Review: Dawn of War II: Retribution

Don't make her angry. She has a floating skull!
In the future, there is only war.

Luckily for all of us, the future of Warhammer 40,000 is a long way off. For those unfamiliar with how Games Workshop's classic tabletop miniatures game has envisioned the place, it is not a happy one. In fact, its one you would never want to live in. Unless of course you like the idea of constant warfare on scale unheard of today, the kind were generals talk about planets inhabited by billions the way we talk about cities.

Lets set the stage. 38,000 years from now mankind has become a sprawling galactic superpower with a population in at least the tens of trillions. Ruled by the Immortal Emperor enshrined on Earth, the Imperium of man stretches across hundreds of thousands of worlds. Unfortunately things are less then perfect. The current Imperium is a shadow of the empire that came before, one destroyed by a galaxy wide calamity that set back humanities technological ability back thousands of years. The galaxy is full of dangerous alien life forms: The war-loving Ork, the ancient and haughty Eldar, the Tyrranids, and a whole host of other alien empires in the making or worse, ancient threats reawakened by the actions of the current powers. Above it all looms the threat of invasion from the warp, a sort of psychic mirror reality made up of the subconscious dreams and nightmares of the galaxy. This is the universe of Dawn of War II: Retribution.

Dawn of War II: Retribution
Developer: Relic Entertainment
Publisher: THQ
Type: Real Time Strategy--Tactical
ESRB Rating: Mature 17+ for blood and violence
Platform: PC (Reviewed)
Price on Amazon: $29.99
Similar Games: Dawn of War
Demo Available: No

The Aurelia Subsector is in shambles. It has been ten long years since the Space Marine's Blood Raven Chapter managed to stop their chaos tainted former brethren from unsealing a powerful demon, but the sector has yet to know peace. Orks still pour into the sector in great numbers, driven by the promise of loot and battle. Eldar continue to harass the survivors of each world, striking from the shadows. The Space Marines have been broken apart by the chaos taint within their own ranks, and the Emperor has dispatched the numberless hordes of the Imperial Guard to attempt to restore balance to the sector. The forces of Chaos are slowly but surely grinding forward, the Tyranids are resurfacing, and the Imperium has made it's ultimatum. Unless balance can be brought to the subsector, the full might of the Imperium will be brought to bear to kill every last thing in the system, man or otherwise.

Unsurprisingly, Retributions story is pretty heavy handed, drawing on a large (and I do mean large) collection of backstory from it's parent universe. Fortunately, story is not all Retributions roots have to offer. Buried underneath that dark grim exterior is a nifty gem of a strategy game, if a bit rough cut in a few places.

At its core, Retribution is a Real-Time-Strategy game. You'll select units with the click of a mouse, give them orders, and send them merrily on their way towards doom, death and destruction or victory. After this however, the formula changes, mostly based upon which game mode you happen to be playing.

Single Player:
Retribution's single player mode is kind enough to let you play as any of the games six sides, unlike the prior games which have only allowed you to play as one. The downside to this option is that each mission plays out pretty much the same for each of the games six factions, with the only difference being the army you tackle it with. Which isn't to say it isn't fun, it's just short.
Go tank go!

The single player also plays out with a very large RPG twist. No matter what race you choose to play as, you'll find yourself in control of at least one hero whom you can upgrade and modify throughout the campaign. Missions function more like an RPG quest: you'll travel from one side of the map to the other, slaughtering anything that gets in your way mainly for the promise of loot and XP while periodically reinforcing your hero with forces from their faction. It's nothing too complex, and it generally boils down to smashing your blob of troops into the enemy over and over, but its worth playing if for nothing else learning some of the basics of the game that tie over into multiplayer.

Retributions multiplayer game is quite different from the norm. Unlike other RTS games such as Starcraft where the victor is usually the one who can spam a certain unit more then someone else (*cough* Void Ray *cough*), Retribution uses a cover-based system much like Epic's Gears of War. In ordering your units around, where you send them and what you arm them with is equally important with what kind of cover you place them behind, where that cover is and what direction you order them to face. Retribution forces you to think like a soldier, and players who ignore the tutorial and attempt to play the game like any RTS will quickly be cut apart.

This tactical focus helps the game feel less constrained then it normally would be by the small numbers of soldiers you'll have under your command. With a focus on placement and facing, commanding only a small number of troops (you'll rarely see more then seven or eight squads per side on the battlefield) is a blessing in disguise, because Retribution awards careful positioning and commanding of forces and larger numbers would be difficult to manage on this level to all but the most seasoned player.

While individual weapon load-outs, unit promotions and a cover system give the game a rich and deep flavor, it's also a kiss of death for any sort of difficultly curve. I'll be blunt. The "learning curve" in Retribution is more of a cliff most players eagerly throw themselves off of. If you don't play through the short campaign to get a handle on how things run or a few trial matches against a computer player or two, you'll quickly find yourself overwhelmed against even a slightly seasoned opponent. Retribution places a heavy focus on knowing what sort of weapons will work against specific units or enemy strategies, and with the variety of units available to each faction (each with it's own abilities, upgrades, and combat potential) there are a lot of angles to consider in every match. An army that is specifically geared towards one type of combat can be routed by an army prepared to take advantage of that weakness (such as when an opponent of mine built his entire army of anti-light/medium infantry weapons, only to lose it all when I rolled in two heavy armor units at a critical turning point).

Yep, that's my look.
While all of this flexibility is daunting for the newbie, its Retributions strongest point. There is room for almost any play style between the games six very different factions and faction based heroes, from the unstoppable horde approach to the fast and light stealth approach, and the games focus on careful use of cover, flanking and armor-facing allow for much more flexibility in combat then other RTS games on the market. Fortunately, the game is also slower then the standard for RTS games at the moment,giving you more time to make large decisions. Even an absolutely steamroller of a victory can take upwards of twenty minutes, and most of my games seem to hover around the 45 minute to an hour range.

A nice little plus Retributions way is the army painter which allows you to customize the paint colors and logos of any of the games factions. Not only that, but as you play online you're army will begin picking up commendations, cosmetic badges and armor to show off your skill.

The Last Stand:
For those itching for some fast paced hero action, Retribution also includes a fun mini-game called The Last Stand. Much like Nazi Zombies or Firefight, The Last Stand pits you and two other heroes against waves of ever increasingly hard enemies. Your hero (one from each of the games factions) levels between games and unlocks new gear, allowing you to customize how they play and hopefully edging you further along over time. The Last Stand has proven very popular, so much so that you can buy it as a standalone product now (which has made it even easier to find players). The nicest thing about the last stand is that your character doesn't actually get any better as you level, you just unlock more equipment options. The end result is that you have just as much of a chance making it to the final wave if you're level 1 as you do when you're level 20.

Graphics are perhaps the weakest area of Retribution. Retribution is built on the same engine (although modified) that DoWII was released on, which is now over two years old, and it didn't even look that pretty then (although the unit detail up close is pretty nice, it's just unfortunate that you won't see it unless you zoom in).

The interior designer here really likes red
To be fair, a lot is asked of Retributions graphics. Destructible cover, reflections, tons of smoke and dust...but with all that and six sides the games engine is poorly prepared to carry it out. Not only do I have older games that look much much better (Command and Conquer 3 comes to mind), but those games run flawlessly while my Quad-Core computer with its GTX 570 will drag as low as 22 frames-per-second with the graphics turned all the way up. It's not that the computer can't handle it, but that the games engine is barely holding together under the amount of work the developers have asked of it. So much so in fact that the game can take upwards of thirty seconds to exit. Ultimately no matter how powerful your computer is, you're going to see hiccups in this game.

On the other hand, not being the prettiest game around isn't always a necessity. Just be aware that you're probably better off leaving some settings low.

Retributions sound is about average. Nothing to great stands out (although the things your troops yell during combat are pretty useful as well as adding flavor), but at the same time there is nothing that detracts too heavily, save one obnoxious glitch I've encountered where all the games sound effects mysteriously vanish, and the only way to bring them back is a complete restart of the game.

Like I said, its worth going through the campaign once. Sure, it's easy and the missions are sometimes a little dry, but the cutscenes and the events of the story are worth it if only to get a picture of how messed up the world of Warhammer 40,000K really is. It's nothing on the level of Starcraft, but it is an entertaining diversion.

Retribution is a gem of an RTS, if a roughly cut one. While it's style and its substance may not be for everyone, those who enjoy it will likely be willing to overlook the games rough spots.


  • Tactical Combat and cover-based system deliver a very different (and much more real) experience
  • With six sides (each with three heroes), there is a room for any play style
  • Deep Multiplayer game
  • Customizing your army is pretty fun and adds a clever touch
  • The graphics engine is on it's last legs
  • The multiplayer community is nowhere near as numerous as other RTS games
  • A few bugs
Try a demo for one of the earlier titles (DoWII) first, but if you like it, it's worth picking up. 

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