Marching along to the Trocadero HMV in London’s Piccadilly Circus, we were recently treated to a hands-on session with Relic’s follow up to their massively successful Warhammer RTS Dawn Of War.
We also had the chance to chat with Dawn Of War II’s Lead Designer Jonny Ebbert about the new game.
Strategy Informer: The original Dawn Of War came out back in 2004. Did you start work on the sequel immediately after shipping the first game?
Jonny Ebbert: When Company Of Heroes entered development the goal was to make a next-generation RTS engine, so we made the original Dawn Of War and the mandate from day one was (that) we’re not going to make Dawn Of War II until the engine was finished, because we wanted Dawn Of War II to be a big deal. In the meantime we made the expansions so it (making DOW II) started right after Dark Crusade.
Strategy Informer: How complete is the current build of Dawn Of War II?
Jonny Ebbert: Pretty damn close. I mean we’re still ironing out some bugs and we’re smoothing out the network code, but apart from that it’s pretty final.
Jonny Ebbert, Lead Designer
It wouldn’t be a Warhammer game without Orks, would it?
Strategy Informer: What new features have you added to Dawn Of War II that really stand out?
Jonny Ebbert: Where do I start? In Dawn Of War we felt like we really nailed three things. The brutality, brutal melee combat, the dark nature of the universe and we really focused on combat and action while downplaying resource gathering because we wanted you to focus on your guys. And there’s the over the top nature of the universe – we felt we nailed that like nobody else ever did. So in this one – did you play Company Of Heroes? We’re taking all that and we’re bringing some of the innovations over from that franchise, like the cover based combat, the intelligent squad behaviour, the destructible environments. You’ve got buildings you can climb into for protection. and on top of that we’re trying to fix three things that we think are broken with single-player in the RTS.
The first one is, starting over each time you start a new mission. It sucks. Everybody hates doing it so we don’t make you do it any more in the single-player campaign. You carry all your progress over from one mission to the next. Second thing is, we didn’t feel like we rewarded you enough for playing our game, so we’re trying to reward the player a lot more for playing the game. You’ll notice that we constantly shower you with new kinds of weapons, new kinds of armour, new abilities, new traits and new unit types you unlock. Final thing is, we really wanted to enhance the sense of attachment you get with an RTS. In a traditional RTS, it’s hard to get attached because you usually have a bunch of anonymous units that are built to die, so in our campaign we’ve given you command of a strike force and you’ll know everybody by name, and they each have a role on the battlefield. They’ll come with you from mission to mission and they’ll get better as you play, which we found really drives the level of attachment through the roof in relation to other RTS games.
We’ve also streamlined the multiplayer quite a bit, making it more action-packed and exciting.
Strategy Informer: We’ve been playing DOW II for the last two hours now and we have to admit, we really like the character driven single-player. We’ve grown quite fond of our squad, which is what you must have intended.
Jonny Ebbert: Yeah, it was very much intentional. We just want you to grow attached to your units and it’s just much more exciting when your attached to your squad, right?
Strategy Informer: Yeah.
Jonny Ebbert: The stakes are higher.
Strategy Informer: Was there a conscious decision to make DOW II more accessible to a broader audience? Are the RPG elements such as levelling up and gaining experience points aimed at players who might otherwise choose not to play an RTS?
Jonny Ebbert: Well, the goal from the beginning was that we needed to broaden our audience. The RTS has become a lot more niche right? So, we wanted to build a game that would still appeal as much to our core audience, but we simplified it and made it a bit more compelling to people outside the traditional RTS genre.
This is us trying out the game at the Trocadero in London. We can happily report that it’s good, engaging fun. Look out for our preview coming very soon
There are some very nice looking effects in the game
It’s interesting because a lot of people on the team, a lot of press told me when they’d played this, “I don’t play RTS, but I’d probably play this,” and what I tell them is, “you’re the guy we built this for.” We know our fans are going to love our multiplayer and I think most of them are going to love our single-player. But our single-player was built exclusively to try and draw in new players. In our multiplayer, we’ve slightly simplified but it still has the same depth and we’ve simplified the entry-point so people can play a battle quicker.
Strategy Informer: With the Warhammer universe you’ve got the anticipation of thousands of fans to contend with. Do you feel that burden of expectation when you build a game like this?
Jonny Ebbert: Oh, Christ yes! I mean, this was a very intense project and it was a very rocky road for the team at times. We put a ton of pressure on ourselves because we’re the company who’s brought you Homeworld and Company Of Heroes and the original Dawn Of War is rated something like 86 on Metacritic (it is. We checked), so we’re known for our quality and Company Of Heroes especially raised the quality bar (93 on Metacritic) and so our fans have very high expectations and we want to meet or exceed those expectations. To the point where we really stress ourselves out and if I could go back in time, I’d probably tell the team to relax a little bit. Even now we’re not sure we’ve hit the mark. Only the fans and critics will be able to judge that.
Strategy Informer: You must get a lot of fan feedback then. What were the main criticisms levelled at the first game by the fans?
Jonny Ebbert: (Pause) Our support of the game wasn’t up to snuff. We did that to ourselves by making a very difficult patching pipeline, so one of the first things we did was make it very easy to patch this game (DOW II). Before, it took us months to create a patch and get it out to the player, which sucked because we couldn’t react quickly enough to developments in the community, you know problems and things breaking the game, so our new patching pipeline allows us to respond very quickly which is huge.
Our online service we were on at the time didn’t give us the robustness we needed for multiplayer. Firewall negotiation was weak and matchmaking was kind of ‘meh’ so with Games For Windows LIVE we‘ll be able to deliver a top-notch online service. They can handle the server load, they have great firewall negotiation, and then you have achievements. I think the player is going to get a lot more exciting multiplayer experience.
Second thing was the level of polish. I don’t think anyone really complained about it, but we always felt that we could apply way more polish to the game and we were able to do that with Dawn Of War II. We’ve added a lot of the details that were missing. The first game was exciting, but it was very broad strokes.
A lot of the people we hear from are the multiplayer crowd and they want lots of choice and lots of story, and I think we’ve found a happy medium to deliver both.
Strategy Informer: Are there any new characters, races or elements that the fans are really going to pick up on?
Jonny Ebbert: Yeah, there are some things that haven’t been seen before like new units. The thing I think the fans are going to like the most is the detail of the units, their animations and their behaviour. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but if they’re out in the open and they’re under attack, they’ll dive into cover to protect themselves. Sometimes they’ll dodge grenades and you feel like you’re commanding real people. Then there’s the detail in the environments and the detailed destruction, the effects like how a tree will wave a little in the wind, little things that bring the world to life.
Strategy Informer: And single-player presumably only allows you to play as the Space Marines.
Jonny Ebbert: We wanted to make sure we did the campaign right, so we only focused on one race. In multiplayer you can play as all four factions though.
You can now entrench your troops in these handy lookout towers
Blowing things up never gets old. NEVER
Strategy Informer: And they are…?
Jonny Ebbert: Space Marines, Orks, Eldar and Tyranids.
Strategy Informer: Now this is a standard question that we always ask, but what do you have lined up in terms of expansion packs and DLC?
Jonny Ebbert: We have a lot of seriously exciting plans for DLC. We really want to give our players a top-notch online experience and we want to reward our players for playing our game. We want to give out steady doses of free downloadable content because we believe in rewarding people who buy the game and the reason we don’t like DRM solutions is because they punish the innocent and they have to jump through all these hoops. We don’t want to do that so we’re going with the approach that Valve pioneered to just reward the people who actually bought the game with cool stuff. Free downloadable, regularly accessible stuff that enhances the game and then that’s an incentive for the people who didn’t buy the game to buy it. So we’ve got a really bold, robust strategy for that and we’re going to be revealing more details in about a month, but I think players are going to like it. And everybody wins you know? The people who paid for the game don’t have to go through any fuss and they’re constantly getting new stuff, which keeps the game fresh.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn Of War II is out late February. Look out for our preview coming very soon.