It's been out for a while, but I've only just gotten around to trying out the free Last Stand update for Dawn Of War 2. Chatting to one of the game's producers a while back, he posited it as almost a third game - alongside the already dramatically different single and multiplayer aspects of it. The plan for it is to create a way for more casual/hithero singleplayer-focused chaps to play online, to enjoy the social aspects of multiplayer gaming, without being put off by the fear of a near-instant spanking by someone who knows the game intimately. Does it work?
I rather think it does, though the trade off is to take DOW2 even further away from being a real-time strategy game. I don't mind that, but it's going to turn off anyone who thinks challenge can't come without complexity. Last Stand is more akin to a co-operative Diablo within an arena. Each player - up to three at once - controls just one Hero character with fixed abilities, from a choice of Space Marine Force Commander, Elder Farseer or Ork, er, Something. (I don't dig the DOW2 take on Orks too much). No building, no upgrading - only hitting/shooting. Waves of enemies - Orks, Tyranids, Eldar and Space Marines/Imperial guard on rotation - storm the large circular deathpit, and the three Heroes struggle to stay alive through as many waves as possible.
It's all about points - each kill nets some, multiplied by speed, ownership of the two quickly won/lost control points and how long it's been since anyone got deaded. At the end of the whole shebang, this all adds up to experience points. Points mean prizes - war gear that in turn makes you better-equipped for surviving these waves. Some of it gives you new/replacement abilities, but you can only equip 'em between matches, not during.
So am I playing for the XP, or for the experience? Do you know, I honestly couldn't say - and that's very much to Last Stand's credit. I want to see how well I can do, for the quasi-military prestige of it, as well as because I want to win more toys. It's not just hollow grinding - there's a pride to it too.
There's something a bit plain about it - forever having the same experience, with only really the end (i.e. the point at which you all perish and the game ends) changing, forever in the same arena. But it's a state of constant alert, constant action, and it slowly builds from a slow, cheery fish-in-a-barrel affair to a desperate, well, last stand. I've only played a few sessions of it (this lunchtime, with PC Gamer UK's Tim and Tom. Tom was worst), but it was fun to see it turn from selfish glory-hunting to ad-hoc strategies - comboing our various abilities, timing when to run for control points or to rescue a downed man.
And it really is something I can imagine dropping into on a whim, regardless of who I'm playing with. I'm not going to get absolutely demolished, no matter what. Working well together will keep us alive longer, but there's no risk of being humiliated. The flipside is whether doing better at it depends only on levelling up and having better wargear - but the stuff I've won so far seems to not always offer improvement, but instead choice. Would I rather have a stun power, or would I rather be more hardy? Would I rather dole out high melee damage, or reduce it a little to be able to have basic ranged prowess? There's scope for it to get really involved, and to have a build that's highly tailored to my play style.
There's also scope for it to get pretty boring (especially in terms of having to repeat the earlier, super-easy waves again and again), which is why I hope Relic are planning to expand it - with a bit of a luck, there'll be a more elaborate version of it in the upcoming Chaos Rising expansion.
If you've shied away from DOW2's multiplayer because it's too much like traditional, hardcore multiplayer RTS, certainly give this a try. It's much more akin to the singleplayer, and it's almost impossible to feel like you haven't achieved anything by playing it. It's not RTS, not even slightly - but it's agreeably death-filled, instant-gratification Warhammer 40,000 gaming. Ain't much to moan about there.