Expansion packs for RTS titles are a difficult trick to get right. The problem is that, perhaps more than any other genre, the RTS genre relies on careful, precise balancing to create a good experience both online and off. Therefore, tinkering with the mechanics, adding new factions and/or changing the rules must be done with the upmost care so as to provide the community with something worthwhile but, at the same time, not upsetting the established order too much (if at all).
The nightmare situation is that an expansion fractures the existing community; on one side you have those that prefer the original and on the other you have those that solely play with the new stuff. This can lead to confusion (as well as forum wars) as to what the definitive edition of your game actually is.
Just ask the creators of Civ 5 how difficult it is to add new elements to a strategy game; their ‘Mongol’ DLC pack coming under fire from the community for being unbalanced and not fitting into the framework of the standard game.
Surely though, Relic, the creators of Company of Heroes, HomeWorld and, of course, Dawn of War will get it right? Experience tells us they probably will.
Retribution is not your typical expansion pack. Adding 6 new campaigns, new factions and a reworked Last Stand mode, it promises more punch than the standard map pack fare we’re used to seeing (hence the a higher price point than we’re used to).
The new campaigns give you the options of playing as Tyranids, Blood Raven Space Marines, Eldar, Imperial Guard, Orks or Chaos Marines. On the surface this seems more than a little generous but, stats can be misleading. Yes, there are 6 campaigns. Are there 6 unique campaigns? No.
While the story and characters are unique to each faction, the maps and mission objectives are the same. Take the first mission, for example. We played through with both Orks and Chaos Marines and, on both occasions, the objectives were the same; revive a fallen hero, defend a small base, use a flanking manoeuvre to take out opposition heavies etc.
Granted, the gameplay differs between each campaign based on the strengths and weaknesses of your chosen faction but, the goal is the same each time and only those interested in experiencing the story arcs for each faction will find satisfaction in playing through them all.
However, it speaks volumes to the quality of the scriptwriting that the team have managed to layer different stories across the same set of missions. Nowhere is the writing better and more enjoyable than when commanding the Orks. With accents reminisicent of marauding British pirates of yesterday (at least how I imagine them) and dialogue such as “Now wez can stomp ‘em fasta’” and “Da sneaky git’d be harda to find now” they’re easy to develop a soft spot for and are by far our favourite of the playable factions.
By contrast the Chaos Marines’ dialogue sounds more like something you’d hear from surly, sulky ‘goth’ teenagers; namely, plenty of “Death is but the beginning” and “Relishing in a soul’s eternal suffering”. Give me a big dumb, green Ork over morose satanic delusions any day.
What’s interesting about Retribution, and one way that it differs from the majority of expansion packs, is that it eases you gently. Anyone worried that their Dawn of War skills are not up to the standard required to tackle such a release need not worry as it caters for all experience levels. The opening mission essentially acts as a tutorial, not only for the abilities of the game’s new units and factions but for the general gameplay tactics themselves.
Over the course of the four missions we played (the opening three and one from further along the campaign) the series’ trademark explosive action and elaborate set-pieces were pleasingly abundant. The most memorable of such moments came in the form of an encounter with an Imperial Guard ‘Blood Bane’ tank that doggedly pursues you throughout the course of the mission (a la Resident Evil’s Nemesis), climaxing in a tense encounter against it and its friends.
Despite Relic’s attempt to play the rock, paper, scissors game of ‘this unit beats that unit but is beaten by that’ it often still feels as though the quickest and most effective tactic is to exhaust your population cap and throw everything at the enemy at once. Unlike something like StarCraft, intimate knowledge of each unit’s strengths and weaknesses are not essential to success in the majority of instances; a feature that may or may not be to your liking.
That’s not to say there’s no point in making use of each unit’s unique abilities in combat; even if they’re not essential to victory, their variety and visual flare increase the spectacle no end. Chaos Lord Eliphas has a rather nifty ‘Sweeping Doom’ attack that knocks enemies back with a chance of stunning them and Imperial Guard Inquisitor Aprastia’s ‘Hammer of the Witches’ involves igniting foes with white hot flame. It all looks impressive and injects a good deal of personality into proceedings.
Tweaks have been made to the single-player character progression system. The manner in which your hero and commandeer units can be assigned abilities, armour, weapons and equipment remains largely untouched but these upgrades can now be complemented with special rewards earned after each successful mission.
Complete a level and you’re presented with three rewards; of which you can pick only one. These usually come in the form of unique weapons, new unit types or stat-boosting power-ups. Once a reward is chosen the remaining two are almost always locked out for the rest of the campaign, forcing you to think about what kind of game you want to play going forward; usually it comes down to a toss-up between diversifying your unit selection options or powering up your existing characters. It’s a decent system and one that should reward hardcore players looking to play through multiple times as they can experience new gameplay quirks each time.
While Retribution is largely focused on the provision of new single-player content, multiplayer has been given a bit of face lift too. Last Stand mode sees an additional map added to the roster and the opening rounds have been streamlined to prevent players getting bored early on (apparently round 1 is now as difficult as round 9 or 10 used to be). Games for Windows Live matchmaking has been shunned in favour of full Steam integration, including friend’s list invites, chat facilities etc.
Despite the similarity between the campaigns, Retribution looks to be a very substantial package, more ‘new-game-same-engine’ than simple expansion. Perhaps this is how more developers should treat successful franchises. Rather than building a new game almost from scratch each time, it may be a better idea to reign in development costs and iterate on the current product until the technology has moved forward to the point where developing a full-blown sequel makes real sense for both the game and the player. Food for thought, perhaps.
Anyway, at least I’ve managed to get through this article without once giving in to the temptation to give a good ol’ Ork “Waaagh!”… woops.
Watch out for our multiplayer preview, coming soon to a monitor near you!