Dawn of War 2 Preview: A Radical Shift

Imagine a game that takes Dawn of War, mixes it with Company of Heroes, removes base building altogether and adds RPG elements. If you can paint that puzzling picture in your mind, you'll have Dawn of War 2. And this is no exaggeration.

In fact, Dawn of War 2 directly borrows graphical and gameplay elements from Company of Heroes. For instance, CoH's cover system--wherein cover was rated with colored shields, and soldiers' future positions were marked with green dots--is exactly copied in Dawn of War 2. Sticky bombs and grenades are deployed with timers in exactly the same fashion as the World War II shooter.

No longer a traditional RTS, developer Relic has actually deviated from the genre even more with this project than they did with Company of Heroes. Dawn of War 2 could now be described as a small-scale tactical RTS, with a surprising amount of RPG flavor.

The focus of the sequel is clearly on micromanagement and squad-based tactical combat. Players will control up to six squads of Space Marines, and each squad will be lead by a sergeant. These sergeants are heroic avatars, each with their own specialty; one is a heavy weapons guy, another a scout marine.

The heroes can be equipped in an RPG-like character loadout screen. Weapons, armor and accessories--all either found in battle or gained as mission rewards--can then be equipped before battle. The accessories are limited-use abilities, such as orbital strikes or a high-powered shot power. The armor and weapons were quite cool: the force commander, a melee specialist, was equipped with a massive Thunder Hammer. Each piece will have a set of statistics, including ratings such as Damage Per Second.

The single player story features a branching mission structure. Several missions can be chosen from at any given time, each with its own story and rewards. Other than weapons or armor, rewards also come in the form of experience points, which boost the level of the squads. The demo level had a reward of 845 XP.

The missions available to choose from were "assassination" or "defend"; our demonstrator chose the former, the goal being to kill a giant ork named Bonecrusher. Relic is attempting to make each level and scenario feel like a piece of the story that matters. To whit, a short cinematic of Bonescrusher played before the level loaded, and the map itself was given a dramatic flyby before gameplay began.

With only a few squads to handle, and without a base to babysit, players will be dealing more often with strategic choices on the battlefield. Special abilities such as marine jump-jets and bombardments were flying left and right in the demonstrated level. As in Company of Heroes, grenade tosses, garrisoned units and cover are major components of combat. Terain is deformable, so calling in a drop ship full of reinforcements will also conveniently create cover for the fresh troops.

Battles will often offer players secondary goals, such as capturing shrines. Though heavily defended, shrines will offer both short term and long term rewards--they immediately allow you to reinforce your troops, but they also offer you persistent traits, such as a mana bonus that carries over into another battle.

After taking a shrine and overcoming more orks, the marines finally reached Bonecrusher. The game then switched into an almost Diablo-like fight, with Bonecrusher's health bar appearing at the top of the screen in typical boss-battle fashion. The Relic rep used the Force Commander almost like an RPG-style tank, keeping the boss busy as the smaller units picked away at him. After calling in minor reinforcements, Bonecrusher eventually submit, triggering an in-game finishing move by the Force Commander. The game was then sent back to the orbital view, allowing for upgrades and rearmament before the next mission.

Relic is holding multiplayer details back for now, though they did mention that the online gameplay will be powered by Games for Windows Live, so expect matchmaking and achievements. The single player campaign will also support two player co-op, and the Eldar race has been confirmed for the title in the recent CG trailer.

Dawn of War 2 is slated for a PC release in early 2009.