Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III PC Review

After my time spent with Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III, it is clear that developers, Relic Entertainment, love to experiment with the series. It’s not often developers are keen to do something like that, but the evidence with the first Dawn of War and how it invoked typical RTS mechanics, such as base and unit building, but switched it all up for its sequel, Dawn of War II. The latter removed any signs of base building and instead aimed to evolve the concept of small unit squads with special abilities lead by a captain hero unit. It also factored in the importance of cover, similar to their other RTS series, Company of Heroes. It might have been different than the first game, but the loot feature and light RPG concepts offered something refreshing that proved you don’t have to copy and paste to bring a great sequel, even if it upset some of the hardcore fans of the original game. I have a feeling that Dawn of War III is about to follow similar footsteps, because Relic Entertainment has once again decided to change the series for its third entry.

The campaign, which continues on from the previous games with returning heroes (you do not need to play any of them to understand this), focuses on bringing a narrative that includes all three of the game’s factions, Space Marines (namely Blood Ravens), Orks and Eldar, which get equal time across the game’s 17 missions. It begins by thrusting the player into the story on the side of the Space Marines, as Chapter Master Gabriel Angelos comes to help fight off the Orks on planet Cyprus Ultima, the home of House Varlock, while out of the blue, the Elder arrive planning an invasion. The story switches between the races while the conflict escalates, filling in the story from different perspectives to build the bigger picture about a legendary artefact called the Spear of Khaine, and of course, someone from each race wants to grab it. It’s typical Warhammer 40k storytelling, full of violence, twists, alliances and the fun that Orks add (WAAAGH!) to the equation, but generally, the plot is one you can predict, especially for anyone who is deep into the source material.

It’s clear that the campaign is built to service the player to learn each of the three factions’ traits, since there is a lot of bespoke elements that make up how the Space Marines, Orks and Eldar work. It’s nice to be able to play as each race as the story moves forward, learning a new mechanic in each chapter for either the core gameplay or one of its factions, but the constant switching means you have to be alert to adjust to the current team in use. I would have preferred the progression of the campaign be done similar to Grey Goo, another RTS where three races exist, only that the story is done by bulking the campaign together in groups, giving all the teams a chance to let you understand how they play, but without the need to be constantly readjusting strategy and micromanagement when switching sides.

As for the campaign itself, well, it’s a mixed bag of some great and monotonous scenarios. It’s the start that is a bit of a slow burner, bringing linear map design to employ its tutorial learning. As the campaign pushes forward it begins to get more exciting, more thrilling, as the encounters increase, the maps begin to open up and the game starts allowing its mechanics to breath for the latter half of the game. The missions are fairly standard affair, with defence, assault and some point-to-point capturing – it never goes out of its way to invent new mission designs, as it seems more focused on making sure you know how to play the game once the campaign is over.

Overall, once it gets going, the campaign delivers a fun, entertaining experience before it is over and you are ready to dive into the multiplayer. Sadly, there’s no cooperative to be found in the campaign, probably due to the return of base building, leaving it harder to incorporate a second player without big changes to the level design. Dawn of War II limited the amount of unit groups controlled by one player to allow a second to come in and take control of the remaining squads. By the time the 18 or so hours are up (on normal difficulty) for the campaign to come to its closure, you should have a good idea about key game mechanics and how each faction plays to their strengths.

Beginning with Space Marines, these guys are the most direct to get to grips with, acting as the default base team with a good mix of vehicles and units making them a good start for anyone who is coming to the Dawn of War series for the first time. That’s not to say they don’t have their own traits over the rest of the teams. Space Marines can deal some serious damage with their small squad formations, because their weapons smack with such force, but they can also take punishment due to their power armour and armoured vehicles. Once this race gets building, they can become an aggressive, unstoppable force that allows for quick assaults with their Assault Marines landing on opposing units to knock back and scattered them, with other units left to pop huge bolter caps in their ass, or use tanks to give the bulking muscle marines solid power over long distances. Space Marines are backed up with two special traits, the ability to build any unit and call it down from the sky with the drop pod function, allowing up to three drop pods at once for reinforcement buffs (and act as free artillery bombardments). The other is the deployment of a battle standard, a flag planted in the ground that has an area of effect buff for anyone who stands within its coverage. Great for getting the upper hand in close quarters encounters.

I feel the Eldar are the opposite of the Space Marines, opting to go for more run and flee tactics. The small human sized units are fast, but don’t have much health, instead, Eldar units have a shield on top of their health that acts as additional protection. Shields regenerate slowly, but can be increased if units are within range of a Webway Gate, a special building that the Eldar can plant with a Bonesinger to offer that bonus, along with faster movement speed. While not required, the Eldar should focus covering the map with Webway gates to reap the benefits of its buff. Also, and one feature of the Eldar that makes them sneaky little bastards, is the ability to teleport any base structure to discovered parts of the map for quick relocation, but they can also teleport units between structures, making for quick movement on the battlefield to confuse the opponent. This also translates into the Eldar being the more complex of the three races.

Lastly, the Orks, oh boy, these crazy green creatures are a blast to play, bringing amusing mechanics and large enemy groups to distinguish themselves against the other two. Orks can build Waaagh towers that act as weak defence turrets, but their biggest gift to the Orks is to unlock additional units to be built. Other races have to research to unlock Tier II and Tier III units, but Orks can build Waaagh towers to do the same job, with five on the map being the amount needed for all upgrades. These towers can be signalled to begin a Waaagh chant, buffing Orks nearby for a limited time while demonstrating post-apocalyptic fire shows and drum beats to get the Orks pumped for a fight. Ork units can pick up the scrap from exploded vehicles, buildings and scrap that falls from the sky to upgrade themselves, and bigger piles of scrap can be converted into vehicles by the Orks’ builder unit, Gretchin, offering a way of reinforcements while out in the middle of a battlefield. Once you get the hang of the micromanagement the Orks have with their use of scrap and Waaagh towers, these green menaces can overwhelm, but above all, I just love their design and characteristics, making even a failed attempt at overthrow an enemy base entertaining, because of the carnage and war cry banter that comes with it.

So far, so normal sounding, but Dawn of War III isn’t a return to the original game, it is actually an hybrid of the previous titles. A new part of its gameplay is Elites. These are essentially a steroid version of hero units from Dawn of War II. There are a few Elite units per team that cover specific roles – Nuker, Support, Assassin, Tank, Crowd Control – but only three can be brought into battle, which are selected at the start of the game when picking a race. Elites are packed with skills activated with hot keys and a few passive skills. Each Elite has a elite point rating – the more points needed the stronger the unit is – and this often determines their place in battle. Elite points are gained over time or collected from resource nodes. They are not used for spending, but as a time limit to stop instant access to these powerful units. Once the Elite unit dies, a cooldown has to pass before they can be cast again. An Elite unit like Ronahn can be summoned at three points, he’s a sniper with long range, so is helpful for the early mid game. On the other hand, the 10 point costing Imperial Knight Solaria in her hulking massive titan can add incredibly offensive momentum to the Space Marines with her scary missile salvo. dual chainguns and insane amount of health points, but cannot be accessed until much later in a battle. Elite units have a huge impact on the flow of a match that battles feel dependent on them.

Seeing all these cool Elite designs, even though each race is as diverse as they are, means I wanted more. Looking at the history of the Dawn of War series, it is fair to say that this game will receive a large expansion pack that will bring in the missing races. I can only imagine how the developers will craft the traits and Elite units for the Tyranids, Necrons or the demonic infusion of Chaos. There is a lot they could include in expansion packs, but until then, I’ll have to keep on bashing heads in with the Orks in multiplayer.

The multiplayer is where the biggest changes come to Dawn of War III, something that the campaign doesn’t fully show off. While the campaign prepares people for the game’s races and Elite units, it does not give an indication  how aggressive, fast and focus one has to be to deal with the hectic action and multiple micromanagement across squads and the Elite units. My first match was an awakening to how constantly involved you need to be, because once first contact is made with the opposition it’s a none stop push from both sides until someone cannot defend any longer, and this is due to the design of the new, and only, multiplayer mode.

Up to six people can partake in multiplayer across either 1v1, 2v2 or 3v3. This is a team-based multiplayer, so no every man for themselves death matches. I have heard people mention about Dawn of War III‘s multiplayer being more a MOBA than an RTS – it’s not. It has some concepts taken from that genre, such as the way the maps have clear paths to the enemy encampment, which you could label as lanes, but this game is very much an RTS that still needs players to build units. To win in multiplayer, you need to push through enemy defences, with each of the routes containing a shield generator. Knock that out and you can push closer, taking out a huge powerful turret that once destroyed leaves the enemy’s Power Core open. At the same time, the enemy is trying to do the same to your base. It’s an absorbing situation, one that favours the mid to late game, as the shields and turrets stop early rushes from being overpowering.

Bizarrely, apart from the weak Waaagh towers and listening posts on resource points, there is no defence towers for any of the races that can be used to fortify one’s base. That job has to be left to units, which seems so weird to me. I can only assume they did not want people to turtle themselves in within their base, so with the unit cap, a player must think about leaving a squad behind to protect their base or use them to push forward. A new key element working towards helping momentum for losing sides that stops against early game defeat is the introduction of Escalation Phases. Beginning at phase 1, where any unit that dies refunds 25% of its cost back to your resource pool, every 10 minutes, the next phase kicks in, up until four, with each phase bringing different benefits. Normally, the higher the phase, the less refunded resources on death, but the more resources gained from resource points and the more health structures gain to keep them alive against the late game devastating Elite units.

Along each path are resource capture points that need grabbing to reap the benefits of more resources to build more units, and the more you have, the less the opponent has, and this has a helping hand scattering the intense and chaotic battles across the map, and it never stops once the first contact begins. The design of the multiplayer mode and its maps translates into engrossing action that taxes the mind and strategy of each player. At first, there is a problem that all this can be overwhelming to keep up with it, especially when bringing the Elite units to have them synergize together and with your team on top of micromanaging their abilities and handling your large army and the pockets of cover scattered around the battlefield (there’s no freely available cover on every wall any more). As a person who enjoys the chaotic nature of war in an RTS and doesn’t like waiting around for action to begin, this mode is a ton of fun for me. There is nothing like it out there, a mode that is designed to keep you in the action once it kicks off. It is stressful, and there is a learning curve, but once you understand how to handle the multiplayer, it’s feverishly good fun.

Still, there are some shortcomings with the multiplayer. Firstly, I’m not a balance expert, so it will take weeks to find out how teams are balanced – I feel some units are destroyed too easily, maybe to make the Elite units more attractive, as some of those feel overpowering. Another issue is the map selection, as currently there is a small selection of eight, which is made even shorter if you think how each one is dedicated to a player count – only three are available for 3vs3. I also do wish for an option for traditional multiplayer, as there is only one objective in the current multiplayer, but I can understand the developers wanting to not spread out the users across multiple game modes.

Playing in multiplayer or the campaign rewards experience points for any Elite units used, along with skull rewards that are used to unlock doctrines that buff specific traits or units. Just like Elite units, only three doctrines can be assigned, although, there is a larger selection to pick from, opening a whole new can of worms when it comes to picking buffs that support your play style. Progression doesn’t carry across each race, so you will need to keep using the individual Elite units to level them up and unlock skills, colours and skins for them. The doctrine unlocks wasn’t something I was keen on, because it favours people who put in a lot of hours, like the developers wanted to reward people who kept playing, but buffs like these I feel should be all unlocked from the start. You can purchase them in any order, but you won’t know how they favour your style unless you use them, which requires buying with the limited skulls gained in each match, normally around 150-200, with traits costing on average about 50, but you have to remember that Elite units also need purchasing, which are 200 each also.

Dawn of War III brings with it a campaign that starts off on the slow end, but eventually warms up to be an enjoyable, if fairly standard, single player mode. It’s the inventive multiplayer that is the biggest change, and one that will upset traditionalists who wanted a return to the original game. The blend of both predecessors’ ideas to bring the mix of base building and hero powered Elite units goes well with the new focus on exhilarating, faster-paced multiplayer. But if you hate the idea of a game that promotes aggression, pushing hard and relying on having such powerful units that can turn the tide of battle, then your experience with the game is no doubt going to wane. While it won’t be a genre defining twist nor shape the future of RTS multiplayer, it’s still remains a unique take on the typical RTS conventions and one I’ve grown to relish more as I keep playing.

8 out of 10