For those not fully up on tyranid anatomy, they are essentially a race of aliens more traditionally set against a team of Colonial Marines led by Sigourney Weaver. Lacking acid for blood, the famous genestealers are no less deadly with their raking claws, hypnotic stare and probing, lashing tongue. Over the years the tyranid race has been expanded to include creatures more inspired by Starship Troopers' insectoid antagonists, but they remain, in short, hive-minded and relentless close-quarter specialists that attack in vast numbers.
According to 40,000 doctrine, the first wave of a tyranid attack features fast-moving gaunts, then the more substantial 'stealers turn up ahead of the main attack. With that process so enshrined and so conducive to the RTS mechanic that Dawn of War has fostered, it's still somewhat baffling why it's taken so long for a Hive Fleet to arrive.
"Part of it was that we wanted to avoid StarCraft comparisons," says Ebbert, comparing StarCraft's Protoss with 40,000's Eldar, and Blizzard's Marines with GW's. "StarCraft just lifted the 40,000 universe wholesale and brought it to videogames. Ironically we came out six years later but we had to be careful of looking like a StarCraft clone, even though we were the originals."
The main (and more diplomatic) reason for the delay, is that Relic felt that they couldn't do justice to what is, among Warhammer 40,000 fans, an iconic faction: "Our animation system wasn't nearly as robust as the one we were developing for Company of Heroes. We thought about doing them in an expansion, but then the more we watched how they were developing the Essence Engine, we were like, why don't we just wait for that?"
Ebbert says Essence 2.0 offers more possibilities than were available in DOW. Gaunts will leap over walls, while other tyranids will burrow to ambush the players.
"With tyranids we're able to do crazy stuff," he says, "We modelled the gaunts after the little dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. They stay just out of reach, but are always edging in. If you throw a satchel charge over a wall into a bunch of gaunts and they're in synapse, they'll avoid it. But if you kill the synapse creature, they'll stare at it until it explodes in their face."
Tyranids will be available in multiplayer games, as will Eldar, Orks and Marines. Compared to the single-player game, the changes here are less obvious. Base-building is part of the fun, but it has been scaled back: placement of buildings has been eliminated, replaced with upgrading a HQ that deploys units.
Where the focus of the multiplayer game has shifted is in allowing players to choose from a variety of Commander units (one a pure combat-focused Force Commander unit, a Techmarine that builds turrets, and the support-focused Medic Commander.) The aim is to create an atmosphere of cooperative play. I'd say Relic have a good chance of furthering their reputation for providing memorable multiplayer experiences. Had we been allowed to field tyranid forces during our time with the game, we might have been able to provide a more glowing report.
As satisfying as winning a multiplayer game against peers is, and as much as Relic really don't have to do much to keep hold of a glowing reputation, there are months until DOW2's release and, therefore, a prime opportunity to make a spectacular cock-up. The swing away from more traditional RTS to a persistent-unit model might upset die-hards, but having played through 10% of the campaign missions, we've no reason to suspect Relic will screw things up, not on Ebbert's watch. After all, he knows an advanced player when he sees one.