Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Reviewer: Ryan Newman
Overall: 8 = Excellent
P4 3.2 GHz, 1GB RAM (XP) / 1.5GB RAM (Vista/7), 128MB GeForce 6600 GT/ATI X1600
Dawn of War II – Retribution is as much the work of Workshop Games as it is Relic. While Workshop brought the franchise to the table, Relic took it and didn’t just expand its presence in the gaming sphere but really made it their own. From the invented Blood Ravens Space Marine chapter to this final battle between all six factions in Subsector Aurelia, this is Relic’s oh-just-toss-in-the-kitchen-sink sendoff to a story that’s been years in the making.
Despite being a stand-alone expansion, with each faction’s campaign ostensibly being self-contained, Retribution might be fine for newcomers but is really for fans of the series. Like the original Dawn of War, its sequel has spawned its own mini universe through the characters introduced and continued through its numerous base storylines and expansion. While Chaos Rising introduced the Corruption System along with the Chaos Space Marines in the evolving storyline that bridged the narrative gap between Dawn of War I and II, Retribution melds the gameplay elements of both while wrapping up all of the loose ends. It’s an interesting twist that manages to inject a bit of energy into the old cover-based, RPG-like approach, but the failure to address many of the system’s lingering flaws, and the game’s overreliance on a set of core assets, does put a slight damper on what is an otherwise enjoyable finale.
For its swan song, Relic gave each faction their time to shine. The Space Marines, Orks, Tyranids, Chaos Space Marines, Imperial Guard, and Eldar will all be fighting the clock as the Inquisition has ordered an Exterminatus of the entire system, an act that will wipe out all life on every planet—including them—within days. Each new subplot is tied into an overarching story that has been in motion for over a decade in game time and going on two years in our time. The humans are fighting amongst themselves to stop the spread of heresy and chaos while the others are trying to battle their way out of an escalating war between the crazy and crazier. The only ones who seem to be in it for waaaghs and giggles are the Orks, who are, charmingly, space pirates out for nothing more than some sweet loot and a good fight—much like myself, oddly enough.
Fans of the series will immediately recall some familiar locales and characters who reappear for the final showdown, including a few long-time enemies of the Imperium getting their comeuppance. Newcomers get a slightly barebones story, with much of the history lost in the intro’s quick recap, but a lot of action to help compensate and distract. So while playing the previous releases will help to get the most out of what’s going on, knowledge of the whos and whys of the factions’ happenings isn’t required to enjoy the sweet, sweet combat and understand that the way out of the system is through the enemy.
And combat there is. Using an amalgamated approach from both series, Retribution brings back unit training but retains squad leaders. Through the capture of energy, population, and requisition points on the battlefield, armies can then summon reinforcements by reclaiming derelict structures. Each faction has their own terms for the buildings, but they all work the same: smaller outposts bring in infantry while larger facilities can summon machinery. By and large, combat is done through troops and not heavy armor, but there will still be plenty of times when a handful of Predator tanks or Deff Dread walkers (or would that be ‘walkas’?) can be called in to handle tougher situations.
The resources used to call in reinforcements are also used to add extra abilities to the heroes (squad captains). Regular units also have upgrades, which are unlocked as mission rewards and often limited to one usable at a time. Unlike heroes, whose upgrades are standard with the ability to increase health, energy (think mana), and strength for the duration of a mission, regular unit upgrades are in the form of mission rewards which are often alongside new hero items and unit types. Both instances require a sacrifice, one for much-needed resources and the other a chance to unlock a powerful unit for recruiting or a devastating hero weapon. Since resources tend to be strained and the enemy numerous, it becomes a bit of a gamble to up a hero over calling in a new squad; similarly, not picking a new unit can lead to some tricky situations, such as opting to go with a new hero sword over an anti-tank unit when the next mission is dominated by enemy armor. I didn’t have too many problems, though, since there are plenty of optional missions to pick up rewards and being extracted out of a failed mission isn’t terribly painful. The maps are varied in their enemy composition enough so that any option will work well for an available mission, but a handful of beefed-up heroes over more numerous, weaker grunts tended to be the best approach.
A twist to the hero-based approach introduced in Dawn of War II is that players can now opt out of taking a squad leader along, instead replacing them with an Honor Guard. The Honor Guard are a set unit type—one for each hero—that not only have extra abilities and are cheaper to revive if felled, but also up the population cap to allow for more reinforcements. Again, as with the choice to spend resources to upgrade a captain’s stats, choosing whether or not to bring an Honor Guard along is largely up to how the enemies are laid out on the map. There is a big incentive to try to bring all of the heroes along, which is, as with the previous releases, that leaving one out for too long will stunt their advancement to the point of them being a liability in later levels; three level-eight heroes will be bogged down by a weaker and less-developed level four. Still, it is an interesting addition that, along with the ability to choose rewards, adds a welcomed extra layer of strategy and customization.
Taken on their own, the ability to pick from numerous rewards, doll out experience points when heroes level up, choose from unlocked unit upgrades in the field, and the option to take on extra missions for more loot isn’t necessarily deep—or new. However, they effectively work in conjunction with one another to offer enough variation to keep the factions’ campaigns interesting—you won’t get every unit upgrade, nor all the best gear, every time—which is vital, because they offer most of what little variation there is.
One of the more surprising, and disappointing, facts about Retribution is that the campaigns aren’t nearly as diverse as before, and they go beyond simply being similar to being near carbon copies of one another. The same stronghold that has to be taken and held as a Space Marine will have to be taken and held as an Imperial Guard, Ork, and so on. On the one hand, it’s downright admirable how Relic squeezed so much life out of a handful of maps, but on the other, the campaigns become increasingly less exciting as factions are gradually ticked off the ‘Completed’ list. I found myself having to take breaks between each campaign, and some during, to keep from burning out. But even then, the fact remained that I knew where nine out of the ten surprises were going to come from, when they were going to come, and who (or what) was going to be needing a hammer to the head.
The fact that I stuck with the campaigns is a testament to the series’ strong core mechanics. Although, for as enjoyable as the tactical approach is, the Company of Heroes-inspired cover-based system never completely gelled with a franchise whose characters are more likely to walk through a wall than hide behind one—a fact acknowledged by Relic’s upcoming cover-free third-person shooter Space Marines—and Retribution does little to incorporated cover as much as it could have. Despite the first mission making a point of explaining that the yellow and green dots that appear when hovering near an object represent decent and good cover, respectively, the feature is largely done away with as the heroes then plow through the remaining missions (literally, they can just walk through some walls). Where cover does come in handy is when using an Honor Guard-centric squad and plenty of troops, who are much weaker and require protection in order to not be blown to bits, yet the game’s fast pace usually means a quick end to them as they are tossed into the chaotic firefights.
The Imperial Guard campaign does a good job of conveying how much the system could benefit the peons, and there are times when the game does let more thoughtful cover-and-advance tactics come to the fore by easing up on the pace. It’s a delicate balance between beefed-up heroes being treated as tanks and grunts requiring protection, and the game doesn’t always take that into account. But enemies will often use cover, and working out the best way to dislodge them (grenades away!) makes for some good times, especially taking out snipers perched in towers by bringing the towers down on their heads with a few well-timed explosions. The swappable Honor Guard also helps to shift the focus from a more role-playing feel, as with an all-hero squad, to that of a tactical strategy game ala Company of Heroes.
The Last Stand, the Horde-style multiplayer mode where a team of three heroes face increasingly difficult waves of enemies, has been upgraded as well. New levels, wave types, and items (unlocked as the persistent heroes level up) have been added, but the biggest addition is the inclusion of an Imperial Guard Lord General. He’s a bit fussy in close combat, sometimes feeling too lofty to take a swipe at attacking enemies, but still makes for a solid addition that nicely rounds out the roster. Heroes from Chaos Rising can be imported, though it’ll have to reinstalled even if the save games are still on the hard drive. Last Stand is just as addictive as ever, quickly sinking its teeth back into me, and is easily worth weeks of play. The rest of the multiplayer component is similar to before, with persistent armies gaining experience when taken online and being customizable with unlocked special abilities that use points earned from killing enemies to activate. There is also the offline Skirmish mode, which allows for players to practice on the various maps and with the different factions but without earning any cumulative experience points. And as always, units can be painted for that miniature touch.
For all Retribution doesn’t even attempt to fix, it tweaks, adjusts, and adds so much to the core that the system is still exciting and addictive. The campaigns might not be terribly different and are fairly linear, but they wrap up the storylines nicely and do a good job of getting the player acquainted with the factions for multiplayer. With an expanded Last Stand mode, a massive roster, and light touches of strategic customization sprinkled throughout the campaigns, Retribution is a fitting end to a violent, sprawling, and ridiculous chapter in 40K history.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)