Developer: Relic Entertainment / Publisher: THQ / ESRB: Mature (Blood and Gore, Violence) / Played on: PC / Price: $29.99
Relic’s Dawn of War II was a surprise when it released back in 2009. The real-time strategy game practically stripped out everything we associate with real-time strategy, like base-building and harvesting. And that was just the multiplayer: the campaign dropped the ‘strategy’ part completely to become a full on tactics game with RPG overtones. It was a bold move that some hated and some, like myself, absolutely loved. But where the first expansion pack continued on from where the core game led, the second expansion, Retribution, has gone back to the drawing board and rethought the campaign all the way through. Do these new changes go against everything fans have come to expect of Dawn of War II, or has Retribution found redemption amongst the traditional RTS crowd?
The story picks up 10 years after the end of the events of the first expansion, Chaos Rising. The vile forces of Chaos have wreaked havoc across Sub-Sector Aurelia, and the Holy Inquisition of the Imperium has had enough. They are sending a fleet to wipe out every last life form in the Sector — unless, of course, you can convince them not to by revealing the real threat.
But for the first time in the series who you are is a matter of choice. If you were a fan of the story so far, you can still play as the Space Marines and finish out that plotline. But you now have the choice to play the campaign as any of the other five races, each with their own characters, motivations, and storylines, all of which are tied back to the central problem of the Inquisition. Each race feels distinct, as the personality and psychology of the different species and their heroes is woven into every part of their storyline. Playing as the arrogant Eldar has a completely different tone to that of the vicious Tyranids, just as the thuggish Orks have different goals from the evil forces of Chaos. If you’re a fan of Warhammer 40,000 fiction in general you’ll find all the races here true to the style and mythology of the established canon.
That being said, while all these characters are fun, none of them really connect with you like those from the core game and first expansion. While the Space Marine campaign will have a few familiar faces, the great dynamic that the old crew had isn’t present here. However, the primary Space Marine hero is no longer a mute, faceless entity, but a fully voiced character with his own personality. This is a welcome change, since the core game always felt like it was missing the voice of a great leader. As a full character, Diomedes provides a much-needed leadership position. It’s just a shame that this is a character you might have actually killed in the first expansion.
Even if you are brand new to the series, the story is sweeping, epic, and encompasses a large cast of interesting characters across a wide variety of tones and personalities. Whatever kind of heroic team you’ve wanted to lead, they’ll be in one of the campaigns.
Retribution is a different animal than the rest of the Dawn of War II family. Where earlier campaigns took out buildings and resources completely to focus on the tactics of a team of four heroes, Retribution throws all of that together and leaves it up to you to decide how to play it. Yes, resources and buildings are back in, but in a different manner from traditional RTS games. Resources are found as you progress through a given level, not harvested; buildings, too, are captured as you find them, not built back at a base.
What you choose to do with these determines what genre of game you will play. If you like focusing on a small crew of powerful heroes, you can use your resources to upgrade them into more powerful heroes. Doing this will have you playing a great real-time tactics game that plays a lot like an action RPG. However, if you like commanding massive numbers of units to overwhelm your foes, you can deploy with only one hero and use your resources to build up a large army. Doing this will have you playing a simpler, leaner version of a traditional real-time strategy game. Or, try out any combination of heroes and armies that you like. Every mission ends with a number of rewards to choose from, which can either be gear to enhance your heroes, or new units for your ever-growing army.
To my surprise, both methods are pretty balanced. The enemies seemed to be an equal challenge whether I had four heroes or one enormous army. I’d encourage you to experiment with both methods until you find the one you think works best for you. Different races seem better suited towards one or the other style; the Tyranids, for example, force you to go for the large army, whereas the Eldar seem to work better as a small, elite force. But the choice is up to you, and the fact that the game can offer you that much freedom is pretty astounding.
The biggest problem is with the levels themselves: namely, that they are the same regardless of the race you play. So while you’ll want to play through the campaign several times to see the different stories, you’ll play the exact same levels over and over again. The writers have adeptly recontextualized each mission for each race, but that doesn’t help the sense of repetition. Also, the levels are extremely linear compared to the more open-ended ones of earlier games, and there aren’t too many of them. The campaign can easily be beaten in under ten hours. Of course, if you play as all six races, that could be almost sixty hours of game time.
Ultimately, Retribution just doesn’t feel as tight as earlier games in the series. Where those games could focus on making a perfect tactics game, Retribution’s broader approach somehow feels less sure of itself. Enemy encounters don’t have the same punch as in the older games, and the fact that the levels are linear makes every encounter feel staged.
In contrast to the single-player, the multiplayer in Retribution is virtually unchanged from earlier entries. There is one new race available for play, the Imperial Guard, though in my experience the Guard feel a little underpowered compared to the other races. While that is accurate to the Warhammer fiction, it feels a little unbalanced in play.
The competitive multiplayer plays like an RTS stripped down to the bone. Resources are automatically harvested from buildings you capture around the map. You use these resources to build units from your one-and-only-one base building, which can also be teched up with enough resources. Certain game styles will have you fighting to destroy the enemy base, while others have you fighting over Victory Points, which are determined by how many key buildings you control around the map. Captured buildings can then be recaptured by the enemy, forcing you to always be on your guard for an attack from anywhere while still using your resources to build new units and upgrade them. You’ll also have one hero unit to really dish out the damage. If you want to play a fast-paced competitive strategy game that tests your reaction times, you’ll enjoy this game style immensely.
But if you’re playing the campaign for the tactics and loot, this might not be for you. You’ll want to check out the co-op Last Stand mode, which has you playing as one hero alongside two other players. The three of you must work together to fend off endless waves of bad guys. This mode is all about using your hero and his or her abilities to their fullest, while trying to keep your buddies alive. The mode is a lot of fun and definitely a unique experience, but once again it is little changed from earlier games. There is one new map that is much harder (as in, MUCH harder), but that still makes for a grand total of two maps. The game style is fun, but looking at the same terrain over and over again gets old quick. Of course, if you’re watching the terrain, you’re probably getting overrun by your enemies.
Also of note is that Retribution has dropped Games for Windows Live functionality in favor of Steamworks. Matchmaking through Steam seems to be faster than through Windows Live, which is a plus.
When all is said and done, Dawn of War II: Retribution is about giving you options. If you like playing as a small but powerful team standing against countless hordes, play the campaign with your heroes and play Last Stand for your multiplayer. If you like playing as the commanding officer of your own countless hordes, play the campaign with an army and the competitive multiplayer. And whether you want to be noble, vengeful, evil, gangsta, elitist, or just plain hungry, there’s a species for you. Because of that, Relic couldn’t focus on perfecting one play style like they could in the original Dawn of War II, nor could they make a campaign that lasts anywhere near as long. If you already have the core game and first expansion and are satisfied with them, there may not be enough new here to entice you into buying. But if you want to finish out the story of Sub-Sector Aurelia, or you want to try out a different race, or if you just can’t get enough, Retribution is a steal at $30.
If you’ve never played Dawn of War II before, this expansion is a stand-alone and could be a great introduction, but I’d personally recommend you go back and start with the original game. And if you get addicted to that game the way I did, it won’t be long at all before you, too, are sending your Eldar heroes against the forces of Chaos for some much-needed Retribution.