Monday, 29 September 2014

Warhammer 40,000 - Dawn of War II

In the Emperor's name!
Continuing my reverse retrospective we go from Space Marine to Dawn of War II, the sequel to the pure RTS Dawn of War.

DoWII and its two major add-ons (Chaos Rising and Retribution) tell the story of the Blood Ravens and their homeworlds in sub-sector Aurelia through a squad-level RTS/tactical RPG. Eschewing the traditional base-building elements of an RTS, the game gives you control of one hero and a number of squads. The squads available are each represented by a sergeant and 2-3 marines, and cover each of the Marine specialities: Tactical (Sergeant Tarkus), Devastator (Avitus), Assault (Thaddeus) and Scouts (Cyrus). Later in the game, you also gain access to a Dreadnought, that has and needs no backup.

The action opens on the desert world of Calderis, before opening out to include the jungle planet Typhon and the sprawling hive world of Meridian. This is an elegant aesthetic decision, as it starts the player out in the largely empty landscapes of Calderis, then hits you with the lush greens of Typhon before moving to the intricate cityscapes of the hive world, and finally mixing it all up by dropping Gigeresque Tyranid structures all over the shop. The initial enemies are Orks, then Eldar, and finally the Tyranids, as the ultimate goal becomes the defeat of an incoming Hive Fleet.

The gameplay is very satisfying, and the tactical combat element is especially rewarding of thought. The squads are distinctive, each with their own strengths and weaknesses: Tarkus is the tank, Avitus ranged DPS, Thaddeus melee DPS and Cyrus infiltration and sniping. Thaddeus and the Force Commander also have charge abilities which are critical in the later game for pinning the more numerous enemy and keeping them from overwhelming your troops. The game engine makes cover your best buddy, and the context-sensitive move controls make it easy to exploit it.
Mmm. Flamethrower...

The RPG elements come in the sections between missions, when you get to upgrade and equip your troops. There is also degree of mission selection/. Critical missions have to be done, but there are optional missions which can not always all be completed, forcing you to prioritise depending on your play style and the rewards for each mission.

The game's greatest problem is a slightly shaky integration of some of the late game options. In particular, switching your squads into Terminator armour messes with some of their abilities. Since Terminators (and the Dreadnought) also smash through cover and operate best at close range, bringing them in tends to reduce your strategy to 'close in and punch faces'.

Chaos Rising adds two more locations, the space hulk Judgement of Carrion and the frozen world of Aurelia, and unsurprisingly throws chaos cultists and marines into the mix as adversaries. The Chaos Marines are among the toughest adversaries in the game, having functionally the same strengths and weaknesses as your own Blood Ravens makes them much more challenge to counter tactically. The game also introduces chaos taint, a trait which can provide your squads with cool new abilities at the cost of becoming rampaging demon beasts. In the mid-game, one of your sergeants (or the techmarine, if you keep your sergeants Chaos-free) goes rogue and it turns out that your Chapter Master is a rampaging would-be demon beast, leading to the game's downer ending.
Best hat.

Retribution concludes the story with a battle royale across the sub-sector, climaxing in a smackdown with the Chapter Master-turned-demon prince. It's new planets are the wreck of Typhon after an Exterminatus fleet blows it to bedrock and the equally (but less recently) exterminated planet Cyrene.

Retribution also allows you to play as any one of six factions: Blood Ravens, Imperial Guard, Ork Freebooters, Tyranids, Chaos Marines and Eldar. Each faction has four heroes, who fight without squads, and additionally has units which can be built/summoned from base structures present in the missions. The RPG element is greatly simplified and the RTS played back up again. The heroes are roughly split in each group into melee DPS, ranged DPS, caster/healer and sneak, although the Chaos Marines lack a sneak, the Blood Ravens' replace the healer with a techmarine 'summoner' and the Tyranids just get a Hive Tyrant.

Sadly, the campaign is very linear, with little or no variation in missions between the races, meaning that the tactics employed vary, but not the nature of the threat or objective. It would have been good to see a mixture of the two.

Dawn of War II is an interesting and satisfying game, not least because it actually presents three very different playing experiences built on the same engine (more counting the variant styles of Retribution). It's not perfect, but all in all it's a keeper for me.