The space marines are back and ready for even more real-time bloodletting. The first Dawn of War game was a visceral affair wrapped up in a fairly traditional real-time strategy shell. This time, Relic Entertainment has opted to challenge some of those RTS conventions we’re so used to.
The single-player campaign in Dawn of War II tells the tale of the blood ravens, a space marine chapter who become the central figures in a mysterious plot by the Eldars, a race of ancients. While the Eldars are seemingly stirring up Ork aggression against the Imperium, there is actually a greater threat looming on the horizon.
You’ll take your blood raven squads across several worlds, plotting attacks and defending key strategic assets. All the while, your team grows more powerful with new items and abilities.
The story is told primarily through text and voice, which can be listened to while you fiddle with your squad loadouts. There are also some nice prerendered cutscenes thrown in for good measure. This is in contrast to the Company of Heroes games and the first Dawn of War which primarily used in-game cutscenes. In the case of Dawn of War II, pairing down the story elements was a good call as it allows the player to get to the more interesting parts of the game more quickly.
In Dawn of War II, the single-player and multiplayer games are very different beasts. The single-player campaign focuses exclusively on a handful of hero squads led by your force commander--a single space marine powerful enough to take on dozens of enemies at a time. Tactical, heavy, assault, and scout squads back him up, and each comes with a unique sets of abilities.
Base building is conspicuously absent. In its place is a robust leveling mechanic that often makes Dawn of War II feel more like an action RPG. As your squads level up, you can assign earned experience points towards health, ranged attack, melee attack, and energy, which is used to activate special abilities.
New abilities can be learned over time depending on how you’ve spent your experience points. Also, over the course of each mission, you’ll find wargear, which you can equip to give your squads additional attack and defensive options. It’s an interesting system that gives players plenty to do during and in-between missions.
The campaign structure hints at non-linearity with primary and optional missions popping up. Even during missions, players are encouraged to explore each map and secure certain strategic assets which, in turn, help the player out during later missions.
The multiplayer and skirmish modes ditch many of the RPG mechanics found in the campaign. Base building is still nowhere to be found, though. Instead, the game favors a single, upgradable structure from which all of the units emerge. Players then vie for control over several strategic points across the map. Some of these provide the resources necessary to maintain and upgrade your army, while others, once claimed, slowly eat away at your enemy’s victory counter. Get the other team to zero and you win. There’s also a more traditional, elimination mode where you must seek out and destroy the enemy base.
Unlike the campaign, which only lets the player control the space marines, the multiplayer mode opens things up, giving players the option to control orks, eldar, and the vicious tyranids. Although there are some similarities between each race, they all play very differently.
Currently, multiplayer is available across seven different maps. The emphasis here is on larger maps that support up to six players on two teams.
The campaign is of a decent length, but you’ll really get your money’s worth from Dawn of War II’s multiplayer options.
Our initial impression of the campaign was favorable. Focusing on squads and combat instead of babysitting a base is refreshing. And because each squad under your command has a range of powers and abilities that need to be used effectively, battles are never as simple as drag-selecting your entire army and clicking on the enemy. Like Company of Heroes, players need to make use of cover, facing, and the shelter of structures dotting the map.
Generally, each mission requires the player to secure certain points on the map or travel to specific locations. Invariably, these missions end in a boss battle of all things. These bosses are very powerful units that require a combined effort from your entire squad to defeat.
Ability use, which could have been an unwieldy mess given the number of special powers you can have, is actually very easy to control. Players who favor mouse control will have no trouble selecting units and powers quickly and easily. Hotkeys for each squad and ability are equally simple to access and use.
It’s the structure of the campaign itself that’s disappointing. As mentioned earlier, the campaign hints at a greater non-linearity that simply isn’t there. The mission select screen tracks changes, like tyranid infestation, happening on each planet. Other elements, like the capturing of key points on a mission map can give players additional bonuses like powerful abilities or extra mission deployments during a day.
But the whole thing is ambiguous, and worse yet, largely irrelevant. None of these mechanics are adequately explained in the manual. And the missions themselves are generally easy enough that you don’t really need the additional help.
The sloppy dynamic aspect of the campaign in combination with the lack of campaigns for races other than the space marines strongly suggest that Relic bit off more than it could chew and perhaps plan on offering a more complete package later on.
Fortunately, multiplayer is interesting, exciting, and complete. Though you might miss base building initially, there’s more than enough to contend with. Multiplayer battles are fast, furious, and relentless. Each squad you deploy has a range of upgrade options. Figuring out what kind of offensive and defensive skills you need over the course of a battle and then upgrading accordingly is a big part of the strategy. As is knowing when to beat a hasty retreat. In this way, the game plays a lot like a quicker and much bloodier version of Company of Heroes.
Newer players will probably gravitate to playing as space marines or orks, while more experienced players will opt for the more nuanced eldar and tyranid. Whichever race you choose, the game appears focused not so much on perfect balance rather than a wealth of options and strategies that are always shifting. Adaptability, not build order, is the key.
Relic has nudged up the visuals from its last Company of Heroes game, and Dawn of War II looks absolutely striking. It’s far beyond the visuals from the first Dawn of War. Most impressive are the landscapes, which are not only functional--providing lots of cover for your squads--but realistically organic. They feel less like purposely designed maps and more like actual places.
All of this graphical splendor comes at a cost. The highest setting will test the beefiest of machines. If you bump the graphics down a notch or two, you’ll get good performance with very little compromise in visual quality.
Voice-work is mixed. Incidental troop acknowledgements and reports are excellent and fitting with the disposition of each race--especially the orks, which are always fun to listen to. The campaign dialogue, on the other hand, is dry, cliché, space opera stuff. It’s delivered by actors whose voices are becoming all too familiar thanks to their work in other games.
An interesting, but ultimately weak, single-player experience is a bit of a disappointment to be sure. But the excellent and innovative multiplayer makes Dawn of War II worth the price for real-time strategy fans. The emphasis on conflict rather than base building all but ensures matches that are filled with excitement, but this definitely isn’t an action game. You’re going to have to use your head to emerge victorious, and Dawn of War II is great fun for the competitive multiplayer crowd.