It must be hard to be a Guardsman. You're standing around staring at an uncaptured control point and a box full of something called Requisition, and suddenly an Ork appears three inches from your face. His name is Spookums, he is wearing a pirate hat, and now he has exploded. You're killed instantly – that's one of the worst parts of the job – but Spookums is merely flung by his own explosion into a bush.
Luckily, Dawn of War 2: Retribution lets you be the Ork.
If you'd asked me before I played it, I would have told you Retribution was all about making Dawn of War 2 closer to a proper strategy game. It's standalone, and where Dawn of War 2 was all about micromanaging just a handful of units, Retribution allows you to build up your force from the headquarters you capture midbattle. In theory, the big change is that you're now commanding an army instead of leading a squad.
As it turns out, that's not at all what Retribution is about. And thank God. You can build up an army, certainly, but almost every unit in it would have several manually activated abilities to deal with. Quickly and accurately ordering that number of units to use cover and activate their abilities is the kind of manual and mental torture test you could use to find out if you have a heart condition. Dawn of War's interface, zoom level and controls just weren't built for battles of that scale.
Yet Retribution is startlingly good – it's the best Warhammer 40K game I've ever played. Because it's not really about numbers, it's about diversity. If you played Dawn of War 2 and its first expansion Chaos Rising, you've spent upwards of 30 hours controlling some combination of the same seven units. Retribution lets you choose between six different factions, with a total of around 70 squads, vehicles and heroes to play with. It's a massive breath of fresh air.
Joy of six
There are six campaigns of around eight hours each, all playable in singleplayer or co-op. One of the six races is largely new to the game, the Imperial Guard, and they're also playable in competitive multiplayer. Then there's a new map and a new hero for Last Stand, the superb three-player cooperative survival mode Relic added to Dawn of War 2 in a free update. And if you're interested in any of these ways to play it online, there's the enormously welcome news that it now uses Steam for matchmaking and friends lists, instead of the horrific Games for Windows Live.
Frankly, the last time anyone went this nuts with an expansion was, well, Relic – with Dawn of War: Dark Crusade.
These aren't six completely unique campaigns, admittedly. Play two and you'll find they have about ten of their twelve missions in common, just slightly repurposed to fit a different plot. That only really hurts the early missions: the first three are overly long and overly scripted tutorials, and replaying them as each new race gets painful.
But once you do fight through them, you have enough experience points to start customising your heroes, and that's where Retribution suddenly turns around.
Dawn of War 2 was one great fight, repeated. You set up your heavy weapons in cover, snuck your scout in to snipe a prime target, tanked them with your commander, and jumpjetted your assault guys onto the enemy's strongest shooters. It was satisfying, but by and large it was the same every time. It was often the same map every time.
Retribution comes up with five new formulae, composed of the same basic elements of stealth, suppression, jumps, melee and damage types. Formulae that evolve as you decide how to upgrade each hero, what you equip them with, and how you want to use them.
It's still tactical and manually intensive – you need to move each hero individually and activate the right abilities just when you need them, preferably with hotkeys. You can bench heroes in return for a free squad or vehicle and an increased army size limit in the field. But for most races, each hero plays such an important role that it's hard to see why anyone would.
So for the most part, you slip into playing Retribution much as you did Dawn of War 2: four heroes, each with special abilities that mix with each other in excitingly brutal ways. I added a few heavy weapons squads to support my biggest gunner, and the occasional vehicle when I could afford it, then spent the rest of my money on upgrading and reviving my heroes.
I mentioned the Orks earlier: as well as the commando/commander switcheroo (where Spookums can swap positions with Bludflagg), their ranged specialist Nailbrain is ridiculous. He can teleport into battle, and one of his perks causes him to explode every time he does anything. So when he teleports, he also explodes, flooring everyone. He can then turn on his force field so that incoming damage will drain energy rather than health when everyone gets back up. This causes him to explode. Damage taken to his forcefield also charges his static blast, an ability that causes him to explode. And since it is an ability, it also causes him to explode. In addition to the explosion.
That part of the Ork's combat formula is a result of the way I'd specced my Nailbrain. Each hero of each race has three stats: health, damage and energy. Those can be upgraded from zero to five, and almost every upgrade comes with some ability or perk that changes the way the hero works. The static explosion is a perk for upgrading Nailbrain's damage to level 3.
I was rude about Guardsmen earlier, and I will be rude about the rest of the Imperial Guard later, but for what it's worth they do have a formula of their own. The Lord General is a terribly British chap who can call in free reinforcements for squads who've lost men. The Commissar is a more sinister officer who can spur a squad to fight harder by shooting one of them – not that the Imperial Guard need any help getting themselves killed.
I like to have my Commissar use Execute on a Stormtrooper to kickstart that squad's damage output, then cast Draw Their Fire on my General, forcing enemies to attack him instead. The behatted Inquisitor can then cast a protective shield on the General so he survives the onslaught. And after the fight, he can have a new stormtrooper dropped off to make up their numbers so we can do it all again. They're not going to make the Fortune 100 for best places to work, but it's satisfyingly effective.
In fact, a sadistic number of the Commissar's upgrades revolve around his Execute ability, including a perk which lets you use it on enemy squads to demoralise them. Nice, but at that point aren't you just shooting the enemy? Is that really something that needs to be unlocked?
Heroes of chaos
The units, heroes and abilities of the Chaos faction are split between three of their four gods. The god of violence is represented by a heavy weapons marine, the god of magic and change has a chaos sorcerer on the team, and the god of decay gets a brilliant muckspreading Plague Marine as his representative.
Kinky porno-god Slaanesh doesn't get a hero – he's always been the black sheep even in a family of pitchblack bloodgargling daemon deathsheep who burn in perpetual agony with the searing fires of the warp. Instead, your commander is a Chaos Champion who can choose his allegiance: each branch of his level-up tree serves a different Chaos God. I levelled up his health, enabling him to channel disease-god Nurgle in what is presumably Relic's idea of irony.
As well as the usual tanking abilities, this changes the way your Chaos Cultists minions work. With Nurgle, they can worship on the battlefield to heal nearby Chaos units, and even build shrines that can then summon reinforcements from the warp. If I'd leant towards Khorne, shrines would periodically spew out daemons, while Tzeentch shrines cloak your units and fire doombolts at enemies.
But the highlight of the Chaos roster is the Plague Marine. He can spread a disease that heals Chaos units and rots enemies, and even 'detonate' the infection to wipe out a whole squad in an instant – or bring a pestilent friend back from the brink of death. A whole set of late-tier abilities cause the enemies he kills to come back as Nurgly diseasezombies. One of the most beautiful sights in the game is this guy squirting his horrible plague spreader into a fortified bunker, corpses falling out of the windows, then getting back up again and joining in the siege as zombies.
There are so many wonky and exotic options in the new races that it's hard to imagine someone picking the Space Marines. But that campaign is kept relatively fresh in a clever way. Rather than bringing back the increasingly corrupt band of increasingly crazy brothers we've been playing in the last two games, we get a new team with only one familiar face. Their commander is similar and their scout is the same, but they now have a Tech Marine hero who's all about deployables. And their fourth member, called simply The Ancient, can be specced to play any of three heroes' roles you fancy: heavy weapons if you level up his damage, jumpjet assault if you level up his energy, or tactical tank if you level up his health. It's a smart way of saying “Who did you like in the last game?”
Surprisingly, the weakest campaign is for the most potentially interesting race: the Tyranids. They only get one hero, who can summon a few free units on the field without the need of a base. But the limiting factor on your army is almost never the expense, it's your population capacity. Summoned units consume that just as much as the ones you requisition at a beacon, so that whole set of abilities is effectively moot.
Without three other heroes to level up, there are few interesting interactions between Tyranid units. You don't have the dopamine drip of constantly unlocking exciting upgrades, and there are no tough decisions to make between missions. Loot is rare and poorly judged – almost everything I found required a minimum level I wouldn't reach until four or five missions later. Even the units seem poorly judged: I never found any combination as effective as massing the low-level Tyranid Warriors – tough, fast, cheap, and good against everything. They render the whole campaign easy, even on Hard.
The other bum note is the Imperial Guard campaign. They have some fun abilities, as mentioned, and it's still worth playing if you're after a challenge. But it's a challenge not because the missions are harder, but because the race is a walking catalogue of inadequacies. The tactics that work – such as using your fragile melee units to bait enemies into large groups of heavy weapon emplacements – are the tactics that work for every race. The Imperial Guard's twist is that they don't have anything else.
Still, four great campaigns is impressive – it's three better than Chaos Rising managed. And as usual, they can all be played with two players. That's the other time requisitioning extra units in the field feels useful: controlling only two heroes each, you have the control bandwidth to take on a few more squads and use them well.
When Dan Stapleton and I played the Chaos campaign together, I tried benching my Sorcerer and taking the Dreadnought instead. It was fun to be able to requisition some cultists to follow it around and repair it, and easy to manage. Resources are shared, so generally you'll check with each other before buying anything. It makes the individual missions more fun, particularly on harder difficulties. The only drawback is that however many units you build in the field, each of you only has two heroes to level up, so there are fewer interesting long-term decisions to make about kit and abilities.
The adversarial multiplayer is mostly unchanged, except for the addition of the Imperial Guard to the playable race roster. They're a fine faction for it, since their vehicles are easier to come by than in singleplayer, but the design of the mode itself is still completely unsatisfying.
It has almost nothing to do with actually killing your enemy's forces – any squad in jeopardy can flee at ridiculous speed to their headquarters to heal. In Victory Point mode, it's just a game of weaponised musical chairs over three control points, and an early lead almost always means victory. Once you're ahead, it's too easy to hold enough of the map to win - even if your opponent manages his units and resources better.
Annihilation mode is better – you have to destroy each other's bases – but it just takes hours to get the huge economic and military advantage you need to overcome the powerful home advantage a player has at his base. Most games drag out in an interminable stalemate.
Last Stand was always more successful: three of you control one hero each and slay waves of incoming enemies until you die – and level up. The new hero, the Imperial Guard's Lord General, starts weak but suddenly becomes fun once he unlocks the ability to deploy turrets – the best of which is vast and absurd. The new map, bringing the total to two, is absurd in the other direction: frantic, desperate and brutal from the very first wave. Both additions work primarily because the mode itself is so smartly designed and endlessly replayable.
Dawn of War 2: Retribution is such a beast of an expansion that there's room for some of its elements to fail without adversely affecting the ones that work – those being the four great campaigns, whether you play them alone or with a friend. For those alone, this is an essential purchase for anyone who enjoyed Dawn of War 2's tightly focused tactical scraps – even if they were sick of them by the end. It's a complete revitalisation of that format, and more fun than Dawn of War 2 ever was. Just don't go in expecting a game that's slickly designed for large scale conflicts, because that's not where Retribution shines.