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.
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 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 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.
There's a great deal of it unfortunately, and we need to get through the lot. For starters, it's true to say that this story is far more coherent than Traitor's Hate, but it's far from perfect. 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.
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.
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.