Campaign mode in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II feels more like a role-playing game than a real-time strategy one. But with a little co-op action, it starts to feel more like a trading card game.
The campaign in Dawn of War II differs from other RTS games by cutting out base-building gameplay, creating a leveling system for units instead of for the non-existent base and making you play the entire story as the Space Marines. The result is a campaign mode that makes you get involved with the story even if you click through the pre-mission monologues and a fresh take on the RTS genre.
DoWII Principal Designer Jonny Ebbert* explains the dramatic change in gameplay as an experiment to revive the RTS genre: "RTS games are struggling. They don't reward players enough. And it sucks to start over" with base-level units "every level."
Relic's goal, Ebbert said, was to make DoWII feel good whether you won or lost a mission. By adding a sense of progression, the developer hopes to make campaign modes more rewarding for players without tying it to multiplayer with unlockable content. This means we've got new stuff like leveling up squads and carrying over equipment you find in one level to the next; and we've lost old stuff like holding resource points or tanking in a base for an entire level.
I started out with a generic Space Marine captain (whom I named Jimmy) and sent him to an area where Orks were somehow effing things up for everybody. Jimmy had a small squad of brawler-class units with him that hung back as their fearless leader charged ahead and cut Orks down with his manly chainsaw gun. Because there was no base to defend, I found myself moving forward naturally, just looking for people to fight and later, people to rescue. By helping out some other Space Marines, I gained three more heroes on my "list" that I could select to control the different squads.
At the end of the level, I got the chance to upgrade and equip each of the squads by selecting their leader and dragging equipment I'd found or abilities I'd gained by leveling over their inventory slots. Once everyone was set up with healing kits and things that go boom, I was ready for some co-op action.
A seasoned Relic employee jumped in with me. Co-op buddies can drop into your campaign at any time, but it looks like it's more worthwhile when you have more than four leaders to choose from. You can only take up to four leaders into each mission and in co-op, each player controls just two. The Relic guy wanted to swap with me, but it looks like you can't trade directly. You have to swap leaders by switching them out with whoever you have in reserve (hence the trading card comparison).
Once we got that figured out, we were ready to roll through a level called Gutrencha. Here again, I was feeling the RPG vibe as our two mini-armies plowed through the map, looking for Orks to attack. We didn't stop to hold points more than one time and there was no resource management to be had (since all the equipment is dropped by enemies or destructible objects instead of built at the base).
Equipment finds and XP are shared between co-op buddies but not between squads. So if Jimmy helped one of the Relic guy's ranged squads take down an Ork squad, the XP was divided between his ranged squad and Jimmy's squad. Because everything in co-op is tied to the host, you keep the levels you gain in co-op even if you're buddy drops out.
The impression I get from the two levels of co-op I played tells me that communication is crucial. There's no intuitive role for a player to have because we no longer have positions for babysitting the base or scouting out resource points. Without talking to your buddy to decide who's packing healing abilities and which way you plan on going in a map, things could fall apart pretty quickly if an enemy force cuts between you. Seems you'll be using DoWII voice chat for more than just trash-talking.
In the end, I stuck with the Relic guy because he knew the map and I had the healing packs. The "retreat" button still works if your leader is in trouble - it sends him back to the last point you took from an enemy force and he'll build up HP there - but because everything felt like a natural push forward, I just kept hitting the healing button so we could keep moving.
Thanks mostly to my impatience and partially to my buddy for already knowing the map, we got to Gutrencha fast. I think this was my first ever RTS boss fight that didn't involve blowing up a base. Gutrencha is just an Ork with an insane amount of HP and hammer that sends out a shockwave in one direction, knocking down units and doing a significant amount of damage. The only strategy involved here was positioning units around Gutrencha to fire from all sides and moving them out of the way whenever he aimed his hammer at them.
Gutrencha didn't bother me - but the next boss, Skykilla, did. He was essentially the same boss, defeated by the same tactics - only I was moving my guys out of the way of his jet pack exhaust radius. Here's hoping the whole game isn't like this, or it's going to be the most boring RPG ever.
All in all, I'm not unhappy with what Relic has done with the campaign mode, especially since co-op is so painless. But I wonder if the more "hardcore" RTS gamers are going to feel robbed of strategy by forgoing the base building and the hold-this-point-for-this-much-time gameplay. I guess they can still get their kicks in the multiplayer modes - and maybe the later levels in campaign mode introduce trickier situations to strategise around.
Relic plans a post-launch demo of campaign mode. The multiplayer open beta is going on now and the full game comes out on Steam and on shelves February 19, 2009.