Thursday, July 28, 2011

-REVIEW- Dawn of War II: Retribution
slightly more satisfying than foie gras gavage

Title: Warmhammer 40k Dawn of War II: Retribution
Developer: Relic Games
Publisher: THQ
Price: $29.99 on Steam

After all this yelling it’s a wonder anyone has any voice left at all

affectatious addiction

It’s kind of difficult for me to write this particular review because when I sit down and start thinking about Dawn of War, I start to mix up all the feelings and thoughts I’ve had about all the games in the franchise, starting from the original WH 40k Dawn of War, through Winter Assault, to Dark Crusade, into Soulstorm, back out again to Dawn of War II, with Chaos Rising on top of that, and finally into Retribution. And because my intention in reviewing games has always been more about the abstract elements of a game (like concepts, sense of control, philosophy of execution, and intent of design) as opposed to the physical ones (like number of levels, amount of assets, upgrades, cinematics, writing), I find myself unable to pinpoint exactly what this particular title is all about. In other words, Retribution has way too much baggage.

And to be honest, its bags just split open and everything’s just tumbling out.
Yeah, good luck with that
 The outset

So the short of is that WH40K is a tabletop game that grew steadily in popularity until it could no more be contained by the simple top-of-a-table and thusly burst forth onto the gaming scene under a number of underwhelming Microsoft IPs. As this first burst fizzled, Games Workshop (the licensor) lost interest in the Vidjya Gaem Markut for a time.  Eventually, the then not-so-darkly-hand of THQ via the then indier-than-thou developer of Homeworld Relic Games approached GW, by then disabused of its past pains, and acquired their blessings to try once again to free WH40K from its Tabley Prison.
Needs more...psychotherapy
There is a bit of significance here because the WH40K license had been notoriously slippery after its first failures; Blizzard, as well as a number of other well-known developers of that time, labored early on to acquire it, but to no avail (which incidentally led them to develop their own versions…and profit). The announcement of a major developer acquiring said blessing then was met with a rather paradoxical pervasive precarious populist praise: nobody didn’t want a WH40K game, but everybody knew it had a lot of potential to suck.
This does not get old.
The thing is, WH40K is one of those franchises that probably won’t ever go away because it fills a deep-seated human desire: the desire to use weapons of mass destruction in righteous indignation borne from xenophobia. Ever since the Cold War, humanity has been dying to shoot one of these bad boys off into enemy territory and revel in the resultant mass civilian casualties and rampant demoralization. Then, in the interest of humanitarianism, denounce said bad-boy-shootings-off as a rationale for fueling the discovery of handheld nuclear-powered weapons for “greater precision” and “reducing civilian casualty footprint.” This would then lead inevitably to Nuclear powered armor and molten metal plasma rifle ordinance which, now out of the control of common men, would require the advent of genetically enhanced supermen to wield these new, more precise weapons of mass destruction without being eaten alive by the radiation. The first nation to dominate all others in this Kurzweilian race to √úbermenschia would in turn use this new technology to explore space at full-bore, undoubtedly running across rifts in the warp, dying alien Elvish races, war-addicted greenmen, telepathic giant insects, and of course, the very first explorers who reached the edge of the universe, fell through that hole in the back of my dryer, and came back…Evil.
Deep down, he's really just more evil
If this doesn’t somehow get your destructo-creative juices flowing, I don’t think we can be friends.

i feel like i’ve walked into some kind of crappy bakery

Previous iterations of the franchise did a great job fleshing out this fabulously juvenile fantasy through focusing on a single faction and a single character in that faction. It made the story sensible and believable (or, as believable as fabulously juvenile fantasies may be). Its modest success propelled Relic into the limelight, with critical reviews citing the game’s atmosphere, feedback, and progression as a high-fidelity replication of the imagined mayhem that often accompanied the tabletop game.
This looks awfully familiar...
However, even a cursory review of Relic’s treatment of the franchise over time reveals a trend toward style over substance, and Retribution sadly fails to buck that trend. Its "unique" campaigns are only nominally so, with race-specific dialogue and mission briefings lazily layered over the same exact mission sequences, and its “feature-laden tactical gameplay” which amounts to little more than blunt-force-to-victory scenarios. The storytelling not only fails to generate any amount of care in how each arc plays itself out, but also turns these often unskippable sequences into unnecessary nuisances. On the other hand, it makes me want to blow stuff up, because that's all that really seems to matter in this game.

It's a good thing that blowing stuff up is still pretty damn satisfying.
This will hurt me more than it hurts you
now, to war

It's superfluous to comment on the quality of Relic’s handling of WH40K-inspired combat. They nailed it in the first offering and it’s only evolved in that proper direction since then; explosions are appropriately explodey, punches are satisfyingly punchy, and special attacks are deservedly special. What ought (and can) be evaluated is the ever-changing implementation of these combat scenarios: the progression of power over the course of the campaign, the balancing of playstyles, the complexity and ingenuity of the scenarios you’re tasked with overcoming. Things like these have been given considerable thought and revision through each title, and the particular revisions made in Retribution beg some rather serious discussion. What exactly did they do to this game?
Ugh, MORE phallic symbols?
Combat in Dawn of War has always benefited from its unique dichotomy of melee vs. ranged options. In the early games, this dichotomy was exemplified by unit types, which meant that you, as the tactician, were always given options as to how to approach a given combat scenario. Swarm tactics often worked, but the key was choice: you were rarely forced into a specific type of gameplay. The reason why this is important is because forcing players into a specific strategy makes it very difficult to achieve an admirable balance; every tactic must be efficacious enough for 90% of scenarios, because if it isn’t, then it’s a simple game of Rock-Paper-Scissors that is essentially determined at the beginning of the game. Now this works with some strategy games (Starcraft), where the focus is tight, short, fast-paced battles that are small-scale and resolve conclusively. But the first WH40K game (and its tabletop ancestor) were based on the idea of massive, protracted, diverse battles which relied upon a certain degree of chaos and uncertainty for its “fun.” This is why dividing combat effectiveness by unit type worked so well, and why mods which amplified this particular mechanic of creating enormous, diverse armies that sat along a continuum of efficacy on the melee vs. ranged combat scale were so much fun. It was hectic, intense, unpredictable, and glorious to watch. The whole first set of Dawn of War games executed this spectacularly. This design choice was also the reason why it was possible to create a total of nine very different, but equally effective, factions.

Dawn of War II changed all of that.
Compensating. For his lack of a face
ok, so I may have lied

As I feared, this “review” is quickly becoming not only a review of Retribution itself, but in fact a discussion and analysis of the systematic destruction of a franchise in order to fit a square peg into a round hole. In Dawn of War II, Relic and THQ announced to the gaming world that the shift of the action was changing from large-scale war to small scale “surgical precision” type scenarios and mechanics. When I heard this, I was baffled. Why take a perfectly good formula and rewrite it? Despite being unclear on the motivation and direction of the new titles, I jumped into it anyway. I came away with what I now know as the most ambivalence any person can experience in their natural life.

The source of this ambivalence? Square pegs in round holes. Babies and bathwater being tossed. Dead horses being beaten. Mountaintop removal coal mining.

Dawn of War II.
What is the point of this thing even having a face
Dawn of War II isn’t a bad game. It just isn’t Dawn of War. And Dawn of War was a good game. Dawn of War had it right. It had the right balance, the right feel, the right weight, the right approach, the right emphasis, and the right focus. It focused on dynamic combat scenarios, unscripted actions, enormous and complex maps, combined tactics, thoughtful upgrade decisions, and totally over-the-top endgame scenarios in every engagement. Dawn of War II took all these things and decided to draw them out slowly and tediously through heavily scripted missions, narrow and linear maps, heavy-handed dialogue, and laboriously slow unit progression. It felt like Relic wanted to do something different, but had made so many Dawn of War games that they just didn’t know how. So they ended up making the same game, but without that same intent, leading to these strange design decisions: keeping Terminator Armor locked to campaign missions, despite being able to acquire Terminator Weapons from side quests before that time. Implementing RPG-lite progression, but handicapping those choices by having pre-designated squads so that only one option was worth taking anyway. Pushing a story (actually, many stories) about how it’s one squad against an unstoppable horde of enemies that is actually most effectively defeated by totally avoiding the bulk of them and only confronting small, manageable squads of them positioned at key targets.
Dodge this
Dawn of War II isn’t a bad game. But it hasn’t yet become a game of its own. With Retribution, my misgivings are only further confirmed when I see things like per-level perks, increasingly restrictive equipment options, and unbalanced pseudo-army and base management.

Schizophrenia. Or at least, schizoaffective disorder.

i mean, c’mon, you’re still gonna buy it
Seriously. Never gets old.
The worst part of this entire thing is that the goddamn game is still fun. It’s like, look people, LOOK PEOPLE, look at how good your formula is.  The satisfaction I get from obliterating an ork with a lascannon, sniping an Avatar of Khaine to death, decimating an entire troop of Guardsmen with killer deathspikes, and watching a rocket inexorably home in on a space marine as he tries to retreat and having it culminate in a satisfying *splorch* still trumps every single criticism I’ve leveled at this game. And that’s CRAZY. It’s OUT OF CONTROL. That’s how good the gameplay, feedback, weight, weapon design, modeling, animation, and action flow of this game can be. Now if only they would just get this damn god-forsaken rotting plank out of their eye and this ludicrous, broken idea that people want a Warhammer Strategy title that ISN’T about all of those awesome things on an unbelievably, unfathomably, incomprehensibly huge scale, Relic will create The Best Strategy Game of All Time.
Stop. Hamaxe time!
In the meantime, we’re going to get Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.