Three days of advent calendarism leave us feeling like it's time for a change of pace. Could that change lie behind the third door of our incredible seasonal advent calendar? All signs points point to yes, so ready your mouse, and prepare the click-drag selection-box of victory as we ride upon the hand of the one true leader of the Autobots, to discover…
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn Of War II!
Jim: The slow creep of real-time strategy into different blends of genre ideas is pleasing to see. The most quintessential of PC games seems to keen to reinvent itself, and that's largely a good thing. Lots of people, however, felt that Relic were a bit too keen with Dawn Of War 2, and that the single player campaign lost something with its move away from more traditional and established base-building. It was interesting to watch the reaction to Dawn Of War II when it finally hit, because almost everyone felt it was an enjoyable game - a good effort - even if it somehow failed to capture what had been most enjoyable about the processes of the original game. What I think it did capture was the silly energy and bombast of the Warhammer 40k characters. Everyone in that universe is an absurdly overwrought creature, even the good guys, and the fighting is suitable vicious as a consequence. Taking on the orc warbosses, or seeing almost anything assaulted by the Space Marine Dreadnought was a joy. If Relic have mastered one thing then it's bringing to life Games Workshop's gothic war-machines so that they are awesome to watch.
Ultimately, I think I got the most enjoyment out of this multiplayer. Perhaps because it was closer to the original game, but more likely because the format was simply more interesting when you go up against unpredictable human opponents. Also: Whoooosh-bam!
Kieron: Yeah - as Jim notes, this is an odd one. You're conflicted between seeing a developer take such a big risk a franchise and mild bewilderment. Can you remember a time when a single player and a multiplayer version of a game were as radically divergent as this? It's more common in the world of First-person shooters, but to see two fundamentally different games being sold as one is a bit of a shock in the world of strategy games. Sort of traditional strategy doctrine basically takes the multiplayer as the pure game, with the single player being a riff off that. As in, chess is the "real" game - chess with AI simulating an opponent is a derivation.
But not Dawn of War 2. Single player is a sort of Squad-based Diablo... or more likely, Icewind Dale stripped of anything but the dungeons. Oddly, the game that most reminds me of Dawn of War 2 is actually Dragon Age. Mostly-real-time close-co-operation combat games. The sections where the NPCs decide to stop with the sexual tension between Morrigan and Alistair - I MEAN, JUST DO IT ALREADY - share a lot with Dawn of War 2's single player. Hell, DoW2 could do with a bit more sexual tension I think. Upping the homoeroticism never did Gears of War any harm, after all.
On the multiplayer side... well, you've got something which, despite all the noise about its changes, is actually a relatively traditional RTS. Relatively is the word, of course, but it managed to take a few of the Company of Heroes-esque lessons and apply it to a grim future where there is only war. I'm interested to see what they'll do with the first expansion too - it's worth remembering that it was only with the expansions did Dawn of War really get nailed down into being an actually damn-entertaining single-player RTS.
And, yes, Whoooosh-bam!
Alec: Making positive noises about an initially underwhelming game because of its potential is the kind of thing that can get you thrown out of games journalist sorority college. But that's how I felt about Dawn of War II - there was so much right, and so many great strides taken in terms of genuinely mashing RPG and RTS together, that I could forgive the over-repetitious singleplayer maps and rather watery multiplayer, purely because I was sure this game would only get better over the years. It made Space Marines into the rockhard man-mountains they're supposed to be, rather than just so much growly-voiced cannon fodder. Dawn of War 1, despite its many and meaty charms, always felt like a greatest hits megamix of 40K, just throwing all the most recognisable bits into an arena. DoW2 felt like it was genuinely in the 40K universe, heavy with context and purpose. The Tyranids were an unfathomable alien threat, Assault Marines went Woooosh-bam! and everybody was an absolute bastard to everybody else.
I.e. they did it. They bloody did it. With Chaos Rising, I think they're going to fix it too - a campaign that's unpredictable and changeable, built upon the once-risky and confused but ultimately super-solid foundation that is DOW2.
Also: the free Last Stand update is total proof of why sometimes potential can be trusted, especially when it comes from a developer as seasoned as Relic. DoW2 is already a strange, sprawling blend of compulsion and strategy, actually making something of the experience point virus that's infected about 90% of current and upcoming games. They're not just doing this for the sake of it, and they know how to make the best of it now they've created it.
I may only be saying all of these positive words because I can paint my Tyranids gold, however.