It’s difficult not to get giddy whenever you see a Space Marine assault squad unit kick a limp corpse off its chainsword. Not only is that awesome in and of itself, but it looks and sounds great too. Dawn of War II doesn’t just have phenomenal production values – I heard an Eldar’s scream fade as it was lunged off a bridge…perfect – but it is a laser-focused amalgamation of some of the finest real-time strategy titles. Relic not only pulled from the best, but they also reached outside of the genre, creating a unique and wholly engrossing experience.
The original Dawn of War was an interesting title that mixed a throwback style with a supply point system that Relic would go on to tweak in Company of Heroes: base building was in, but resource harvesting was out. The linear campaign in the original story featured several playable factions battling it out, with subsequent expansions – Winter Assault, Dark Crusade, and Soulstorm - introducing new races and a RISK-style campaign map that allowed for a grand strategy element. While balance and patching became confused with the release of the expansions, the trade-off of the WarHammer 40,000 universe unfolding in solid titles true to the source material helped to smooth things over.
Fans of the tabletop game and the mythos in general will be relieved to know that Relic has continued to stay knee-deep in the universe. Shouts of “For the Primarchs!” in combat and the solemn conversations between captains between deployments match the tone of a great past succumbing to the ravages of time. Structures and technologies once common to the Imperium of Man must be accumulated and defended, with their mysteries lost for all time if taken by their enemies. It is in the midst of the chaos caused by Ork invasions that the ancient Eldar come about, riling up the greenskins and shoving the humans between themselves and the ravenous Tyranid horde. The fight will shift from planet to planet, with the Space Marines having to plan their attacks in order to best defend their holdings. If the races seem familiar – re: Terrans, Protoss, and Zerg – it’s because the 20-year-plus series has been a heavy influence in gaming and print; even if you aren’t familiar with the 40K universe in particular, you won’t have a hard time finding a place among the giant suits of armor, teleporters, and hives.
Dawn of War II switches things up a bit. Parts Myth, Close Combat, Warlords: Battlecry, and World of Warcraft, Relic has created a combination that is focused and direct: base building is now out, the unit count is set, the world maps are limited, and the Space Marines are the only playable race in the main campaign. Additions and refinements to the series include optional missions, a more comprehensive barricading and cover system, suppressive fire, multiple attributes for point allocation, and multiple hero units that are in the form of squad captains. There is also the hint of an MMO influence throughout: wargear is now color-coded and tiered, mobs of enemies that tend to require ‘pulling,’ and even boss battles.
Control has undergone a change as well. Units are now handled at the squad level, with up to four units in each squad. Save for the final mission, you will have to assign three of the five squads to drop with your character before deployment; this is important in the beginning, when wargear and each captain’s abilities are required for survival. The limited number of troops isn’t too constrictive because of structures that can be commandeered on the ground that act as beacons for both revived grunts and captains. You can still lose, though, either by the loss of all captains, forcing a retreat to your orbiting battleship, or by losing a structure you were sent to protect. Encounters can get intense, but having such a generous cushion to fall back on keeps the fear of failure fairly low.
Despite muted punishment, however, there are incentives that push you to excel. Aside from the achievements that Games for Windows Live brings, for those really into their gamer cards, there are also overall scores that judge you on your ferocity and efficiency in prosecuting the objectives. On a more immediate level, excelling at keeping your squads conscience, destroying the enemy, and the speed at which you complete the objectives will result in additional experience and deployments. Each drop to a planet takes a day, and with the optional quests being timed, scoring an additional drop or two can mean the difference between staving off an Ork attack and losing a valuable resource. Additional experience for the captains keeps them climbing to their highest rank – 20th – and also adds additional points to a number of attributes, including proficiency in ranged combat and additional energy.
The incentives will keep you hooked even when the AI fumbles. The dropped loot and reward gear not only look great but can also be traded in for additional experience; plus, some combinations of gear and captain unlock extra traits. Striving for a better score and gear is what gives the campaign its longevity, since the main story can be completed in around 10 hours without grinding. The optional quests come in the form of defending foundries and shrines that were captured during story missions, both of which provide bonuses for your troops, and battling boss units. Boss battles are definitely strange, especially with the uneven difficulty - some are pushovers and others are vicious, wiping out your party within a few seconds. The leveling of the captains also renders the default AI limp as your soldiers becoming little juggernauts.
Switching the difficulty to the ‘Primarch’ setting kept things interesting. The cover system, brought over from Company of Heroes, can be a little fussy, sometimes sticking units in front of the enemy, but does a good job for the most part. The little touches really add to the sense of chaos, such as larger units walking through structures and explosions demolishing buildings, rendering cover useless after a few minutes of combat – it’s great fun to have to fall back after a vehicle crushes the wall your tactical squad was station behind. Combat in general is just more exhilarating in Dawn of War II than it is in other titles, particularly on the harder difficulty that requires trying to maintain order in chaos, but also thanks to a license that offers for plenty of big explosions, leveled buildings, pockmarked walls, orbital strikes, missile barrages, waves of enemies, and dreadnaught units that methodically crush and toss enemies. If you like your games a bit more grounded, then you would do well to stick with Company of Heroes; however, fans of sci fi, the franchise, and the absurd will find it delightful.
Dawn of War II holds up surprisingly well, considering that it does suffer from some noticeable shortcomings. One of the more striking aspects is that the Space Marines are the only playable race in the campaign, to where as the original featured the Space Marines, Chaos Marines, Eldar, and the Orks. The story here isn’t bad, and there is around 30 hours of play with all of the side quests, but it’s not only jarring to drop down to one faction but also strange, since the Ork, Tyranid and Eldar are all playable in multiplayer. Since multiplayer is where the longevity lies, having to rely on the skirmish mode, which is buried something like three menus deep, to learn how to play as the other factions is especially strange when given the series’ history. Similarly, the fact that there are only seven multiplayer maps is also pretty shocking. There is also no in-game save, which isn’t as bad as it sounds since most missions last 10-15 minutes; however, some missions can last around half an hour and, regardless, I dislike being unnecessarily tethered to my system. Leveling the captains is also problematic as some appear later while another is gone for a while, which requires those who want to fully utilize all of the companies to grind their way to the top.
The setup is also a little convoluted as well: Steam is required for authentification while Games for Windows Live handles matchmaking and achievements, and problems with either will leave you out of luck. Also, private and public versus and head-to-head games have menu buttons in multiplayer but co-op is separate from the other multiplayer modes, accessed via the ‘Live’ button in the single player menu. Playing versus online was a breeze, but Games for Windows Live gave me several problems when attempting co-op. After the issues were finally resolved – it simply began to work one day – I was able to enjoy having Euric along to split the workload. While I had control of the hero, the squads were automatically divided between the two of us: if there were three squads and the hero, I had the hero and a squad while he controlled the remaining squds. Items were received and dolled out by the host, so the other player is really in more of a support role. Despite how enjoyable it was to have a friend along for the ride, getting it to work was a pain in the beginning, and I really dislike the setup of having an entirely separate setup for co-op and just how clunky it is: your team is selected from a Live-based unfiltered friend list, invitations to play are sent, and then you wait for them to accept and join, as opposed to just going into multiplayer and entering the host’s IP address.
Yet, for all of its quirks, Dawn of War II remains an outstanding title. The main campaign is enjoyable on the proper difficulty, but the multiplayer is just incredibly addictive, with skirmish paving the way for both co-op and versus (annihilation and victory point control). Unlike single player, you can train units in multiplayer via a stronghold and resources are gathered by capturing points. Resource points go towards new units and upgrades, as well as wargear and extra capabilities for the captain. Each faction also has three captains to choose from, focusing on different styles (offensive, defensive, healing, etc.) and with different abilities. The way upgrades and captains are chosen has a significant impact on how a certain opponent is engaged and how the player molds their style. If only there were a few more maps…
There were a number of issues here and there that take a bit off of Dawn of War II’s polish. The mish-mash design choice of a focused strategy game that cuts out a lot of the standards and MMO elements is a bit jarring at first. The issues pertaining to longevity and multiplayer are tougher to shake, and what I think will be the biggest problems for many people. The hodgepodge online component with its limited map set and the single-faction campaign will leave put out, especially fans expecting the original’s abundance. Still, I found the game incredibly addictive, with a solid campaign and interesting factions for multiplayer – all told, a great progression of Relic’s formula. I expect there are plenty of others out there like myself who will leave Dawn of War II on their hard drives and revisit it often.