The original Dawn of War was a great game. It shifted the traditional RTS focus from simple base and army building to tighter squad-based mechanics and implemented a resource system where capturing and holding supply lines meant keeping your armies on the front lines. It also took an already nerdy genre, the RTS, and made it even nerdier with the addition of the Warhammer 40,000 license - and along with it Space Marines, Space Orks, and other quasi-medieval races thrown into, err, space. Ridiculous setting aside, Dawn of War was action-packed, brutal and fun and, surprisingly, also featured an engaging story.
Developer Relic's follow-up, Company of Heroes, which saw similar gameplay (this time set during 'that war with the Nazis') added an increasingly detailed 3D engine that allowed realistic physics, line-of-sight, and a cover system bringing a new level of immersion to the gameplay first displayed in Dawn of War. Two classic entries into what's generally seen by most as a 'stale' genre - making Relic's recent output in this regard, two for two. So it's safe to say anticipation was running high for Dawn of War II, and to be completely honest "Company of Heroes 2: Warhammer 40,000 Edition 2" would have been enough to warrant a look. Catchy title aside, despite Dawn of War II bringing back the intense squad-based gameplay of the original, it scales this back to an almost minimal degree and implements a style of play that, well, is as much RPG as it is RTS.
First thing you'll notice right off the bat can be summarised into two words - no bases. Dawn of War II has no command posts, gas refineries, barracks, or Greater Summoning Cores to build. Instead throughout the course of the single-player campaign players will at any one time only control four squads; each with their own hero/leader and abilities. What does this mean for the game? Well, with the addition of RPG mechanics, that being the ability to level up each leader's stats, armour, weapons, and accessories, the end result proves to be an intoxicating blend that is virtually impossible to resist.
When it comes to measuring the greatness of an RPG or RTS, addictiveness
is arguably one of the most important aspects of doing so.
Another word for this that most people tend to use is 'reward system' which if broken down points straight to 'addiction'. Rewards in an RPG or RTS are simply incentives to keep playing, and the phrases "one more level" or "one more map" are strikingly similar to "one more hit". This is not a criticism of either genre, human's are after all creatures of habit - if a game of this type can strike a certain level of addictiveness, everything else falls into place - graphics, control, gameplay, et al.
That said this rule of thumb if applied to Dawn of War II results in the following three realisations:
1. The RPG style stat building and item looting is addictive
2. The strategy gameplay using stealth, demolitions, cover, and straight up assault tactics is addictive
3. Combining number 1 and 2 results in a pretty awesome level of addictiveness
If you can look past the dissimilarities to the first game (because after all, strategy purists love
their base building) you'll find much to love here. The campaign sees players controlling a commander (ie you) and three other squads of Space Marines investigating recent attacks by the Ork and Eldar races on human-controlled worlds. As the engrossing story evolves, players are introduced to a new hive-like race called the Tyranids (which if you've ever played StarCraft, are basically Warhammer's Zerg race) who slowly try to infest and assimilate each planet they come across. Given the option to select which mission to tackle via a world map, players eventually have the option of moving between three distinct planets with each deployment (ie 'mission') taking one galactic day to complete.
This over-world view lets players tackle most key missions in the order they see fit and it also allows for numerous side missions and events (some time-based) to take place, adding a dynamic feel to the world/s. It's all very Risk-like, and instead of simple linear mission progression, the deployment system adds a layer of strategy that definitely adds to the feeling that Dawn of War II is equally fresh and dynamic. For example, during an early distress response mission on Day six you may choose to capture a Comms Tower because of its strategic benefits. However, on Day 14 the same Comms Tower has come under attack by Orks and you find yourself on another planet dealing with a pressing mission that may change the tide of war with the Tyranids. From here you can choose to go defend the Comms Tower or continue with your current mission. Dawn of War II scores your campaign progression based on your conquests both military and strategic. Each individual mission is also graded on various criteria allowing for bonuses as well as the chance to deploy your troops more than once in a single day. Funnily enough even with this additional complexity in addition to the multitude of stats, levelling up and experience point gathering the game is kept pretty simple and never devolves into an overload of stats.
In fact, this is probably the first strategy game with an intuitive tutorial, one that's built into the early missions of the game and entirely optional - simply click on the explanation or not.
The tutorial entries are part of the in-game encyclopaedia, where each maneuver, item and skill is intuitively detailed easing players into the world. Even the awesome Company of Heroes had specific tutorial missions where players were "taught" how to select units, pan the camera, and make them attack. It's great to see Relic taking the effort to make each part of the game feel, well, "just right".
Now, if the actual gameplay itself were akin to other action RPGs with similar stat building and looting, we'd be in trouble. It's here where the action-packed gameplay takes a natural progression from the style seen in the first Dawn of War and Company of Heroes. With realistic physics, a destructible environment and line of sight accuracy between your units and enemies, strategy plays a large part in how you tackle each mission. Using the environment plays a key part in your strategy, as well as your squads' abilities. Keeping your main heavy gunner units in cover, using scouts to map surrounding areas, grenadiers to clear out buildings, assault units to jump into and confuse enemy infantry, and having your main commander use his melee skills to send large enemies flying, are all potential strategies. Allowing players to have control of their squads and their make-up will allow them to essentially play the game as they see fit. Unfortunately, the strategies you choose can be used verbatim on almost every mission, where objectives rarely differ from 'destroy this guy' or 'blow up that thing', leaving experimentation in play and attack styles up to the player. Do you mix it up or keep doing what works?
But the criticism is a minor one, as the gameplay in an action-RPG has never looked or played so good. With realistic physics and a destructible environment comes a heavy tax on the old video-card but if yours is up to it you're in for a visual treat as Relic's Essence Engine once again proves that it's one the best when it comes to large scale particle and environment effects. Those expecting a traditional RTS game (well similar to Company of Heroes, anyway) can breathe a sigh of relief, as the game is far from a mindless Diablo-clone; it's truly an enjoyable and fresh experience. The blend of strategy, RPG, and mission deployment works well, making this equally the most enjoyable and unusual strategy experience in a while.
It's unusual as opposed to disappointing simply because of the pedigree - this comes from the developer of the original Dawn of War and Company of Heroes, both of which had fantastic multiplayer components. Their action based gameplay whilst retaining a focus on 'armies' kept things suitably intense, and with Dawn of War II, without bases and armies you'll ask yourself 'where does this leave the multiplayer?' Well surprisingly robust, whilst remaining both similar and different to the single-player campaign. There's still no base building; instead each player chooses from one of the four races, their leader/hero, and begins with a single structure in which to recruit reinforcements. Multiplayer games and skirmishes play similar to Company of Heroes, where strategic resources are captured allowing players to recruit better units, upgrade their existing units, whilst vying for majority control of the map. Majority control will count down your opponents ticket counter (ie control points), where getting this down to zero results in a victory. Like the single-player game, you control multiple squads, but unlike the single-player game you purchase upgrades and research new skills in-game. This is done without the need to build structures, so instead of having to build an armoury to upgrade to your assault squad's armour, simply select the squad and use the game's intuitive upgrade tree. Essentially what this does is amp up the action from the word go, and when played with teams, proves to be a pretty amazing experience.
Without a doubt Dawn of War II is a great game, one that no strategy or action-RPG fan should pass up.
There's definitely room for growth and the game is not without issues from the 'weird bug' or 'crash to desktop' variety. But above all that, Dawn of War remains incredibly addictive and should prove to have a strong multiplayer community in the months to come. In fact this is the first 'strategy' game to be released in a long time with enormous potential for additional content/expansions.