If videogames are any indicator of what is to come, we’re all in serious trouble. Sure, we may get jetpacks and traverse the vast expanses of outer space but the galactic pastime is almost guaranteed to be war. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II – Retribution is no exception, throwing you into a conflict that, although hopeless, will still be fought tooth and nail until one army stands victorious over a ruined world. Lucky for you, you get to control that army and guide it through some of the most intense and highly strategic battles ever encountered in a real-time strategy title.
Retribution’s predecessor, Dawn of War II, took a very different approach to the standard RTS. Rather than forcing players to split their focus between macro (base building) and micro (unit orders) managed play, the emphasis was firmly on controlling a small squad of highly skilled hero units. Innovative as it was, it did at times create a severely limiting difficulty curve, leaving little margin for error that the critical mass of expendable units is generally on hand to provide. Retribution improves on this formula, still doing away with the standard base-building framework, allowing players instead to capture rally points and spend hard-earned resources on pumping out cannon fodder to help with the final push.
Set in a sector due to be righteously purged, you control one of six armies. These include old favourites such as Space Marines, Eldar and Orks, additions carried over from the previous expansion (including my favourite race – the plague-corrupted Chaos) as well as the Imperial Guard, newcomers made up of hardened squaddies and unflappable officers. In a refreshing display of truly open choice, every race is playable in both the campaign and multiplayer, providing exceptional replay value and opportunities for experimentation. The overarching story remains the same for each race’s campaign, with details changed to suit each unique army.
While I was initially disappointed to learn that, in order to fully complete the game, I’d have to play through what is broadly speaking the same campaign a total of six times, I soon forgot my concerns and became engrossed in the twisting plot, filled with betrayal, heroism and an unblinkingly grim view of war.
In keeping with the strong emphasis on micro-management, the units are wonderfully detailed and, when combined with impressively extensive camera controls, viewable up close from any angle. You could almost be fooled that you’re playing an action RPG. Adding to the strong level of personal involvement with each hero are the wide range of customisation and levelling options that allow you to adapt each unit to your own play style. My only complaint here is that it becomes apparent very early on that care wasn’t taken to prevent players from overpowering their units, turning any battle into a one-sided massacre.
I do have a few gripes concerning Retribution’s engine. Testing it on a high-end PC, frantic battles were still often reduced to stuttering messes as the game struggled to keep up with its own action. The usually stellar sound also chugged at these points, turning what should have been my victorious moment of glory into a blocky, static-filled anti-climax. It got to the point where the whole experience was marred by the knowledge that, at any time, an ambush could yank me out of the lush, detailed worlds, serving as a stark reminder that I was simply running a piece of software. While annoying, these bugs weren’t enough to deter me as I forged on into the multiplayer side to see what Retribution had to offer over my beloved StarCraft. This remains relatively unchanged from the original Dawn of War. The cooperative survival mode, Last Stand, also makes its welcome return.
The fact that Relic have managed to balance all six races and still keep them feeling fresh across all of their releases is a spectacular feat. Thanks to its flawless Steam integration (doing away with previous titles’ haphazard use of Windows Live), I was up and running and getting absolutely destroyed within minutes.
Dawn of War II – Retribution is the exemplary Goldilocks RTS – not too focused on either macro or micro to deter newbies but sufficiently varied to encourage and facilitate high-level play across all of its modes. The campaign may be repeated for each race but the impact of decisions in each story change enough to keep events feeling fresh even though the objectives remain the same. Aside from a few niggling bugs that do mar the experience at several crucial moments, Retribution is a fantastic investment for both existing Dawn of War fans and curious RTS gamers looking to get into the series. While light on tutorials, even a total newbie will find themselves comfortably zipping over hotkeys, demolishing waves of enemies in no time.
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