There Is Only War

Courtesy Relic Entertainment

For all of its great design work, innovative storytelling through games, flat corporate structure, and altogether positive image, Steam can be downright insidious at times. This past weekend, for example, they held a sale on everything related to Warhammer 40,000 and its games. I got Dawn of War II as a Christmas present, including the Chaos Rising expansion, and had only played the demo of the over-the-shoulder shooter Space Marine. So how do the games hold up, and how do they do representing the universe from which they come?

Dawn of War II & Chaos Rising

I’d played the previous Dawn of War game and its expansions, so I knew the sequel would likely continue being a different experience from other RTS titles. Not only does Dawn of War II provide that gameplay, it surprisingly also showcases a coherent narrative with interesting characters. Rather than split its single-player campaign between the different races available, it keeps its focus on the Blood Ravens chapter of the Space Marines, and the tale of a young and untested Force Commander (that’s you) dealing with the invasion of the chapter’s recruitment worlds.

Space Marines can come across as taciturn, even sullen warrior-priests in the lore, which as I understand it is a departure from their first appearance in 40k back in its first edition. The characters in Dawn of War II that make up your closest allies and battle brothers, by contrast, show a diversity of personality and motivation that works very well. Minor characters, such as the governor’s adjutant on Meridian and the Eldar farseer, also offer glimpses of depth and complexity you might not expect from this setting. All of the characters are voice acted well, which I’m sure is a relief to anybody who is at all familiar with the last original Dawn of War expansion, Soulstorm.

The gameplay is focused more on squad-based tactics than it is building a huge army and tossing it at whatever looks at you funny. Especially on Primarch difficulty, things like using cover and timing attacks properly is essential. The rewards for doing well are improved gear for you and your sergeants, as well as experience you can use to enhance abilities. It gives the game an RPG feel while holding onto its RTS roots. I didn’t really touch multiplayer in Dawn of War II, given the way the single player draws you in, and I do plan on running through and finishing the campaign again on that highest difficulty. It challenges my brain.

Dawn of War II: Retribution

The second expansion to Dawn of War II sees it returning to some older RTS & Dawn of War staples. There are now multiple single-player campaigns, which I suspect all play out along very similar lines. However, voice acting and characterization remain top-notch. I am, in particular, fond of the Imperial Guard’s Lord General, a man whose stiff upper lip can be difficult to see under his mighty mustache, moonlighting as a big game hunter when he isn’t sending waves of impressionable young men into the fray armed with glorified flashlights. I believe some of the characters from the base game and Chaos Rising return for the Space Marine campaign, so I may need to play through that one, as well.

Unfortunately, the tight focus on squad tactics has been lost, in favor of more traditional RTS structures and strategies. Building up sufficient forces to deal with incoming threats feels a lot easier than manipulating the limited resources of the previous campaigns. It’s still fun, but to me it just isn’t quite as challenging. It was Retribution, though, that introduced me to the multiplayer mode known as The Last Stand.

Being interested in MOBA-style cooperative strategy, The Last Stand is right up my alley. Three players, each commanding a single ‘hero’ unit, must hold off wave after wave of incoming enemy units from the various races available in Dawn of War. Each hero has unique abilities, equipment, and strengths. The speed at which you dispatch your foes, the number of rounds you survive without a player becoming incapacitated, and the strategic points you hold all factor into your score. Between games you level up your heroes and assign them equipment and abilities. As quick little bite-sized morsels of RTS & MOBA-flavored fun, it works quite well.

Space Marine

My first impressions of this shooter/spectacle fighter were good enough that I picked up the full game while it was on sale. The action maintains its weight and ferocity, and the story seems coherent enough so far. I can’t say the Ultramarines are showing quite the diversity of the Blood Ravens from Dawn of War II, but the voice acting is still good and the characterization thus far is coherent and consistent with the flavor and atmosphere of the source material.

With the full version I’ve also been able to try my hand at the multiplayer, which is a decent experience. Joining a small squad of Space Marines, be they loyal or Chaos, to control points, annihilate the enemy, or seize control of an ancient weapon has appeal in and of itself, but some of the nuances of the gameplay make it feel just different enough to be worth a look. At the start of the mission or when you respawn, you can pick from several different kits you’ve unlocked through gameplay: standard Tactical, a Devastator/Havoc heavy weapons loadout, and the high-flying Assault/Raptor kit. The biggest attention-grabber, for me at least, is that when you get killed, you can copy the loadout of the player that killed you. Even if they’re twenty levels above you with access to equipment and perks it will take you hours to acquire, you can load yourself up to mirror them and engage in a little payback.

It does have some issues, such as mics always being hot and the peer-to-peer lobby based system that indicates the console port nature of the game. Unlocks happen at a snail’s pace and there are a few weapon balance problems. I’m going to try the Horde mode and see what else I can unlock through some casual dabbling, but I don’t see it replacing TF2 or Tribes: Ascend any time soon.

Forever OP

Courtesy Riot Games
Double Darius action! But which one is more OP?

League of Legends has been called many things, from a DOTA knock-off to an ongoing Dunning-Kruger effect study. I know people who consistently call it a terrible game. It has its share of flaws, to be sure: the art direction of female champions can be quite dodgy at times, the model of its microtransactions and the seemingly arbitrary nature of sales and point gain rate can be called into question, and the community can be quite caustic and deriding, though not (thank the Maker) to the degree of X-Box Live. Yet.

Over and above other objections are those regarding the characters players choose to represent them in the Fields of Justice. Every few weeks, sometimes more often, Riot Games introduces a new champion. More often than not, the newcomer’s abilities and scaling power dwarfs that of other long-standing champions instead of rivaling it. While this is not always the case, it happens often enough that the new champions are labelled as overpowered, and Riot is forced to take time to re-examine them and perhaps adjust the balance of power in the next patch.

Along with this comes a less obvious but more insidious problem. As competitive players lean towards certain champions for their team compositions, and new champions join the roster, some older champions, around since the inception of the game, fall by the wayside. Their abilities may get tuned down in power (“nerfed”) but never readjusted to remain on par with others (“buffed”). Thus, they rarely see play, and some have even come to be regarded almost universally as bad champions that no sane champion would ever pick, unless they were trolling.

The source of this apparent problem, according to some, is that League is growing vertically, not horizontally. Given that it’s a young game, going through spurts like this is perfectly natural. If the trend continues, however, other games may learn from this failing before Riot does. As new champions with hitherto unknown abilities continue to join the roster while previous champs remain as they are, naturally the older ones will be outclassed. But did you notice how I used the word “apparent”? It’s possible this “problem” isn’t a problem at all.

With a few exceptions, no champion can be slapped with the broad label of “bad”. Every champion has something – a crowd control ability, a natural escape, a snowballing capacity for damage – they can offer a team. If the summoner who chooses that champion is competent with them, a relatively unknown or underused champion can suddenly be dominating the game. And even if domination doesn’t happen, competent players can often work around or directly against the power of new champions. It’s possible that the skill set of the “OP” newcomer gets entirely shut down when a much older champ ends up against them. It’s just a matter of finding the ‘bad’ champ and dusting them off, so to speak.

Theorycrafting remains a big part of strategy games in general and League in particular. Sites and communities are dedicated solely to examining the entire roster, providing guidance on how to build champions for certain situations or modes of play, and arguing about which champs are OP and which are terrible. As much as major tournament setups may try to convince you otherwise, not every team needs to have one golden composition to always win. Every player on the team has different taste, abilities, skills, and flaws, and they can and should choose their champions accordingly. The more a champ is in line with a particular player’s style of competition, the more fun that player will have, regardless of the outcome of the game. There will be the occasional hard counter situation where a player’s entirely locked down, but these incidents tend to be isolated. And the plethora of champion choice in League of Legends, for all of its inherent balance issues, means that no player is ever railroaded into a single choice of champion or even role. Nor should they be.

This, then, is my advice, fellow summoners: do what you like, and if you’re not having fun, chances are you’re doing it wrong.

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