Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II
The First Thing that comes to mind when I think of the original Dawn of War is a game with so may laser blasts per second that it was surprising there was no seizure safety warning placed in between the logos as it loaded. If you've only kept a loose grip on the development of Dawn of War II you'd be forgiven for thinking the new, more personalised and Company of Heroes-y approach to DOW would diminish this in some way. Not a jot. The swarms of laser-fire may have been cut down a little, but where the original game could overwhelm you in non-stop pyrotechnics, here you're so emotionally invested and buried in the action that the intensity never lets up.
There you'll be, readying yourself to kill some Eldar on a rainy, windswept planet you chose to visit from a blinking, somewhat non-linear, collection of missions. First up you'll have your commander, who you can name yourself and as such henceforth shall be known as MrBigjobs. Next up, you'll have your Assault squad who are adept at getting into the action with their big stompy metal boot and short-burst jet pack, your sneaky snipey Infiltrators and the brutish Devastators who walk loudly and carry big guns. The abilities of each variety of squad correspond with each other perfectly, and as you play you'll develop your own preferred tactics -and what's more be able to tweak your gruff and rude supersoldiers towards tactical zen. Wargear, Accessories, Attributes and Abilities are all earned in blood and experience points on the battlefield, but if the first thing you save up for isn't a chainsaw-sword for MrBigjobs then you're deranged.
As you play, the lack of base building is more than welcome. There's no babysitting, levels are short and sweet, hunkering down is due to necessity not habit, and if reinforcements are needed and not dried up, they are rocketed in from outer space with much visual and physical hullabaloo. Tactics are brought to the forefront and the brain is forced to whirr at a good click to keep up.
We'll have a deeper examination of DOW2s multiplayer next issue, but angry base enthusiasts can be soothed in that Relic are treating single and multiplayer games as different beasts. Multiplayer needs a lot more structure and pacing and so is a traditionalist affair, and as such has both resourcegathering and base-building. Be warned however that it'll all work through the coils of Games for Windows LIVE, whose incoming revamp we're all hoping won't be as utter ill-thought horse manure as the last time round.
Single-player wise it'll remain a solitary Space Marine campaign to play through for now, while playable singleplayer excursions for the Ork, Eldar and Tyranid forces wait in the wings for a flurry of expansions - a ploy Blizzard have picked up for with StarCraft II, releasing each single-player campaign seperately (not the first time Blizzard has raided Warhammer for ideas).
With Company of Heroes and Dawn of War Relic managed to capture the command post of our hearts and fended off wave after wave of pretenders to it and it looks like Dawn of War II will allow them to dig even deeper. But they won't build a base there. Cardiovascular bases are a no-no.
Lets Get This out of the way right at the start: yes, Dawn of War II is very different from the original in its core gameplay. No, this doesn't mean it's rubbish. No, there's no base-building. Yes, it's like a slightly stripped-down Company of Heroes, just with chainswords and Orks, instead of Thompsons and Nazis. If that is all you need to judge the game, go down to the final paragraph, scan the score and be on your way. For all the other people who like to read the actual words in a review, stay with me and I'll explain why the game works, doesn't work, and remains exactly the same as before, despite changing completely.
Relic's latest has as many explosions, flying bodies and destructible pieces of scenery as you'd want in a game built on the current version of the Essence engine, the same one that carried COH along. This guarantees two things: fast action and a touch of strategic thinking. Not as much as you'd get in, say, Soldiers: Heroes of World War II, but enough to keep the majority of RTS fans happy. What's changed is that the base-building of COH has been completely done away with, so all you are left with is a stripped-down action-strategy game in which you concentrate solely on the units you have and what they are doing.
Some will be livid with this, loving as they do the traditional Command & Conquer style of build-base-build-army-rush-army norm of action-RTS games. If you want this, your only recourse will be to load up the first Dawn of War or, as is perhaps more likely, to get involved with the multiplayer side of things (see 'Your base is under attack'). So, without the base-building side of things, the major emphasis is on combat. Thankfully, Relic have implemented this pretty well, although it isn't without its problems.
As I've said, the combat is very much akin to what we've seen before in COH. You control small groups of soldiers, moving them about the battlefield to capture objectives and deal with the enemy. You control four of these groups at a time, although there are six (eventually) to choose from. These range from heavy weapons troops, who move slowly and can be used to pin the enemy down with suppressing fire, to quickmoving scouts who can cloak and get behind enemy lines to observe and/or launch surprise attacks. Each of these groups has unique abilities - scouts have cloaking devices and the assault squad jump-packs, while the heavy weapons guys stomp about the battlefield with heavy bolters and, later on, massive suits of Terminator armour, making them the ideal troops to weather the initial barrage of an enemy attack - and Relic have done a good job of making them all feel useful at different times. At no point will you fail a mission because you don't have one of them along, but you'll definitely feel "I could have used the scout there" or "those jump-packs would have been nice right about now" every so often.
What DOW2 does well is avoid the select all units/attack trap so many action-RTS games fall into. Doing this will lead to defeat. Instead, you need to position your men behind cover or they'll just get shot to pieces. Selecting a group and moving the mouse pointer behind a wall or something will bring up a selection of coloured dots, indicating where your men will be standing if you decide to click there. Green means heavy cover, yellow means medium, and white means little to no cover at all. Relic have been using this concept for a while now and it works as well here as it did in previous games. However, it isn't without its problems, the main one being that sometimes it just doesn't work or it'll just be extremely illogical. Often, you'll move your pointer behind a wall and it won't assign positions to all the people in the squad. Sometimes it will put two of the three behind it and one will, for some reason, be stuck out in the open.
There's also a problem, specifically on the jungle missions, with the amount of cover available - leaves don't usually make a good defence against firearms, unless you're John Matrix in Commando and are running through a garden of bulletdeflecting rose bushes. Generally though, the cover system works and you'll only occasionally have a problem getting your men into good positions. You can also use buildings as cover, and while this offers them probably the best protection from enemy fire, it also leaves them vulnerable to explosive attacks that can destroy the structure. One of my squads also got stuck trying to get out at one point, and I had to finish the mission without them.
The plot itself is centred around the Blood Angels chapter of the Space Marines, with you as a squad commander who must defeat the Empire's numerous enemies from capturing the chapter's base world, these enemies are the Orks, the Eldar and, for the first time in the DCW series, the Tyranids. To achieve this goal, you'll need to fight these three enemies over a number of worlds, locations and terrains.
As for the missions themselves, most of them involve fighting your way across a map and then taking on a boss. There are variations - defending a location from attack for a certain amount of time, for example - but usually you'll be doing similar things in most missions. This is where DOW2 stumbles into problematic territory. Tilings look promising from the outside: the mission structure branches across a number of different worlds and you can take them on in whatever order you want. You're given one deployment in a game day, although doing very well in missions (doing them quickly, with minimal damage taken and so on) will give you bonus deploys on that day. This is useful for when the missions start to pile up and the only way you can do them all is by earning excellent scores. However, the game's main problem is repetition. Relic have tried to create a realistic campaign, where various key locations play important roles in its development. Unfortunately, this means that you'll visit the same maps again and again. Although, having said that, some of these replays are optional.
Relic have made an effort to prevent this repetition by compressing the campaign structure from the earlier, more expansive code we saw a while ago, either removing the optional missions or making it more obvious they are purely secondary, but it still creeps in too much for our liking. For example, in an early version of the game we saw, there were too many find boss, kill boss missions. A few of these have been changed to a relatively new Purge mission type, which does cut down on the repetition a little. These also have different starting locations, so it isn't just a case of repeating the same path every time you go through a map (although clearly you'll still know the terrain well enough for it to be a problem).
Another way Relic have tried to combat this is by introducing persistent objectives on each map, such as sacred Emperor shrines and communications relays. These grant bonuses when captured and can be used as fallback points when things are going badly. Move your damaged unit(s) back to one and you can have reinforcements delivered. There are also sentry points (marked as stars on the mini-map) which can be captured to provide reinforcements if needed. These aren't persistent, so you'll need to take these each time you play the map - something you are likely to avoid doing the umpteenth trip through a level.
This is a shame and was something that could have easily been rectified during the development process. For example, each map could have been three times the size, with each visit unlocking a section for further exploration. That would have solved the repetition problem of without Relic needing to build four times as many maps.
Another aspect that differentiates the game from its predecessor is the addition of RPG-style levels and skills. In fact, the whole issue of characters is well implemented, as you definitely feel more of a connection to each one in comparison to the faceless drones of DOW.
As they kill things and complete missions, they gain experience and level up. Each type of character has four colour-coded bars to fill up, although the meaning of each one changes for each character. As a general rule, purple means energy, yellow means strength, green means vitality and orange means weapons/ranged combat. You get two XP points to assign per level and we strongly recommended you make each one specialise in one or two fields, rather than spreading the point love, as it were.
This becomes important when you get to the best part of the game (except for competitive multiplayer). This is co-op, where you can play the campaign through with a human ally, each taking control of half the squad. Like in Soldiers, you'll become attached to the people you are controlling and will be responsible for how they develop as you go on. It's also easier to play the game, requiring less nimble hotkey usage and mouse-hand dexterity, as you only have one group to worry about Plus, as you'd expect, co-op makes every game better, so if you can find someone to play it with you in this way, you might want to add a few points onto the eventual score. The same goes for the regular multiplayer too, which is different enough to the offline experience to almost count as a different game. If you're playing the game almost specifically for that reason, stick 10 more percentage points onto the score, as you'll certainly be getting what you want from the game.
Having said that, there are elements of the multiplayer that need detailing. First of all, Relic have streamlined the base-building in order to make the actual fighting start more quickly. This might sound a good idea on paper, but is it just pandering to the speed-players who will perhaps have even more of an advantage over regular players?
Unit upgrades are now moved onto the units you control, so you can continue researching better weapons and abilities from the frontline instead of heading back to base all the time. Bases themselves will now be constructed around resource points in the field, rather than on the extremities of the map.
Relic are hoping this helps create a more dynamic approach to the play, which it does to an extent, iowever, people will still just pick the nearest concentration of resources and wild up a base there, so it doesn't change things too much in practice.
There are also the hero characters that can be controlled on the field of battle. Different types of heroes include healers, melee specialists, support heroes that build turrets and so on, plus infiltrators that can cloak and plan surprise attacks. This is still essentially the same experience as the first game, just with a twist. You might even say it had a little bit more of a focus on working together as a team, but there's still that feeling of each man for himself floating about in there.
Lastly, there are some 'visual unlocks' to show off with - gold shoulder pads for your commander or floating runes surrounding your Eldar Farseer, that sort of thing. Optional and arbitrary these upgrades might be, but you'll still want them if you have the chance. Something else worth noting is that, at the time of writing, the only multiplayer maps are for one-on-one or three-on-three battles, which seems rather strange to us. You can still add Al players in though to make up the numbers. As Relic readily admit, DOW2 owes a lot to Company of Heroes. In some ways, it feels like a reskinned version of the classic RTS -which is a compliment, not a criticism.
Short Of Greatness
The action is visually exciting, the controls are simple to learn and use, plus they've got rid of the repetitive basebuilding in each mission you undertake. While the matter of mission repetition has been sorted out a little from when we first got our hands on the game, it's still potentially the biggest factor as to why people might be put off playing the offline single-player campaign.
While the special abilities of your units will be increasingly important as you up the difficulty settings, making sure you are in heavy cover is by far the most important thing you have to do to succeed. Unless the enemy manages to destroy said cover, with explosives or by other means, your men will be very difficult to dislodge.
In the end, the score below might not be the one you will have been expecting. While I had fun playing Dawn of War II and am glad to have done so, I never really felt a true sense of excitement or awe while playing and, perhaps because of its reliance on the structure of Company of Heroes, it didn't feel groundbreaking either.
Yes, the explosions and graphics are nice, some of the visual effects are cool, the multiplayer is bound to be built upon and people will still be playing it in four years. But, on the other hand, I suspect virtually nobody will still be playing the single-player a few months after purchase. Relic have made an admirable stab at redefining the single-player action-RTS experience, but they haven't managed to nail it just yet.
Oh dear God, why?
There was no need for this...
The original genestealers and Tyranids were fantastic, all purple, menacing and terrifying. Remember Space Hulk? We'd be more likely to laugh instead of squeal in girlish terror if we saw a nu-genestealer running round the corner at us now. Even the Tyranids of Advanced Space Crusade (the board game) were miles better than they are now.
Admittedly, I've been out of the Games Workshop lark for about 13 years now, but still, I can't be the only one who is disappointed by the latest incarnation of the hive mind entities? Can I?
Download Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II
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Game features:Single game mode