17-Apr-2008 Preview: A new transmission from the heart of Relic's grandiose galactic conflict
Behind him loom giant images from Games Workshop's overwrought military-gothic science fiction, and on the presentation screen an image of explosive bloodletting from the original Dawn of War. That game is four years old and still the most visceral strategy title available. It's clear that "massive visual impact" isn't something Ebbert's team is going to have too much trouble with.
We're on the 16th floor of a downtown glass tower in Vancouver, the second level of Relic's airy headquarters. It's the kind of office environment that reeks of success: walls are covered with trophy pages from scores of magazines. Fragments of art from Dawn of War, Homeworld and Company of Heroes remind us just how much ground Relic have covered in the past decade, and just how committed the team are to making the finest games for the PC.
There are many studios in the world who could be said to contribute to the soul of our tricky gaming box, but Relic feel like the beating heart.
Lead designer Ebbert and his producer Mark Noseworthy flank a giant projector screen in Relic's boardroom. They're explaining how Dawn of War sets up the nature of its sequel. All that was best about that game, such as its vicious melee combat and feeling of solidity, is providing cues for the new direction this game moves in.
This time, the focus is going to be on the actions of a small team of personalised soldiers. It's about "five or six squads of elite warriors" whose actions are going to define the course of galactic events in the Warhammer universe. It's closer and more intimate than the original game, moving away from that anonymous unit production-line feel of the previous Dawn of War titles.
Dawn of War 2 has another parent, however: the mighty Company of Heroes - a game which has done more to alter our perception of real-time strategy than any other title in the past five years. Company of Heroes created a game in which the more realistic behaviour of our units made for compelling play. We saw buildings collapse, craters form, and soldiers dive for safety behind shattered scenery.
The same kind of methodology is at work here, with a highly tweaked version of the Company of Heroes Essence engine powering the proceedings. The game will consequently have a tighter, more brutal focus than the original. Relic are moving away from the templates laid out by Command & Conquer and Starcraft, to bring us something a little more exotic and at the same time a little more believable.
"The environmental strategy from Company of Heroes has been brought to Dawn of War 2," says Noseworthy as he reels off the list of technologies that are set to beef up this new game: Havok physics, destructible scenery, HDR and real-time lighting. Just as Company of Heroes made our soldiers find cover or killed them off in collapsing structures, so Dawn of War 2 will be making orks and space marines interact with their world in a maelstrom of tumbling debris, flickering shadows and brightly burning explosions. The world of Dawn of War 2 will not, says Ebbert, simply see us fighting over "just another patch of dirt".
Instead the environments themselves should give us reasons to want to conquer them. As the game camera pans over the world and we get our first glimpse of these places, we can see just how that works: moody pseudo-Roman Imperial architecture disappears into gloomy city depths, and there's a flicker of gunfire far below. Ash and debris gust through the cast-iron avenues.
But there's something else going on here that Relic want to talk about, and which I need to convey before we get to the action. It's that Relic are acutely aware that the real-time strategy genre needs to bring us new experiences. It needs, in Ebbert's words, to provide us with "superior fantasies". He says that other games have already been doing that, and it's down to Relic to figure out how to make that happen with the RTS.
The plan is to give gamers "long term goals" and a "steady stream of rewards". Ebbert says that gamers have a lack of attachment to RTS characters, and that has to change. Even before the Relic duo have begun explaining the revised 'wargear' concept, we can see where this is headed. Dawn of War 2 is going to focus on a limited number of characters - persistent faces who, as in an RPG, will be built up and developed by you as the game progresses.
Your characters are going to pick up valuable pieces of loot as they go through their violent lives, and you're going to be able to equip them between missions via character management screens. Far more involved than previous games, the new wargear has a potent whiff of World of Warcraft about it, with the different items having descriptions and colourful names rather similar to those we're so familiar with from the Blizzard fantasy monolith.
Creating long term goals for Dawn of War 2 means connecting gamers with that inner loot-hunter that RPGs have identified and catered to so proficiently: there's always going to be a finer suit of power armour lying around the corner, and you're going to find this gear right on the battlefield itself. That's right: loot drops.
Also exhibiting this new attention to the long term goal is the way in which the campaigns are going to be delivered. Relic have learned from the conquest modes of previous games, and are now planning to present gamers with a shifting, changing campaign as they battle for control of entire planets.
Ebbert explains that missions will have consequences, mainly in terms of loot, but also in terms of what you've achieved for the campaign as a whole. Shifting objectives will mean that you can't hit everything and you'll have to weigh up one objective over another: save the civilians or get hold of good gear? These kinds of decisions will imbue the Dawn of War 2 campaign with a sense of consequence. Your choices, far more than before, are going to be felt on the battlefield.
All of which meta-game leads us directly into the field of battle itself. Dawn of War 2 will be moving away from the classic base-building model and towards a tactical game where small, elite units are the focus. As in Company of Heroes, you're going to be tackling your objectives with just a couple of squads, often against overwhelming odds.
The campaign demonstrated to us in Vancouver was for orks and space marines, the only two playable races Relic are willing to tell us about now. The space marines will find themselves in situations where only direct deployment of the powerful leader characters will deliver success. "Kinda like '300'," says Ebbert, referencing the film of the famed Spartan last stand. "Except space marines are so badass it's called '30'."
We're shown a rolling 'live' demo, narrated by the team as it plays. Space marines arrive on an Imperial world being overrun by orks, and two squads move into position along a flyover littered with the debris of previous battle. They move forward and take cover behind some kind of space crates.
A battle kicks off as orks come barrelling down the gloomy avenue into the crossfire of the entrenched marines. Being out in the open as they are, the orks are ripped to shreds. The orks fight back by lobbing a stikbomb into the midst of the firing marine squad, blasting their cover away and sending them flying. The new physics and overall increase in detail are powerfully evident in these opening moments. The firefights are intense, with the blazing bolter fire raising a blizzard of particle effects across the theatre.
The scene changes and we see marines pinned down by heavy ork fire. The orks send in their tougher melee troops, which begin to despatch the marines at close range. Things are getting ugly for the marines, and eventually they have to call in support. The commander character arrives and begins to have at the orks with his chainsword and pistol. Eventually he'll pick up some fallen wargear, which can later be identified and equipped, and then be joined by the jet-packing assault marines.The Imperial dreadnought is back too.
He bursts onto the battlefield, chunkier and heavier-looking than ever. It's clear now that the focus of the game is closer, tighter and louder. The drop pods too have been enhanced. They're great steel hammers from the sky, to be called down at opportune moments to slam into the ground, obliterating enemies and releasing vengeful imperial soldiers.
The battle moves onwards to demonstrate use of buildings. Orks are forced out of a building by the application of a few grenades and some flamers, then, as the battle surges, the interior of the building gives out and parts of it collapse with incredible realism. Any side will be able to make use of the extra cover afforded by buildings, but holding off an enemy that is equipped to take on such structures will be tricky indeed.
The destructibility of the world is further in evidence as the demo continues: orks hurl grenades onto a bridge spanning a vast abyss. The explosions take it down, and a squad of space marines with it. The jetpack-wearing assault marines jump backwards as the bridge falls, landing safely and no doubt smugly on the far side.
The denouement is a battle against an ork warboss. He's a ferocious beast and a far more powerful adversary than anything the marines have faced previously. He easily destroys what is on the field, thumping the ground and causing columns and arches to collapse with the sheer power of his frame. There's only one way out of this: to call in the commander again.
He has, thanks to the wargear picked up in the previous mission, now been armed with shiny power armour and a electrified thunderhammer. Initially the warboss makes good ground, smacking the commander backwards into ruins with heavy blows, but the tide soon turns and the commander beats the giant greenskin to death, blow after ferocious blow ringing out shockwaves from the thunderhammer. It's glorious crescendo and a stunning victory.
All this is illustrates what Ebbert has said about making players powerful from the outset in their game. Dawn of War 2 is going to focus less on the "gather resources and build" tradition of this kind of game, and more on simply delivering powerful units to the field and then using them. The precise way this will work in terms of how and when your forces arrive in the game isn't quite clear, but you can expect far less static base building antics than you've encountered in previous games.
Then it's over and the lights come back on. The demo has raised many questions, most of which Relic aren't yet willing to discuss. How will the 'death' of characters be dealt with in the game? How does all this wargear stuff factor into multiplayer?
Indeed, will the destructible scenery and other such cleverness really play a role in multiplayer? Exactly how will the territory system that has dominated both Dawn of War and Company of Heroes make itself known in Dawn of War 2? What other races will there be? Relic aren't saying.
Nevertheless, we do get one other, vital fragment of information. Noseworthy says that on top of everything else that's going on, and all the work they're doing on the as-yet-undisclosed multiplayer aspect of the game, the entire campaign game is going to be playable in a co-operative mode.
Yes, you and a friend are going to be able to take on the xeno hordes at your leisure, or team up to let blood for the blood god... I can hardly imagine a more satisfying announcement for this game. You, me, and an Imperial Dreadnought... I know how you love that metal-voiced undead guy. With the game likely to arrive next year, we'll hear more about his adventures this autumn. "Our mantra is that things can only go in if they're f*****g amazing," says Relic's Jonny Ebbert, the lead designer for Dawn of War 2. "It has to have massive visual impact."