Available on PC
Note: At the time of writing, we've had little chance to play Dawn of War 3 multi-player against players on production servers. We'll update this review after launch.
Dawn of War 3 might not be the game to pull the RTS back to its late-1990s/early 2000s heyday, but it isn't for want of trying. This is a smart, modern take on the genre, bringing in ideas from the the RTS’s bastard offspring, the MOBA, but retaining the high-level strategy and scale that once made Dawn of War and its ancestors so exciting.
It also works as a bridge between the two camps of Dawn of War fans, catering for those who loved the epic battles of the original title and fans of the more intimate, Diablo-influenced flavour of its sequel. There are signs of tension – of an RTS wanting to be all things to all men – but nothing that impedes a great RTS experience.
On the one hand, this is still your classic RTS. While the series has you capturing and holding resource points, rather than actively harvesting, the general pattern of building and developing your base, recruiting units, building your army and dominating the map will be familiar to anyone who ever battled their way through a Command & Conquer, a StarCraft, or even the more recent Halo Wars 2.
Where Dawn of War 3 differs is in demanding more attention to the nitty-gritty detail. This isn’t a game where superior numbers always win, or where you can afford to hurl cannon fodder troops at well-defended bases. The old 'lasso a big group then click on your objective' tactic doesn’t work.
Instead, it’s a game where understanding the active and passive capabilities of each unit is critical, so that you know how to use fast-moving assault troops, sneaky snipers and powerful mechs. Here, using the right powers at the right time can transform a rash push into a decisive mini-victory, while leaving massed troops to fend for themselves will leave them victim to a nasty counter.
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This is even more true of hero units, dubbed Elites. While there’s less emphasis on equipping and levelling them than there was in Dawn of War II, it’s still crucial that you get to grips with each one’s special attacks and support capabilities, switching quickly between heroes with the F keys to keep them moving, keep them slaying and – sometimes – to just keep them alive.
You’ll discover that the central Eldar hero, Farseer Macha, has a great one-two combo for breaking up groups of hostiles, hurling a spear that hits ‘em for six before detonating an energy pulse. You’ll learn to throw Blood Angel Master, Gabriel Angelos, into the fray, using his hammer to smash Ork units in close-combat, or scatter them in all directions. Even wannabe Ork boss Gorgutz has some interesting tactical abilities, with a whirling chain-claw attack that both damages the enemy and protects friendly troops with its radius.
These are just the first three of many Elites you’ll encounter, each with his or her own equivalents; some ability that can turn a skirmish in your favour, or help you to survive when all seems lost.
This is also a game where the landscape matters, not just because you need to take, hold and upgrade your resource points, but because it gives you opportunities for fortification – digging in to create a shielded position – and stealth. This is a must for surprise attacks on alarm-protected positions, or simply a great way to camp out and wipe out Ork patrols from relative safety.
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The single-player campaign structure is going to be somewhat controversial. Pitching Blood Angel space marines, Eldar and Orks into a three-way conflict over a sacred Eldar relic, it takes the rare step of revolving between the three factions rather than following the story from the viewpoint of just one. This means you’ll roughly alternate between, say, Gabriel Angelos clearing a flying fortress of Eldar, Farseer Macha assaulting Marine positions, and Gorgutz’s struggle for supremacy against rival Ork warbosses, then back to Angelos again.
This approach has a downside, in that it slows down character progression and can make the story a little confusing – although a bunch of optional side conversations do a great job of filling in any blanks. On the upside, it gives you more variation in the troops and heroes you’ll be wielding. Relic has done a great job of making all three leads likable in their own odd way, with Gabriel and Macha navigating politics and betrayal in the Imperial and Eldar hierarchies, while Gorgutz’s tale has its own brutish fun factor. After all, who can resist the Ork’s barbaric, rock n’roll approach to the business of waaarrgh?
More importantly, you get a chance to get your head around all three factions’ units, heroes and mechanics during the one campaign. This is important, because while there are clear similarities between specific units with specific roles across the three, each one also comes with its own unique abilities and perks.
The Orks, for example, can do a lot with battlefield scrap, whether dispensed from their own waaargh towers or simply left lying around. Individual units can scavenge the smaller piles and turn them into grenades and armour, while large chunks can be transformed by gretchen units into mechs, trucks and tanks. Get a load of trucks, pack ‘em with Orks and you have a fast-moving invasion force that hits the enemy hard before they even know what’s happening. Nice.
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The Eldar, meanwhile, can seem a little weaker and slower on the move, but they have some fantastic stealth and melee units – plus some high-powered, revivable units you can field later on. Best of all, they have their webways: insta-teleport routes you can use to link the base with remote structures, enabling you to keep pouring units into battle as quickly as you can build them, provided you can get a gateway down. Once you’ve mastered the learning curve, these differences only become more interesting the more you play.
At its best, Dawn of War III’s campaign really works with each faction’s capabilities, not to mention the specific skills of individual units and heroes. You’ll need to juggle, switching from production at the base to groups of troops to your Elites, but the game makes this as easy as possible through the standard unit grouping tools, big, persistent Elite icons, a lot of audio feedback, and an effective mini-map.
At its worst, it feels a little generic, with a tendency to structure missions around a few front-loaded objectives, followed by a mid-match battle for resources and domination, culminating on a final, more challenging objective. Luckily, there are enough more interesting and inventive missions to offset this, and the switching between factions also helps alleviate the déjà vu.
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A bigger weakness is the AI. It isn't bad, by any standards – and on higher difficulty levels, your enemies play a meaner and more probing game. However, your own troops can have that old RTS nasty habit of ignoring a skirmish going on nearby because they haven’t got line-of-sight, while their pathfinding can require a little bit of handholding if you don’t want, say, your space marine force splitting, with one half wandering within range of an Ork fortification.
Otherwise, Dawn of War III meets and occasionally exceeds the StarCraft II trilogy in redefining the RTS state of the art. It’s a fantastic-looking game, with superb, highly detailed animation, lovely scenery and, arguably, the best particle and explosion effects you’ll have seen in a PC strategy game. It has a little of that Diablo III cartoon quality, but when it imbues the design with so much character, that’s not a problem. Plus there’s certainly enough gruesome, gore-splattered, grimdark stuff going on to keep the Warhammer hardcore happy.
Relic understands the audience and what they want out of the franchise. Space Marines blasting away at hordes of Orks, with heavy bolters then sending jump-packed assault marines charging into battle; bloodthirsty greenskins smashing through Eldar ranks in their clap-trap mechs and dodgy motors. And while there's no question that the UI is complex, it’s also logical, the campaign helping to ease out the learning curve so that you’re not bombarded with every function and secondary ability at once.
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That’s a good thing, because there’s no shortage of depth in the multi-player game. At the moment, there’s just the one mode – Power Core – that takes Dawn of War’s classic gameplay and gives it a MOBA-like twist. While you’ll still need to build your base and grab and hold resource points, you’ll also need to tackle three sets of objectives, destroying shield generators that protect huge turrets that in turn protect the base’s power core.
This has a few effects on the way each match plays out. First, there are multiple chances to triumph or fail on the battlefield; it’s perfectly possible to storm the early game and take out the shield generators, but fall apart while tackling the turrets, giving the other side a good chance to fight back. Second, there’s no scope for simply building your base and turtling; if you’re not out there fighting for resource points and attacking the shield generators, you’ll just get swamped.
Most of all, you can sense the MOBA influence in the way that your Elites really matter. You can only field them when you’ve built up enough Elite points, and with some costing less than others, you need to think about whether it’s better to get your medium-sized guns out early or wait and get the big guns out at a decisive point.
You also need to know how to wield them and their capabilities, so that when you do get them out there they’re hitting the enemy hard. The pay-off lies in the fact that watching a big elite go to town on massed troops, or head-to-head with another monster, is undeniably spectacular – and when you come out of such a duel ahead, it’s another micro-victory.
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This is all fed by some brilliant army-building mechanics, where you can use the skulls earned in both single-player and multi-player activities to unlock new Elites and new Army Doctrines; faction-specific perks that enable you to strengthen specific units and capabilities and customise each faction to your own playing style.
Frankly, I haven’t had enough time with multi-player yet – certainly against real players on the final servers – to have a proper idea of how this all works out in practice. There are a lot of units and variables to balance, while the risk of such a structured multi-player game mode is that it could grow repetitive with time.
Right now, though, it’s fun, exciting, addictive and hugely engaging, and I’m looking forward to reporting back when I’ve had a bit more action on the battlefield.
There’s still something a little old-school about Dawn of War III’s RTS action, but when it scratches those same old itches so well, there’s very little reason to complain. It’s a game that takes new influences from the MOBA and uses them well, mixing up powerful Elites with tactically interesting units to create great battlefield moments, while spinning an interesting yarn from three different perspectives.
The lengthy single-player campaign gets you hooked and gives you a great grounding in some pretty complex gameplay. As long as the multi-player can match and carry that momentum, Relic has another winning RTS on its hands.