Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War always intimidated me with the number of factions, units, and command points I had to babysit.
I'm the kind of real time strategy gamer who likes to sit in her base, bulk up, and eventually march a massive army across the map to blow up the other guy's base. Dull, I know, but comfortingly familiar and really awesome to watch once you unlock the higher-level units.
My hands-on with Dawn of War 2's multiplayer made me change my mind. And not because the complexity's been bitched or because there's less of what made the first game and its three expansions awesome. Sure, there are fewer factions (the campaign is limited to just the Space Marines), and the base-building has been streamlined so you don't really do any kind of bulking up via building. But these changes to the multiplayer campaign make DoW's much-touched fast-and-furious combat faster and keep the furious part furious even when your leader dies and you have to wait for him to respawn.
I started off with the three on three multiplayer mode. Developer Relic Entertainment explained when I arrived at the event that they'd sunk a lot of attention into this mode. Many RTS gamers ignore three on three, they said, either because they think it's unbalanced or they don't like co-op.
Me, I love co-op. And I love Aliens, so I chose the Tyranids for my first outing because they seem to be based on the Xenomorphs from the films. Each race has three classes - offensive, defensive and support. I tend to go for offensive because I like blowing things up, so I found myself playing as the Tyranid Behemoth - which sadly doesn't look that much like a Xenomorph.
I was dropped on a team with an Orc offensive force and a Space Marine support class. This seemed like a winning combination in the loading screen - we could see the opposite team had gone with an Eldar support class, a Space Marine support class, and a Tyranid offensive class (though we couldn't see their fancy thumbnail images - not sure if that was a bug or because they don't want you to know which colours the other side chose for their armies). Surely we could walk all over them since they only had one offensive class and we had two.
Dawn of War 2 will launch with something like six maps. Before you start sputtering in rage that Relic would dare deprive you of 14 other maps you'll never play - let me just say that the three that were available for the hands-on were pretty damn decent. The layouts were varied, the environments were distinct from one another, and really, how many maps do you need in a game that you just know will have expansions?
Our first map was a swamp/forest level with command points scattered out all over the map. The two base clusters were relatively out in the open and we could see them and all the command points on the map (again, not sure if this is a feature or a bug). Our base cluster and their base cluster were no more protected than the command points - so you conceivably could tank in your base, march across the map, and blow up the other guys. But you'd have to have the cooperation of your teammates; not just to defend you while you tank but to go out and fetch more resources so you can level up your base to produce kickass units.
As it was, my team didn't do much communicating. Team chat will be available with Dawn of War 2, but we weren't using it at this event - and because all the computers had generic names, we weren't really sure whose team we were on. At first I tried to be smart and follow the Orcs on my team - but whoever was running them didn't seem to know what to do with them. They took a requisition point and immediately left it without upgrading the point or building defensive structures around it.
I waited for the resource counter to build up a little and then opened my Tyranid leader's ability menu so I could throw down a tentacle-shaped generator to increase the output from the resource point and a hive thingie so that my units could be reinforced directly from that point if I got jumped while trying to hold it. This was the only building I got to do in the game - throwing down things to defend resource and command points.
Back at the base, I could level up the units I was producing if I had enough of the three kinds of resources - power, requisition, or command - but the base didn't change in appearance or size. Moreover, you don't really need to go back and view the base (unless you're being attacked there), because you can click an icon while out in the field to open up the base options without having to mouse back over to the base. The only downside to this is you might forget to move the new units you build from the base to the place on the map. This seemed to be the Space Marine's problem - he had at least two teams just sitting there for most of the game that only started doing stuff when the base got attacked.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The Orcs ran into trouble somewhere in the middle of the map, but I was too busy trying to level up my base high enough so that I could build bigger units. In addition to tank and anti-tank type units, each race has an avatar unit that can deliver the mother of all bitch slaps in battle. I was hoping to build up enough to get the avatar because actually it looks most like a Xenomorph - but I only got as far as building level two sniper units and burrowers before the Orc leader went down and I was informed by the game that the Space Marine support unit was under attack - all the way on the other side of the map.
Not having time to demand what the hell the healers were doing out in the open and not with the Orcs who needed them, I dashed first to the Orcs to revive the commander and then tried to double back so I could re-take the resource point we'd started losing close to the base. While on my way, the Space Marine leader died, the Orc leader died again and I got shot in the back by an Eldar offensive class.
Despite all three leaders being dead, it wasn't completely game over. The red-blue gauge at the top was balanced precariously at one end of the spectrum with barely any blue visible at all, but somehow we didn't run out of requisition points and the Orc leader was able to respawn back at the base when the resource counter dropped to a level we could afford. (I think a dead leader starts off costing 800 and eventually goes down to something like 200.)
Despite our almost-comeback, the enemy made it to our base and started re-killing the Orc leader. And they'd grabbed the last command point and held it just long enough to win the game. Eager for more, I immediately clicked through the battle postmortem screens (like I care who scored Champion), and started up a new LAN game. Windows Vista (the OS the computers were running on) threw a bit of a fit when we tried to start the new game, but eventually, we were back on track and I got to try out more of the races. (Relic says DoW2 will be available for both Vista and XP).
I played once more as an Orc defence class alongside a Space Marine offensive class and an Eldar defence class. I couldn't quit the get the hang of the Orcs, although I adore their voice acting, and our team eventually lost the battle.
Third time's the charm. I tried out the Eldar offensive class, managed to communicate to one of my teammates that we should stick together, and in this way I was able to get my base to level three and spawn an avatar. Surprisingly, though, it wasn't my avatar that did most of the damage against the enemy - it was my Eldar leader. This Space Elf is one part tank and two parts Jedi; in addition to a life bar that only went down when a tank shot him in the face, he has a Force-push style ability that either knocks everyone around him down or can be aimed in one direction to shove attacking forces away.
With my leader, I took at least three resource points with barely any support from additional units. I wondered why this should be, when I realised that one of the enemy forces was taking points and not staying the secure them. Aha! That careless guy who was on my team before! I followed him with my Eldar leader, sneakil y stealing points that this guy would capture and then leave. When I had enough resource points for that avatar, I spawned him in and sent him along with my Space Marine teammate towards the end of the map where the enemy base lay.
We were halfway through wrecking it when the game ended - our Tyranid defensive class buddy had held all the command points long enough to win the game.
I was really on a roll. Alas, I only had half an hour left before needing to book it to a study session, so I went in for one last game, choosing the Eldar support class (which appears to be the only chick in the entire game). The Eldar support class is a little strange - it's not entirely a buff character that can bulk up its friends and weaken its enemies, and it's not really a healer the way the Space Marine support class is. Instead, my female Space Elf Jedi seemed to be an agent of chaos. All of her powers were to the point of messing shit up for the other guys. For example, her farsight ability clears the fog of war so you can see the enemy's exact position on the map and she has a levitate spell that lifts the enemies around her off the ground, making them vulnerable to attack.
I died a lot with this chick - probably because I'm a brawler at heart. But luckily, a Space Marine class on my team had been following me, so I was able to revive her over and over again without having to wait for resources build up. I stuck with the strategy of having her go out alone to take points, so the enemy wouldn't notice her there until it was too late. This tactic helped me level up my base enough to spawn avatars, but it wasn't enough to win the battle. (I think I scored Champion in that round, though.)
I was sorry to leave the Dawn of War 2 event. It's a big deal to me when I walk in a skeptic and leave a believer. Relic Lead Designer Johnny Everett said he felt bad about it. "It's like I've introduced an addict to smack," he said.
Well, I don't know if I'll be that obsessive. But I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for Dawn of War 2 when it comes out February 27.