Review: Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II

A primer: I never played the first Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, and I know as much about the Warhammer universe, 40K or otherwise, as I do nuclear fission. Therefore, it’s probably impossible for me to be any more objective about Relic Entertainment’s sequel to its beloved original. And actually, I’m quite glad about that.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (DoW2) is a fast-paced action-RPG with vestigial strategy parts. Players and fans of the first Dawn of War may expect the common real-time strategy themes of resource management, base-building and upgrade trees, but DoW2 throws most of that rubbish out of the spaceship vacuum tube in favor of an in-your-face approach to the genre. In other words, you might think Dawn of War II’s all that and really loves your “traditional” gameplay, but he’s just not that into you…r RTS desires.

Awful reference aside, because Relic ditches ancestral RTS clichés the game lives up to it’s back-of-the-box claim of being the “next generation” of the strategy genre. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to the individual, but for my two cents, DoW2 has taken the best parts of strategy titles and bolted them to an action-RPG chassis.

The game’s single-player, Space Marine-only Campaign mode is a robust romp of color-coded loot collection (you want blue), tactical cover and exploding alien guts segmented into deployment days. Each “day” in the game is over when you’ve used up your available deployments, or literally how many missions you can do at a time. The around 20 hours and 26 in-game days it took to complete the game, which will vary depending on your obsessive compulsiveness in accepting optional defense and attack missions, are addictive and compelling. Where DoW2 does things right is in giving players intimate control of their units, outside of pointing and clicking. There are six unique characters in the game with three available slots to fill, the Dance Force Commander being your main character who can’t be rotated out. The remaining cast is filled with a pretty typical selection of scouts, heavy gunners and, well, a giant robot man. It’s entirely the player’s choice who they take along each mission, though those left behind won’t acquire nearly as much experience as those going on multiple outings. The variety is appreciated, but you’ll likely find yourself using the same units over and over.

In the past, RTS titles could usually be conquered by the repeated throwing of digital corpses at a problem until something blows up—victory achieved. Strategy hasn’t always been the key word in an RTS game, ironically. But in DoW2, the experience points accumulated from completing missions and killing Orks, Eldar and Tyranids translate into unit levels and attribute points that can be placed strategically in four categories: Stamina for a larger health pool and faster regeneration, Ranged for better bullet blasting, Strength to increase melee damage and Will to allow more frequent use of your units’ unique abilities. Now, this all sounds familiar. Warcraft III had Heroes with levels, sure, and even Relic has done the tactical cover mechanic with Company of Heroes (CoH). So while DoW2 isn’t the first RTS to go native and adopt action and RPG elements, it’s one of the best to do it. The game plays like an RPG because it lets you decide if your scout should be better at ranged sniping or have more energy to cloak for longer periods, and it’s action-oriented because you rarely stop fighting, always moving from cover to cover.

Outfitting the troops

Outfitting the troops

In many ways, DoW2 plays a lot like Raven Software’s Marvel:Ultimate Alliance and X-Men: Legends games. You control a small squad of four unique characters with traits that can range from straight-up tanking and beating things to a pulp to more finessed ranged attacks. The Internet, being the mouthpiece it is, has expressed a general concern with this design philosophy. Fans of DoW1 claim this is the dumbing-down of the series and that it’s a “console game masquerading as a PC game” (excerpt from 1up.com’s comment board). Here’s where my unfamiliarity with the series comes in: It’s not a “dumb” title trying to appease the console fanboys. If any RTS title is geared toward a console format, that would obviously be Halo Wars, which isn’t a bad thing in the slightest. The travesty would have been Relic essentially redoing Dawn of War but with better graphics.

Galactic management

Galactic management

Though seemingly controversial, DoW2 is still a Relic title. The game feels a lot like their last RTS, Company of Heroes. That’s a compliment if anything else, as CoH was one of the best games in the last few years. But the DoW2 design team has stripped away even the minimized micromanagement found in CoH and instead gives players a Galactic Map to organize their campaign progress. The game takes players to three different planets within sub-sector Aurelia, each with a multitude of missions available (some popping up only when you’re on another planet all together). You keep track of what missions are available through distress calls, which become incessant after hours of playing the game. You never truly “complete” a planet, even when the final mission opens up. This allows players still out to collect the best equipment and max each character’s level to do so, but the concept falls around itself by the end of the game because of the defense missions.

Players will capture three different types of strategic assets over the course of their games, which apparently do something to help you but, unless I missed the boat, they offer no real benefit to your campaign progress. The structures are supposed to provide passive assistance but they instead become beacons for enemy attacks, opening the defense missions. Now, all of these defense missions are optional of course, but if you don’t complete them the asset will be destroyed. If these points are integral in some manner, why would Relic constantly pull you away from other missions to defend every asset you can before the day timer runs out? And if they really don’t do anything for your progress, why include them at all? The defense missions aren’t overly difficult, which can be said about the entire game, but they become annoying and tired, like DoW2’s story.

The narrative is nothing special, though it serves its purpose as a vessel for the why of “Now why again am I blowing the holy f out of every non-human (a.k.a. Xenos) I see?” Answer: It’s fun. I can tell there are more nuanced elements to the overall Warhammer 40,000 storyline in play, but those are lost on an outsider like me. The general motivations and plot are pretty average: We’re humans, we rule all, so stop invading our planets, dudes. That said, the presentation and atmosphere of DoW2 are superb. Everything from the menus to the sound of a giant Tyranid Carnifex roaring off in the distance are impressive and well-designed. The voice actors did a great job and the characters’ dialogues about duty and honor added to the authenticity of the setting.

Campaign scoring (I take my time)

Campaign scoring (I take my time)

As far as technical aspects go, it’s a breeze to jump into your campaign save file, go online or invite a pal for some co-op action. It’s great to see co-op in more RTS titles like DoW 2 along with Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 and Halo Wars. The art style is clean and fits the space aesthetic, as seen in the gorgeous pre-rendered overworld maps of each planet. The Games For Windows Live service included was a welcome addition as well. Honestly, the controversy over the program should have died out by now, because the current version of Live in DoW2 is unobtrusive and easy to use (and free). I for one enjoyed seeing who was on Live and chatting with friends at my leisure. Plus, who doesn’t like more achievements?

Graphically, the texture work, lighting, animations and effects are fantastic. Relic has done great work here with their Essence Engine 2.0, and after CoH I really am not surprised to see the updated engine tech carried over as it worked very well in 2006. You’ll be quite pleased if your machine can run this game on Ultra.

Boom

Boom

Multiplayer might satisfy those upset over not having a base to churn out units and no resources to accumulate in the campaign. Admittedly, I only played one match of multiplayer against a human opponent, but I did give it to the CPU on multiple occasions. There’s not much to say other than multiplayer keeps the unit functions and feel of campaign mode while adding the traditional RTS spices back into the mix. It was fun, but felt so typical that I probably won’t go back online anytime soon. Plus, the replayability of the online component is somewhat diminished with so few skirmish maps available right now. It’s a good thing this wasn’t the format of the single-player game.

Being ignorant of the first Dawn of War and its traditional aspects has allowed me to look at the sequel only for what it is, and not to weigh it against the original; blasphemy to some, assuredly. Though reviews of sequels tend to point out what’s better or worse between the progenitor and its offspring, hoping that the sophomore effort is “at least as good” as the original, I enjoyed DoW2 for not being a typical RTS—a case of success through thinking outside of the drag-to-select box. Relic has, in ironic defiance of their company name, rebelled against the machinations of past strategy games and created a new vision of RTS titles that, with an industry now devoid of the familiar Ensemble name, might just be the future of the genre.

Recommended for

  • Collection-obsessed gamers who like their loot in multiple colors
  • Strategy enthusiasts looking for a much more action-packed take on the genre
  • Gamers normally hesitant about RTS conventions like micromanaging

Not Recommended for

  • You’re a hardcore, “pure” RTS fan who only accepts multi-layered complexity in his games
  • Multiplayer is a major reason for buying strategy titles

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