Relic CEO: Right, developers. We're going to do an add-on for Dawn of War II.
Relic Devs: Dawn of War III? OK, got it.
CEO: No, I said an add-on pack. Nothing huge, you know, just a couple of re-skins, maybe the odd new map...
Devs: Completely new faction, new playable units, six full campaigns, all-new maps, game modes and an interlocking six-way story arc?
CEO: What? No, I -
Devs: What's that you say? All-new levelling system, new tactical approaches for each faction, new customisation options for units, unlockable equipment and abilities for heroes, new multiplayer mode and hours of new voice acting? Right, we'll get right on it, sir!
CEO: Dammit, you guys always do this! I've not forgiven you for Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts, you know...
It must be tough being CEO of Relic. How do they make ends meet, giving away so much stuff every time they write a new add-on pack? Don't they get sour looks from all the other studios who see DLC add-ons as a bit of an easy paycheck? Whatever the case, the latest so-called add-on for their successful Warhammer 40K RTS Dawn of War II feels more like a sequel than a mere add-on.
Perhaps rather than a sequel, the best description of Retribution is a re-think. Everything that made DoW2 (and its first add-on pack, Chaos Rising) so successful is still there, but it seems as if the devs had a ton of great directions for the game that never made the cut, whole aspects that made things much more interesting that were left half-forgotten in the code-bin.
First and foremost, the single-player campaign can be explored as one of six fully fleshed-out factions. Each faction has a full linear campaign as long as plenty of full-price flagship releases give you as a whole game. Granted, many of the maps are re-used by more than one faction, but nevertheless there's enough far-future warfare in single player here to last you until the year 40,000 for real.
Well, OK, perhaps that's a slight over-egging, but it's not just a bunch of maps and some lukewarm videogame-quality storyline that you're getting here. All six campaigns tell the same story from six differing perspectives. And to have six campaigns where each faction wins each mission (in order to progress through the story) and for it all to more-or-less make sense is a pretty impressive feat. One faction is a complete newcomer to DoW2; the Imperial Guard. These guys are like the regular army to the elite Space Marines, using masses of grunts and plenty of heavy armour. Each faction has a handful of heroes, with customisable weapon loadouts and levelling abilities that unlock throughout the campaigns and allow a range of tactical approaches that complement each faction's general strategic approach. New units are deployed from HQs which can be captured during play, and paid for with points gathered through the time-honoured tradition of shooting crates and occasionally capping flags. At the start of each mission you have the choice of leaving some of your heroes at home, swapping them out for a specially pumped-up (and free-to-replace) bodyguard unit and an increased population cap in case you feel like playing with an absolute mass of expendable minions for a bit.
The single-player maps tend to be a little linear; presumably this helps with telling the story (revealing certain details as the player reaches certain waypoints and making sure none are missed), but it waters down gameplay a little. You quite often feel you're being herded from scrap to scrap, so why bother leaving troops in strategic locations? Just bunch ‘em up and rush whatever comes round the corner!
Gameplay itself isn't hugely changed from DoW2, or indeed its WW2 spiritual predecessor Company of Heroes. That's a good thing - it's a terrific game system, and there's enough new stuff so you never feel bored by the same old same olds. There are a couple of infuriating pathfinding glitches on the first few maps, where units sent over a long distance stop to admire the view on an awkward corner, but all can be easily forgiven due to the immersive gameplay.
I should have really loved Dawn of War 1, but something about it just stopped me enjoying it. Perhaps it was the horrible, horrible voice acting. But the voices in Retribution (some of whom will sound very familiar to Company of Heroes fans) are significantly better, and every time you fight a new faction your boys will have something new to say. The sound in general is very good, particularly the reverby sound weapon of the noise marines.
Multiplay is well-supported (of course), and a new game mode, Last Stand, is added to the skirmishes we all know and love. This is similar to Stonewall (from Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor), where masses of enemies attack from all sides and the co-operative players desperately try to hang on for as long as they can. It's manic and occasionally quite terrifying.
It's difficult to really mark Retribution up for being an extremely complete DLC package, seeing as it's priced as a full-price game. But it is a standalone game, packed with new content and new features while staying true to the values that the series stands on. There's plenty of RTS loveliness here for fans of the genre and setting, and nothing too heavy or off-putting for noobs. Thanks, Relic! Keep up the excellent work!