PC Dawn of War II

Scott Tortorice

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Relic’s Dawn of War franchise is rightly considered one of the mainstays of the real-time strategy genre. Combining fast action-oriented gameplay with the iconic trappings of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K science fiction universe, Dawn of War garnered legions of fans around the gaming globe. Alas, every good thing ultimately meets its end and must pass the torch to a new generation. Enter Dawn of War II, Relic’s revamped foray into a grim future dominated by relentless warfare. Can this new version fill the sizable Space Marine boots of its predecessor?

The Single Player Campaign

The single player campaign will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played the Dawn of War: Dark Crusade or Soulstorm campaigns. Simply, players must engage various enemies, across Sub-Sector Aurelia, in a quest to rid the system of all Xenos competition. Initially, most missions deal with rampaging Orks, the cockney cockroaches of the 40K universe. However, as is usually the case with these things, the player discovers that Orks are the least of his problems as the manipulative Eldar soon make an appearance, quickly followed by the dreaded insectoid Tyrannids, the first appearance of this popular 40K tabletop race in Relic’s franchise. Good times for any would-be Space Marine.

The player is led through a story-driven single player campaign via a series of missions that revolve around saving Aurelia’s three planets from these increasingly formidable foes. The game advances on a day by day basis with various distress calls demanding the player’s attention. For the most part, the player is free to prioritize these calls, each of which offers unique equipment upgrades as a reward for success and serve to advance the central narrative.

Once a distress call is selected, a quick briefing appears that summarizes the coming mission’s main goal. The player is then free to chose up to four squads of Space Marines (unfortunately, only Space Marines are playable in the single player campaign), with the key squads including: a Devastator squad led by squad leader Avitus; Tarkus and his squad of Tactical Space Marines; Cyrus and his stealthy Scouts; and the “death from above” Assault Space Marines led by Thaddeus. The player is represented by the Force Commander, a lone figure with the wrath of an entire squad, who must go on every mission.

Once the player chooses his team, and tinkers with their load out from assorted wargear acquired from missions, the player is deposited on the surface of the planet. Immediately, Dawn of War II’s new Essence 2.0-powered graphics engine becomes apparent, as the battlefields, and the units that populate them, are far more detailed than the somewhat cartoonish original. Space Marine armor is now nicely battered and chipped, while structures seem solid and lived-in. Once the bullets begin to fly, the combat looks more lethal than ever before, too.

Distress call missions largely follow the same routine: the player slowly overcomes pockets of enemy resistance as he makes way across the map to an objective that usually involves the elimination of some sort of boss creature/vehicle. Along the way, the player can liberate certain structures that help him accomplish his mission and provide certain benefits over the course of the entire campaign. For example, there are Teleporter Relay Beacons that can be used to summon replacement Space Marines as they fall in combat. There are also Automated Foundries that grant the player the ability to build Tarantula Turrets on a map to safeguard important locations. Needless to say, the more of these strategic locales you control, the greater the benefit to be had.

This new campaign system, while being very formulaic, does try to force the player to balance the tactical with the strategic. For example, should you just make a beeline for the primary objective and quickly accomplish the mission at hand? Or should you wander the map, capturing every available strategic asset to foster your campaign goals, risking some attrition in the process? Unfortunately, while the game wants you to weigh the pros and cons, there really is no reason not to scour the map once you capture a beacon as any individual loss in squad marines can be easily replaced. More risk in this regard would have made the choices all the more compelling.

Did I mention that there is no base building in this game? While I am sure that this may annoy more than a few fans of the original RTS formula, I found the lack of base building to be a welcomed change since the player will have his hands full with the revamped combat system. Since the player can no longer manufacture a steady stream of fresh squads and equipment, he must carefully use his original four squads to complete each mission. What this means is that the freewheeling days of just throwing wave upon wave of units at the enemy until he breaks is no longer feasible. Now, “fire and movement” is the best way to proceed. The player must carefully advance his four squads, using defensive terrain benefits as much as possible. This includes finding shelter behind boulders, using familiar shell craters for cover, and in a much anticipated addition, entering multi-level buildings for their defensive benefits (the value of the terrain’s protective qualities are indicated by colored dots: green for heavy cover, yellow for light cover, and white for no cover) . Taking full advantage of this revamped cover system, along with the careful coordination of his specialized squads, the player should have no problem overcoming most of his foes, especially on the game’s “normal” difficulty level.

A nice new feature is how the game sprinkles the battlefield with loot. After vanquishing a bunch of Orks, or any other Xenos for that matter, the player can find dropped ammo and specialized equipment that can later be used to equip your Space Marines. I guess you can consider such trinkets as one of the perks of serving on the 41st Centuries frontlines.

Eventually, at the main objective point of every map, the player will encounter an enemy boss unit. Unlike the rank and file enemies scattered about the map, this boss unit has a sizeable health advantage over most of your units, as indicated by its health bar prominently displayed at the top of the screen. This health bar is slowly whittled down by your attacks…’slowly’ being the operative word. It is here that the player must truly utilize his squads’ special abilities to deal the most damage. For example, I like to use Cyrus’ “high powered shot” sniper rifle ability to plug away at a boss from a safe distance, while my Tactical Marines lob frag grenades as much as possible. Of course, during all this, my Force Commander is going toe-to-toe with the boss, whacking away at him with his chainsword and doing what he can to keep his squads healed up and motivated with his Battle Cry ability. If all goes well, the enemy boss will eventually be eliminated and the mission will conclude in victory. However, if the player’s three squad leaders and his Force Commander fall in battle – don’t worry, these guys never die but just become incapacitated – the mission will end in failure. Unfortunately, there is really no detriment to failing the mission as the squads are emergency evacuated from the planet’s surface, healed up, and given another chance to retry the mission, wiser for their experience.

Successful or not, between missions your squads will display the amount of experience points they have accumulated and if they are eligible to level up. It is this leveling ability that adds a nice RPG element to Dawn of War II. With each new level, attribute points are awarded to the player to use to increase the four traits of his squads: Stamina, Ranged Fire, Strength, and Will. With each new level, special abilities can be unlocked, such as “merciless strike”, an explosive melee ability. Combine this leveling system with the wargear garnered from the battlefield, and you have some nice gameplay elements that serve to make each campaign slightly different from the previous one. It also serves to help the player make a connection with his customized Space Marines, as they seem more fully fleshed and less like clay pigeons.

Multiplayer

Of course, the tabletop origin of Warhammer 40K is all about head-to-head combat, and Dawn of War II does not disappoint in this regard. Finding a match against a similarly ranked opponent is much easier than it has been in the past, something accomplished via Windows Live, and should go a long way in pulling solo players out of their shells and onto one versus one or three versus three battlefields (strangely, there is not a two versus two option) .

The first wrinkle added to the multiplayer component is that the player can choose from three different commanders, generally broken down to those who specialize in offense, support or defense. For example, Space Marines have an aggressive Force Commander, a healing Apothecary or a Tech Marine that excels at fortifications. The player is free to pick whatever force commander best suits his playing style.

A second wrinkle is that while there is still no base building, players can upgrade his base’s tech level to access different types of units when he sees fit (i.e., there no longer is a rigid tech tree that must be followed). He is also free to requisitioning fresh squads and vehicles as long as he has the appropriate amount of resources, albeit, not anywhere near as many as the original DoW. Resources include “requisition”, necessary for purchasing units or upgrading your base to one of three tech tiers, and “power”, for unit upgrades. Similar to the original DoW, these resources are acquired by controlling resource points and power nodes, respectively. There are also “global resources” earned in battle: Space Marine Zeal, Ork Waaagh!, Eldar Psychic Might, or Tyranid Biomass. Each global resource can be used to trigger special abilities to help win a battle. Lastly, there are victory control points spread across the map; capture these to run down the opposing team’s Victory Counter to zero and win the game.

The last wrinkle found in multiplayer is the ability to get past the Space Marines and try your hand as one of the other three factions…especially the newly added Tyrannids. While it is fun to fight against these baddies in the single player campaign, the real fun is had in commanding them yourselves. These creatures, best described as a cross between giant bugs and Ridley Scott’s Alien, come packed with all sorts of nasty biological weapons and it is a simple, perverted joy to unleash them on any foe.

Overall, the multiplayer portion of Dawn of War II comes close to the intense combat found in the tabletop game. Battles quickly develop around controlling the various resource and victory locations, with players doing their best to use their limited means to secure enough to win the game. Should you spend your resources on a squad of Terminator Marines? Or are you better off spending some resources for upgrading your Force Commander with a plasma gun? Perhaps the best strategy is to upgrade your base to access Tier 3 units, requisition a Predator tank, and just blitz your foe? Choices abound.

So What’s Not to Like?

I think the biggest flaw of Dawn of War II is the single player campaign. The repetitive mission structure of deploying, capturing strategic assets, and ultimately confronting a boss creature becomes really dull, really fast. Where’s the mission variety? There is a little, such as when the player needs to shut down some Eldar Warp Gates, but the vast majority is straightforward boss kills. Yawn.

Worse, even though Relic went to great lengths to incorporate RPG elements into the game, the potential of these elements never truly materializes. For example, the aforementioned fact that squad leaders are never really at risk of dying on the battlefield dispels a lot of the tension that would otherwise accompany committing them to combat. While I understand the need to keep the principle squad leaders alive for purposes of the central narrative, I also regret this decision because it just serves to remove more than a little of the realistic battle grittiness DoW II was shooting for.

Then there is the curious decision to allow the player to try and try again if he fails a particular mission. What’s with that? I don’t remember the guarantee of a “do over” at Normandy. I would much rather have had a fluid campaign where a failed mission is a failed mission, forcing the player to move on while incurring some sort of campaign penalty. Again, while I understand this decision in light of the need to advance the central story, this design decision just spoils the sense that the player is actually having any effect on the campaign with his performance.

All of these elements combine to make the player feel as if he is not actually part of an epic story. Rather, it leaves him with the feeling that he merely a Space Marine recruit going through some simulated tactical exercises at a Chapter Barracks somewhere. What a waste of all the potential RPG goodness.

Lastly, and this is less a complaint and more of a heads up, battles are far less freewheeling than in the past. With no base building benefits, a limited number of squads, and a combat system that encourages cautious advances, covering fire and carefully timed melee attacks, Dawn of War II plays much closer to the original tabletop game. Forgot the wild battles of the past, this is an entirely different beast. While, in and of itself, this new combat system is not lacking enjoyable qualities, I do find myself occasionally missing some of the 40K-styled, over-the-top action of the original.

Closing Comments:

Dawn of War II is sure to garner a large fan base. Question is: how many of those fans will come over from its predecessor? While DoW II does offer a deeper campaign that incorporates some RPG elements, along with a more thoughtful combat system, it does so at the expense of base building and freewheeling battles. I suspect that gamers who liked the lighter RTS fare offered by the original might be more than a little miffed by some of these changes. Nonetheless, Dawn of War II presents itself as an entertaining sequel to the beloved original. While I do think there is room for more than little improvement, especially regarding the execution of the RPG elements in the lackluster single player campaign, Dawn of War II is sure to please many a Warhammer 40K fan with its new style. What is more, with Relic promising a steady stream of downloadable content and the inevitable expansions (I want my IG and Chaos Marines!), the game is sure to grow.

8.0 out of 10
 
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