One of the big trends within Games Workshop is to use Forge World as much as a testing ground as a place to sell its really expensive stuff. Gradually, over time, designs and ideas from there will trickle down into stores with plastic versions of resin kits showing up on shelves. Sometimes this can be for the better, other times for worse, and with the success of the Imperial Armour books it was no real surprise to see Games Workshop trying to do something similar.
We had already seen one extremely botched attempt to test the waters with the supplement codices. Many aspects which were a staggering success in the Imperial Armour volumes were carried over to here, from the narrative focus of the books to the greater emphasis upon certain characters and individual forces. These were nearly all bad and failed to really understand why the other books worked in the first place.
While Games Workshop is today still soldiering ahead with the supplements, they then opted to try their luck with actual campaign books instead. One cannot fault their willingness to try and get something right, only their results. Warzone: Damnos' lore effectively hammers in every single mistake surrounding the Ultramarines over and over again, compounding their biggest problems and starting out this series with a real stinker.
You want to know what the premise for this one is? Erasing the one damn almost-loss the Ultramarines suffered in the Fifth Edition.
In the Fifth Edition Codex: Space Marines, the closest the Mary Sue brigade was given to a defeat was successfully evacuating from one world. Attacked by massive numbers of necrons, the Second Company showed up, successfully delayed the xenos for far longer than anyone would have guessed, evacuated the entire population, and retreated with about half the company still alive. Just for reference: the "victories" given to other chapters consisted of them being completely wiped out, suffering from frequent in-fighting, or taking heavy losses. The only truly successful ones were led by the Ultramarines, under whose "superior" leadership other chapters emerged victorious few to no casualties.
Now we have the Ultramarines suddenly going back there in force, conquering Damnos all over again, and wiping the floor with the necron forces. This isn't so much a campaign like in Imperial Armour where one side may be favoured but the other will get a few good shots in so much as ludicrous smurf pandering.
The first twenty-five pages of the book are what truly outlines the full fluff of the book's events and it's also where the really big problems begin to appear. The first half of this story is given over entirely to detailing and explaining the original evacuation of Damnos from Nick Kyme's novel and the previous codices, detailing a massive amount of information the reader already knows. While on the one hand this would have been useful for anyone new to the setting, it could have easily been condensed down to a small fraction of the space. A brief introduction or even just a two page retelling of the frantic evacuation would have been fine, but instead what's given is effectively a complete retelling of Fall of Damnos and little else.
Why is this a problem exactly? Simple, this leaves far less space to actually have the Ultramarines come back and take the world. The chapter is coming back, defeating a well established and very powerful alien empire, and taking back a world they lost. That would be bad enough in of itself, but instead what we now have is effectively a speed run version of it, where the Ultramarines rush in, clobber everything in sight and declare victory. Without the same space, without the additional pages, there's no opportunity for real nuance or to show both sides fighting equally against one another to any real degree. Effectively the entire campaign just boils down to one side zerg rushing the other until they run away, and then the opposite side promptly returning to do the same to them.
Compare this to the gradual build, the hyper detailed events and progressive conflicts from the Badab War and there's an obvious difference right from the get-go. By comparison this book seems much shallower, as it lacks the same amount of information and excellent presentation, instead just rushing through the cliff-notes and allowing one side to utterly curb-stomp the other. While plenty of Imperial Armour books did feature just that, it was far more excusable thanks to the time and effort on the part of the authors to really sell the reader on the idea of one side winning. There was a vast amount of backstory building up each side, events were detailed for pages at a time and time was taken to give some real blow-by-blow events without making the story feel small. Here there's none of that.
Just for comparison, when the book finally moves onto the Ultramarines trying to retake the planet, the entire background to the campaign is breezed over in effectively two pages. All it really boils down to is the High Lords of Terra ordering the Ultramarines to take Damnos back for propaganda purposes and to establish the presence of a Deathwatch kill-team. While this could have been a very interesting take on the potential way the Imperium handles knowledge of its defeats, or even using the Ultramarines chapter as a propaganda tool, no risks are taken. It's skimmed over entirely and any opportunity for real depth is soon passed over in favour of going back to Damnos almost immediately and completely destroying the Necron Dynasty established on the world.
When I say "destroyed" I really do mean destroyed as well, as the book's bias really comes into full swing during this latter half. While the necrons themselves were winning in the first half, the problem is that little was really done to emphaise their own skills and fortitude. They did ultimately drive the Ultramarines off of the planet, but the way the writing did more to emphasise that they were winning through sheer weight of numbers and firepower. When it came down to actual skill, much like the Fifth Edition Codex: Space Marines, it was pulling out all the stops to show the Ultramarines effectively doing the impossible and holding them back.
When the tables are turned however and the Ultramarines return in force, that same treatment isn't given to the necrons. What we get is just a lengthy slamming by the chapter, with Kelley going out of his way to show how nauseatingly "awesome" the Ultramarines are to an eye-rolling degree. Many of their victories aren't so much earned as punted towards them, with the astartes suddenly earning vastly easier victories or half the necrons' real defences being forgotten. That or they're intentionally weakened in some way. For example, one of the big terrain threats on Damnos are the Gremlin Guns. These are networks of Imperial fortifications which have been effectively hacked by the necrons and are described thusly:
"Over the twenty-five years since the initial invasion, the automatic defenses of the Imperial trench networks have been corrupted and completely taken over by necron nanoscarabs and canoptek autonomites. These long-dormant defences whirr to life whenever a heat signature is detected, thundering out battle cannon shells or gatling salvos until all is cold once more."
Now, this is half of a brilliant idea. Why? Because it's a perfect example of how the necrons are so much of a threat, they can turn the very weapons the Imperium uses to hold its worlds against them. The problem is that this seems more like something which would be a stop-gap measure, something to be replaced by the necrons as they overtake the world. Despite having two decades to themselves though, surprisingly few of these guns have been replaced by far more potent gauss weaponry defences which would help them better hold the planet. In fact, despite being given enough time to fortify most of the hemisphere their tomb complexes are located on, very little progress was really made. It's as if someone didn't want there to be too much opposing the Ultramarines and stopping them taking it back.
Things aren't made much better by the tactics of the Ultrmarines, who seem to be capable of running rings around the necrons and easily screwing them over. While there are some efforts made to show them actually learning from past mistakes, such as how they get down to the planet, once the battle actually begins it does devolve into having the innate skills of the astartes win the day. Just for example, the Deathwatch squad is able to infiltrate an active necron tomb complex with an obscene level of ease, then they start sabotaging the revivication engines to kill any who necron teleports back. There's no real security measures mentioned, no real difficulty and nothing here which even shows them having to slow down in their assaults.
This ultimately culminates in a moment which honestly had be give up on the book and refuse to pick it up for the better part of a month. Please read the following and weep when you realise this is above average writing for the company these days:
So, just to run down on the events from those bits:
- Ultramarines Scouts (continuing the trend of giving space marine squads bad superhero team names) known as the 'Ice Talons' can run in, plant bombs on a vital structure and leg it without being noticed by a single necron warrior.
- Calgar single-handedly kills entire squads of Immortals, hijacks a Necron Pylon by picking it up, and starts merrily gunning down necron warriors to his heart's content.
- Necron tombs can be easily snuck into and their vital components replaced without detection or automatic repair cycles kicking in. This even counts for the Phaeron's personal reconstruction machines.
- Necron Lords can be instantly killed by just being stabbed in the right bit.
- C'Tan shards can now be one-shotted by vortex grenades.
- The Ultramarines are so awesome yet more of their knowledge is sent to all of the Adeptus Astartes to learn, and Sicarius now has the deaths of multiple necron heroes to his already obscenely long list of victories.
It's one sided as all hell and none of really reads as if it's been earned by the book's characters. It's falling back into the old failing of treating one side as the heroes and the other as the villains rather than treating them as two armies on a campaign, and any losses on the Ultramarines' part are rapidly swept under the rug. Calgar's actions directly resulted in the deaths of three squads? No biggie. The C'Tan massacred retreating Ultramarines en mass, causing losses to multiple companies which they'll need to recover from? Not worth mentioning.
The book also really does highlight some of the massive problems which go hand in hand with forcibly humanising the necrons as they were during the Fifth Edition. Whatever side you stand on whether you favour this new interpretation or not, the removal of their old Cthulhu worshiping unstoppable threat nature has left them vulnerable to being jobbed like this. Give something a face and it make it too human, and suddenly it becomes less scary. When it becomes less scary, suddenly writers have more excuses to show them being punched around. The bit with the C'Tan for example, when they were still whole beings that sort of stunt would have never been viable in the writing room. Now they're shattered fragments, permanently killing off shards to beef up characters is now perfectly viable as there's others of that same being still about.
As you'd expect by this point, the old crime of lifting and repeating artwork from elsewhere is done at every turn. While the supplements have moved away from this, just about everything found here for both the marines and necrons consists of stuff from the original Damnos books or other bits from past rulebooks. It causes the same damn problem as before, as recycling so much just makes this look like a cheap cash grab and rather than making the reader feel excited or anticipating some new story, it just makes it look as if the publisher cut corners.
While they don't stoop so far as to edit old THQ images in Photoshop, it's still one of the worst examples of late. The only thing which really excuses this at all is the option to include a twenty year old cut-away image of a Land Raider for the Galdius II. It's an excellent image which has rarely been re-used since an old White Dwarf issue, so that's more excusable than grabbing everything in sight from the last five years.
This certainly isn't the worst lore ever written in a Games Workshop publication, but it's definitely up there. Were it not for things like Codex: Grey Knights, Codex: Iyanden or Codex: Clan Raukaan, this would be a standard on how not to do things. It's sad to think that the old failings of favouritism, poor presentation and (to use a common TV Tropes term) 'Worfing' one faction are only excusable thanks to inhumanly bad writing in so many other books.
Perhaps the biggest crime however is that it's one more nail in Graham McNeill's series, completely pretending the Invasion of Ultramar never happened. This would be bad enough in of itself, but there's the bigger problem that the Chapter's Due actually did a far better job at depicting a war than this entire Warzone book with all the same elements. There was a definite turning point in the conflict where the Ultramarines start winning, multiple worlds were lost, Calgar, Tigurius and Sicarius were all given good moments to make them stand out, as were the villains, but the victory was actually earned. It addressed their losses, didn't have the big problems of the war having a gap between events and overall was a better thought out version of these events. It's just a damn shame they didn't look into that one for inspiration rather than the Fall of Damnos.
Still, there's the rules to be covered as ever. Join us next week when we cover that, but don't expect anything better than the lore here.