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Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 2 is a game in danger of being crushed under sheer weight of expectation. Were it just the sequel to Dawn of War it would be bad enough; the original might not have been the biggest or necessarily the best strategy game of the last five years, but it attracted a following that latched onto the game and its three expansion packs with an enthusiasm bordering on mania. However, Dawn of War 2 also arrives as the first strategy game Relic Entertainment has produced since Company of Heroes – arguably the most revolutionary RTS of the last decade. The result of all this is that you have some people who simply want a bigger, better Dawn of War clothed in the Company of Heroes engine, some who want a Company of Heroes in Space Marine battle armour, and some who merely demand a new solid-gold benchmark for the RTS genre. On all counts, Dawn of War 2 could be described as a failure.
Rather than rebuild Dawn of War or try to reinvent the sci-fi RTS, Relic has taken a similar approach to the one Blizzard took with Warcraft III, stripping the game of many of the elements of a classic RTS, focusing on a smaller number of units, and adding RPG elements to make those units more interesting. There is no base building or unit production in the single player game, nor any resource management or technology tree to worry about. Instead, you have a commander and a maximum of three two to four man units, each led by a hero unit who effectively anchors the rest of his men to your command. Ordinary troops can be respawned on the battlefield once you grab specific capture points, but your heroes need to be looked after and persist from mission to mission. In this game, every man really seems to count, and you’ll find yourself guarding your troops with a caution you’d rarely exercise in, say, Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3.
The reasons why don’t entirely come down to the scarcity of reinforcements. Dawn of War II actually goes further than Warcraft III did, throwing in a proper experience system, complete with levels, points you can use to boost attributes and ‘traits’ you can unlock and use, often to provide new or improved abilities on the battlefield. Better still, destroying particular enemy units can, in true RPG style, result in loot being dropped, while completing missions will often mean similar rewards. The weapons and armour so gained can be redistributed to your hero units between missions, so you’re effectively levelling and upgrading a party just as you might in a Baldur’s Gate style RPG.
The really odd thing, however, is that Dawn of War II even plays like an RTS/RPG hybrid. While most RTS games remain obsessed with building and defending structures, making tanks then wrecking bases, this one focuses much more on exploring the map, despatching mobs of Orks or Eldar (basically Space Orcs and Space Elves, respectively) and working your way towards – of all things – an end of level boss. Abilities like grenade throwing, healing or melee charges are absolutely vital, and I can’t remember an RTS where close-combat plays such a fundamental part. You’ll even find yourself dodging boss attack patterns, which just shows how far outside the strategy genre Relic has been willing to go.
All the same, there’s enough small-scale strategy here to make Dawn of War II more than a four-man Diablo clone with guns. As in Company of Heroes, finding and using cover is an essential survival skill and you need to pay close attention to the positioning and direction of your units. What’s more, learning to combine the abilities of your various squads is of extreme importance. Space Marines armed with heavy bolters can dish out the damage, but they sure can’t take it close up. Those with jet packs make effective shock troops, but won’t last long in the thick of melee combat. Even your commander needs intelligent handling. Use his nigh-unstoppable charge attack at the right time and he can carve his way through a crowd of Orks like a chainsaw through a carcass. Leave him alone and vulnerable and he can be knocked out of commission, putting your chances at risk in missions where he’s the only medic on the team.
If you liked the ever more epic direction that Dawn of War seemed to be taking with its expansion packs, this change of approach might not be welcome. The missions are paced cleverly in terms of moving from small encounters to more frantic scraps, but even in its biggest moments Dawn of War II doesn’t move beyond the skirmish level. Those who (like me) played the tabletop Warhammer 40K in its infancy, might think this fits in with the original game’s character, but those who preferred later editions might find it all a bit small-scale. Personally, I like it. I can’t name an RTS since World in Conflict that has kept me so constantly engaged with the action, or so keen to come back for another mission when the last one ends. It’s not as demanding an RTS as Company of Heroes, but neither is it as dumb an all-action blockbuster as the last two Command and Conquer games (bless ’em). It’s fast-paced. It flows. It’s horrendously addictive.
Unfortunately, it’s also undeniably repetitive. While the odd mission messes with the formula, asking you to defend a resource or hold the city gates, most focus on trolling around the map, capturing the odd control point that will provide you with reinforcements or support options in this or future rounds, beating up the local Ork or Eldar population then homing in on their boss. What strategic variety there is stems from the new units arrayed against you and the new units you gain access to as you work your way through the game, rather than intelligent mission design or the introduction of different types of objective. Frankly, if you want a real test of battlefield tactics then you’re better off waiting for the next Total War.
Despite this I have yet to find my interest waning. Partly it’s the game’s sneaky harnessing of the traditional RPG obsessions of levelling and upgrading, and partly it comes down to the game’s superb production values and grasp of the dark Warhammer 40K universe. It’s safe to say that Dawn of War II delivers a new visual benchmark for RTS games, using an enhanced version of the Company of Heroes engine to deliver sumptuous locations, destructible structures and a range of dazzling weapon, explosion and atmospheric effects. Close up some character models are a little crude, but seen from a vantage point high above the battlefield it all looks incredible.
The Warhammer 40K atmosphere, meanwhile, is spot on. There’s nothing too unpredictable about the story, detailing the struggles of the Blood Raven chapter against Ork, Eldar and Tyranids (think swarming Zerg-like aliens), but the tone, artistic style and language used is always on the mark. As before, it’s a delight to see familiar forces like the Eldar dreadnoughts take the field, and there’s no shortage of blood, guts and grit to be found. This has always been a compelling universe, but only a handful of games have done it justice. Dawn of War II is one you can add to the list.
At the end of the day, however, the single player campaign will come to an end, and it’s at this point that Dawn of War II must rely on what gave its predecessor its incredible longevity; the multiplayer game. To be honest – and I’ve yet to put too many hours in – I’m not 100 per cent convinced. Quite sensibly, Relic has made the multiplayer portion a more traditional RTS experience, though – like the original – one more focussed on the capture and control of resource points than base building or resource management. All the same, without too many units to control or a complex tech tree and base building system to handle, the game can feel a bit lightweight from a strategy point of view, while also too manic to work effectively as – like the single-player campaign – an RPG/RTS hybrid. It’s fun, but marginally too frantic for its own good, and there aren’t as many maps built into the retail game as fans might have a right to expect (though doubtless more will come with future patches and expansions).
If I like Dawn of War II multiplayer, it’s because it’s a blast to play with the savage Orks, the psychically gifted Eldar and the creepy, fast-moving, endless respawning Tyranids, and this is the only chance you get. All are well balanced, each offers a distinct style of play and the different unit types aren’t just simple variants of those from other forces. The basics of a good online game are certainly in place. Whether Dawn of War II will last long should Starcraft II emerge this year is another matter.
Still, I’m of a mind to give Dawn of War II the benefit of the doubt. Taking this direction was a brave move for Relic, and even if it hasn’t entirely paid off with the boxed game, there’s nothing that some tweaks and additional missions couldn’t fix. Some elements of the Dawn of War fanbase are bound to disagree, while those looking for a more epic slice of sci-fi RTS should probably keep their cash in their pockets and pray for Blizzard’s rival to get a 2009 release. If, however, you’re happy to try an ingenious and thoroughly entertaining hybrid, then you won’t find Dawn of War II anything less than captivating.
Neither the hoped-for epic step up from Dawn of War or the new benchmark for Sci-Fi RTS, Dawn of War II still succeeds as an action-packed hybrid of RTS and RPG styles. Missions could be a bit more varied, but for addictive qualities and slick production, the new Warhammer 40,000 game is hard to beat.
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