The Warhammer Machine
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II: Retribution promises to be a lot more than your typical standalone expansion or quasi-sequel. It offers brand-new campaigns for not only the Space Marines, but five other races as well, including (drum roll) the Tyranids, who up until this point have been the game’s antagonists.
Unfortunately, the campaign isn’t playable in the beta release, so our preview time with the game has been skirmish-only. Which is a shame, because there’s much less that’s new and exciting about this aspect of the game.
Dawn of War II multiplayer has divided fans for a long time; it’s based less on the original Dawn of War than on a different Relic title, the World War II RTS Company of Heroes. Whereas Dawn of War threw fans into huge battles between large groups, the sequel forces gamers to micromanage a few units; to win, you have to do things like set up cover as units move, and then dart behind enemy lines to secure power, requisition, and victory nodes. Base-building, a core feature of the original’s mutliplayer, is gone. In other words, the new game had more to do with unit-level tactics, and less to do with army-level strategy. There is a ton of nuance and complexity to the new style of play, and many fans loved the faster pace, but many others found it fiddly and boring, and some even went back to the original game.
In addition to the typical expansion updates (more maps, for example), Retribution does provide some improvements for those who want to play with different styles. Most interestingly, the Imperial Guard is new as a playable race, and it’s a lot of fun to watch how situations unfold with them. They can build walls in the field for cover, and some of their units are quite menacing — the first time I sent a Sentinel after some enemy troops, I was delighted by the fearsome barrage of lasers it unleashed when it got close. (Then it got too close, and got killed; it turns out those units work best for ranged combat.)
At the end of the day, though, I noticed the same problems that people complain about regarding Dawn of War II multiplayer in general. (Full disclosure: Aside from reviewing the frustrating Xbox 360 adaptation of Warhammer: Battle March, which is from a completely different developer, I’m a newcomer to the series. I got my butt kicked repeatedly in the beta. Apologies to anyone who’s been unfortunate enough to be paired with me on a team.) In the skirmishes, you fight to control “victory points” while maintaining your resources and creating new units. That should be fun, but the tactics that win the day — perusing the map for weaknesses in your enemy’s defense, sending in units to attack key points, and having them run away if they get shot at — can feel cheap and frustrating.
However, I should note that for many fans, the best multiplayer mode is Last Stand, which is similar to Gears of War’s Horde mode. Last Stand will be part of Retribution, but it’s not part of the beta. Also, the developers managed to hit the perfect balance when it comes to map design, giving us landscapes that are expansive enough to make battles feel epic but small enough that you never feel lost or overwhelmed. The terrain is perfectly suited for the gameplay, offering up plenty of natural cover and fairly distributed resource points. We also had a great experience with the matchmaking system: once the beta opened up and everyone who’d preordered the game was able to play, it never took more than a minute or so to get a game started. There should be a good community of potential opponents; there were about 1,500 people logged in on our last visit.
Visually, the game is nice but far from jaw-dropping. The maps are nicely rendered, with a good-looking blend of natural landscapes and man-made structures. The animations are fluid and believable, which makes the bloody, visceral battles a real treat to watch. The sound effects are simply terrific; the guns and lasers truly pop out whenever a battle starts. Unfortunately, Relic has continued the Warhammer series’ tradition of having units make stupid comments whenever they’re selected, such as “your units are at your command!” That can really pull you out of the moment.
Also, at this stage in the beta, there are a few wrinkles to be ironed out; we experienced several crashes, one of them in the middle of a game, and as the hardcore RTS crowd learns to exploit the current setup, some rebalancing will no doubt be needed. Fortunately, the powers that be decided to drop Games for Windows Live, which posed problems for previous games, in favor of Steamworks. We have no doubt that THQ will be prompt in fixing any game-killing bugs.
If you’re not already a fan of Dawn of War II, Retribution probably won’t do much to change your mind. However, for the hardcore Warhammer lovers who’ve been looking forward to this since before Christmas, Retribution will provide a perfect blend of updated features and classic gameplay.