Last time we checked in with Aurelia, the Space Marines were fighting the forces of Chaos (in the first Dawn of War II expansion, Chaos Rising), and in the process sort of saving the day - or not. It’s hard to remember exactly, but according to the prologue it seems that ten years have passed since Chaos Rising, and sub-sector Aurelia “remains in turmoil” with all races of the Warhammer 40K universe fighting, killing, maiming, and hurting each other en masse. Or put it this way, even after a decade you still wouldn’t want to live in sub-sector Aurelia. From constant wars between Space Marines, Space Orks, and Space Elves through to entire planetary destruction via what the Imperial Guard call ‘Exterminatus’ to even some sort of ancient space demon resurrection ritual – this little corner of the galaxy ain’t exactly friendly.
As the second annual stand-alone expansion to the Dawn of War II brand, Retribution keeps up the tradition of bloody and brutal battles, but also brings with it some notable and some questionable changes.
First up is the ability to play the main campaign as each of the six races, which immediately makes one scream out “awesome sauce”, as many prospective buyers do before they read the fine print. The fine print in this case is the fact that although the campaign can be tackled with each race and with it, give players access to quite a considerable number of distinct units and skills to use, it does so via keeping the same levels across each race’s campaign, with minor adjustments. The change here is not in introducing a huge sprawling campaign or a story spread across numerous acts and races, but instead simply giving the player for the first time the ability to play through the campaign as a different race outside of the Space Marines. Which overall is quite a good change of pace, as the relatively short nature of the campaign does lend itself some replayability, thanks in part mostly due to the differences between each race.
The second change that, although implemented fairly well, and is undoubtedly a great addition to the game, is the re-introduction of more RTS-y elements whilst streamlining the more RPG-y aspects of the game. What this means is that in addition to the main squad of heroes, who players can still deck out with sweet loot and spend experience points on new skills, players will also be given a population cap that allows reinforcements of various units throughout each map at strategic locations. This leads to the introduction of various infantry squads and even tank units that are able to fight alongside your heroes as you make your way through each map. Apart from bringing a bigger sense of scale to most of the battles in the game, it also helps strike a balance between each campaign map (via a varying population cap) whilst also differentiating itself from the previous two games - mostly for the better.
On the other side of the spectrum it’s hard to say if this is a better approach than keeping the same smaller hero squad-based gameplay of the previous two entries, but it does bring back, just ever so slightly, the larger sense of scale that was seen in the original Daw of War - which is a good thing in its own right.
But unfortunately even though the army building aspects of Retribution are kept well in check and never really change the overall game in a dramatic fashion, it can, however, affect the overall battle strategy in a couple of ways. The introduction of a small army at your disposal does adversely make your heroes feel ‘less important’, which means that unlike in the previous two games, the sense of taking cover at each turn and carefully planning each advance can get lost when you have the option to just take three tanks and try to steamroll them into an enemy encampment. In most cases this action can be carried out quite easily with little to no repercussions, as the game seems to provide an almost steady stream of resources to collect allowing lost troops and vehicles to be re-built a little too easily. What gets lost in the equation here is the sense of urgency that the previous games brought to each individual skirmish in favour of a more “big battle” approach. Again it’s hard to say if this is a change for the better, but as this is the second expansion to Dawn of War II, any change at this point helps considerably in shaking the feeling of “just more of the same”.
Weirdly enough the introduction of bigger armies for the player to control in the campaign has led to an overall simplification of the more RPG-y aspects of the game, and consequently makes this unique blend of strategy, action, and role-playing feel more natural. A lower level cap for each hero unit and the removal of characteristic upgrades has led to the introduction of a more simple skill-based upgrade approach, whilst leaving the characteristic upgrades to the equipment loot. This helps ease the introduction of the standard units whilst also allowing for each of these non-hero units and squads to be upgraded via a similar and quite simple skill tree, via post-mission rewards.
The reward system in particular is implemented quite well, allowing the player to tailor their upgrades specific to their play-styles via focussing on new weapons for their non-hero units or trying to turn their heroes into killing machines. Developer Relic also seems to be having a lot more fun with the loot this time around, as players can even equip some of their heroes with rare items that sound ridiculous but in practise turn out to be quite awesome. Like a machine gun that has a chance to call in an artillery strike.
As a stand-alone title, and this time released as a Steam exclusive, the multiplayer component forgoes the Games For Windows requirement of the previous games, and trades this for the seemingly more stable and reliable Steam service. The setup and interface however is virtually identical, with the changes here really being in the inclusion of the Imperial Guard race, and some new maps for both the competitive multiplayer mode and the co-op mode, Last Stand. A new map for Last Stand in particular is a welcome addition, as this addictive “horde” style mode is incredibly fun to play. By pitting players against waves of different enemies whilst also providing score based challenges and experience points to equip their heroes with new equipment between games, this mode hasn’t lost any of its charm.
At this point, Retribution feels like it could very well be the last entry in the Dawn of War II series, with the changes made helping to only really keep the series feel fresh to those who have put in some considerable time into the previous entries. A stand-alone game this comes highly recommended to fans of the series, whilst newcomers would be better served starting with the first game. In it sub-sector Aurelia was still in turmoil, and even though the campaign focussed solely on the exploits of the Space Marines, the story made a lot more sense. Well, as much sense as planetary warfare between space orks, and space marines can make.