When I first tried out the Dawn of War 2 demo a few years ago, my expectations were low. I knew next to nothing about the franchise, thinking of Warhammer as the alternative to Dungeons and Dragons. In looking at the screenshots, the images of guys in fat red metal suits looked pretty silly. But boredom prevails sometimes (the same reason Hollywood is still making money) and I booted up the demo. I was an instant fan. Coming off Relic Entertainment's other big game, Company of Heroes, which while fun, always left me with a feeling of being frantically out of control, DoW2 was focused and narrowed in scope. I wasn't in charge of an entire army, just four battle-hardened marines. I didn't have to worry about which way my tanks were facing and how many control points I was holding or losing. I just had to point my guys at a target and carve my way there. Along with the story, it felt more like an RPG than a strategy game, and because of that, I still urge my friends to start a new co-op campaign with me to this day.
I will get the obvious out of the way first. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II: Retribution (that is the first and last time it gets the cumbersome full name treatment from me) is a decent game. If you are a fan of the previous games, as I am now, you will enjoy it. Full stop. But here's the bad news: it has also lost much of what made it unique in the first place.
You start by picking which of the six factions you would like to assume control of for the campaign. This feature was what immediately had me excited. "Replay value is going to be through the roof," I thought to myself. Being the hopeless RPG gamer that I am, I had a hard time deciding on a faction. I literally played the first intro mission of every army to see which one (or two) seemed the most fun. This method also allowed me to glimpse how each faction handled fitting into the story. After playing Eldar (the space elves), Orks, Tyranids (space dinosaurs), and Chaos Marines, I finally settled on the Imperial Guard, who seemed to be a cross between Colonial British in temperament, ancient Roman in military loyalty and Soviet Russian in vicious enforcement of said loyalty. I also picked the Guards because they demanded less lore knowledge to appreciate and that leads me to my first big complaint of the game. Retribution's dialogue and story are now mostly in-group exclusive, that is, cliquey.
In Dawn of War 2, there was very little I needed to know to enjoy the story. In fact, I had fun simply discovering that the game was basically Tolkien in space. I was never left feeling "out of the loop" when it came to story or characterization because the dialogue left out all the funny sounding lore and kept to the basics. Sure they would mention this or that historic battle, but only in general, passing terms in order to convey a bit of pathos. Retribution, on the other hand, often throws made up words out in such rapid succession that I started to wonder if they were even constructing valid sentences anymore. No matter how many times I hear words like "Ordo Malleus", I'm still not going to feel any more attached to them because I have no context to draw from. Some factions are more grievous than others, but be warned, the Eldar are by far the worst offenders. I guess I should just be thankful that they didn't burst into elvish-language songs, a la Fellowship of the Ring. But they aren't the only ones.
The forces of Chaos have equally baffling motivations for their pursuits. Being both a playable faction and the main villain of the game, it would be nice if Relic gave the non-die hard Warhammer fans among us something to go on. Not only does their motivation seem to be complete nihilism (and thus, idiotic), it's also unclear how one becomes "corrupted" in the first place. In a sci/fi setting where space marines are battling aliens from planet to planet, it would be nice to understand some basic questions, such as, "Is what I'm witnessing magic or advanced technology? Are there actually gods in this universe or aren't there? And how the hell did that dude just arbitrarily turn into a 50-foot Diablo creature?" It's hard to relate to a universe where everything seems to happen arbitrarily.
Moving on from story and setting, which are sadly lost on me, the gameplay of Retribution remains largely the same as previous entries. You have up to four heroes that can be equipped with gear and leveled up. One nice change in this sequel is that for each hero, you can choose to instead field a standard (though heavily enhanced) foot soldier or vehicle instead. This was a welcome feature for me, as I admit that juggling various skill cool-down timers across four distinct characters during battle without any kind of pause feature was always next to impossible. Most times in Dawn of War 2, I would just clump my forces together and attack in a horde, only really using my commander's abilities because it was too OCD to do more than that. In Retribution, I simply chose to take my favorite two heroes and select the standard infantry for the rest.
Also modified this time around is the scale of armies. No longer are you just a small commando squad tearing through an environment. Now you must gather a real army to your side, complete with tanks, machine gunners, scouts and meleers. In this sense, it plays much more like a standard real-time strategy game, as you scurry across the (mostly linear) maps collecting resources and spawning additional units from captured bases. Unfortunately, this also served to disassociate me from my characters because now I wasn't carefully monitoring my men to make sure they didn't die; instead I was just throwing waves of storm troopers at the enemy and casually reinforcing when needed. I went from being the commander of a tightly knit band of brothers to a disinterested Stalin-esque overlord with little regard for friendly casualties.
The campaign is also dishearteningly short. There are only about twelve missions to be played and your faction heroes cap out at level ten. "Not a huge problem, given the amount of factions to play," I consoled myself. But pretty quickly into my Ork campaign, I realized the sad truth. There is actually very little replay value in Retribution. The missions are almost exactly identical in content and even order no matter which faction you play. The only difference is the chatter that occurs during and between the missions to justify why the Orks are inexplicably doing the exact same thing that the Space Marines would have done in their place. The differences in factions are almost entirely about feel and ability of units and armies, not about story. What this boils down to is that you really only get one very small campaign to play through.
Mulitplayer is the same as it ever was, with team death matches and victory point control games, but this is never where the attraction of Dawn of War has been for me. There are dozens of other RTS games out there that master this formula better than Retribution ever could, including Relic's own Company of Heroes. If you prefer the Warhammer 40,000 setting to all others, then this multiplayer is certainly sufficient to satisfy the rusher or turtler in you, but in a sea of competition, Retribution's multiplayer just doesn't stand out.
Should you buy Retribution? It really depends. Are you a fan of either the previous games or the tabletop game on which they're based? If so, then chances are, you will enjoy this entry enough to justify the modest $30 price tag. For those new to the franchise, however, I would advise getting Dawn of War 2 instead, which is by far the better experience and often cheaper, as well.