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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dawn of War II: Retribution Review

You know what's impressive?  Surpassing the hype.  Not just the general media hype, but the hype in my head.  When I'm looking forward to something, I mean really looking forward to something, I have a tendency to build it up in my mind so much that it rarely - if ever - meets those expectations.  So I can sum up Dawn of War II: Retribution one way:  It didn't let me down.  Actually it hasn't just met my expectations, at times this game has blown them (and me collaterally) away.

Retribution is the follow up to Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising the expansion to Dawn of War II, it's set 10 years after the events of Chaos Rising, and while I'm not sure it's as revolutionary a follow up as Chaos Rising was, it is no slouch by any stretch of the imagination.

Here's what Retribution has to offer:
  • A new race available to play, the Imperial Guard
  • New multiplayer units such as the Land Raider and Battlewagon
  • A new map for Last Stand game play that features new waves of units, and a tweaked arena layout
  • Multi-race campaign that allows players to play more than just the Space Marines in single player
  • A new Imperial Guard hero (Lord Genera) for Last Stand
  • Steam Achievements
  • Steam for multiplayer replacing Windows Live for Games
  • Excellent story telling
  • Continued awesomeness in the voice work (a hallmark of the Dawn of War games)
Here's what Retribution doesn't offer:
  • The ability to play Last Stand with friends who have not purchased the new game.  Yes, you can go back and play Last Stand with them through Chaos Rising, but then the new hero and map are not available.
  • Race specific campaigns that utilize different mission
  • Anything resembling a quick load time 
  •  
    Decisions, decisions, decisions...

    I've played the Space Marine campaign to completion, I'm halfway through the Ork campaign, and I've started the Tyranid campaign.  The game designers have made some nice tweaks in singleplayer gameplay.  Gone are the limitations on heroes/squads you have on a mission, but gone too are the heroes with squads.  With Retribution you have the heroes, but they are separated out - more as Independent Characters from tabletop 40K.  Cyrus is back, but it's just Cyrus no squad of Scouts with him.  However with Retribution you can bring Honor Guard squads in place of your heroes, or you can capture HQs that allow you to reinforce your 4 heroes and squads with other squads such as Tactical Marines, a Dreadnaught, or even Terminators.  There are limits to how many units you can have but there are also points you can capture that increase your population cap.
    Judge me all you want, but there's something about a chick in all leather who is
    capable carrying out Exterminatus.  It's just really hot.

    Gone too are the limited abilities that you have to resupply.  Frag grenades, healing and other items and abilities that were limited resources in the previous games are now energy based.  This frees up the reinforcement crates to provide resource and energy points for getting other units onto your battlefield.
    And I will hug him and squeeze him and call him George.  And I will pet his
    bill and stroke his pretty feathers... Hey! Wait a minute George, bunnies don't
    have feathers...

    Last Stand is a treat.  The new Lord General comes with several weapon choices at first, but he's not the reason I love Last Stand in Retribution.  I love Last Stand gameplay because of the new map "The Anvil of Khorne."  This new map has tweaked the waves to include Chaos Marines and Imperial Guard, and the waves seem more relentless and difficult.  The farthest I've made it is wave 11, and a couple times we've been overrun in wave one or two.  This would never happen in the original Last Stand setup.
    I'm tired of pretending I'm not a total bitchin' rock star from Mars

    Unfortunately, Retribution doesn't play nice with previous versions of Dawn of War II when it comes to Last Stand play.  I was kind of expecting this knowing that Relic had moved away from Windows Live for Games to Steam for multiplayer gaming.  This change might be one of the best things they did for this expansion, but I'm disappointed they couldn't figure something out.  One of my fondest memories of Chaos Rising was the first time I played with a friend who hadn't picked up that expansion and I brought out the Chaos Sorcerer.  He thought it was so cool I think he bought the game the next day.  So this time around I have several friends who have not made the upgrade, and while I wasn't expecting them to be able to play the new hero, and possibly the new map, I was hoping that we could play together. Sadly the only way to do this is through Chaos Rising.  Not  a deal breaker by any stretch of the imagination, and likely out of Relic's control, but something I was hoping they would be able to work around.
    This one is for any Doctor Who fans..."Are you my mommy?"
    I'm not sure what the deal is with load times in this game, but they take longer than they should.  Now I know my computer isn't bleeding edge, but it has no problem handling current games.  I have had some rather long load times for missions and to unload the mission and go back to the star map.  Even in Last Stand where I was ready to log off once, but by the time my PC got back to the lobby the countdown for the next game was underway (which grays out the exit button).
    Mmmmm...Battlewagon...

    Finally the biggest disappointment I had with Retribution was the multi-race campaign.  I played the Blood Raven campaign first, as we all know they are the focus of the Dawn of War games.  After that I jumped into the Ork campaign and was a little put off that I was replaying missions.  I did some research and sure enough the campaign for each race utilizes the same missions.  The enemy units might be different, and the framing story is completely different, but the missions are still the same.  This isn't a bad thing, because there is so much put into this expansion, but it was not clearly spelled out before the release and the discovery was the one thing that really bothered me.  Sort of like the back when Dawn of War II came out in 2009 and I discovered there was no Ork campaign.  I loved the game, but there was a disappointment I had to overcome.  And now that I have overcome it, I've been able to really enjoy the Orks for their brutal comic relief, and am fascinated with how the developers handled the Tyranid hive-mind.  And the missions are good enough, and the stories different enough I will finish all the campaigns.  But having something geared specifically to each race (beyond story, voice work, and sprites) would have shot this game to the stratosphere and made it an instant classic.
    Mmmm...Deffrolla...

    I have spoiler stuff to mention after the jump, but to sum up I love Retribution.  Relic really did an awesome job changing the campaign to make the it feel new.  Combine that with the Last Stand additions, and the continued compelling story telling, and Retribution is a very worthy addition to a great game franchise.

    ****SPOILER ALERT***I'M TALKING SPECIFICS TO THE BLOOD RAVEN CAMPAIGN***I'M ALSO DEALING WITH SPECIFICS (ALTHOUGH LESS OF THEM) ABOUT THE ORK AND TYRANID CAMPAIGNS***IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS, DON'T READ THIS SECTION***

     When I first saw the opening cinematic for Retribution online I was sure the Daemon that Angelos was fighting was the same one from the very first Dawn of War game.  Then when I loaded the game and watched it in full screen high quality I knew it was.  That was just one of the many things that about the single player campaign for the Blood Ravens that made Retribution so awesome.  The story was so good, and it tied so many elements from previous Dawn of War games in, it really felt like the culmination of the story that started back in 2004.  And not just the story of the Blood Ravens, but the story of Gabriel Angelos as well.

    I watched the intro movie, and then I played the prelude mission of the campaign, and it was like old times - I was commanding Angelos (albeit in the tutorial).  They gave vague mentions to someone who had to be in position, and as the prelude ended I was given the selection menu.  And while my beloved Orks had an outside chance of getting the first campaign play when I was installing, at that moment I had to start with the Blood Ravens.

    The cryptic references to somebody without a name made me hope that my Force Commander from the previous two campaigns would be around at some point, but he's only there to be mentioned as a cautionary tale to Diomedes because the Chaos ending for Chaos Rising is the canonical ending they used for Retribution.

    So as I played the campaign early on I missed the Chaos bar, and the fight against succumbing to, or the rush to embrace Chaos.  Then it struck me that this campaign isn't about me, or my character.  RPG elements are still there in the campaign, but that's to help get you ready for where the story takes you.  Retribution single player is about the story.  In the case of the Blood Ravens Retribution is about everything they've been through up to that point and what they have to do to save their chapter, and their souls.  This is a game that really put story above all else.  Chaos is there, but the threat if Diomedes will join Chaos is minimal and outside player control, this is about Diomedes being the window for us to see how the Blood Ravens fight to save their chapter.  A Chaos bar would make no sense in this story, and would have distracted us from the story.

    There is so much good in the storytelling here, so much depth, it is surprisingly nuanced, and at times subtle in the way they present things, that they did catch me off guard a couple times.  Not every time, mind you, but a few times.  The one time that didn't work was the reveal about who The Ascendant was.  The buildup was brief due to the shortened campaign (you cap at level 10), but it was obvious from the outset.  Of course it was Kyras.  You could see that coming a mile away.  However the reveal that Tarkus was The Ancient floored me.  And it was his telling that revealed which Chaos Rising ending they based Retribution off.

    Other chilling moments were the Exterminatus (a very cool and intense mission), but more than the mission, it was the cinematics around the Exterminatus mission that gave me pause.  The gravity in the voice of the Inquisition as they proclaimed Exterminatus was so well done, just one of the best pieces of voice work in the series.  And then to have Angelos narrate the follow up, it just tore me up to hear the grief in his voice as he blamed himself.

    And then the closing cinematic.  I went into Retribution wanting Angelos to claim his rightful place as Chapter Master of the Blood Ravens, but they foreshadowed his death so much that when he went down at the hands of Kyras at the beginning of the finale I was convinced he was dead.  Then in the cinematic I saw Diomedes holding Angelos, his leg missing, his body broken...I got misty eyed.  I honestly thought Angelos was dead, and I really think he was the first character from a video game that I shed a tear for.  Then I heard his voice and wondered if he had been interred in a Dreadnaught, or if Diomedes was imagining what Angelos would have said.  But no, there he was as Chapter Master.  His body part machine part Astartes, and I had trouble sleeping that night because I just kept thinking about it.  It was cool.  It was right.  It was the ending I wanted.  It cost him, but his releasing the daemon from the Maledictum had eventually caused this.

    Honestly, they did such a great job writing that campaign, that the amazing thing is, the story they wrote for the Orks, maybe it isn't better, it's definitely not as epic, but it is more entertaining.  I mean they really have captured the Orks perfectly.  And they've sustained it thus far.  It's funny, it's brutal, and I can see a payoff for the story coming regarding the female inquisitor whom Kaptin Bluddflagg calls Twiggy and her hat that makes me giggle to think about.

    And they did right by the Tyranids too.  I was very curious how they were going to handle the Hive Mind, and the collective consciousness of the Tyranids.  And it works.  It's just a heavily over-produced voice giving commands like "Enemey....attack...kill....feed..." or something along those lines.  No names, no reason, just do it.  Perfect simplicity where it was needed.  They didn't need anything cute, and they didn't over think it.  They just did it right.

    Look some of this is just rambling, me tossing out stuff about the game I liked, but in the end the guys at Relic have really made one of the best told stories in a video game I've ever played.  It was compelling, it was emotional, and it really capped off a story they started long ago.  I doubt they planned for this story when they had Gabriel release the Daemon from the Maledictum, but it worked and it worked so well I can't wait to see how stoked I get about the next Dawn of War game.

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