'Dawn of War II' Restores a Vital Piece to the 'Warhammer: 40,000' Universe

Once upon a time (circa 1999), Relic Entertainment released a game called Homeworld, a space-based real-time strategy game centered on 3-D spaceship combat that was basically the best thing ever. An exquisite generator of massive space battles set against a futuristic high-fantasy backdrop, Homeworld set the standard for the first generation of post-Starcraft RTS games.

Two sequels followed, but the series ended prematurely due to the buyout of Relic by publisher THQ. The Homeworld IP remained in the hands of Sierra Entertainment, who apparently used it to line their birdcages before another buyout left Sierra nonexistent and the Homeworld IP languishing in development limbo.

So no more Homeworld for a while. Luckily for the RTS world, THQ didn't buy Relic to just let them twiddle their thumbs. Since 2004, the company has been hard at work churning out releases in their Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War series, a partnership between Relic and veteran British table-top gaming studio Games Workshop that fits one of Games Workshop's best table-top properties seamlessly into the RTS format.

For the uninitiated, Warhammer 40,000 is what happens when the races of a Tolkien-esque universe develop space-faring technology, only to find that space is teeming with Lovecraftian horrors that make Sauron look about as intimidating as a hobbit's birthday party. Naturally, the result is a universe locked in endless combat, an atmosphere bristling with a dystopian future-punk ethos that makes the setting perfect for RTS translation.

Dawn of War II, the series' first true sequel in 2009 after three expansions, felt like a step back from the staggering amount of content available to the Dawn of War player. It was a necessary evil, as Dawn of War was built on an ancient engine, but the sequel lost several of its predecessor's more engaging features.

Since then, Relic has been in the midst of a campaign to restore the series to its pre-sequel glory. The Chaos Rising expansion added Chaos Space Marines and a single-player corruption mechanic to the mix last year. Retribution, its second expansion, builds further with another playable faction, more units for all races, five intermingling single-player campaigns, and additional multiplayer skirmish maps.

Retribution does little to change the core gameplay. At its heart it's a tactical squad-based strategy game with dynamic cover elements, upgradable units, and several paper-rock-scissors equations, all of which change the flow of the game as matches progress. Retribution adds a few layers to the formula but does little to change the fundamentals—as well it shouldn't. Given the series' history, another full sequel at this point would be disingenuous.

What it does is further enrich the player's immersion in the 40K setting. Retribution continues the storyline first launched in the original Dawn of War, with the Space Marines of the Blood Ravens chapter fighting Xenos and corruption within and without in an attempt to save their recruiting worlds from an Ordo Exterminatus, the 40K equivalent of a solar-system-wide scorched-earth policy. They do so despite the machinations of their own corrupted Chapter Master, and even though their actions place them at odds with the Imperial Guard, Retribution's added faction and 40K's version of non-elite human armed forces.

The addition of nondescript humans to a game as true to its genocidal roots as DoW II might not seem intuitive, but in fact it hearkens to a theme central to Games Workshop's grim original design. Slapping superpowers on everything in sight and hooking the whole mess up to a Red Bull IV drip is a very American thing to do; but while they make for interesting gameplay, superhuman Space Marines and similarly-equipped xenomorphic races tromping around the galaxy without a weaker element with which to compare them misses the point of the 40K setting.

The Imperial Guard are two things: very expendable, and very, very British. Space Marines might be the Allies landing on the galactic shores of Normandy, but Guardsmen are the pip-pip cheerio types who were holding the line with the weight of their corpses while the "heroes" of 40K's Imperium were having their armor polished. A Guardsman isn't anything to speak of in and of himself, but with a long enough lever and the stiffness of their collective upper lips, they can move the world. When they can't, billions die.

These are the dead at planet Dunkirk, the quiet men on the interplanetary Western Front. Without the Guard making an example of what billions of soldiers can (must!) do with only the rifles at their sides and the weight of their numbers, the whole thing's just another gaming exercise in jingoistic glorification. Their re-inclusion to the Dawn of War II family is the restoration of a missing piece to the 40K setting, and one that makes Retribution a vital addition to the post-Dawn of War series.