Version tested: PC
Consider, for a moment, Relic Entertainment's startlingly diverse RTS resumé. Homeworld. Monstrous Creatures. Company of Heroes. The Dawn of War games. and let's not forget all those expansions. I mean, do those guys have ants in their pants? They just will not stop innovating.
And crucially, Relic has succeeded where so many other developers have failed: at making Warhammer 40,000 work as a videogame, and absolutely nailing the IP in the process. Dawn of War brought the races and technology of the 40K universe to vivid, howling, bolter-spewing life in a way that did justice to the universe. And for those of us whose days of inking and dry-brushing have passed into fond memory, it offered an accessible way to carry on enjoying 40K.
After the multitudinous mega-army madness of Dawn of War, and the further race-rostering of its expansions, DoW II came as a surprise. The reduction of sheer troop volumes to four heroes and their attached grunts, not to mention the abolition of traditional base-building mechanics, signified a decisive genre-shift. Dawn Of War had become a seamless blend of RTS and action-RPG; a kind of plasma-fuelled, four-character Diablo, which posted chin-stroking tactical challenges at every turn. The first expansion, Chaos Rising, enriched the experience with meatier loot, deeper role-tinkering, tighter campaign-narrative and a meaningful purity/corruption mechanic.
Retribution's defining characteristic is choice. We're used to Dawn of War expansions drip-feeding us new races; by contrast, Retribution opens the floodgates, with no less than six playable races. Space Marines, Imperial Guard, Eldar, Orks, Chaos and - my little geek-heart jumped for joy at this - the Tyranids.
What's more, each race gets a single-player (and optionally co-op) campaign, which takes around 8-10 hours to plough through. That's a frankly enormous amount of content for an expansion, and for lovers of DoW II's RPG facets, a heady time-sink of hero-customisation and Rubiks-cubing with different force-permutations. As before, the warm glow of pleasure doesn't necessarily come from creating the most effective fighting force, but the most thematically pleasing.
Missions come in two forms: critical-path and optional, each of which offers rewards in the form of meaty wargear, new unit-types and unit-upgrades. This means the missions you tackle (and when several are on offer, the order in which you tackle them) are very much determined by the force you'd like to field, and the way you want it to work.
There are some mechanical differences since Chaos Rising, which speak of an effort to streamline. Heroes now have three skill-trees rather than four, and no longer get a mess of skill-points to spend when they level up; they get a single point per level, with which to buy a single skill. I'm not sure whether this is a better system, but it's certainly simpler, as there are no 'dead' points between one skill and the next on each tree. Hero-beefing wargear still drops during play, and specific items may be awarded upon the completion of missions.
Each race boasts its own set of heroes, four of which can be fielded in any single mission. But these aren't your sole choices, and here's where Retribution begins to diverge more significantly from the small-scale focus of the series. Each battlefield is peppered with tactical capture-points, which proximity-heal your forces and enable basic troops to be requisitioned. There's also a single, advanced base-structure to capture, which lets you recruit the more advanced troops you've worked to unlock.
Fielding squads of troops beside your heroes just makes the experience so much bigger. It's closer in essence to a traditional RTS, as you lose and re-recruit forces, though the base-building element is still absent. It also means that any support abilities used by your heroes are more far-reaching.
Take the Imperial Guard's hero-unit Bernn. He's an Imperial Commissar, and the ability which really defines his role is Execute. This sees him head-shot one of his grunts to terrify the rest into breaking suppression and forging ahead. Guardsmen are ultimately disposable, and you cycle so many new troops in, the loss of one matters not a jot. But with later skill-tree unlocks, Execute gains new effects, can be used with greater frequency, and has influences on units further afield. Bernn is absolutely key to making a big, grunt-heavy army work. But if you just want to field the heroes and eschew the rank-and-file, that's an equally valid choice.
Sadly, the race I was most looking forward to playing - the Tyranids - boasts just a single customisable hero, the Hive Tyrant. Ultimately, it means less time tinkering and tweaking your force, as there's so much less to tweak and tinker. However, you still get to unlock and field pretty much every unit from the Tyranid 40K codex, each of which can gain new abilities and weapons through mission-specific rewards.
Again, this dictates your choice of the optional missions, as you find yourself wanting to upgrade your favourite units to the max. And frankly, towards the end of the Tyranid campaign, I was past caring about the dearth of hero-units. Carving through the Chaos ranks with three Carnifexes, a Swarm Lord and a totally tooled-up Hive Tyrant is the kind of brash, beardy nonsense you dream of pulling off in 40K, but never dare. It's an awful lot of fun.
Such vast choice comes at the cost of dedicated campaigns however. Each race basically plays through the same campaign, with variation provided by your choice of optional missions.
Compared to Chaos Rising, this makes the narrative a bit blander, as each of the races is shoehorned into largely identical struggles. Admittedly, the experience you'll have fielding, upgrading and tinkering with each army varies wildly, and is reason enough to be excited about Retribution. But each time you start the campaign again with a different race it feels a little more hollow, especially when you're working through the early tutorial missions.
And there's the trade-off: the tight, narrative flow of Chaos Rising may be gone, but in its place, there's enormous diversity, and more toys than you could possibly hope for in a £20, standalone expansion. To top it off, multiplayer now works solely through Steam, so no more NAT-bothering nonsense from GFWL. And if that's not The Emperor's justice, I don't know what is.
8 / 10