Sunday, 17 April 2016

Angels of Death Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Supplement Review, 7th Edition)

"in the grim darkness of the far future there are far too many blue marines..."

Prior to Youtube's owners yet again buggering a stable and reliable format, that quote was the highest voted entry on Catechism of Hate's trailer. While hardly a new sentiment in any regards, and certainly born from the scars of the Fifth Edition, it's hardly one entirely bereft of truth. More-so than any other book, Codex: Space Marines is dominated by a single spotlight stealing army, and it's often to the detriment of its versatile and extremely varied sub-factions. The last book went into great detail on the Ultramarines part and - while things have certainly improved for many First Founding armies - the codex only took the time to truly go into any great detail with Guilliman's sons. However, what people often forget is that this format can work when spread across multiple releases.

Back in the days of the Fourth Edition, Codex: Space Marines was equally Ultramarine focused, but with a few key differences. Language and presentation was a key factor when it came to the treatment of each army, but there were other elements beyond this. The codex of this time suffered from a much smaller page count, so focusing upon the Ultramarines made sense. The lore was slimmed down to focus upon key elements of the Heresy, the Imperium's rebuilding and the formation of the chapters, with each of the other First Founding chapters allowed to stand out via their heroes and a few key battles, proving they were on equal standing. Then, other codices moved in to fill the gaps in the timeline. Codex: Black Templars was introduced, with its take on the Heresy focusing upon Rogal Dorn and the siege of Terra - elements which had been left out of the prior book, with barely any mention given over to the Ultramarines. The same went with the Space Wolves, Dark Angels and others - each focusing upon a key element of the lore to prove their worth or involvement. Unlike the Edition which followed, chapters weren't sidelined out of simple favouritism so much as allowing each marine codex to show another part of a bigger picture.

The addition of Codex: Angels of Death seemed to at first be a push to return to that old format and way of thinking about things. With so much of the prior book's lore focusing purely upon the Ultramarines first and all others second, leaving a second codex to better flesh out their history and traditions only made sense. Unfortunately, more than a few reoccurring problems seem to have once more reared their heads on the lore end of things. So, rather than seeing six or so chapters offered a few pages to truly explore who they are and what they stand for, the fluff ends up repeating a lot of what we already know. Worse still though, the Ultramarines somehow manage to still steal the spotlight from everyone else.

Okay, it's a little more complicated than just that...

The Good

One of the things the codex quickly gets very right is the balance between lore and creativity. Longtime readers might recall a big problem Sentinels of Terra suffered from, where things were so detailed and intricately spelled out marine by marine, that it left no room for player customisation. Well, we still have that descriptive strength and sense of personality, but it doesn't override any opportunities for players to really shape up their own army inspired by the developers.

The book is divided into multiple segments, each one focusing upon an individual chapter and their history, but it's then backed up by examples of their own strike forces. This is the big focus of the entire codex, to show how certain chapters form and build individual forces tailored to certain threats, and what we get shows how truly versatile they can be. Many listed have been uniquely crafted by a living officer within the chapter rather than something lifted from Codex, and are formed out of a diverse series of elements. We see how each and every one was formed, the history and quirks of the units involved and even some insight into the leaders themselves. Best of all, not all of these hinge purely upon the special characters. While a few are mentioned - notably Lysander, He'Stan and Khan - others feature captains we've not seen before in the lore. It really helps to convey the impression that each and every army a player crafts has a unique story behind it, and gives them reason to seriously think about shaping that history. The fact that the examples aren't simply copied and pasted into the rules is also an aspect which seriously helps this factor.

The sections devoted to each chapter are competently handled when it comes to introducing the army and their history. While there's definitely a few problems behind this, which we'll be going into detail about in the next section, much of the writing is concise, focused and fairly well balanced. In a nice touch, it doesn't focus too heavily upon the Horus Heresy or certain modern day events and gives more of a very general view of the chapter as a whole, albeit a very brief one.

The Steel Onslaught section early on also gives a great deal of insight into how and why a formation might be added to the codex, or its impact should it be widely implemented. While it largely exists to help shill the Anvil Strike Force and its tanks, the broad focus is certainly quite interesting as it goes stage-by-stage through the power Techmarines wield within a chapter. All too often the tanks and the more arcane nature of technology within the chapter is forgotten or simply put down to a secondary element, but here it's at the forefront of the work. It doesn't go into too much detail on that particular front, but it's spread across multiple chapters and you see it in such effect that the execution makes up for that. Plus there's the added bonus of one of the most entertaining space hulk boarding actions ever made by a chapter.

That's about it for the good stuff unfortunately. So, onto the negatives.

The Bad

Let's say you were given the following as a set-up for writing a book: "A guide to Space Marine strike forces and Chapter organisation, including strike forces unique to the Imperial Fists, Salamanders, Raven Guard, White Scars and Iron Hands," You know this is an angle which has been heavily focused upon in promo material and it's what many fans would be invested in. How would you present it? Perhaps by recounting the diverse nature of the Adeptus Astartes and how varied they are given the teachings of their primarchs. Perhaps you might comment upon how each and every one has been shaped by their conflicts or place in the galaxy, and how their role as weapons was equally important to Guilliman's role as a builder.  Well, if you're the writer of this book, apparently you ignore all of that and focus purely upon the tail end of that synopsis: "and the tank-based Anvil Strike Force, which is common to all Codex Chapters."

Uh oh. So, fans of Khan, Dorn, Vulkan, Manus and Corax? Here's your introduction to this new supplement:

"The Codex Astartes teaches that there are many ways of waging war. Scribed by the legendary Robute Guilliman, Primarch of the Ultramarines, the vast military treatise's battle wisdom is drawn from centuries of warfare and the experiences of the Legiones Astartes, predecessors of the Space Marine Chapters."

Yeah, the other primarchs don't even go mentioned for much of this book and the opening omits and mention of their accomplishments entirely. Instead it focuses purely upon how great and glorious the Codex Astartes is, over and over again, emphasizing how it shaped just about every damn chapter there is and how it was Guilliman's creation. This might not be so bad were it not for the fact that the introduction seems to actively ignore the fact many primarchs had their own input into the book, or verbally sidesteps how Guilliman took his brother's doctrines to heart when writing it. However, instead it gives vague hints, mentions and alludes to this fact, but the author seems almost embarrassed to admit Guilliman would look to the other legions for future ideas. It's quite obvious that someone wanted the Codex to be considered Guilliman's book, and only Guilliman's book, with little else to really rob him of that fact.

The paragraphs which follow focus squarely upon the Codex and how great and glorious it is, almost to the point of full blown masturbation. Honestly, the book just goes on and on about how invincible and glorious the Codex is for a full three pages (albeit padded out with huge recycled bits of art as per usual) and only starts to address the other chapters right at the very end. Even then, it only does so after heaping further praise upon the Ultramarines time and time again, like this lovely little example: 

"As sons of the Codex Astartes' author, the Ultramarines always seek to set an example for others to follow. It is little wonder, then, that the sons of Guilliman adhere to the Codex Astartes more closely than their brothers. Proud warriors and brilliant strategists, the Ultramarines are a standard by which many other chapters measure their own success, and their exemplary use of strike forces is no different."

While it's certainly not Spiritual Liege grade insanity, this demeaning treatment of placing the Ultramarines above all others at every turn really leaves a sour taste in your mouth. It's a reminder that the changes for the better we got are mere concessions rather than true fixes, and that Games Workshop itself is still hell-bent upon defining the chapter purely by how much better they are than everyone else. Even when the book does try to admit that each chapter does have strike forces and formations born from the teachings of their own primarchs, it tries to eclipse this fact with details of how great the Ultramarines' own versions are and how widely  accepted they are among all astartes. Remember how we all rolled our eyes upon seeing that a universally accepted formation within all Codex compliant chapters was dubbed "Strike Force Ultra"? This book proudly announces that Guilliman's lot were the sole creators of that particular formation, and seems to carefully avoid any mention of the Deathwing.

Perhaps the worst fact while reading this is how this introduction manages to contradict itself just within a few paragraphs. Really, it's about half the length of this review and more than once it keeps bringing up points and ideas which don't really gel together. For example, the introduction casually establishes the following:

"There are many famous types of strike forces, some of which, such as the Orbital Speartip or the Winds of the Stormhawk, have been in use since the time of the Legiones Astartes. Though the days of the Unification Wars and Great Crusade are long past, these formations serve the Chapters as well in the 41st millennium as they served the Legions so long ago."

Fine, but then we get this bit directly afterwards:

"Over time, the arsenals and combat experience of the Adeptus Astartes have evolved, new xenos threats have been discovered and each chapter added its own unique addenda to the already heavy pages of the Codex, leading to the development of new strike forces."

So, the Codex apparently so awesome that its ten-thousand-year-old doctrines are still used today without any need for improvement. At the same time though, it's even more awesome because it can change and adapt over time, introducing new formations to make it more effective, even though the old ones are supposed to be damn near perfect. I know what you're thinking, it's not a complete contradiction and you can sort of see how they might link up. The problem is that the book never pauses to smooth things over or even make these two statements work in unison somehow, instead just stating them and moving on, apparently oblivious or uncaring of the fact this simply makes no sense.

Still, more than a few of you are probably asking why in the hell so much of this has focused upon the opening four pages over the rest of the book, especially after the good parts covered depictions of chapters. Well, remember how Codex: Tempestus Scions was infamous for padding out its pages? You know, where it kept using the same format over and over again, backed up by some fairly generic lore here and there? That happens all over again here, with very little variation. In fact, in some ways, it's arguably even worse than what we had previously.

Here's what you can expect for each and every chapter: 

  • One big recycled piece of art from a prior codex's cover.
  • One brief page of text which covers who the chapter is and what they do, but offers only about as much general info as you'd get in the main codex itself.
  • The chapter's command structure, usually repeating the exact same info we've seen many times before with nothing new added.
  • Some general info on the strike force the book is planning to add to the tabletop, usually just listing a few general units and their role.
  • A more in-depth account of the same strike force, why it was formed and who is a part of it.

Some chapters aren't even offered the benefit of this very limited section devoted to this lore. The Black Templars and Crimson Fists are basically a footnote added to the arse end of the Imperial Fists section, and merely lists how their chapters are organised. Even this marginally interesting choice is quickly squandered, as both seem to have been quickly farted out to bulk up the book. The Black Templars' page lists only a single crusade somehow divided into four Fighting Companies and a Household Company, as opposed to a more diverse network of various individual crusades and their hierarchy, and the Crimson Fists are just a Codex formation. Yes, they are Codex compliant, but the book doesn't seem to register the fact that the Rynn's World invasion happened at all, and still lists them as having a full one-thousand astartes. So, due to this, we're even robbed the potentially interesting tidbit of lore detailing how the Crimson Fists reorganized their shattered force after losing nine-tenths of their number.

The actual pages devoted to spelling out the lore for each force is sadly pretty generic in all honesty. Most of them serve as a solid introduction to the actual chapters (with two exceptions we'll get to in a second) but this would only be of any value to those completely unfamiliar with each one. Honestly, you largely end up with the exact same information from Codex: Space Marines itself, and as a supplement you can't use this book on its own. So, really, what was the point of adding this in here at all? If they were going to add something like this, why not something useful relating to how they utilise the strike forces the book is obsessed with, or even why they were created in the first place. Hell, if anything, why not actually spend some time focusing completely upon how each chapter has adapted the Codex's teachings to its own needs; or perhaps even something we've not seen before like how a chapter handles logistics. Yeah, it might not make for the most thrilling read ever put to paper, but you'd at least have something more than a very generic recycled bit of info.

Now, as the positives mentioned, many of those marred by the supplements did see some of their worst excesses omitted from the book. At the same time though - once again - these seem all too much like basic concessions. So, the Imperial Fists section isn't written as if the author were embarrassed of their proficiency at siege warfare and the Phalanx is no longer on the verge of total systems failure.  Better yet, there's no mention of the events of Sentinels of Terra, save for Vor Hagen leading the chapter and Tor Garadon serving as the Third Company's Captain. At the same time though, two of the seven paragraphs they are given beat the reader over the head about how their "pride" is such a great hidden personal flaw that the Blood Angels feel a sympathetic connection to them, and they've repeatedly taken extremely heavy casualties.

The Iron Hands are unfortunately even worse off than the Imperial Fists in some ways. Now, as before, many of the most extensive flaws have been swept under the rug. There's no mention of any Sapphire King, no mention of some inner corruption, and the reader isn't repeatedly beaten over the head with how their bionics are a betrayal of Ferrus' every wish for them. Furthermore, there is a slight push back towards their more decentralized nature as each company is noted to build and maintain its own machines of war. That's good and all, but then we get into a few very big problems. First off, they're once again listed as being codex adherent to a tee. While each company is noted to have its own clan traditions and identity based upon those they were founded as, it never registers as anything more than what you'd get with a basic chapter company. Even the presence of the Clan Council Iron Council is once again shafted by listing the upstart lick-spittle Kardan Stronos as being "Master of the Council" and de facto leader of the entire chapter. 

Irritatingly, the lore once again focuses almost exclusively upon Ferrus Manus' death and how it shaped the chapter, and little else. There's no real indication that they've evolved past the Drop Site Massacre, and even without the subject of bionics being brought up, someone just had to throw in a bit of primarch betrayal somewhere in here:

"In the days of the Primarch, Manus had always insisted his companies be named after the Medusan clans, believing that bearing these names would remind his sons of their link to the mortal men they had once been, and hold at bay their more aloof and detached tendencies. While the message behind this decision might have been lost with the Primarch's death, it was felt by the Iron Council that certain traditions should be retained, least the successor Chapters of the Iron Hands be weakened by a loss of identity."

So, from this the author suggests that Ferrus wanted them to have a special and very innate connection with the populace of Medusa. He never planned for them to become distant from them, for them to stand apart from unenhanced humans, or even see themselves as superior. Hm, well, what did Index Astartes say about him again?

"Ferrus traveled the length and breadth of Medusa, becoming well known by all its people, and coming to know the land itself as no one ever had. He traveled areas that any other man would have found inaccessible. He climbed the highest mountains, he swam the deepest oceans - always pushing himself and his body, pushing his levels of endurance and strength to unfathomable levels. His strength and fury made him renowned and feared amongst the people of the clans, who valued such qualities highly, and he was uniformly adopted by them as one of their own. He never sought to end the conflicts between the clans, seeing such competition as healthy and strengthening. He always remained neutral, never participating in their feuds so as not to favour one clan over another."

Yeah, sorry to keep harping on the problems with this chapter again and again, but really, they're not that hard to get right. The fact the writers keep screwing up basic details like this or re-writing them seemingly to spite longtime fans is simply baffling. 

From this you can probably guess that the lore isn't exactly great. It's flawed at best, directionless and with very poor planning when it comes down to the general focus of the book. A lot of it has been written from scratch rather than simply copying and pasting it from past works, but there's little new information here to offer players or anything truly unique. It's hardly all bad but at best it's just there, like it was added at the last minute as a mandatory requirement rather than something the writers truly wanted to put their heart and soul into.

The Artwork

It's all recycled from past books.

Really, i'd like to add something else, but it's all stuff we've seen far, far too many times in the past year. Along with the cover having been lifted from one of Graeme Lyons' novellas, the opening artwork is yet another image taken from the War Zone: Damocles books and that's followed up with a piece of White Scars art which seems to have been in every codex of the past few years. If you've seen a single space marine sketch or coloured image from any codex from the Fourth Edition onwards, you're probably going to find it in here.


If you're in it for the lore, skip this one. It has a few minor moments of interest here and there, but nothing nearly good enough to warrant a full price purchase. The only thing truly new here of any serious is the rules, and beyond that everything else just seems as if it's been rushed out at the last minute. Not even extensive enough to be considered true padding, it just occupies a small chunk of the book towards the front before being forgotten, and it honestly seems like something which really was thrown in at the last minute under protest. 

If you really want to learn a few interesting details about the chapters involved, the Techmarines, tanks or how chapters are organised, the just visit Lexicanum. It'll be a hell of a lot cheaper, and you'll end up with a lot more info on whatever subject you're after.

So, that out of the way, onto the rules.

1 comment:

  1. I don't get it, why couldn't this just be named "Codex Astartes" since it's focused on Codex compliant chapters, loves the Codex and Guilliman, and is more focused with formations than any new lore?
    I'd figure that they'd then have pretty good reason to compare every chapter to the Codex to see how they operate by using it, or see how they differ (using the codex and the Ultramarines as a sort of baseline) rather than this bizarre statement that chapters measure themselves against the Ultramarines for some reason, even though the majority of the chapters would barely know who the Ultramarines are aside from being a first founding chapter and maybe a few of the wars they fought (when you really think about it, since the galaxy is a very big place and a lot of chapters operate far away from Macragge).