'Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II' PC Review

March 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Dawn of War II is a rather strange mix of real-time strategy and role-playing elements that you’ll either get, love and cherish; or hate, curse and despise. When many games at the moment are trying to do ‘bigger and better’, Relic goes and does something completely different; instead of just doing a by-the-numbers sequal to the original Dawn of War, they decide to make fundamental changes to the gameplay – in essence – making it a whole different game, and at the risk of alienating a loyal fanbase no less. The question is: does the gambit pay off?

Well – for me – yes, yes it does. But then, I didn’t like the original all that much. I felt the whole game was a little cumbersome. Along with the base building side, there was a lot of emphasis on troop customization, and it just felt like too much detail in a game that didn’t need it (others will certainly disagree). That, and a completely lackuster story, made the game a little dull in my opinion.

Dawn of War II gets rid of all that. There is no longer any base building involved, no researching and no resource collecting. In this game, you are restricted to four squads (out of five) at any one time – and there is no method for producing units. These are likely to be huge sticking points for a lot of people. For me, they are improvements to a a game which was a little convuluted before. because now,

Instead of dealing with real-time strategy, we are dealing real-time tactics. Each squad under your command is specialised, each having their own advantages and disadvantages; it is up to you, the commander, to use them wisely. In each mission, you have just those four squads, and nothing else. And although the squad leaders can be revived and the grunts replenished throughout various points, you are still stuck with those lowly four. This change is reflected in the change of emphasis in gameplay, which has you focusing a lot more on the micromanagement side of things – selecting special abilities, formations and tactical planning – instead of just mass producing units and shoving them out the front door.

The second important, and unusual aspect, is that the game has its own RPG-style stats and levelling system. Each of your squads has a level and grow in experience through killing the enemy, completing missions and achieving set objectives. As your characters gain levels, they become stronger, learn new abilities and are able to equip new and more powerful weapons and accessories. And there lies another major addition: loot. As you go through missions, you are awarded with weapons and equipment from friend and foe alike, which you can then choose to equip in the load-out screen in between levels.

The missions themselves generally feel less like strategy maps and more like RPG dungeons. Many a time, you will be given an objective to find and destroy a number of targets, including some kind of mini-boss character. The missions mostly come in two varieties: destroy and fetch. Also, due to the limited number of levels, there is a good chance you will replay certain maps over again. As a result, the game risks being repetitive but, I think, narrowly avoids being so for a number of reasons. Firstly. the gameplay mechanics keep the game challenging and engaging, and allow you to be creative and inventive with how you approach situations. Also, the missions are actually relatively short – each normally lasting around twenty to thirty minutes. Besides, you are shifted around from setting to setting so frequently that the game never really gets to the point of feeling like a drag or a chore. And lastly, you’ve got all the RPG elements – the loot drops, the levelling system – which acts as an incentive for you to press on.

The campaign itself takes the form of a non-linear map, from which you can choose which missions to play and in what order you want to play them in. You have a choice of essential and optional missions – the former of which move the story along, the latter, being an excuse to gain more experience and loot. As you play through the campaign, there are certain strategic buildings which can be captured and allow your squads to wield special abilities. Capture a communication ray, for example, and you will have access to the orbital bombardment ability; capture the a temple, and you will be given an ability which grants all squad members invulnerability for a short period of time. Many of these strategic points act as the focus of the majority of optional missions, usually asking you to defend them against sporadic waves of enemy troops.

Ironically, the story is greatly influenced by that of Starcraft‘s, which, itself, heavily borrowed from the Warhammer 40K universe (a snake eating its own tail, perhaps?). The human worlds are under attack from the Orks, who have been spurned on by the Eldar (or Protoss), who in turn, are trying to save themselves from the impending doom of The Tyranids (or Zerg) – an arachnid-like race which shares a hive mind and is completely bent on annihilating everything. The story is derivative and not all that interesting, and the same applies to the characters of the campaign. None of your squad leaders have what you would call ‘winning personalities’, nor do any of the other ancillary human characters. The Orks are exactly what you’d imagine them to be: brutish, thuggish, badly-spoken, stupid etc. The Eldar are a mixture of technology, faux-mysticism and self-importance. I think it’s pretty clear that Relic made the campaign not to revolutionise the art of story-telling, but so they could design certain aspects of the game around it. Bearing this in mind, I can forgive relic for not providing anything remarkable on the story-front.

And now we come to the multi-player, which is more true to the original game. Maps consist of a series of interspersed victory and resource points which need to be captured in order to win. When under your control, these points continually feed the player income from which he can use to purchase units and upgrades. The squad limit cap is now off, so you can build as many as you want, and all races are unlocked. Furthermore, you can purchase, upgrade and outfit individual squads and characters on-the-fly with weapons, armour and accessories. There are two gameplay modes: Annihilation and Control Point Victory. Annihilation mode means that you have to destroy your opponent’s units, defenses and base to win; Control Point Victory is where there are certain victory points in the map which need to be captured and held until yours or the enemy’s score counter goes down to zero.

The multi-player works well but – as usual for games of this genre – the learning curve is steep, and a hefty amount of hot-key management is required to win. It’s a lot faster paced than the single-player campaign, and so if you can adapt to this new tempo, then you’ll fit right in; if not, then you’ll still have the single-player. There have been a lot of negative comments made about the Games for Windows implementation; I haven’t been bothered by it personally. Apart from forcing you start a LIVE user account, it isn’t that intrusive. It also isn’t a particularly well-designed service, but the key here is that you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.

It’s very difficult to know who to recommend this game too. It’s not a strategy game, and it’s not an RPG. ‘Real-time tactics’ seems like the most appropriate label I suppose. It’s a great game, with fantastic art direction, an interesting and diverse single-player experience and a solid multi-player component – which plays like a game in itself anyway. You have to applaud Relic for being this gutsy with a franchise like this, where are just so many fanboys that you could very easily piss-off. I think, though, that if you come to the game with no expectations of what it should be like, you’ll find it to be a refreshing and interesting gameplay experience. For ardent fans of the original, whether you’ll enjoy the game will very clearly be hit-or-miss.

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