Warhammer 40k's Best RTS is Back
When Dawn of War II entered it's second expansion, I had already pre-ordered it and was waiting with bated breath. I love this series and Dawn of War II: Retribution didn't disappoint. This time it's a completely stand-alone game that includes six races, a fully cooperative single-player campaign, and multiple competitive multiplayer modes. Relic's been one of my favorite companies for a while now, and the original Dawn of War is pretty much the best Warhammer 40,000 game ever made; the sequel is a different, but still very fun, game that provides a lot of bang for your buck as of the Retribution iteration.
You can select one of three different, specialized commanders for each race every match
Dawn of War is a series of real-time strategy games that differentiate themselves from StarCraft and Command & Conquer in a couple of key ways. The first is that you (generally) command squads of troops, not individual units. The second is that there are actually two kinds of combat - hand to hand and ranged. A hand-to-hand unit will lose in a ranged fight, but if it can close with the enemy they'll win in melee. Finally, the main objective of standard matches is capturing victory points, not destroying the enemy base. You can still win by annihilating the enemy but usually this is too difficult or time-consuming to be worthwhile. Dawn of War II is even more radical by removing base building (you start with a central structure) and including cover on the map that troops can use for protection. These differences make Dawn of War a game that definitely feels unique; with very little focus on economy or building it's all about tactics, positioning, and map control.
The default camera view, how you start every match, with your main base structure in the middle
The single player is a linear campaign, seen from one of the six race's perspectives over the course of maybe six hours of gameplay. You get four basic hero units that gain experience, can equip gear, and learn abilities not unlike a role playing game. This is probably the best part about the campaign, as it's pretty fun to specialize your commanders and give test different weapon loadouts. During missions, however, you can still recruit troops and amass a bit of an army to help you through. Although reasonably enjoyable, and playable with a friend via online co-op, the campaign is actually fairly basic and ends up feeling a bit cheap on the part of the developers (who recycled a lot of content across all six races). The endings and some of the dialog also seems rushed, and although functional, won't leave you saying "wow" or even with anything particularly memorable.
Customizable army colors and insignia; here, Chaos is rocking the always-fashionable black
To get your real money's worth out of Retribution, you need to play the multiplayer. The 1v1, 2v2, and 3v3 modes are all tracked with full statistics and rankings for each. The game features automatic matchmaking, and although a tad bit slow it allows for pre-made partial or full teams to queue for battle. You can even earn army "levels", which are cosmetic only, making your troops look more elaborate and badass as you rank up with that particular race. Speaking for the different sides themselves, they're varied and fairly well balanced. This is what really sets Dawn of War 2 apart - it uses Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 license to excellent effect here to create very different, but exciting, experiences for the various sides you can play. A quick rundown for the uninformed:
-The Space Marines are the team of interstellar super soldiers; they wear big armor, they carry big guns, and they have chainsaw swords. Their units are few in number and expensive, but one on one they will destroy their opponents.
-The Orks are almost the opposite - these brutal, savage, barbarous space orcs (see Warhammer Fantasy) attack in hordes and die in droves. Still, they are so violent in close combat that almost nothing can stop them once they get there.
-The Eldar are a fancy, elf-like species with ancient and powerful technology that surpasses everyone else's. Although fragile and very specialized, they focus on superior speed and psychic powers to win (their hover tanks help too).
-The Tyranids, on which the Zerg are based, are biological terrors from outside the galaxy that eat everything in their path. With innumerable hordes of pests to giant, tank-destroying behemoths, they are a formidable foe for anyone.
-Chaos is when Space Marines go bad; so bad, in fact, they worship Dark Gods and summon demons from another dimension. They have powerful and exotic units as well as unpredictable powers to harass their enemies.
-The new faction for the expansion are the Imperial Guard. This is basically a regular human army; they have expendable troops, commandos, oh, and a lot of firepower. Overwhelming firepower. Think a tank the size of a small fortress.
Eldar warriors are fast; getting into close combat stops ranged units from shooting back
Games tend to be fast-paced, as you select a race's commander (from a choice of three per side) before the actual match begins and you get to start with 1 free unit. This means you'll have an opportunity to scout, fight, and capture territory right from the beginning of the game. Because there's no base to build, all your attention is on the battlefield - and you'll need it. Cover is strewn everywhere and it's important to identify useful choke points, defensive positions, and tactically important buildings for every map. To acquire resources, you need to capture and hold various positions around the battlefield. Requisition is your basic troop resource, and Power is the secondary resource for more elite units and vehicles. Finally, winning is a tug-of-war between your side and theirs controlling the majority of the victory points on the map. Denying these points to your enemy, and keeping yours safe, is the real goal of the game.
Because of this focus, Dawn of War II: Retribution ends up feeling a lot different from other RTS games in the genre. If you're going to get into this game, you'll have to be comfortable without base building and many other conventions that other games (I'm looking at you, Starcraft II) have developed over the years. The victory-point based objective system also makes it more of an take-and-hold type of game, where rushing your opponent's base for a quick win isn't really an option. Good players can win fast, under ten minutes if they take and hold all three points simultaneously, but the other guy still has a chance and is never taken straight out of the game. All in all, this is very similar to Relic's other major real-time strategy game Company of Heroes, which is a good gauge for you to tell if you will like Retribution or not.
Imperial Guard tanks are Serious Business™
The visuals are fantastic, if a tad bit system intensive, but very much worth seeing up close (preferably during single player or a replay). Crisp textures, impressive effects, and awesome animations can create combat scenes that are unlike anything yet seen in a real-time strategy game. Of particular note are close-combat sync kills; brutal, over-the-top animations of one unit killing another in a spectacular fashion. For combat walkers, these are particularly pleasing to see (or infuriating if you're on the other side). Sounds are also high quality, with distinctive weapon fire and explosions worth particular mention here. Voice acting, although not quite as good as previous version of the series, is still great for most units Retribution. The music, as well, although not amazing is effective and fitting for each race.
In addition to the single and multiplayer modes, there a Last Stand mode that allows 3 players to choose a commander and fight against increasingly difficult waves of enemies. This is a fun mode with a surprising amount of depth to it for people who prefer cooperative to competitive gameplay. This rounds out Dawn of War II: Retribution as a game with a lot of value for only $30, which is its current price on Steam. RTS purists, raised on StarCraft and accepting nothing else, will hate this game. But for everyone else, perhaps less hardcore into the genre, there's something to appreciate and make it worth your time. The decent singleplayer and robust multiplayer are fun to play, and the excellence of its graphics are a cut above others in its class (including, in this reviewer's opinion, StarCraft II).