Review: Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II

wh40k_dow2.bx.rgb.m.jpg Real-Time Strategy Games (RTS) remain one of the last bastions of PC-only gaming. Well, ‘true’ RTS games anyway – there have been some console releases such as Tom Clancy’s End War and the recent Halo Wars, and while they are fun and are RTS, they have been changed to fit the limitations of consoles much like what was done with Civilization Revolution. That is not to say those games are bad – not in the least – but that the changes made take them very far away from the traditional style of play and hardcore emphasis of the core genre. That can be a good thing, as I’ve seen friends coming over to Civilization 4 and Warhammer after enjoying the console games. But that isn’t the topic here … instead, we look at how the highly anticipated sequel to the original Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War does in terms of delivering the depth of strategy and gameplay that hard-nosed grognards have anticipated.

To short-circuit my review – for true hardcore fans, there is little to find here other than disappointment.

That doesn’t mean that Dawn of War II is a bad game – far from it. It is just that there was such a high level of expectation built up by the original game that the sequel needed to be bigger and better in nearly every way to meet those expectations, but instead it is smaller and more limited, and worst of all loses some strategic elements that will make some RTS-fans really dislike the game. But for the majority of gamers this will go down as a very good game, albeit one that leaves you thinking of ‘what could have been’.

Technically the game is pretty impressive, so before I get to the gameplay for single- and multiplayer campaigns, let’s look at all of that stuff first.

The sound to me represents much of the game – it is very well done, but will leave you immediately comparing to the original and thinking that game was better. Music is high quality and fits well with the game as you play, but it is not particularly memorable and definitely will have fans of the original thinking ‘hmmm … I liked the old music best. So do I! Me too!’ (bonus points if you get that obscure non-gaming movie reference). Voice acting is generally very well done, with a few clunkers here and there. This is another comparison moment – some of the established characters have changed voices, and in every case I noticed the original was better (for example, Gabriel Angelos). Sound effects are well done also, but in what feels like another trend, quality outpaces quantity here as you begin to feel that you encounter repeated sounds even in different areas.

Switching to something universally positive … the controls. Here is a place where there wasn’t much need to mess with what worked – and they didn’t. The result is a very nicely controllable game with loads of customization options to keep things under control even during the wildest of battles. This has always been an issue for me in strategy games – I tend to love fast-action shooters but prefer turn-based strategy games, so when I play a RTS I need something that helps me keep things in check as I proceed, and the Dawn of War games have done a great job with this.

Graphically … well, we’re back to the same place as sound. The game looks awesome: the environments are colorful and detailed and full of life, each character model is extremely detailed and well animated, and all of the effects such as explosions and tracer fire and environmental damage and so on look simply stunning. In fact, in spite of my less than glowing intro and the ominous feeling you should have about what I’m about to say, let me be very clear that Dawn of War II isn’t just a quick-turn milking of a franchise. It is a huge and monumental effort that shows in the polish and care they put into every aesthetic detail.

So what about that gameplay …

As Matt mentioned recently, the terrifically mediocre PSP game Astonishia Story is getting a sequel called Crimson Gem Saga and is trying to get folks to pretend the original never existed. Perhaps Relic should have tried the same approach – it isn’t that Dawn of War was bad, quite the opposite. The original Dawn of War was such a great game with so much to offer both single-player and multi-player fans that it is very difficult for any follow-on to match.

Relic didn’t attempt to do a ‘me too’ sequel, instead choosing to change-up the gameplay and focus drastically, much to the chagrin of many fans of the original. Gone are the massive armies under your control, replaced by tactical squads of Space Marines taking your orders. Yes, Space Marines. In the single player campaign you can only control a single faction – contrast this with the original game, where by the last expansion you could control any of SEVEN factions, and you can understand people complaining about this game as being ‘too small’.

But rather than decide for you if the decision was good or bad, let me describe it a bit more: you control a relatively small group of units, and as you launch into a mission your focus is not on building bases and capturing resources and so on – you are managing forces and squad tactics the entire time. The original Dawn of War already had ‘scaled back’ base management that often made the battles frantic rather than nicely paced, but in Dawn of War II the scope of the conflicts is much smaller. You will be ordering your units to cover, focusing on individual strengths and exploiting enemy weaknesses, and never treating anyone as expendable.

In this regard the game relies heavily on its’ RPG elements: the story unfolds through cut scenes and squad banter between missions, and you learn that the personalities shown in those scenes nicely match up with the tactical strengths: the big brash guy is good with heavy weapons, and so on. As you progress through missions you will gain new equipment and skills for your squad members and gain levels that will make your Space Marines more powerful. The game starts pretty slowly, then gets interesting and much more challenging. Perhaps halfway through the game start to repeat – textures, how missions look and feel, enemy tactics, etc. – and soon you will feel that there isn’t much left for the single player campaign to offer. Unless you also want to take it on with friends in co-op mode, which is definitely fun!

The multiplayer game is ‘where it’s at’ for most RTS fans, and interestingly it is quite a different experience from the single player. You can choose from all four races, and launch right into a competitive match … and die. Seriously, while you were taking time to work through the single player campaign others have been honing their skills and are now waiting to eat you for lunch.

The basics of multiplayer are that players start with 500 points per faction, and three controllable locations. Capturing those locations causes your enemy’s points to drop … and the first to zero loses. Sounds simple, and perhaps it is a good thing the rules are fairly straightforward because the tactics and action are anything but simple. As is always the case, human opponents present a unique challenge no AI can ever duplicate – and that is true in the best and worst possible ways! You will have several approaches that make sense offensively and defensively, and then someone will roll in and wipe you out with a completely asinine approach!

You will likely start your first couple of matches as a Space Marine, assuming that everything you’ve learned in the campaign will help you on your way to victory. Sadly you will quickly realize that multiplayer balancing was still on the ‘to do’ list when the game was released, and that the Space Marines and Orks are the weakest factions, and the Eldar are the strongest, resulting in many lopsided victories. Even after things are balanced through patches, the game won’t deliver the intense battles found in another Relic masterpiece – Company of Heroes. That game delivered intense and visceral small-scale battles that have earned it a rightful place in the upper echelons of strategy gaming.

As I said at the beginning, there is a lot to criticize about this game, but you’ve also probably noticed that I recommend this as a ‘Buy It’. How do I reconcile these? It is about making comparisons and managing expectations. Dawn of War and Company of Heroes are not just great PC strategy games, they are two classic games that have earned a rightful place amongst the more respected games of the last decade. Failing to exceed those games certainly doesn’t make Dawn of War II a failure – but it does open the game up to rightful criticism and fan disappointment. That disappointment and contrast with two of the giants of the genre is what I have expressed here – this is a very good game, definitely worth buying for any fan of the genre, and full of hours upon hours of challenging gameplay.

Oh, one final thing – I played the Steam version of Dawn of War II, so it is tied into my account and I can always simply reinstall when I get a new PC. However, if you buy a boxed version you will find that you are required to have a ‘Games for Windows Live’ as well as a Steam account for both single player and multiplayer. Of course, this means that once installed you own this game forever since games registered on Steam cannot be sold or traded. Take that as a caveat before buying – some folks assume a non-Valve boxed game is safe from these restrictions.

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Pros:
+ Looks and sounds great
+ Loads of tactics involved
+ All four races have different styles

Cons:
– Not enough content
– Single player feels repetitive
– Multiplayer balance issues

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Relic
Release Date: 02/18/09
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-8

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!