they had been hit by the conflict - particularly the Crimson Slaughter's few remaining marines. 

By comparison the Imperials lacked the sheer number of warm disposable bodies or resources on hand. Any death was going to hit them much harder than Abaddon's servants, so you'd imagine the book would make a point of this. Well, no, it's barely brought up at all. Outside of the loss of the Fifth Company to the Black Rage, which doesn't really hurt them all that much, little is really made of their casualties. Towards the end you have entire Reaver Titans being one-shotted by orbital bombardments, hell raining from the sky, and warriors dying en mass in a desperate struggle; yet little here seems to actually reflect that at all. Even just the odd mention at times would have been fine, but we get nothing.

The Art



All of it is recycled. Some of it from the previous book. Really, there's nothing new here at all. Even the only example which might have been new turned out to be the above artwork, just with the tyranids cropped out. It is thus awarded no points, and gets the stamp of "bloody repetitive" once again.

Verdict

Much like its opposite, Angel's Blade is very flawed and extremely problematic despite a few solid ideas. Oh it's certainly a change for the better for the Blood Angels, but there are so many missed opportunities here that it can become a real chore to push through, and starts to seriously drag in the final parts. It's definitely a stronger book than Traitor's Hate, but that's largely thanks to a more generally coherent tale despite the difficult start. 

We've read worse for sure, but it's by no means a good tale in all honesty. If you're after good lore it might be worth a skim through, but it's hard to recommend a full price purchase by any means. For our thoughts on the rules, click here.

Black Crusade: Traitor's Hate Part 3 - The Genius of Kharn the Betrayer (Warhammer 40,000 Campaign Book Review, 7th Edition)



Yeah, bet that's a title you never thought you would read.

This article isn't specifically about the IQ of a man who broke the back of two legions, or even reputation in general, but how he is depicted here. Trying to balance out any character with any army is difficult at the best of times, and all too often we have seen things go horribly wrong. The big one is usually down to the characters becoming the solely important thing in the book, where they are less a cog in the machine and more the single most important thing in an army, with some cannon fodder attached. As the came comes to focus upon big singular units and characters more and more, this has become an increasingly depressing issue, robbing the army in question of its long history or freedom to be adapted by other fans. 

Even attempts to fix this failing have backfired, as seen in Codex: Sentinels of Terra, where the response was to try and turn every single thing in the book into a named character; thus destroying any opportunity for a  fan to create their own version of that company. There seems to be no right answer as Games Workshop tries to push the idea of an ongoing narrative more and more. However, while it's not perfect, Traitor's Hate is the closest thing we've had to a truly good balance in a long time, depicting its protagonists, troops and Kharn with a surprisingly deft hand.

Now, trying to write about any near mythical character is an uphill battle at the best of times. The better known, more reputable and famed they are, the more difficult things become. Try to glorify them and you run the risk of rendering the rest of the army as irrelevant, or leave them in his shadow. Try to downplay things too much, and you risk turning what should be a living legend into just "that guy we know" - Something which has been a surprisingly big issue as Black Library stories focus more upon the tabletop models over original characters. 

Such a difficulty balancing two such factors is true of any fiction of course, but when you add in the sheer age and glorification of some of these characters, it reaches an entirely new level. Kharn in particular, in this case, is not only the chosen warrior of a war god, but a man who could likely pimp-slap Kratos into oblivion. He is built upon the fact he leaves roads of skulls in his wake, literal rivers of blood as well, and has claimed the heads of a billion souls. Against such a man, any army should seem insufficient, or the prose seem lacking, but Traitor's Hate approaches it in an odd way. For starters, it does not actually start with Kharn. Instead, it starts with his warriors, the Khorne Berzerkers mad enough to willingly follow the man titled "the Betrayer" into battle. We learn a bit of general information about them, and while nothing too major it's enough to gain an impression of their nature. 

The Berzerkers here don't fall into the usual one-dimensional blood zeal we've come to expect. There's a degree of unity, or at least some sense of comradery among them, as they wait for planetfall. We see traces of this among them as they boast of the coming victories, the skulls they will claim, and even a few old Legiones Astartes salutes. It's not much, but it's enough to suggest there's a culture among them amid the bloodshed, and even something akin to how the Space Wolves act towards one another. Oh, once they're on the battlefield all bets are off of course - these are Chaos astartes after all, so there's going to be some backstabbing - but it's a nice balance between the sheer ranging madness of battle and humanizing them.

By setting up this basis, we're given the impression that the warband as a whole is being focused upon here. Kharn isn't just written onto the paper and we go from there, and instead it's a general introduction to the entire group. The narrative certainly changes once he arrives towards the end of the initial pages, and there's a good deal more respect towards him by the others. As such, it sets him up as their leader, one of their most important warriors and the reason for so many of their victories, but it does not turn him into the sole reason Chaos has won so many worlds. This is reflected in the initial strikes against the Mechanicus lines. The Khornate worshipers charge into the Skitarii lines, mob through them and start crushing them, beating them back until they are barely holding. While the Mechanicus regroup, and begin holding the line against them with devastating effect, Kharn arrives and drops among them. At this point the book does offer him glory, by having his assault open the way for the others, hacking and slicing his way through wave upon wave of battle servitors. Yet, while the glory is his, it's repeatedly made clear that he's only truly capable of such a victory with others at his back. 

The book also takes its time to describe and set-up these victories as they emerge. We're given a proper introduction to the abilities of the Mechanicus forces - if not the Mechanicus themselves - and we see why they are such a feared foe. We're shown them briefly winning, briefly turning the tide and inflicting staggering damage upon their foes even when heavily outnumbered, so their defeat doesn't feel unearned. The book is ultimately striking a very careful balancing act as a result, never trying to overplay one element or present one side as totally dominant. As such, even when their foes are beaten down, it doesn't feel like it's purely thanks to author bias or stolen thanks to a few cheap shots. While normally such  books will try to balance this out by having each foe beat seven kinds of hell out of one another, until only one staggers away having barely one, this accomplishes it by allowing each and every side to have its "glory moments". I'd make a Draigo comparison again, but that fact alone should emphasize how wrong that character went during his introduction.

Keeping with the focus of the army on the whole, many of Kharn's big victories in this battle are only accomplished thanks to teaming up with others. The two prominent victories against the Legio Metalica are only made possible thanks to guile or sheer balls-to-the-wall insanity, with dozens of Berzerkers backing him up or all three of the warband's Lords of Skulls. This means that, even when the narrative focus is being placed upon Kharn and the story tries to present him as its protagonist for a time, the army as a whole stays at the forefront of the work. There's no moments trying to force the narrative itself squarely upon him or brushing everything else aside to keep him purely at the centre of attention over the army on the whole. Nor does it need to show him taking down a Titan on his lonesome just to remind readers that he's the boss. In fact, the one moment which it could be argued counts towards this flows naturally into the work, where he duels an enemy Chaplain. It's a hell of a fight, with the two surprisingly evenly matched despite Kharn's greater experience, and it factors into a much larger skirmish against the Death Company. 

However, what's most notable is that the book manages to create these moments without making Kharn seem overly powerful, but never losing sight of the fact he has carved his way into history. He isn't merely some general or a frontline warrior but the chosen of a war god, selected to make Khorne's will known to the galaxy and bring him the skulls of the Imperium's greatest mortals. There's an impression of power with his every act, and even once we do get inside his head for a short time, it's never down to the nitty-gritty details. There's always a sense of general vagueness to his actions, preventing the reader from ever truly knowing him or becoming overly familiar with his nature. As such, we get to see more of him beyond just the murderer, but he remains consistent with the legend we've come to expect. In some regards, it could even be argued that it does a better job here than Chosen of Khorne. While that audio drama is undeniably awesome - and one of the best ever produced by Black Library no less - it pushed to explore his character; there was a drive there to overturn and disprove previous conceptions over all else. Here though, that takes a back seat to the bigger events and flows better with the story on the whole.

Now, while this is successful, one other factor does need to be kept in mind - While Kharn here does show how a character can work as a part of an army and still remain visibly superior to them, this story would only work with him. As he has no desire to serve as a general and lacks the deeper or more dynamic traditions, goals and ideals of other characters, the writers had less baggage to work around. If they attempted to present Mephiston in this light, or even another devoted warrior of the Dark Gods like Typhus, it wouldn't work. While it would be wrong to call Kharn simple, the truth is that he is very straight forwards, and without the traditions of a chapter or guiding role to other warriors, writers have more freedom to show him doing awesome acts of slaying. Then again, given how often we've seen the writers fail the more diverse or dutiful characters, perhaps a little straight-forwards murder might do them some good in the following books.