Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II PC Review

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It’s not often you come across a game that mixes in two majorly different types of gameplay elements and at the same time turns out to be remarkably well implemented. Off the top of my head I can only think of Puzzle Quest that manages to fit that bill with its mix of puzzle and RPG gameplay. Relic Entertainment, the Canadian development house that bought you the original Dawn of War as well as other highly praised Real Time Strategy games, Company of Heroes and the Homeworld series, is making a big change to the Dawn of War Franchise.

In a way this game could have become its own franchise in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. That is how different the gameplay is compared to the first. To put it in simple words, Dawn of War 2 is a real time strategy role playing game. That’s right, this game is part RPG, think Company of Heroes meets Blizzard’s Diablo and you have a gist of what this game is.

Set in the 41st millennium, Dawn of War 2’s campaign follows the story of a group of space marines from the Blood Ravens chapter as they struggle to fight against the Orks and Elder, while at the same time trying to come up with a way to get rid of the swarm invasion race known as the Tyranids. These are the four races that feature in Dawn of War 2.

As soon as you begin the single player campaign you’ll notice some of the changes that Relic has made to the Dawn of War series. One of the first is how the story plays out. It no longer feels like you are playing a god that is taking control over an army of rock-hard, drugged up, hardcore space marines that are out for blood. Instead the game has you entering your name because you’ve just become one of the youngest Force Commanders that the Blood Ravens have ever had in their history. Taking control of the silent Force Commander, it’s your job to lead your squad leaders to victory in battle. There’s no other race you can play as in the campaign, it’s solely focus is on the space marines.

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You’ll get to know lots about your squad leaders as before and after every mission you visit scenes on the planetary map where they are present to take part in the story and explain key aspects of why you are doing this. You’ll be seeing plenty of their faces speaking to you through the face portraits that appear as the story unfolds.

Campaign mode in Dawn of War 2 features a day cycle system, where every time you take on a mission, one day passes. The star map is the place where all your missions come in through distress calls. These appear on the map as areas on the planet and each one is a playable level. It’s kind of a remodelling of the campaign already seen in the later add-ons for the original Dawn of War. As you complete missions, more will open up on the planets you have access to and will follow on with the story. Also it’s not game over if you die, you’ll just lose a day and sometimes that optional mission will vanish, but you won’t see that taunting game over screen.

Now that Dawn of War has a stronger importance on characters, it no longer contains any sort of base building in the campaign mode. The game allows you to take your Force Commander and three other squad leaders and their squad members into battle with you, yep that’s it. So depending on who you take, some squad leaders will have 2 or 3 extra marines to bring along with the leader; you’ll never control more than 4 leaders, which means in one single mission, you won’t be controlling any more than around 10-12 marines in total. That’s minuscule when you come to think about what you could have in the first game. The small squad makes it feel as if you are playing a high octane action RPG, something along the lines or Diablo or say Dungeon Siege with its multiple character control.

The gameplay has changed to focus more on using cover as defence, borrowed from Relic’s other RTS series Company of Heroes, which put an emphasis on cover as a variable in battle. In Dawn of War 2 it’s one of the big gameplay focuses that will change the tide of war, especially on the harder settings. There’s no need to panic if a squad leader or his squad buddies die because if you capture strategic points on the battlefield, squad members will be returned to reinforce any members that died.

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All these changes mean the campaign missions take between 10-30 minutes to finish. The game’s maps are quite small and mixed in with the gameplay changes make for quick fights. The fights are so quick in fact that Relic decided that a save function wasn’t needed when you’re in a battle. Objectives need to be completed throughout the level, finishing these along with killing enemies will give your squad leaders experience points and new war gear that can be equipped to increase stats.

So you know I’m not kidding when I tell you Dawn of War 2 is part RPG; just like Diablo, World of Warcraft or pretty much any other action RPG on the market, the title of the war gear is colour coded. So you’ll be seeing some green armour or a blue flamethrower. This means you are always getting items that can improve your character as you traverse the campaign.

Finishing off a level will take you back to the planetary display, so apart from the cut scenes that appear here, this is your main area where you can swap your squad around and equip them with the new war gear you’ve found during a level. All of them are weapons you would find in the Warhammer 40,000 Universe; don’t be expecting to find something that looks like it was ripped out of Warcraft. A space marine with a brush would be highly amusing, but it isn’t going to be happening here. This area also allows excess to your squad after your squad leaders have levelled up. You can deal out their stat increases with the skill points you gain.

Squad leaders can’t get any higher than level 20, so you have to think deeply about which of the four stats you want to increase. These are health, melee, range and energy. Getting so far up the ladder in each one will unlock additional skills that can be used in battle. All this equipment, experience earning, levelling up and skills merge together really well in a genre you wouldn’t think would accept it so well. Yet Relic have done it and created a really good game to house all of this.

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It’s a game that allows the campaign to be replayed time and time again without feeling stale. Second time you might want to go all out with close combat rather than the last play, when you went with guns and heavy weapons. These varieties show how deep the combat is. There’s so many ways to go about taking on the enemy, be it flanking, throwing grenades to flush them out, hiding in buildings for extra cover or simply blowing stuff up, as a lot of the terrain is destructible in Dawn of War 2. All the tactical abilities that you know of are most likely useable in this game. It’s that diverse, but it won’t show unless you play on the hardest settings. The AI on normal is quite easy to beat by simply rushing or taking cover.

The campaign isn’t the longest but the optional quests add to the longevity. You don’t have to rush into the final mission if you feel that your squad isn’t capable of taking it on, just do some more side missions and get the gear you feel you need. It would have been nice to play as other races that are featured in the skirmish mode, but if the first game is any indication to go by, there’s going to be plenty of content coming for this series.

Co-operative play is featured for the campaign. This is for 2 players only as each player takes control of 2 of the 4 squad leaders on the battlefield. Also the game uses Games for Windows LIVE, which means anyone with a Live account, be it PC only or their 360 one, will be able to gain achievements from this game. The achievements are a mixed bag of multiplayer and single play; most of them aren’t incredibly difficulty to get.

Taking some of the elements from the campaign, the skirmish mode is where you’ll be the rest of the time once you’ve beaten the story. Skirmish mode allows you to control one of the four races of the game, be it Elder, Space Marines, Tyranids of Oaks. Each of the races has three heroes that you can select. Each has a tactic they specialise in, it could be something along the lines of focusing on stealth, defence, healing or even spells. Each one will level up opening up different abilities.

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Skirmish mode sees you start you off with one base. You still can’t build any more buildings, but that base will allow you to build units. You aren’t limited to just 4 squads this time, instead you are restricted by the population limit. Two key stats are important to multiplayer – the gathering of requisition and power – needed to be able to purchase units and upgrade your army. Taking over power nodes and capture points allows you to increase your intake of these and it feels a little more on the traditional side of an RTS when you are playing the skirmish mode. The characters still level up, but you are no longer giving them stat boosts manually. Weapons for your team are now bought using your requisition and power rather than just found randomly on the battlefield.

Multiplayer probably shows off the game’s cover mechanics better than playing through the campaign on the normal setting. Playing against a human opponent is always going to be less predictable than the computer and it’s this that lets Dawn of War 2 down a little. The AI just doesn’t adapt as well as it should and basically boils down to them either attacking or running away from you, without using cover to full effect.

Battles can be fought either one-on-one or three-on-three in skirmish. One other slight problem is the selection of maps. There’s nothing wrong with the maps themselves, it’s just there aren’t enough of them. The game comes with a measly nine skirmish maps, so if you’re a gamer who plays a lot, then you’ll get to the point where you’re a bit fed up with the few maps you have been given.

Dawn of War 2 feels like it was pumped with high production values. The game looks fantastic, especially when you zoom in the camera right up to the fights, allowing you to see all the blood gushing out of some unlucky Oak as your force commander rams that chain-sword right into his stomach. It’s a brutal game and it’s not afraid to throw a few gibs out now and then. Animations of the models are fluid and special effects are vigorous with all sorts going on all over the place, be it bullets flying from guns or buildings collapsing in a big cloud of smoke and explosions. Dawn of War 2 is a very gorgeous looking game and is up there with all the pretty boys of the RTS genre.

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Sound also gets the same treatment. The voice acting during the cut scenes is fine, but it’s the voices from the battlefield encounters that make it the day for players. The Oaks talk like simpletons while the Tyranids come screaming at you with their alien-like howl. It gives each race their own identity and no doubt works best for the Oaks because of their, shall I say, unique way of talking. Battle effects sound like they should, bullets have an impact about them, and you can tell by the sound of gunfire exactly which weapon is firing on screen.

Looking at Dawn of War 2 makes you see it as an alternative take on the franchise. It’s no longer a standard base building game and has moved to the opposite end of the scale. This may put off some of the hardcore purists who were huge fans of the game’s ancestor or if you enjoy building a massive base and creating a huge army. Really none of you should be panicking as no matter what had happened to the franchise, be it an improved graphical version of the last game in the series, or a fresh take on like Dawn of War 2, people would have complained either way. It took balls for Relic to take the series down to its roots, and has provided them with a great building block for the next title.

As it stands, Dawn of War 2 is a grand achievement that gives the player a new take on how conventional RTS games play. The new gameplay does create a few inconveniences with the enemy AI, but future attempts will be able to fine tune this problem. Overall it provides the player with adrenaline rushing action combined with RTS and RPG elements that right now can’t be found in any other RTS.

8/10

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Version tested: PC

Developer: Relic Entertainment

Publisher: THQ

Genre: Real Time Strategy