Monday, 16 January 2017
Gathering Storm: Fall of Cadia Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Supplement Review)
So, here we are again at Armageddon. Several editions on from the Thirteenth Black Crusade, almost a decade since Games Workshop attempted to push the timeline forwards, and the company stands ready to make another attempt at reshaping the setting. For good or ill, the Warhammer 40,000 the fans know will likely end here, and with it perhaps many of the armies they have long loved.
Abaddon the Despoiler's latest crusade - perhaps his final crusade - batters the walls of Cadia. Having long stood against the invasion of the Traitor Legions, having braved assault after assault, the planet is key to the balance of power within the galaxy. If it holds, the bulk of Abaddon's forces will remain trapped within the Warp maelstrom known as the Eye of Terror. If it falls, he will be ready to take revenge upon Holy Terra itself, and perhaps even crown himself as the new master of mankind.
This is the way a world dies, with the scream of a billion lasguns and the laughter of tyrannous gods.
Whatever the result here, the bravery of this action cannot be understated. Perhaps it will be a mistake, perhaps this will be the moment Games Workshop kills the golden goose, but it takes bravery to look back at an event which almost tanked the company and say "Let's give it another shot, and let's do it right this time." Okay, perhaps bravery and stupidity in equal parts, but the company does seem to have learned from its past lessons and - whatever else might be said for their quality - experimented with this formula repeatedly with War Zone books before taking another stab at it.
Did it pay off? Well, read the sections below and find out for yourself.
Let's begin with one major improvement here - The padding. Oh, not the fact there is padding (because we unfortunately still have a fair amount of it) but because it's considerably scaled back from previous works. There are still splash pages, full page artworks and over-sized images, but they have been pushed aside to make more room for the written lore, and compliment the work rather than overwhelm it. There's no moment akin to the split-second meeting seen Curse of the Wulfen, the one the book tried to hide being rushed through by adding a gigantic splash page directly above it, and the events themselves are vastly better planned out.
There is more of a direct narrative arc to this book, with more of the natural twists and turns you would expect of a campaign than the almost mechanical three act structure of past works. You know the kind, where they follow the usual plot format so predictably that you've guessed the general thematic twists for the story long before they happen. As such, it helps to sidestep many of the inherent problems of these books. Even with it openly advertising that Cadia itself will fall before Chaos, the writers handle the subject matter well enough to keep you guessing when, where and how it will happen. Hell, even after it is finally conquered, the book is good enough to ask "so, what then?" and show some of the immediate circumstances. Not too many admittedly, but enough to keep you hooked for the next story.
Another factor well worth adding is that, despite the sheer number of characters involved, Fall of Cadia does a vastly better job of balancing the importance of characters and armies than other tales. They do unfortunately still hijack the plot and a substantial chunk of the story nevertheless focuses more upon the heroes than the troops themselves. That said however, there is far more here to help focus upon the wider galaxy than you might think. The entire introductory section focuses far more upon Cadia itself than any individual character, and even when Creed is mentioned it is only to reflect the measures he is pushing to defend the planet. In fact, large chunks of the book do pause to look into the more secondary elements of the story or areas which would otherwise seem as if they're needless. However, by including them, it prevents the usual funnel vision problem which afflicted previous books, turning campaigns into stories focusing upon just a few key individuals.
These moments tend to be akin to the description of the initial assault during Know No Fear - particularly the shipyard sequence - some of the larger battles, or even moments reserved to cover an entire battle in full. It certainly pulls away from the core of the action, but it's welcome thanks to just how much it fleshes out events. A personal favourite takes place during the retreat from Cadia itself, where several paragraphs are spent outlining the tactics used, fleet formations and the ships Emperor's Wrath and Dominus Victor, both of who suffer a particularly sadistic fate. Plus it gives the book an excuse to show void battles, which is always a bonus in these sorts of stories.
In all honesty, even when the book does become character focused, ways are introduced to make the armies themselves feel important. Their individual regiment names, positions and roles, details which would have otherwise been skipped in most releases, are all put at the forefront of various pages. It might not be much, but it is a reminder that these are armies with a long history behind them rather than mere fodder for the important people. Hell, even when they are being used as fodder, they're given enough dignity to put up a standing fight before going down, such as during Urkanthos' rampage through the Cadian ranks.
Much of the focus here is on the Imperium first and foremost, but oddly enough this actually works here. It helps that the ending makes it very clear that this is a battle which is far from over, and combined with enough awesome Chaotic moments it's enough to define this as their book, with the Traitor Legions' moment in the spotlight to follow later on. Well, that and the fact that the Traitors earn their victory here. This isn't the overdone curb-stomping some people feared, and while it does lean a little too heavily in Chaos' favour at points it's by no means another Mont'Ka. By focusing this upon the losing side and giving them enough moments to shine, and making it clear that this is the start of a new conflict, it sidesteps the old problems which tend to bring about such bad blood. No one feels as if they are losing out, and even when the Imperium is depicted as failing and retreating, there are enough awesome moments to show them putting up a fight.
The book doesn't leave such moments purely down to the characters however, but uses them carefully to help augment each battle. As much as these reviews might have ragged on their presence, it was usually only in books where they dominated what should have been an army's story. Here though? They're a storytelling device, used to push or maneuver the plot about, and to augment the grander elements of the storyline; each working itself deeper into the tale and about the armies involved. So, when the Cadian 8th makes a stand alongside the Sororitas and astartes, that moment still takes precedent, and the character driven battles which follow are more a punctuation mark added onto the end. An exceptional one to be sure - and there is no small amount of satisfaction in seeing Celestine being given the glory she has long deserved - but it is never enough to overwhelm the book.
Perhaps, what is most notable more than anything else, however, is how it weaves the character pieces and larger text together. Past books have usually had some difficulty trying to balance out the small segments written in a manner akin to novels, and the larger overall text. Often it seemed as if a writer had a certain quota to fill by adding in so many ones per book rather than any exact plan, and while Traitor's Hate and a few others had some great scenes, a number of moments still felt out of place. Here though, many have been almost perfectly placed time and time again, often coinciding or expanding upon certain events. While the core story will tell you the essentials to a satisfying degree, and will still provide enough details for you to go by that alone, the character segments add more context to certain scenes. For example, the finale features a major battle between the Vengeful Spirit and an Ark Mechanicus warship, and focuses upon the battle. This initially looks as if it is simply due to their constant hunt for their enemy, but a side text provides more context for this action.
Another particularly great example runs throughout most of the book, following a Dark Angels marine across multiple fronts. Each helps to show more of the battle away from the areas the heroes are focusing upon, along with providing an astartes character in the conflict, but also mitigates the book's limitations. We all know that this is going to be primarily focused upon the Guard, Mechanicus and Sororitas, so having a representative of another army showing up several times in the book helps to give some sense of a larger invasion force. It certainly helps that each of these segments is excellently written, and more often than not they exist as an excerpt of a bigger tale. As such, despite the minimal information, there's enough there to keep you interested and engaged from one moment to the next, even when days or hours are skipped at a time. It's an old trick to be sure, but one we've not seen done this well since the days of Mordheim.
Besides the more story-esque moments of Fall of Cadia, other segments opt to shed light upon the ongoing battles in another manner. For the first time in a very long time we have a few in-universe documents showing up in these books, featured in side columns as Cadia desperately calls for reinforcements. Using them is sadly something of a lost art these days, so to see them showing up here once again is a thing of sheer beauty. Even without the nostalgic kick however, these utterly nail the exact semi-mechanical semi-feudal style of a Servitor is a welcome addition to the atmosphere.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is how the book starts to work with a few old ideas. Having tried and failed to keep people interested with just a direct link from one story to the next, the writers opted to offer multiple hints and threads for potential future plotlines with this one. While we're going to leave most of these to the next book, let's just say that a few unexpected twists are in store for the galaxy. Some very big ones, which could change the expected outcome of the Long War for better or worse.
Unfortunately, there are some very definite problems which plague this book despite their best efforts, which we'll be getting into next.
You might recall back during the initial thoughts article that I was worried this book simply wouldn't be large enough to cover the war surrounding Cadia. Specifically, that the actual conflict itself was too vast to properly reflect in any War Zone book, and that it wouldn't be able to cover all the armies involved. Well, unfortunately that is most definitely the case here, and despite the writers' best efforts it doesn't quite pull off the sort of narrative cohesion they were hoping for.
The most obvious issue which will hit you very early on is the fact this isn't showing the entire war. Rather than depicting the fight from beginning to end, Fall of Cadia jumps right to the last few days of the conflict, with Cadia already in ruins and most of its fleet breaking up in orbit. It's jarring at first glance to be sure, as the story rolls right into this event almost expecting the reader to be ready for this, and only an extremely brief explanation covering this fact. It's only made worse given how much the story itself relies upon reader familiarity with Cadia, the Eye of Terror and this big event, and how the explanatory page outlining the build up comes directly before this. So, in effect, what you get is this:
"There's going to be a big, big battle to decide the fate of creation, and we might not survive it. We need everything to stand in these last moments, to fight until their guns run dry and die screaming into the heavens.
So, here's the end of that battle right before we lose it!"
In complete fairness, what follows afterwards is solidly written and does do a good job of building up the dread towards this final onslaught, but you'd be forgiven for getting whiplash from the sudden jump. On its own this might be somewhat forgivable, but Fall of Cadia promptly bumps into the next two big problems; with the book trying to simultaneously set-up a vague hint of an incomplete cosmic plan by the Emperor and tie off a rather moronic storyline set up in an entirely different book.
The first is a hint at Saint Celestine, which is extremely vaguely written on her part and seems to suggest she is part of the Emperor's long standing plan. This comes completely out of nowhere with little to no prior establishment, and while it might have worked if the book had bothered to explain anything, what we're left with is a bunch of incredibly vague and infuriating non-answers or hints. A problem for sure given this sort of thing only tends to work if there's more of a definitive answer as it goes along. This goes hand in hand with the problem of seemingly re-writing what little there was about Celestine from the start, and treating her like an entirely new character. An issue which only becomes far, far worse later on as the battle progresses.
The second, and far more eye-rolling issue however, is the inclusion of the Phalanx here. Yes, the Imperial Fists are showing up. Not a bad idea on the whole, and admittedly dropping a stonking great planetoid of guns atop of Abddon's fleet would serve as a solid deterrent to his assaults. However, this isn't just them showing up. No, this is them flying out of control fighting a bunch of daemons within the ship. Yes, apparently Fall of Cadia needed to dignify Sentinels of Terra by acknowledging its existence. Lord only knows why given it was one of those ruelbooks which would do a better job as bonfire fuel than actually developing the game's lore, but there we go. So, what we get is a very rushed explanation of how daemons suddenly arrived on the ship - making no more sense than it did in Sentinels of Terra - before they're abruptly dealt with by the Legion of the Damned. Then, the Phalanx arrives over Cadia having finished its brief jaunt through the Warp.
This event is so blatantly tacked on to help resolve that codex's shoehorned addition that it hurts the book more than helps it. It's just the first of what are likely to be a few big solutions to dangling plot threads we'll be seeing in the books to come, shoved in so the story can move forwards. While the Phalanx itself does have a couple of somewhat useful roles within the overall battle, little is really done with the Imperial Fists. Once again, they really just die a lot before being sidelined to a secondary role away from the story. Yes, apparently we're not done killing the sons of Dorn just yet, so even a company which has only just rebuilt its strength is tossed once more into the meat grinder so other characters can have glory moments. The story doesn't even throw in something which might make sense, like their presence justifying Lysander arriving given he was last seen striking Chaos strongholds on the fringes of the Eye. They just show up and die.
You'll keep running into bits like this throughout the book where certain things are crammed in purely to resolve all questions as fast as humanly possible. Take for example the old looming threat of the Blackstone Fortresses, the giant Warp driven Death Stars capable of soloing planets. Their capture was the whole point of the previous Black Crusade, and something needed to be done quickly to counter why they couldn't just nuke Cadia itself. The answer: The pylons, combined with some vague Imperial tech, can be used to block its main guns. Now, given they're effectively giant Warp rift guns, that's not a bad answer. It's concise, simple and resolves the big problem, but the story then just keeps going.
Partway through, one pylon is damaged, it looks like it could allow the Blackstones to be used, but a certain meddling xenos race promptly pops up and resolves it before leaving again. So, yes, the book had a moment for genuine drama, but took it out back and beat it to death, never to bring it up again. Reincorporation is a big part of any great story, so to have several such potentially game-changing events show up only to be abruptly addressed and never discussed again is just head-scratching. That or perhaps they were thrown in to address old fan arguments, though if this is the case they're certainly ones I have personally never heard of before.
On other occasions, certain secondary events just keep arising without much reasoning at all. It's to the point where you can start to see the gaps in the script where things must have been rushed, with time and space warping for the sake of plot convenience. Take for example Trazyn the Infinite's involvement in all this, who decides to ally with the Imperium out of continence. While he might be a complete bastard of a xenos - and gloriously so - he realises that Chaos is the bigger threat and needs to be taken down, and decides to talk to Archmagos Cawl (the Mechanicus head-honcho of the area) about turning the pylons into weapons against the Eye of Terror.
Now, while some of this is a little suspect, for the most part you can make some sense of it. Both are in a state of desperation with a much bigger evil on their doorstep, so old hatred or contempt being set aside in a rather nicely written conversation is all fine and good. However, when the pylons fire into the Eye, it's apparently akin to openly up a Warp plughole in the bathtub of the universe. With such speed it honestly stops becoming dramatic and suddenly devolves into absolute hilarity, the Eye of Terror begins shrinking light years at a time. Yes, really, it's not even a slow or gradual dissipation, but it just instantly starts falling back in upon itself at such a rate that anyone on Cadia and pick it out in a second.
So, what happens then? All of a sudden Abaddon knows exactly where Cawl is, and shows up to stop him. How does he know? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine, as it's mostly just there to justify steamy character on character combat. Well, that and have the final pylon be destroyed meaning the plughole is suddenly sealed, and Chaos opens up the faucet, allowing the Eye to suddenly engulf the planet. This goes back and forth within just a few pages. Were this delivered via the chapters of a novel it likely would have worked, and the descriptions do give some serious weight to the actions of the characters, but pressed in so close together it just seems rushed.
Again, at various points this sort of thing just keeps happening, where it just seems certain rules of the universe have been briefly lessened or narrative causality hijacks events to streamline things together. One or twice would have been fine and all, but when you run into moments like Inquisitor Greyfax entering a near perpetual bitching contest with Saint Celestine because she thinks she's a heretic (no, sadly that's not something I just made up) it weakens the overall tale.
However, there is one exceptionally big failing which hangs over this book above all else. The kind of one which introduces an especially big plot hole into the mix and leaves you just wondering why no one fixed it: Abaddon the Despoiler himself. Now, to be completely fair, Abaddon does still do a hell of a lot of damage in this book. He personally wrecks Cadia multiple times over throughout this book on foot and in space, and puts up one hell of a fight against anyone who comes his way. The problem is, while the book makes it clear he has the brawn, his depictions lacks some of the brains shown in the likes of Talon of Horus.
For starters, a particularly nasty retcon has changed things so he just needs to blow up a few certain pylons on Cadia to make way for his overall plans of conquest rather than using the planet as a staging area. Exactly why he really needs to isn't entirely clear, his plans to have the Eye of Terror to encompass even Terra via the Crimson Path strategy counter both this obvious goal and the need for Cadia to maintain a semi-stable corridor for Warp travel all the way to Terra. Even accepting that however, Fall of Cadia never bothers to fully explore why he needs to land there and destroy them. The Imperium, overall, is largely beaten and its forces severely diminished both in orbit and on the ground.
So, why doesn't he just deign this task of finishing things up on Cadia to a few trusted lieutenants and send the rest of his forces all the way to Terra effectively unopposed? Not answered.
What about just having the Blackstones fly away from Cadia (where they're useless) and towards Terra (where they can actually do damage) backed by a substantial portion of his fleet? Not truly considered.
How about just dropping a warship onto the pylons and using the explosion to get rid of them? Believe it or not, Abaddon only does this at the last second when he's standing under the falling wreckage.
Now, with each of these there's a legitimate answer as to why this isn't done: Because without it there wouldn't be a campaign. Now, suspension of disbelief aside, that's not the worst reason in the world, but it needs to be backed up by a few counterpoints. Even if you're not going to use these, just a general statement as to why Abaddon is still here rather than pushing ahead would be fine. Really, a single well thought out paragraph, and BOOM, you have your campaign without the plot holes! Really, there's no point where it justifies Chaos actually staying there short of Abaddon's single minded goals. Combined with his seething rage at most things, it sadly plays more into the old "Armless" depiction than the new and vastly improved portrayals of recent years.
Let's start this small section off with a major gripe - The cover. Yes, this is going to sound petty, but damn it, this is necessary! In my personal opinion, this is a downright awful cover to have. Really, you have a particularly blurry, dirt coloured and ill detailed version of Abaddon standing there, with a bare bones background and the expression of a man who stumbled upon something disgusting. That's neither inspiring nor engaging, and this is supposed to be the very start of a revolutionary series! Hell, if they just managed to give him some menace that would be one thing, but making the man look as if he's just trodden on a dog turd? How in the hell is that supposed to grab a reader's attention.
It's made all the worse when you stop for five seconds to compare it to the cover of Codex: Eye of Terror. Say what you will about that book's problems, but the cover remains one of the quintessential pieces of Warhammer art, and a staggering masterpiece by any measure. Abaddon might be front and center, but his expression is a gaunt mask of hatred, spite and malice. Beneath him marches a hundred ancient warriors wreathed in fire, bearing the banners of the dark gods, while Cadia itself cracks within its grip. This is the kind of thing classic movie posters aspire to be, and even the book's creators seemed to realise just how iconic a visual it was. How so? The story barely even starts before an entire page devotes itself to displaying this piece in all its glory.
The rest of the book is equal parts new artwork and old stuff, with the team having gone back to grab anything Cadian related they could lay their hands on. Sometimes this is forgivable and it works quite well, as it makes sense to use fantastic and barely utilized pieces - notably the cover to Talon of Horus - to bring the Warmaster to life. In other cases, they're intentionally present to help reflect upon the era which led up to this conflict; with the cover to the Third Edition rulebook making a welcome return alongside a page recounting the nightmarish state of the Imperium.
Others fail to really stand out however, and it overuses a few particular pieces we have seen a hundred times over by this point, from the Sergeant aiming his mini-bolter with a Shadowsword in the background to the Fourth Edition Codex: Chaos Space Marines cover. Someone honestly needs to tell these creators that re-using art like this is akin to stock footage: You can only wheel it out so many times before the audience stops seeing it as an impressive way of bringing the setting to life, and just a picture they have seen a few too many times before.
Now, with this said, the new artwork we get is also equal parts good and bad. Some of it is fantastic while a few other bits are questionable. In particular, the piece with Saint Celestine swooping into battle over an unstoppable tide of daemons is perfectly presented. It is fantastically designed, quite frankly masterfully planned, but the oddly blurred and softened details means it doesn't stand out half as well as it should. By comparison, the stunning depiction of a Necron Warrior, the beautiful chapter by chapter depictions of key characters and the massive piece showing the Cadian 8th holding their ground are far better. They're added at the right moments to help compliment the lore here, and it helps to truly reinforce the poignant moments of the book or the sheer size of the ongoing battle.
Despite all my complaints, and with total honesty, Fall of Cadia is actually remarkably enjoyable. I will freely admit I am going somewhat easy on this one for a few reasons, but it seems like this was a story with a solid core where the secondary elements just kept screwing it over. Many of these turned out to be old problems we suspected from the start, like the effort of tying off so many loose ends would interfere with the story, and that the book's relatively short length would hurt it. Despite these though, the writers did an admirable job of putting together a very fun and (at times) surprisingly intelligent tale which far surpassed some very negative expectations. As such, while it's hardly the stunning single masterpiece one might have hoped to see, it's a success where only failure seemed like a possible outcome.
If you want a good comparison to the experience of reading Fall of Cadia, think of Die Hard for a second. No, honestly, think about it for just a few seconds. While the actual story of that film itself is ridiculous when you actually pause to think about it, and retains so many questionable moments, it pulls it off by presenting them in the right way. At a certain point, from certain justifications on screen, it manages to be dumb enough while offering smart answers that you stop caring and just enjoy the ride to the end. Really, that sums up this book's best overall qualities from start to finish.
Would I recommend this on the basis of its lore after all that though? Actually, yes, for all the entertainment this provided, I would say it's one of the better choices of the past couple of years. It still doesn't match up to our hopes, but in all honesty short of a full fledged Imperial Armour book there honestly wasn't much here which could truly get this event right. It ends on a hopeful and quite engaging note for what's to come, and if Games Workshop can maintain this as their standard quality, Warhammer 40,000 will be all the better for it.
So, that's the story done and out of the way. Join us here as we move on once more to the rules and new units this book provides.