It's a phrase I loathe, but it's one that applies perfectly to 2010's landscape of quality RTS titles: "an embarrassment of riches."
While--by the end of the year--most of the gaming world was placing StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty and Civilization V on a pedestal, it was Vancouver-based developer Relic Entertainment that had kicked off the party with its critically acclaimed expansion Dawn of War 2: Chaos Rising.
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Two years after the original Dawn of War sequel was released on PC, Relic readies its second stand-alone expansion: Dawn of War 2: Retribution. While it does little to change the franchise's winning formula, from what I've experienced playing the game and learned from talking to Relic's Jeff Lydell, Retribution will inject more adrenaline into an already action-packed series. And fans are going to love it.
Upon launch, Retribution will look familiar to die-hard fans of the series. From the swampy reaches of Typhon Primaris to the cities of Meridian, Retribution has so much content packed into it that the entire package seems like a love letter to Relic's fans. This extends to the game's single-player campaign, which features multiple playable races: the Eldar, Space Marines, Chaos, Orks, and the Tyranids. While that might seem like plenty, Relic has introduced an entire new playable faction: the Imperial Guard, making its debut in Dawn of War 2.
When the Imperial Guard was announced as the new playable faction, more than a few hardcore Dawn of War fans wondered why they were selected over the Tau or Necrons. Relic felt that the Imperial Guard offered a better contrast versus the more demonic and superhuman creatures already available in the game. It also adds more diversity to the game, in terms of style. Imperial Guards are infantry and rely on "strength in numbers," Relic producer Jeff Lydell explained to me during THQ's "Gamer's Day" event in New York City last week. As Imperial Guard faction players add leaders to their base infantry units, more squad members are added to their fighting force.
Also, because the Imperial Guard are "a little more attrition-based," you can stand to lose a few of them without completely swinging the pendulum in the favor of the enemy. "With the combination of their numbers and the ranged weaponry they have, they're a very defensive faction. So, you can build bunkers on the field and hole up and carve out an area. They're strong. They're meant to be the 'backbone' of the army for the Imperium."
"We had a bit of a tagline at Relic," Lydell revealed, summing up the newest faction: "'In a world of super-monsters and super-humans, you are not one of them.'"
Retribution's additions don't end with the faction and unit additions; the game features four new multiplayer maps. "They're the version of the same map that we've done for all the sizes," I was told. "So, we have a 2-player, a 4-player, and a 6-player. Plus the free-for-all variant of 'Ashes of Typhon.' That's the new one." Done in the new tile-set, Lydell says that there's a version of 'Ashes of Typhon' for every size of game included in Retribution. "When we first launched [Dawn of War 2] we had five maps and we went into a huge flurry of map-production. We're now at twenty-nine or thirty. So, we've kind of tapered off," Lydell admits. "We're putting our effort into other areas." A major focus for Relic in the second expansion for its popular franchise, were the addition of new units for each of the expansion's playable races.
Also added is one new map for Dawn of War 2's 'Last Stand' mode, along with twenty new waves of enemies and an Imperial Guard character, Lord General. "We've tuned it to be a bit harder, so if you got a little bored of playing through that original set--and you're an experienced player--the new set will give you a good challenge." The maximum player count for Last Stand remains at three.
There still is a level of progression running through the entire campaign; however, this time around players can capture outposts on the field and produce disposable units. "I think a lot of players that liked having an army roll around on the battlefield will enjoy Retribution more than the previous titles," Lydell told me. Of course, players are still free to roll out with small, cluttered groups to face-off against the enemy. "In fact, we have mechanics that give you choices between Wargear--which supports small groups of tough heroes--or larger armies that you can bring down. So, you have the ability to say, 'I want to unlock this unit that I don't have access to yet' or 'I can unlock this really cool piece of gear for that hero.' It's a tough choice."
Maximum character level in Retribution has been set to 10. In previous installments, players would put points into attributes with unlocks happening after a certain number of points added. In Retribution the skill tree has been overhauled, now players get an ability unlock with every single point. "We did that to streamline things. Keep it tighter," Lydell explained. "Level two is not just a little bit better than level one. Now it's a lot better."
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As was previously reported, Retribution will not use Games for Windows Live as its platform. Like the rest of THQ, Relic has now decided to adopt Valve's Steamworks platform for its online multiplayer modes, achievements, and more. "We've had a massive positive response, mixed in with some concern over the split of community," Lydell said when asked what the hardcore fan reaction was when the change to Steamworks was announced. "The part of me that's not really worried about that is, most RTS games fragment their community when they release an expansion. It was Relic that was unique keeping them together." The switch to Steamworks was primarily due to expanding the feature-set offered to the player, he told me.
"There were a few other factors that drove our decision, like we had people signing in to Steam--let's say you buy Dawn of War 2. 'Okay, set up your Steam account. Now you have to set up your Games for Windows Live account. Okay, now you can play.' That's really cumbersome."
Unlike previous Dawn of War titles, Retribution will not pull data from old save files to allow some stats to carry over. There are two reasons for this change, the primary one is that the races and the cast of characters in Retribution is completely different from older titles. "It's all a story that starts and stops [in Retribution]," Lydell said, so pulling data wouldn't make sense in terms of the game's plot. A secondary reason is that the crosstalk between Games for Windows Live saves and Steamworks saves "started to get pretty hairy" for the team at Relic, making it a difficult thing to consider.
On a side note, Lydell confirmed that the pre-order content that was recently revealed for Retribution will later be offered as "inexpensive DLC" for the game. Retribution comes in six $30 'Race Pack' editions and a $40 Collector's Edition--only available as a boxed edition direct from THQ--which contains all Race Packs plus a poster, art cards, and a classy box.
The major draw for fans will be the game's intense missions. Although I only played the Ork campaign during my time with Retribution, I was constantly given new types of missions throughout the level. Everything from surviving waves of enemy attacks, destroying objectives, and running from a massive onslaught could happen in a single level. This isn't a Go to Point A, then to Point B experience. This isn't a game based on resource gathering and building bases, this is a game about bringing your squad or heroes into the battlefield and defying the odds against a powerful--seemingly never-ending--opponent.It's varied and (most importantly) it kept me on my toes and entertained throughout. There's enough variety and action here that I'm interested in exploring the game further when it launches. Remember that generalized group of people who places StarCraft 2 and Civilization V on a pedestal I mentioned before? I'll admit to being one of them. I've only scratched the surface with Dawn of War 2 in the past. Now that I realize war could be so brutal, strategic, and fun, it looks like it's time to make a little room on that pedestal for a new franchise.
Walking away from the interview, I asked Jeff Lydell a few other choice questions submitted to me by the community. Specifically, what's up with (probably my favorite RTS) Company of Heroes? "Oh, I don't know what that is," he joked.
"Did you have a question about Homeworld 3?" Lydell asked."Yes, actually, I did," I immediately responded, waiting for the hot video game scoops. "Yeah, we're still not making it," he quickly shot back.
You win this round, Lydell.
Dawn of War 2: Retribution launches on March 1, exclusively for the PC.A beta is in the works and will launch, for some, on January 31.
Disclosure: This preview is based on an event hosted by THQ in New York City. THQ invited Shacknews to the event and provided one editor travel and accommodation to and from the three-day event for the purposes previewing the company's 2011 line-up.