Dawn of War 2: Retribution preview - The Guard are coming

The Commissar Lord unleashes a right hook OF JUSTICE.

There's an old Warhammer 40k joke. "What do you get when you tape a flashlight to a Lasgun? A double barrelled Lasgun." Even the Imperial Guard weapon of choice is an object of fun. They're one of the most maligned races in 40k. They're fleshy, poorly armed and poorly armoured fodder in a universe of genetic super soldiers and alien killing machines. They spent most of Dawn of War 2 and Chaos Rising dying in droves and being bailed out by the Space Marines. In Dawn of War 2: Retribution, that's all going to change. The multiplayer beta has just kicked off, and the Imperial Guard are stealing the show.

The latest addition to the roster of armies in Relic's Warhammer 40k RTS brings a bit of humanity to a future of eternal war. The Imperial Guard units have more personality and variation than you might expect. While Space Marine units are mostly the same pompous Marines holding different guns, a Guard army can consist of anything from hulking space-ogres to hard-boiled commandos.

The commandos are brilliant. Imagine a unit of space-Rambos, each carrying a shotgun the size of an ironing board. One of them has a grenade launcher that can nuke an area with cluster bombs 20 metres away. Select the unit and one of them will growl "you haven't seen the things I've seen" with the voice of a man who drinks flamethrower fuel for breakfast. Meet the Catachan Devils.

I've got them defending the central point on an open desert map, and They've just sent a unit of Orks flying backwards over a low wall with a co-ordinated shotgun blast. Nearby, the unflappable Commissar Lord unleashes one of Retribution's cruel new finishing moves on a greenskin. He kicks it in the balls and delivers a crushing right hook with his powerfist. Further along, a unit of rank and file Cadian soldiers are huddled together, oblivious to the battle. They're busy building a wall.

Catachan you dig it?

Building structures in the field is a skill borrowed straight from Relic's World War 2 RTS, Company of Heroes, but is new to Dawn of War, and is one of the Imperial Guard's greatests strengths. Other races can plant turrets, but the Imperial guard can lay down strong cover wherever they choose at no cost, and can even drop a bunker onto the battlefield from orbit. This bunker can then be upgraded to heal and reinforce nearby units. Their leaders can upgrade wargear that inspires troops around them, and the Commissar Lord can even execute a friendly squad mate to "inspire" the troops. Once they're dug in, nothing short of a meteor strike can shake them out.

Back in the desert, huge red targets have suddenly appeared in the sand. The Orks have called in a meteor strike. My Imperial Guard forces are scattered, knocked to the ground and repeatedly pulverised by the falling rocks. It's time for plan B.

Plan B is a straightforward three-step solution to my Ork problem. Step one, build tanks. Build all of the tanks. Step two, move tanks to where the enemy is at. Step three, light a pipe and mutter "very good, chaps" as my heavy armour reduces the landscape to ash. The Imperial Guard have four tanks to choose from, and can access them earlier than other races, once their home base has been upgraded to tier 2. Basic options include a troop transport that can reinforce troops in the field and an artillery platform that can incinerate wide areas at great distance.

Ogryn and bear it

The real firepower comes in at tier 3. This is when the Leman Russ becomes available, a flexible and resilient tank that can be upgraded to obliterate infantry units, or melt other tanks. Imperial Guard armour is especially dangerous because nearby Guard troops can freely repair them. This means a well supported Leman Russ charge (or a 'Lemon Rush', as I like to call it) can win a battle. But why have cookies when there's chocolate cake on the menu? In this case, chocolate cake means the biggest tank in the universe.

The Baneblade is literally bigger than your home base. It is bigger than anything in the game. Roll it over a battlefield and you'll be picking Greater Deamons out of its tire tracks afterwards. It also carries more guns than it would ever be sensible to have in one place, including a mighty main cannon that can one-shot a power station into dust, a couple of heavy Lascannons and innumerable heavy bolters. It's the full stop at the end of a sentence that says "this war ends now."

It's rare that you'll ever see one in a typical encounter. Multiplayer skirmish has never been a hugely successful part of Dawn of War 2 or Chaos Rising. The co-op campaign and the superb Last Stand mode always outshone Dawn of War 2's skirmishes, which felt as though they were stranded somewhere in between the small scale scraps of the story campaign missions and the epic battlefields of the original Dawn of War games.

From the evidence of the multiplayer beta so far, little has changed. The Imperial Guard slot very nicely into the army line-up, and their large units and tendency to roll in large groups makes for an impressive spectacle, but victory is still a matter of harassing enemy resource points, sneaking units behind enemy lines to nab a requisition point or sabotage a power node. If you're caught, commanding your troops to flee will render them effectively invulnerable, ready recuperate and harass a different point a minute later. Battlefields can dissolve into a series of petty and mostly harmless fire-fights that, while tactically important, fail to capture the brutality and the scale of conflict in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

Battles are still packed with Relic's trademark levels of intensity, however. Explosions threaten to crack the monitor screen. Bolter fire thunders over the distance 'whump' of a drop pod crash landing, and seeing a unit of giant Ogryn warriors mash Eldar up with the butts of their huge weapons is both a horrible and strangely satisfying sight. The Space Marines may be humanity's last line of defence against the horrors of the universe, but they only have to face what the Imperial Guard fail to kill. As I roll my Baneblade slowly up to the gates of the Ork base, I can't help but think that the Emperor's Finest will soon be out of a job.

Tom Senior

Part of the UK team, Tom was with PC Gamer at the very beginning of the website's launch—first as a news writer, and then as online editor until his departure in 2020. His specialties are strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.