Sunday, 14 June 2015
Space Marines Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Review, 7th Edition)
So, another year, another codex. A few regular readers might be wondering one thing right now - Why wasn't there a few hopes and predictions preceding this? Well, that's fairly simple: I personally didn't get the time to read the previous one to consider improvements. Unlike Codex: Khorne Daemonkin, Imperial Knights or many other works, this is one of the few I was unable to read the predecessor to beforehand. Still bitter over the Fifth Edition Codex: Space Marines - Ultramar Rules, All Others Drool, I didn't have the stomach to go through more preaching and shafting every other chapter in favour of one faction. As such, this is without some of the grounding other reviews benefited from, and more of an outsider's view. If you see me repeating or praising new ideas or criticising changes which were in the past book, it's not a lack of oversight so much as a lack of knowledge. That said, comparing this Seventh Edition update with its Fifth Edition predecessor, it's a vast improvement. It seems that Games Workshop at least tried to account for the backlash here, fixing some big problems, but at the same time it also lost elements of a successful format. As such, it's taking three steps forwards but two back.
The strengths and failings of the book can quickly be seen in the introductory pages, establishing the major factions among the astartes, their defining traits and what space marines are. The book quickly lists out the basics, with a brief stylised blurb selling the reader on the space marines next to some stylized artwork, followed by a brief outline of the Horus Heresy and the establishment of the chapters. Atop of this however, it takes a few steps further to try and include points of interest for new readers. The big ones here are the various internal organs a marine requires and a map depicting just how far-flung many astartes homeworlds are. While they might be points we've seen before, they're ultimately areas with a little more depth which help to give a better idea of the setting to those recently introduced to it. They're details which aren't necessary to the army exactly, sure, but they're ones which show how much thought was put into this faction and gives them more personality.
Following the map and a brief outline of Ultramar, the codex then gives a short description and bits of information relating to a multitude of major chapters. The Imperial Fists, Black Templars, Iron Hands, Salamanders, Raven Guard, Ultramarines, White Scars and, in a pleasant surprise, the Crimson Fists are all given a moment to present themselves to the reader. While the Ultramarines might take up the first bit of the artwork, it's a moment to have each and every chapter share a moment in the spotlight and catch the reader's attention. This is, naturally, far more even a depiction than what the Fourth and Fifth editions offered. It helps to give a better idea of the force being a group of varied, different, but relatively equal brotherhoods who all are mighty in their own right. Unfortunately, this is still plagued by a few notable issues, ones which run throughout the book.
For starters, all that lovely padding is there once again. Rather than spending time fleshing out the book with words, massive page-and-a-quarter splash pieces dominate much of the opening here. While you could justify this for impact in the opening bit, it's harder to excuse when it truly screws over the Horus Heresy. Players are offered only the bare bones of the war's events, skipping Isstvan, Calth, the Thramas Crusade and even Mars; as such we're just left with Horus' fall, the Emperor's entombment and an explanation of the primarchs and Great Crusade all squeezed into five paragraphs. It's simply not enough to truly impress upon the reader the importance of this event, and it even carries over to many of the chapters, who are only offered fleeting descriptions of their general defining traits.
Things don't get much better when it comes to the book's choice of language and focus, with some obvious favouritism when it comes to the Ultramarines. Wait, those of you already reaching for pitchforks, stop for a moment! Thankfully the writers don't pull a "they can never be Ultramarines" and the term "Spiritual Liege" is never inflicted upon the codex. It's still far more even and it doesn't try to beef up the Ultramarines to the complete detriment of all other chapters, turning them into poor copies of Guilliman's lot. At the same time though there's some obvious favouritism on hand here. The vast majority of the new artwork in these opening pages are all of the Ultramarines, and the description of the Codex Astartes' formation reads as if it were penned by Ward himself. It focuses more upon how Guilliman was right, how he was instrumental above all else, mentions little of other chapters, and frames those who did not follow the Codex in a way which presents them as making the wrong choice. It's truly cringe-worthy to read, and only tolerable because it doesn't reach the excesses we've seen in truly bad lore of late.
The codex also takes the time to outline Ultramar itself and its many worlds, explaining the advantage it offers to the Ultramarines. It depicts it as a near perfect empire, and efficiently run dominion, which is in all honestly completely fair. It's generally accurate, well rounded and shows it's a superior part of the Imperium without, well, reading as if the writer was waxing his pen off to it. It's also one of the better uses of space here, balancing artwork with words. So, what's the problem here? The Ultramarines are the only ones who get this treatment, with nothing done with Medusa, Deliverance, Chigoris or even the likes of the Phalanx. It's frustrating as it provides a bit more focus to make them seem all the more important than the others when there was easily enough content and space there to warrant the same treatment.
It's only made all the more irritating when the Ultramarines are presented as near perfect, yet the majority of the other chapters have a far more balanced depiction. Well, usually more balanced. The codex states that the White Scars are savage and brutal, yet resourceful, intelligent, and deadly warriors. The Imperial Fists have a habit for stubborn last stands which are thought to be needless, yet they have a far higher rate than other chapters at pulling off seemingly impossible victories. The Salamanders and Raven Guard are a bit more positive, usually just noting their slow recruitment or cold, secretive demeanor respectively as weaknesses. Then the Iron Hands are thoroughly screwed over, to the point where you can almost feel the venom seeping from the author's keyboard. No, really, read the biggest bit of lore they get in this book for yourself:
"The ground shakes to mechanical lockstep as the Iron Hands advance, their optimised fire patterns destroying all in their path. To an observer, the Iron Hands seem coldly emotionless, almost entirely mechanical, with little humanity left. Yet below the surface, the Iron Hands' souls burn with the bitter fires of a fury long repressed.
The Chapter's bitterness stems from the tragic death of their Primarch during the opening exchanges of the Horus Heresy. Blinded by the emotions of caused by Horus' betrayal, Ferrus Manus led his sons into an impossible battle and was subsequently slain. The scars this left upon the Iron Hands' collective psyche have never truly healed, leading them to believe wholeheartedly that all flesh is weak.
For long millennia, the Iron Hands have sought the purity of the machine. They replace healthy limbs with bionics, take their mission briefings via simulus chambers, and long for the cold metal embrace of a Dreadnought sarcophagus. Guided by a body known as the Iron Council, the Chapter fight many wars alongside the Adpetus Mechanicus. they have a reputation for incredible efficiency, but also for the callous abandonment of any they view as 'weak'. Of late, the heroic Iron Father Kardan Stronos has led the Chapter in something of a spiritual renaissance. Some believe Stronos seeks to save his brothers' atrophied souls before their humanity deserts them altogether. Some even say he is succeeding. However, the hour grows late, and if the Iron Hands are to know true redemption, they must seize it before darkness engulfs them."
... Good fucking god, whoever wrote and approved that insulting shit-stain on this book deserves to be fired from their office. Preferably out of a cannon.
Yeah, this may or may not have been the fault of the author, but the codex adamantly sticks to the lore which has embaressed and drawn the most ire from players over past years. It's downplayed in some places, and then crammed into your face in others, especially when it comes to integrating Codex: Clan Raukaan's lore. For example, the Imperial Fists sidestep most of Sentinels of Terra's drooling stupidity and gibbering batshit insanity by making sure their bits aren't written as if the author is ashamed of their siege proficiency. At the same time though, almost every major event the Fists are involved in throughout their timeline stems from Lysander's story rather than anything actually focusing upon the chapter as a whole. The Ultramarines are the same, as we have the ridiculously biased Battle of Orar's Sepulchral (AKA Calgar shoryukens an Eldar Avatar) proudly displayed alongside many events taken from that particular codex, but tries to gloss over some of the more ridiculous stuff. The Iron Hands though? Nope. Despite the limited space the writer went the extra mile to ensure that all of their damnation and how wrong they are was depicted here in full.
Of course the Iron Hands aren't the only ones to suffer from this, as the Black Templars are beaten over the head with their dismembered lore. Chief among these is this bit which will likely send longtime Black Templars fans into a seething frenzy of ZEAL:
"Abhor the Witch
Outsiders often mistakenly interpret the lack of Librarians within the ranks of the Black Templars Chapter - and the fury with which its battle-brothers slay Chaos Sorcerers,- as an intolerance of all psykers. This could hardly be further from the truth, for the Black Templars hold special reverence for Astropaths, seeing them as holy disciples who have actually communed with the Emperor. Navigators are similarly honoured, their psychic blessing allows them to see the divine light of the Astonomican and to guide the Black Templars through the Warp to deliver righteous retribution against the Emperor's enemies."
... That distant roar you just heard was the sound of a few thousand scored neckbearded zealots cursing Games Workshop to the blackest abyss of hell.
Really though, sweet heaven, how could you possibly get a chapter more wrong? Was someone seeking to compete against Clan Raukaan's authors, or did someone just decide to start a full scale vendetta against any chapter who openly shunned the Codex. At this point bits like this read as if they're more the result of active pissing on the established setting than they are sheer unprofessional ignorance. It's especially bad when the new lore behind their foundation and refusal to follow the Codex apparently came down to Sigismund effectively wanting to flip off Guilliman.
Anyway, that's the first thirty pages. Some of you at this point might be asking a few questions such as "is there anything truly good in this book?" "what does it do beyond the chapters?" or more likely "how much bloody longer is he going to spend on this!?"
Well, truth be told this is the bulk of the interesting lore we've just covered. The rest of the codex is hit and miss as well, but it focuses on more general themes. Sometimes for the best, others not so much. For example, the next few pages are spent outlining the role of each company as decreed by the Codex in quite some detail. A page (well, half a page and some padding) is given over to explaining the role of the companies in turn, starting with the First Company through to the Battle and Reserve companies, and ending with the Tenth. While it might take up a great deal of space, what's on offer is very concise, very poignant and offers a far more well rounded depiction of the Codex's advantages than past works. In this we see how each company serves a specific role within its chapter, and how they are ultimately a cog in a much larger machine, each exchanging warriors as needed.
Overall it focuses mostly upon a general depiction without delving too much into one chapter or another, save for brief examples, and presents some decent updates to certain parts of the lore. Notably how a First Company might not universally wear Terminator armour, even when assembled as a single unit for war. Amid this though there are some questionable ones. Like where the book states that "there is no fixed limit on how large a Chapter's 10th Company should be." A point which contradicts almost all other Codex related material. Still, on the whole it does offer a broader and grounded look for new players at the advantages of the Codex; and could help dissuade the attitude of ignoring the book when D.I.Y.ing a custom chapter for themselves without rhyme or reason why. Oh come on, we've all seen plenty of people do this.
Further efforts to really expand upon each chapter in turn could be found in their own articles. Sections covering their individual strike forces and honours - while pushing formations on players - gave some better weight to how they are chosen for war. This focuses upon how demi-companies can be formed at short notice from elements throughout the chapter, making sense while fitting in with how each company is supposed to operate. Atop of this, the timeline itself is extended to twice its usual length, in order to try and give every chapter a chance to shine. In this, while there are plenty of bad ones, better story ideas exist as well, such as how the Raven Guard secretly evacuated an entire city in one night, just prior to a Dark Eldar attack. Then laid in wait for a massive ambush of course, because they're power armoured ninjas it seems.
When it comes to the rest of the chapters, a few of the more notable successors, there are also some interesting new bits of lore added to each faction. Some are just bits of flavour text to help them seem a little more unique, while others have big parts of their future altered entirely, to the point of shifting their very position in the galaxy. As an example of each, the Brazen Claws designate their companies by the colour of their chest aquila rather than pauldons. The Revilers meanwhile were last noted to be locked in a shadow war with elements of the Alpha Legion, possibly over something of great importance. Plenty of bits of both show up here, and there are even a few aspects like this for the bigger chapters. The Crimson Fists for starters have new, but very fitting, tradition known as the Bloodied Fist; an annual trial for Scouts to ascend to full battle-brothers and even possibly where their name was solidified beyond Pollux's moniker. They're often minor details, but some truly do work to shed a little more light on the minor factions. Hell, for the first time the Inceptors actually have a colour scheme in a codex.
Some of the stories carry more weight this time, including some surprisingly great ones such as an Iron Hands/Iron Warriors battle, and a few of the side notes for each unit have more relevance than usual. These range from explaining what the Crux Terminatus is to the livery of each Techmarine, and even some surprisingly obscure concepts at points. A particular favourite is the long awaited return of a famous cut-away image of a Land Raider, showing the vehicle's full interior.
Unfortunately a lot of this really is just small moments, as so much of the codex either just resorts to squandering the variety on hand or lacks even the events found in past books. There are no individual short stories showing certain battles, no lengthy sections on the campaigns they fought, and no narrative threads which are used in brief to help better define the chapter alongside world-building fact. As a result, much of the book is incredibly empty, and this is only made infinitely worse as so many units fail to even account for basic alterations or differences between roles between chapters. The closest the book ever gets to exploring how each different chapter actually handles certain shared elements is the occasional brief mention in the Captains section, and how Vindicators are favoured by some chapters.
Rather than say, going into the unique non-Codex formations of the Salamanders and Iron Hands or the widespread crusading nature of the Black Templars, we just get padding. From page sixty-eight to one-hundred-and-twelve, the book jackknifes into random and unexpected low quality artwork. We get pages upon pages of minor notes of each chapter's colour schemes and how their vehicles look, with a few useful ones on their successors, followed by a vast number of pointless dioramas. Not even very useful or inspiring ones either, as they're just very bland "seen it all before" mob shots with armies swarming over one another. To make matters worse, so much of even the previous sections have more or less the exact information - you guessed it - repeated later on. The book defines who the Legion of the Damned, Apothecaries and Techmarines are, and the role of units like Tactical Squads; then does exactly the same thing towards the end just with less are and more rules. By the end, there just really isn't much in the way of actual content, and you're left wishing for something more substantial.
Codex: Space Marines ultimately does avoid the problems of full on smurf syndrome and tries to give a few good bits to fans, but sadly it proves to be blandly uninteresting for the most part. While it removed Ward's insanity, it simply didn't fill that void with anything interesting. There was the perfect opportunity here to really push some boundaries and show how diverse the astartes are, but that's all lost here. Rather than using the massive page-count to give each major chapter a mini-Index Astartes segment, we just get stretched out non-content with a few gems of interest. It's provokes less rage (save for Black Templars and Iron Hands players) than it does disappointed apathy at what was squandered here. Sadly, nothing really stands out or proves to be truly interesting in this book.
If you're after good lore, skip this one and save your cash for something more substantial. Forge World is fast becoming the only outlet for high quality lore in its rulebooks, and you'd really do better to just get an Imperial Armour volume instead. Just don't waste your cash on this one unless you're desperate for new rules. Want to know what those are? Take a look here.