Blizzard took a gamble when it released Warcraft III. Vastly smaller in scale than its predecessor, Starcraft, the third Warcraft focused on powerful heroes, an RPG-like leveling system, and small skirmishes. Matches were quick, brutal, and intense. Some players loved the new focus on micromanagement and eagerly embraced the game; others despised it passionately. Relic Entertainment, more than any other real-time strategy developer, has embraced those innovations. Warhammer 40,000 Dawn of War II is the latest iteration of this tactically intense design philosophy, and it succeeds brilliantly. Some may argue that its innovations sacrifice so much that the game is too simplistic, but I disagree. This is the most addictive and fun real-time strategy game I've ever played.
Gameplay innovations in Dawn of War II define the unique single-player experience. There's no base building or resource collecting whatsoever. The campaign follows the Blood Ravens, a chapter of the Emperor's Space Marines, as they beat back an invasion of the terrifying, hive-minded Tyranids. Each mission puts the player in control of four squads chosen before the mission begins. Squads can be revived and reinforced throughout a mission, but otherwise the player is stuck with the squad choices he makes at the outset. Squads gain experience, special abilities, and gear that can be used to make unique, unconventional configurations. In this way, melee-based Assault Marines can convert into quick, ranged shock troops, and Tactical Marines can turn into chainsword-wielding tanks. I took an almost fatherly interest in my squads as they developed from Space Marine babes to unholy harbingers of death.
This is the most addictive and fun real-time strategy game I've ever played.
The nonlinear campaign is satisfyingly long, about thirty hours or so. Story missions progress the plot, and optional missions can earn the player choice war gear or special strategic assets. Aspects of the gothic futuristic Warhammer 40K universe may seem over-baked, but Dawn of War II sells it well, right down to the expertly-polished CGI that introduces key missions. Fail to complete a mission, and there are consequences: a key strategic asset may be lost, the Tyranid infestation may increase, or an opportunity to claim a special prize may disappear.
The fact that there are no mid-mission saves adds to the tension and persistent feeling of the campaign. Without the typical real-time strategy trappings, it feels more like a good dungeon crawler. It's liberating not having to keep a third eye fixated on a base, protecting it from random AI attacks every ten minutes, and instead focusing on collecting weapons with names like "Neverending Hail of Devastation" and "Talon of the Doom Eagle." It's even possible to tackle the campaign cooperatively online.
Unsurprisingly, multiplayer follows the design philosophy of the single-player campaign. Once again, there is no base building. Players acquire resources by capturing requisition points and building power generators, but base management is completely peon-free. All units are available from the home base, and advanced units are available on a graduated, tier-based system. There are four playable races: the Space Marines, Orks (lovable Cockney-accented green-skinned beasts), Eldar (space elves), and Tyranids. Orks and Eldar rely on speed and flanking maneuvers, although Orks tend to prefer close combat. Space Marines are small in number, but are extremely hardy, and have strong special abilities. Tyranids rely on sheer numbers and synaptic abilities that enhance other units; upgrading higher tier units confers special benefits on lesser units in the vicinity. Each race has a selection of three heroes, each with a suite of upgradeable war gear. Players select a hero at the beginning of a match and start with that hero on the field, along with a single squad of their race's basic infantry.
Expect to see action within a minute or so. Battles are fast and brutal. Buildings fall, walls shatter, and bodies smash under the boots of jetpack-equipped jump troops. A lot of Dawn of War II's better features, such as cover and destructible terrain, were present in Company of Heroes, but the latter was a much more deliberate game. Dawn of War II demands split-second micromanagement and smart tactics. At the same time, the game is very accessible to players of all levels. It is easy to monitor squad health via unit icons at the right side of the screen, for example.
Fans of Warcraft III will love this game. But for those who enjoy planning elaborate build orders, managing networks of bases, and planning elaborate choke point defenses, it will disappoint. Relic has literally cut out that entire aspect of traditional real-time strategy play. Some hero strategies are still highly defense-oriented, but this game is still essentially about unit micromanagement and tactics. Some will call it simplistic, even dumbed-down for the mass market, but I see it as a welcome focus on what makes real-time strategy games fun. Personally, I felt the multiplayer addicting and accessible in a way I've never seen in a real-time strategy game before. Warcraft III comes close, but even that game was rooted in hoary conventions such as build orders and resource mining.
At this point, the chief flaws lie in its matchmaking and map selection. Dawn of War II uses Games for Windows Live for its matchmaking. It's not perfect, but it's light years better than Gamespy and even Relic Online. As of this writing (patch 1.2.1) both problems are improved, but the map selection is still thin: only five 3-vs.-3 maps, and three 1-vs.-1 maps. Relic pledges to add to this total, and the maps available are mostly solid, but the poor selection is disappointing. Unit balance complaints persist, of course, but the programmers have been aggressive at addressing them with patch support, and if their Company of Heroes support is any indication, they will continue to do so well into the future.
With Dawn of War II, Relic has distilled the essence of real-time strategy excitement apart from the staples that make the genre so resistant to growth. And if that means the game is accessible to a pool of players greater than the southern Korean peninsula, then so be it.