Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dawn of War II Retribution - Pacing in Real-Time Games

I just finished a second campaign of Dawn of War II: Retribution, playing as the Tyranids.  Never mind that Retribution came out in 2011, and don’t worry that I’ve never played a single online match (well, unless you count the entertaining but forgettable Last Stand mode).  Dawn of War II has become my go-to blow stuff up and relax game.  You need something like that on your hard drive.  The single player campaign is designed to make you feel like you’re playing with miniature agents of destruction in a bounded playground of pandemonium.

The focus is on squad-level tactics.  You’re typically controlling 15 or fewer units that travel together, and I much prefer that scale compared to RTS’s that require you to maneuver dozens of units on numerous fronts. There’s a greater sense of personal attachment to individual heroes, and more importantly, the pace is slower.  This allows you to design simple attack plans and actually execute them effectively.  At its best, Dawn of War II feels like controlled chaos.  You’re giving orders to individual units, to better position them or activate their special abilities, and you’re watching the enemy units closely to see what kind of attacks they’re using and how you should best counter them.  If you, as a game designer, want players to use all the tools at their disposal, please give them the time to think, plan and decide!  A menagerie of tactical options is worthless if the game is moving so quickly that you can’t respond intelligently.

My Tyranid menace

Late in my Tyranid campaign, I found myself using the following load-out:  Hive Lord equipped with venom cannon, Zoanthrope, Tyrant Guard, and two squads of Genestealers (fully upgraded).  I’d typically send in my Hive Lord and Tyrant Guard to new terrain first, since they’re armored and regenerate health well.  The Zoanthrope would set up from a distance and start shelling the area with artillery.  Once I got a feel for the best approach, and softened up enemy ranged units with a couple Bio-Plasma bombs, I’d send in the Genestealers for clean-up.  I loved how the design of the Tyranids supported thematic play.  Meaning, when I played the Tyranids, I felt like an unstoppable horde.  I didn’t pay attention to cover much at all (actually, I usually used my Hive Lord and Tyrant Guard to knock down cover and bust through walls as often as I could, making a direct path to enemy units), and I didn’t rely on ranged attacks.  It was more an in-your-face, swarm approach.

This was very different than how I played through my first campaign as the Chaos Marines.  That was a more prototypical DOWII experience – slow and cautious approaches, using cover effectively, laying down suppressive fire before pushing heroes and infantry into the field, etc.  It required a more patient and methodical style of play, and one that was quite gratifying (especially since I finished that campaign on Hard difficulty).   The fact that the Chaos Marine and Tyranid campaigns felt and played so differently, even though the maps and scenarios were identical, speaks to the exquisite unit and race design in Retribution.  You can give a player the same battlefield conditions and the same goals, but the process will feel agreeably different if you allow choice and diversity in army composition and combat "style."

My Hive Lord

Retribution also features a robust leveling and equipment system that lets you design your Hero to support your play style and overall strategy.  I beefed my Hive Lord up with biomorphs that enhanced regeneration, armor, and reinforcement for all nearby Tyranids.  This allowed me to just throw my Genestealers in the fray without too much worry.  From a design standpoint, I appreciated the ability to take a breather in between campaign missions at the strategic map.  Again, pace.  Play around with my Hive Lord, futz with my squads, and consider my options.  Since missions typically took 15-20 minutes to complete (on Medium difficulty), Retribution is a game you can dip into for a quick play and then quit if you need to get back to work, kids, life-responsibilities.  As I get older, I’ve come to appreciate game design that allows for this kind of quick-play experience more and more.  Which is probably one of the many reasons why iOS games are doing so well – at their best, they can offer compelling play experiences in short bursts of time.  Dawn of War II: Retribution certainly succeeds by this criterion.

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