Dawn of War 2 Review: Relic Redefines a Series and Emerges Victorious

I still don't know what to call Dawn of War II.

There are elements of Syndicate in Dawn of War II, and of Warcraft III. There are gobs of Company of Heroes, and hints of Homeworld. There's a bunch of Diablo, and even a little Final Fantasy.

Of course, three days and 22 hours of gameplay later, I didn't much care what the ingredients were, or what I was supposed to call it. No matter the influences or subgenre specifics, I was convinced: Dawn of War II is an incredibly good game.

As many have found with the multiplayer beta, the longer you play Dawn of War II, the more enjoyable it becomes. Unlike traditional RTS titles, the game's gravy isn't floating on the surface of a screenshot. It can take several matches before you begin to see the potential, and start to realize just why it's such a special concoction.

Thanks to the beta, I knew that the multiplayer component was strong, despite my early skepticism. The core gameplay of Dawn of War II blends intense action with fast-paced strategy, maintaining a unique balance of tactical possibility and epic, surprising moments. Who knew an RTS without base building could be any fun? Only someone that played Homeworld, I suppose.

However, it's the entirely different, yet completely brilliant co-op campaign that I never saw coming--and what I mainly want to focus on with this review.

Imagine a mix of RPG, real-time tactical and strategy titles, all rolled into a game about bad-ass Space Marines--and then add Diablo-esque loot on top of it all. That is the Dawn of War II campaign, in a somewhat vague nutshell. It's the kind of campaign where you spend 20% of the time just staring at the screen, stroking your imaginary beard, considering stat-point options and loot loadouts--then launch into a mission and crush Ork skulls to gain that next "blue" item.

As the commander of a handful of Space Marine squads, the overall premise is simple: travel between four planets on a menu, choose a mission from within several planetary territories, and achieve victory. The missions are played on base-less maps, and typically involve progressing from one end to the other. Some missions will advance the story, while others are entirely optional. You collect loot, level up your Space Marines, and crush aliens with your xenophobic posse.

Beyond the fun of exploding aliens with your complimentary squads, the constant choices are what make the game. At every corner, Relic is presenting you with an interesting option to consider--either in the thick of battle, or on the equally-intense loadout menu.

The game hits you with a difficult decision before your marines ever fire a bullet: there are six total squads by the end of the campaign, but only four can be taken on any one mission. Each mission type--attack, defend, boss assassination and story--might be suited better to one of the squads, while your particular assortment of gear might in turn make one squad a better choice than another. Choosing which squads to take on a particular mission, and which gear to equip your squads with, is often the point at which battles are decided, making the simple squad menu an unexpectedly exciting one.

The loot found and rewarded from missions is broken down into four categories: weapons, armor, accessories, and Force Commander-specific items. Sometimes the choices are made obvious by powerful unit-specific loot, but most of the time the fun is in swapping the gear in and out, essentially creating new units through modification. Exchanging your Force Commander's two-handed mace with a rocket launcher can lead to an entirely new tactical makeup. Jjetpacks, forcefields or teleporters open up entirely new opportunities for tactical destruction.

Each squad leader, a distinct character featured in the storyline, can be specialized and assigned new roles. Perhaps you want to turn Tarkus into a ranged combat unit, using a bolter or missile launchers rather than a chainsaw. Maybe the Force Commander would work better as a utility specialist, calling in multiple artillery strikes and drop pods. You can convert your Devestator machinegun squad into a rocket launcher-toting gang, or a no-nonsense fixed plasma cannon team.

Finding and equipping this gear becomes as addictive as in any Blizzard RPG--the items are even color-coded in the same scheme as World of Warcraft's--and the added factor of multiple squad "characters" presents an extra layer of satisfying depth.

Interesting overworld systems also throw a wrench into the usual RTS mindset. Every time you start a new mission, one day of the game's calendar elapses. Some optional missions have timers, leaving you with a number of "days" to complete them before they expire. If you fail that mission, you don't get the day back--leading to some difficult choices as you watch the timers tick down on enticing rewards. The game offers no mid-mission saving, upping the tension by eliminating the chance of reloading the same encounter over and over.

Captureable buildings such as communication towers and imperial shrines will grant persistent bonuses to your squads when playing missions on the same planet. These buildings also provide an incentive to clear the full map of enemies, rather than simply proceeding as quickly as possible through levels. After moving on to new missions, the assets will have to be defended in Alamo-style missions, adding another bunch of optional tasks to the strategic map.

As for the actual gameplay, I keep returning to Diablo as a point of popular comparison. Dawn of War II at its core feels like Relic's Company of Heroes--but everything that makes it different than that game feels like a shift toward a four-character version of Diablo or World of Warcraft. It's a faster tactical game with RPG-like sensibilities, played on maps with multiple paths to their conclusion and several optional objectives.

Managing only four squads seems an easy task at first, but higher difficulty levels will quickly render that idea laughable. This isn't the sort of game where you rush into a situation and watch your units fight their way out. Each encounter needs to be considered ahead of time, making successful scouting trips and wise unit deployment a necessity.

Once in battle, maximizing the efficiency of your units will require the constant use of their abilities. Assault marines are most effective when using their jetpack attack to break up enemy units, and your Devestator machinegunners are best used in their focus-fire mode. Limited-use accessories become incredibly valuable assets, and every replenishing supply crate found throughout the levels becomes important. BOOM video 1362 The constant micromanagement isn't relegated to hitting ability keys. The cover system in the game, ported directly from Company of Heroes, works brilliantly. Good cover is easily identified by hovering the cursor over terrain, revealing green or yellow dots to indicate rating and placement. Units caught outside of solid cover can be cut to pieces in seconds, and massive cover-destroying attacks have to be anticipated. Some bosses--yes, there are traditional bosses at the end of many levels, another Diablo-esque touch--will require you to constantly shift your units to dodge charge-up attacks and other perils, an instance in which two co-op players will undoubtedly outperform a single player.

It's a lot to chew on, and claims of a "dumbed-down" strategic experience are a testament to how accessible the game is on the surface. It's not a system that takes hours to learn, but on higher difficulty levels--and I would recommend experienced gamers start on "Captain"--the game provides more than enough chances for you to fail spectacularly. Dawn of War II has depth; I know because I've seen its deepest, saddest lows, losing at the last moment of a lengthy mission due to a stupid tactical error. In this game, the strategy has been shifted out of a base and into the loadout menu; away from unit production, and into unit management.

There are a few chinks in the space armor. One minor quibble I have is in the uneven leveling of units left behind during a mission. By the end of the campaign, my four favorite squads were highly skilled alien-raping beasts. Meanwhile, my two neglected troops were left multiple levels behind, only gaining a shred of the experience of those I took with me into most missions. I thought this system died in some early 90s Final Fantasy game?

Most importantly, the game's content does wear a bit thin by the end of the campaign. Beta participants will be disappointed to find that only two new multiplayer maps have been provided by Relic in time for the launch, though more are promised to be on the way. Many of the single-player maps grow tired in their reuse, as do the enemies and bosses. Sets of giant "Terminator" armor found in the later stages of the game certainly make your troops look cool, but their size overly simplifies some of the tactical maneuvers you've learned to enjoy by that point.

But even entering hour 23 in the campaign, I was still perfectly happy replaying similarly-staged defensive missions, trying out new tactics and laying traps for the silly Orks with my advanced, remote detonator-armed Scouts. Even when your tactical flow becomes old hat, the sheer fun of blowing up Orks and taking down Eldar sustains the overall experience.

And to its great credit, Dawn of War II keeps up a pace not often seen in strategy games, rarely forcing you to wait for mission dialogue or lengthy cutscenes. Satellite beacons act as checkpoints throughout levels, keeping the action from halting outside of major mission failures. The driving music sets the tone from the first menu. This game doesn't fuck around.

Its core combat mechanics are sound, its RPG elements make it a fantastically addictive experience, and its multiplayer component is immediately satisfying. Dawn of War II's only shortfall is a need for more map content--something that future downloadable updates will likely help. But with so many hours of high-class entertainment already packed in, I see no reason to wait.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II hits the PC today. For more on the game, check out our recent interview with Relic principal designer Jonny Ebbert.

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