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Dawn of War I and II
Comparing Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War I (DOW 1), to Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War (DOW 2) allows us to roadmap the future of the RTS franchise as well as identify what can be done to improve the current state of both games. For those that argue that DOW 2 is an RTS-RPG, consider the multiplayer as the true area of focus for this article. Dawn of War 2 (1.4 beta) was a positive and thorough step in the right direction as it showed Relic was serious about balance in its latest efforts.
I have criticized the company in the past over failing to monitor balance and to fix bugs in DOW 1, but the efforts, including the video battle reports show that the developers are earnest in making fixes to a great, yet sometimes broken franchise.
Early evidence of this fact was seen with the balance tester's admission of rippers as "kinda lame" in a recent battle report. Fixes to spore mines with a dual damage capacity were also welcomed. Termagaunts (of the Tyranids) were given a crippling like shot ability that increased their effectiveness and solidified their presence as a support and attack unit. Relic is clearly placing an increased priority on unit mix. Some of the major changes included the strengthening of the Eldar's Banshees as well as shotgun damage for scouts. In addition to working steadily to maintain balance, what else should Relic do to make DOW 2 a success?
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No More Races For DOW 2!
Balance as a goal needs to be secondary, as the root of the popularity of DOW 2 will live or die based upon a quick matchmaking service with minimal waiting in between games. A quick glance at weekday or even weekend gaming proves that the gamespy online gaming service in DOW 1 led to the lobby being eroded to low activity (with at most 100 players logged in at peak times). Can one deny that Microsoft’s live gaming service and poorly constructed lobby may lead to a predictable fate for DOW 2 as was seen with gamespy in DOW 1? (example: broken automatch ladder system).
This article asserts that Relic should regularly continue trials of beta feedback for new patches while making improvements to the game lobby and “trueskill” system. Similarly, Relic should abstain from making any expansions that emphasize the additions of new races until the game balance is restored to a comparable and playable level. This assertion is based on the history of balance problems DOW 1 suffered through the hasty addition of races in "Winter Assault," "Dark Crusade" and "Soulstorm." Such a decision is not easy where hundreds of RTS gamers lobby incessantly for their favorites in new downloadable content or an expansion. Nevertheless, such a concentrated focus could seriously increase the lifespan of DOW 2 as DOW 1 will likely never see a patch again (Relic has no stated plans for support for DOW 1).
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RTS Gamers: Perfectionists
Before we delve into balance or "trueskill" deficiencies, let’s take an introspective look at ourselves, the RTS gamers. We are an irritable bunch looking for instant gratification and solutions to feed our perfectionist needs. It cannot be wholly discounted that the gamer itself may be the root of the problem in DOW 2 – suggesting seemingly easy balance fixes to Relic’s staff.
Many a DOW 2 gamer has complained that the game does not adequately account for balance and that it caters to a juvenile crowd incapable of understanding the intricacies of micromanagement (the whole competitive versus casual gamer argument). This is an elitist approach that does not always cover all the gaming community and focuses on a catering service to e-sports.
This angle tends to alienate huge portions of a player base. Comparatively, too little emphasis on the expert observations of e-sport players leads to glaring balance and play deficiencies.
Even if the game remains flawed balance wise, the perpetual impatience that surrounds RTS gamers could be met with quick 1v1 and 2v2 games. In effect you would have the player base balance games and create a sub-community like one that exists at Dow Sanctuary. Dow Sanctuary's outstanding replay system and the sub-community it has created is evidence that the players can balance games by choosing certain matchups and avoiding others. Relic's emphasis of a 3v3 system in DOW 2 is not realistic in light of the majority of gamers' inherent impatience, connection speeds and instant need for gratification by virtue of a speedy online matching service.
As seen in 3v3 Starcraft games, the use of unit choice was less important than macro-management as the games were based on overwhelming numbers. Similarly, DOW 2 is showing evidence of several squads of tactical marines and rangers in 3v3. The 3v3 concept alone leads to a lack of unit mixing in many RTS titles, and better balance analysis could be defined by emphasizing 1v1 and 2v2 games.
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Warhammer and Starcraft
Further evidence of the need for better online playability, or an alternative to "Games For Windows Live" can be seen when comparing Starcraft and Warhammer. Blizzard modeled Starcraft after Warhammer race icons in 1998. As you see in this picture, the only thing missing from Blizzard’s development staff was a race called “Green Space Apes” led by Curious George with a power axe.
Humor aside, the brilliance in Blizzard’s Starcraft game and its huge following can be traced to two central priorities: 1) battle.net and 2) race balance. If DOW 2 or perhaps DOW 3 satisfy this recipe for success, the true granddaddy of sci-fi war gaming could permanently etch itself as an RTS to be modeled and pursued by the casual and competitive gamer combined. Honestly, this writer and many gamers enjoy DOW 1 and DOW 2 both for originality of content as well as a less frenzied need to click maniacally on special skills and economic units. Focusing on a battle.net system is the first step for Relic to succeed long term.
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Race Balance Lessons Learned From DOW 1
What does it mean to spam, or over select one unit to beat your enemy? This strategy is simple in that it means one unit will be selected over and over again in hopes of overwhelming enemy forces. DOW 1 suffered from a lack of a battlefield priority to integrate unit mix. Players were often better tactically suited to keep ordering the same squad selection in the heat of battle. What errors were committed by adding new races in expansions without balancing the matchups effectively?
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Imbalance In DOW 1: What Does History Teach Us?
Although the list and arguments are lengthy, a few examples should hammer this point home. The clearest example of spam in DOW 1 was the Dark Reaper Mass.
As you can see in the below gallery, my Eldar is battling a Necron player. In the course of our skirmish I am able to obtain six squads of Dark Reapers before the Necron can recover from my initial harass and create wraiths. By then, I have map control and won the game. This situation is an excellent example of “spamming” and some forum goers in DOW 2 community forums have again raised this issue by naming DOW 2 Tactical Marines as a "Tac Blob." Some have suggested an increase in production costs for repeated selections of Tactical Marines to avoid the Space Marine "TAC Blob" presently plaguing DOW 2.
Arguably the most frowned upon mistake by Relic in DOW 1 was the allowance of the Tau race to have god-like powers via the Fire Warrior spam. After a couple simple upgrades, a player had a practical artillery-in-man-form and could watch their warriors shoot half-way across the screen! Couple these death squads with cloaked anti-vehicle stealth suits and you had virtually an unstoppable army.
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How To Stop The "Tac Blob"
This problem was better dealt with where Chaos Marines were concerned. Notice how a player could not spam a single unit to defeat both vehicles and infantry. Rather, Chaos had to divvy up its forces between horrors and standard Chaos Space Marines (see picture). Granted, Chaos Marines and their Space Marine counterparts could easily “right-click” on standard marine units out of their Infantry Temple – leading to a dreaded blob of “Tacs” and end the game quite early; such strategies did not work against top tier players.
As mentioned above, the “TAC Blob” still presents itself in DOW 2. In a recent post on the DOW 2 Community forums, Alexjenko, highlighted that tactical Space marines are still more efficient than the mixing of units in the latest DOW 2 Beta attempt in 4.2. The key tenet here is that “Tacs” in DOW 2 may have too much life; therefore retreat is a possible and feasible option. One of the strong changes to DOW 2 over DOW 1 is that units cannot willingly retreat without facing consequences. Rather, opposing squads actually get damage bonuses for hitting retreating units. A key factor that many argue should have been implemented in DOW 1 to better balance the game from elite ranged units.
In DOW 1, races mentioned above could flee at will and were often too fast to be caught and pursued by the enemy. Dancing units was an art form (like hydra-dancing in Starcraft), that for the most part left melee in the dust. DOW 2 makes efforts to correct this problem, but mitigates its effectiveness by making standard "TAC Blobs" too hearty.
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What Should Be The Future Focus Of DOW 2?
The creator of DowPro (a mod to DOW 1) Korbah pointed out that since DOW 2 fails to have the DOW 1 base building feature; it "lacked inherent strategic depth." Although the strategy elements could seriously be debated, the lack of base building may contribute to the spam problem as gamers lack other viable options even where different war gear is selectable.
In sum, the “There Is Only War” DOW 2 Beta showed Relic's prioritizing of balance and efforts for the future. Issues regarding the network and game matching service may not be salvageable via Games For Windows Live and adding new races in an expansion is likely to exacerbate balance issues that still need corrections (this view is not commonly shared). This being said, if there is potential for Games For Windows Live it must be centered upon an easy to use matching interface with a lightning fast set-up. This primary focus could catapult DOW as the most creative science fiction based RTS ever created. In so doing, DOW would be in a position to retake its crown from the usurper known as Starcraft.