In case you were wondering, outside of a couple of excellent expansions, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II came out way back in 2009. So long ago that it was a Games for Windows title, where the novelty of in-game achievements had yet to become a big thing for PC games. Which is a roundabout way of saying that some of us have been waiting a while now for the next instalment in the Dawn of War series. Great examples of strategy gaming that, alongside the Company of Heroes franchise, have proven time and again that developer Relic are one of the most interesting studios working in the genre today.
But unlike Company of Heroes, where each new game and expansion played off and expanded on what had come before, Dawn of War took a somewhat bold left turn with the release of Dawn of War II. Coming after Company of Heroes it took its ‘always moving forward and utilising cover’ mechanics and combined those with the action-RPG stylings of Diablo. With levelling up, coloured loot to find, and heroic abilities to use. This proved to be somewhat divisive at the time, with fans of the original Dawn of War missing the ability to amass large Warhammer 40,000 armies and take them into battle.
Dawn of War III in a way is a return to the series’ roots, albeit one that feels more like a Blizzard strategy game than anything that has come before. So, another left turn then. This time into the realm of Warcraft III, StarCraft, and MOBAs.
Although my deep love of classic RTS gaming is known around these parts, my deeper love for the action-RPG genre meant that I was kind of hoping that Dawn of War III would continue the trend established with Gabriel Angelos’ Dawn of War II adventures with the Orks and Eldar. Although my expectations on what to expect have been firmly set for quite a while now, it’s a shame that the inclusion of Elite style characters or heroes follows the extremely slow progression seen in most MOBAs. Where new abilities or variants only come after you’ve played countless hours with them across both the campaign and multiplayer. A minor gripe to be sure, but worth noting.
This may seem like a strange place to start the review proper, but it also highlights one glaring issue with the campaign. In that the journey of Gabriel Angelos of the Space Marines, Farseer Macha of the Eldar, and Gorgutz ‘Ead’unter of the Orks is a mostly static affair. With little customisation to be had across the lengthy campaign. So like Warcraft III, their role is to simply augment your army and drive the story forward.
But even so, Dawn of War III’s campaign is for the most part impressive. And lengthy too. The way in which it shifts perspective between each mission to showcase the next chapter in the entwined Space Marine, Eldar, and Ork storyline is commendable. And thanks to the hilarious antics of Gorgutz ‘Ead’unter, fun to watch too. The story, which revolves around the return of a mysterious planet and some sort of ancient artefact, provides the setting for all three races to work both with and against each other. And it's all set against the backdrop of some truly stunning planets and locales. Again, Dawn of War II came out in 2009, so even though there’s dozens of more units on screen this time around, Dawn of War III is a visually impressive game. And one that you’ll need a decent rig to get the most out of.
The missions themselves are multi-stage affairs, opening in scope and strategy over the course of an hour or so. But strangely without checkpoints, so be sure to save often. Unlike the squad-only focus of Dawn of War II, base building, gathering resources, and upgrading units and vehicles make a (welcome) return. And so initially, the look and feel is one of a traditional RTS. But like Relic’s other titles, resource gathering is tied around capturing strategic points on a map. And controlling and managing armies means that they will usually be located on the frontlines, ready for battle.
The inclusion of Elites may feel like a carryover from Dawn of War II, but without the associated RPG mechanics they’re more MOBA-characters than anything else. Called in at various intervals (depending on how many Elite points you have) their abilities are tied to QWE on the keyboard, and unlocked the moment they spawn in. In terms of impact, Elite units can indeed change the tide of battle -- and in the campaign, they’re indispensable. That’s not to say that a large army isn’t required or useful, but to succeed in Dawn of War III you can’t have one without the other. But controlling up to three Elites, in addition to a large army that also have abilities, can quickly devolve into a micromanagement nightmare. Thankfully this is alleviated by some great AI, where squads who are even given the broadest of commands will know who or what to attack first.
Which becomes an invaluable part of coming to terms with switching between different units or Elites to trigger abilities. A learning curve that still exists even if you’re an RTS fan. In terms of the Elites themselves each race comes with a number to choose from, ranging from single commander type units to super-squads and even giant building size monstrosities. The latter of which are both amazing to watch and
The only downside to this screen full of action approach is that the battlefields themselves are nowhere near as dynamic or strategically nuanced as the ones found in Company of Heroes or Dawn of War II. Instead cover-fire is limited to specific race-neutral bunkers, and the placement of squads only has a minor impact to the outcome of a skirmish. This makes sense in the context of controlling a screen’s worth of Orks and taking them into battle, but it’s something we’re sad to see scaled back. Instead, the core strategy in Dawn of War III becomes what units and Elites you have, when you’re going to use their abilities, and when you’re going to make a move.
Although mechanically similar, Dawn of War III becomes a very different experience when you’re playing multiplayer. Even though from a campaign perspective the look and feel of the game is mostly traditional, it’s with the multiplayer side of things where the MOBA-stylings come to the fore. And Dawn of War III continues the series’ trend of trying something different each time out. Instead of traditional competitive multiplayer modes or maps, which would also totally work in Dawn of War III, players are instead dropped into maps where they’re placed on opposing ends and need to take out the other team’s core to win. After completing a set of objectives. Mechanically, everything else is like the campaign -- Elites and unites join the battle at certain intervals, and it’s up to each player to build the units required to push and defend each objective.
Based on that description it might be hard to imagine how it plays out, but essentially it means that teams will need to constantly push out units and make moves as opposed to building up an army for ‘one big attack.’ Although that style of play still exists, it’s safe to say that once the audience comes to terms with this newish style of RTS multiplayer gaming, matches and battles will become action-packed affairs. And as exciting to watch unfold as any MOBA out there. It’s a fascinating approach that is sure to have both its supporters and detractors, so it’ll be interesting to watch it unfold over the upcoming weeks and months.
But even so, we’d love for Relic to introduce some classic multiplayer modes, and a return of Dawn of War II’s fun Last Stand mode.
Large scale sci-fi strategy is a genre that will hopefully be here for many years to come. And at its core that’s what Dawn of War III is, and what its campaign and multiplayer highlight – epic sci-fi strategy with armies of varied units fighting against different races in heated and intense battles. It’s no secret that developer Relic understands this genre well, which in turn means that the balance and differences to be found among the Space Marines, Orks, and Eldar -- not only in units but in presentation and characterisation -- shines throughout. Which makes the addition of MOBA-like elements less of an experiment, than it is a different and fun approach. And just like the action-RPG direction of the second outing, Dawn of War III once again has made us eagerly anticipate what’s next for the series.