Relic are a developer that have been known to take chances, they crafted a fantastic space based rts with a superb story way back with the original Homeworld. Took us to places unknown with Impossible Creatures, gave us a slice of hybrid rts/3rd person shooter action via the Outfit on Xbox 360. They were responsible for turning the rts genre on its head with the seminal Dawn of War series and Company of Heroes powered by their Essence Engine kicked that up another notch.
So now the 41st Millennium returns with a bang and a hefty machine required to get the best out of it. Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II is powered by Essence 2.0 and takes the rts genre to a whole new level.
Dawn of War II has probably one of the best rts game stories since Company of Heroes, Relic have captured the feel of the Warhammer 40K Universe quite perfectly and I have been a Warhammer 40K fan since the beginning, Rogue Trader. You are a newly promoted Space Marine Force Commander assigned to turn the tide of battle in Sub-Sector Aurelia. The Orks have mobilised en-masse for a WAAAGH and have attacked the recruitment world of Calidas, the home and future of the Blood Ravens: A Chapter of the Adeptus Astartes, the Imperium of Man's finest defenders - Space Marines.
From this beginning you'll be thrust into the heart of a story that spans several days in the life of a few good men. These are your squad but they are also your Battle Brothers, they are not faceless or soulless - every single one of these leaders is your window into a deeper understanding of the story that unfolds and the part that the Blood Ravens (THQ's own Chapter) play in the upcoming conflict. Characters like Tarkus, Avitus, Cyrus and Thaddeus are given their own personalities and parts in this epic tale.
Rts as a genre has been getting stagnant really, it's been a constant fight to come up with something new and fresh, something that might appeal to a fervent and hardcore fanbase as well as draw in new players via accessibility and ease of use. Usually it's a long slog to learn a complex tech tree whilst other opponents and friends can bring out a fully operational base in a few minutes to drive your forces into the ground and stomp your dreams of conquest into dust.
There's usually nothing to make the single player game stand out from the multiplayer aspect and new players wander off, discouraged by the whole thing.
Dawn of War II attempts to redress that issue by approaching the whole game in singleplayer, as well as multiplayer with a fresh lick of paint and a new take on an old dog. So for the purposes of this review I'm going to tackle the Gameplay in two parts, first the single then the multiplayer.
This game revolves around a campaign meta-map that can be approached a number of ways, tailored to your play style. You are assigned a number of squads to manage (4) and with these at your disposal must battle against a superior force that definitely has the numerical advantage. Fortunately a single Space Marine is worth at least 30 enemy soldiers, or that's roughly what the fluff tends to say. A single mission has numerous objectives and it will always be clearly outlined in a full mission briefing.
You may be tasked to seize an important asset for the Blood Ravens, defend a key structure, search and destroy enemy structures or kill an enemy combatant. These kill missions are easily the most epic of the battles you'll face as you'll be going up against a boss style character with special abilities and attacks as well as his hordes of minions. You'll find that it's easy enough to control the squads though since you're down to only 4 with a simple interface system.
Learning Hotkeys is a vital skill, mastery of these few commands will save you having to constantly move the mouse to click an icon or trigger a power on your selected squad.
Your squad mates have certain standard abilities that are tied to the wargear they posses, as well as their equipment. They can throw frag grenades in the case of Tarkus, or Cyrus can slip into Infiltrate mode and sneak around the map for a while. He can also hurl det-packs at enemy buildings and blow them to bits. Avitas and his Devastator squad are capable of laying down an insane amount of suppression fire and Thaddeus is equipped with a jump pack and can rain death from the skies on his foes.
The game is far more tactical and you're able to make use of cover and special abilities to approach each situation, adapt your tactics and change your approach very quickly. Units in cover, behind walls, to the side of buildings and so on are less vulnerable to damage from enemy fire.
Since Relic has concentrated on small squad sizes, usually three men in a squad, you can get a feel for these soldiers under your command far more in terms of their abilities. Tarkus is excellent at ranged firepower and breaking enemy formations with grenades. Avitas can lay down a suppression fire with his Heavy Bolter squad and prevent enemies from advancing or even escaping in some cases. Cyrus can utilise close quarters weapons or even sniper rifles to make quick work of distant threats.
There are several structures that you can capture in the missions, they unlock specific Wargear and provide an overall campaign bonus when you have enough of them in the system. Once they're captured the Battle Barge will send down generators to secure the building and in defend missions you must keep these generators from being destroyed. You may only capture one building per deployment to the planet.
Once you've finished one of these missions you'll be taken back to the Battle Barge: Strike Cruiser - Armageddon, high above the planet's orbit and given a debriefing. You might have earned Wargear and valuable experience. It's here that you can assign your 4 squads, level up your Commanders and swap out Wargear, selling any you don't use or can't be bothered with for extra bonus experience.
Each Commander has a number of stats that they can level, by 2 points per level up. Health, Will, Ranged Power, Melee Power and so on. Along the way on these tracks are traits that will unlock when you reach a certain point. These traits range from an extra accessory slot for certain Wargear to special abilities like Cyrus' squad being able to move at full speed whilst infiltrated. It's not possible to get every advance so you're going to have to decide on the roles for your squad leaders and focus on those with your hard won experience.
Wargear will change certain statistics, rather like in an rpg you can equip your leaders with new weapons, new armour and things like the Signum, a device that allows you to call in artillery from nearby stationed Imperial Guard batteries. Again, along with squad selection, the meta-map and equipment/statistic exchange/boosts this elevates the single player campaign into something far more interesting. It becomes a tactical game even in the assignment of these factors.
Whilst there is only one campaign, the Blood Raven's campaign, you can play this whole campaign with a friend over Games for Windows Live, just like inviting a buddy in on the Xbox 360 Xbox Live service. You'll also earn Achievements for the game for those people who delight in increasing their gamerscore. It links up with your Xbox Live profile if you have one, so it adds to that.
You have a single HQ and that's protected by at least a turret. That is it however, there's no base-building per-se in Dawn of War II. It's all down to getting out there and smashing the enemy, the meat and bones of the game boils down to this.
You have Strategic Resource (Requisition) points.
You have Power Points/nodes.
You can have Victory Points depending on the game type you're playing. Victory Point Capture or Annihilate.
You have 3 resources in the game. Requisition, Power and the resource that's appropriate to your chosen faction. There are 4 factions in the game, the Space Marines, the Eldar, the Orks and the Tyranids.
Space Marines use Zeal, Eldar use Psychic Might, Orks use WAAAGH and the Tyranids use Biomass. These special resources power your extra abilities, which come with your chosen Hero.
Space Marines can choose the Force Commander, the Apothecary and the Techmarine. Each one of these has a vastly different play style and can boil down to: Brute Force, Stealth/Healing, Support. The Eldar have the Warlock, Warp Spider Exarch and Farseer. The Orks have the Warboss, the Kommando Nob and the Mekboy. Finally, the Tyranids have the Hive Tyrant, Ravener Alpha, and the Lictor Alpha.
Every Hero in Dawn of War II has been given something unique that sets them apart from the others, there are numerous levels that they can gain from combat and as you continue to play (advancing tech level) you can equip them with a variety of Wargear, changing it out on the fly for maximum effectiveness in their chosen role.
You have a limited Squad choice as well as a population cap that makes sure the game scales/balances fairly well and doesn't put off new players to the experience. It's possible to play 1v1 matches, but the 3v3 is where it's really fun as new players will discover they can rely on their team mates to offer support and hopefully give them help playing the game.
When it's down to Annihilation, that's the only objective, destroy the enemy HQ(s) and win the game. When you're capturing Victory Points, the game becomes a tug of war where you have a victory ticker on either team. If that hits zero, then you win or lose the match depending.
Thanks to the smooth GUI you don't have to even bother clicking on your base, a quick press of F1 and you're able to call in units to any desired location. Keeping your focus where it needs to be, the field of battle. You have 3 tech levels and the top tier calls in powerful units depending on your faction. As you tech up you unlock the various abilities and squad abilities, Wargear, Hero Wargear and so on.
Heroes/Squads have their own abilities and Wargear will unlock a few more.
What Relic have managed to do with their rts is to change the way a core rts plays, it sets the bar for all the other rts games to follow and it sets it high in both multiplayer and singleplayer. Since Dawn of War and Company of Heroes there has never been an rts that eschewed the qualities of cooperation and teamwork as this one. Dawn of War II takes it to new heights and adds an accessibility rarely found in other games.
Do not be put off by the lack of building a base. You can construct defensive turrets as certain Heroes, the Eldar Webway is an awesome way to get around the map or provide a sneaky defence. The same as the Ravener Alpha's tunnelling ability. You can build power nodes on captured power points, call in generators and that's the extent of building in the game barring the other things previously mentioned and it doesn't hurt the game at all.
There are things I've seen online players do that just proves to me that I'm right in giving the game the score that I did, because it's providing a new level of tactics in terms of rts. No longer is it all about rushing to get that perfect base build.
The game comes with a smattering of maps, Relic has promised to add more via free DLC (Downloadable Content) via the Games for Windows Live service. Running also alongside Steam means that Relic is able to provide fixes for bugs with an unprecedented speed compared to the old system.
There's also a Ranked system and Multiplayer matches can be matched on Xbox Live's TruSkill. Add to this the special unlocks from playing multi-matches against people in Ranked contests and you have an idea that there's a lot to be gained from getting out there and getting your squads into the thick of it. Play 3v3 and you'll always earn something even if you are on the losing side.
Dawn of War II is a good looking game, scaled back in multiplayer to provide a better experience and less latency issues. In singleplayer it's a beautiful game to witness, the lush environments from jungle swamps, arid deserts and more are created with a superb attention to detail. You can see certain features that are animated, undergrowth and alien plant life sways in an invisible wind for instance. The map design is superb and when you're exploring you can tilt the camera to get a horizontal view of the surroundings.
Special effects are excellent; the weapons actually appear to function as I'd imagined 40K weapons would do. From the pure white glow of a Plasma Gun to the staccato hammer of Avitas' Heavy Bolter everything feels perfect. The explosive effects are meaty and the enemies can be blown into chunks by a well placed grenade, scattering bits across the battlefield.
Both in single player and multi (since there's a simple Army Painter) there are various metallic effects applied to certain surfaces. Space Marine armour looks particularly fine when you're dressed in the high level Terminator suits and so on. There are light/shadow effects and the whole gamut of effects that we've come to expect from a modern game.
It's not just the static graphics that are superb. Dawn of War II has numerous animations on the squads, heroes and the environment that bring the 40K Universe closer than ever before. The synch-kills when in melee combat either in single or multiplayer are excellent and there's nothing that appears out of place. There are numerous kill effects that appear at various points when in hand to hand or ranged combat and no unit dies the same way twice when struck by prolonged fire. Every character is suitably animated and you can get a sense of the different personalities from these effects.
Squads and Heroes will go into cover based on where you click; the game's GUI lets you know by flashing certain places on the main screen. A different coloured dot appears to let you get an idea of possible cover opportunities and the protection that it offers. The enemy will do the same. Pathfinding can get a little choked at some times in the multiplayer but since most of the bigger units can smash through walls and buildings, that's not a problem. The enemy AI in skirmish and singleplayer is pretty good. I don't quite understand the complaints of some people that I've read, especially on Relic's own forums. The AI is functional, it offers a challenge and if you want a bigger challenge, get online and play real players.
Squads and enemies are thrown around with a brutal force from the impact of grenades, heavy powers, explosives and in some cases special triggered events. The Space Marine drop pods can cause massive damage to units that are unlucky enough to be caught under them when they arrive for instance. Cover plays an important part and with the physics engine allowing you to blow up a lot of the environment or smash it, that cover won't be around for long. This changes the tactical situation quickly and forces you to adapt on the fly. The physics system gives the objects in the world weight as well, so that you know a Dreadnought is around when the metal shod feet cause things to shake a little and the wall crumbles as the walking tank smashes through it.
The sound design for Dawn of War II is top notch. The weapon sounds for the various factions are excellent and the Space Marine Heavy Bolter makes a gorgeous deep throated sound, whilst you can almost hear the Ork guns with their Dakka-Dakka effect. Every sound from the spot effects to the clash and rip of a chainsword in melee is one step closer to bringing the 40K Universe to life in the game and they compliment the graphics perfectly.
The soundtrack to Dawn of War 2 is a good one; it's flowing, epic and suits the various factions, maps and moments in the campaign as well as the multiplayer skirmishes if you have it enabled.
From the Ork banter in Skirmish, to the dialogue spoken in the singleplayer campaign, Dawn of War 2 is packed with some tight writing and excellent voice acting. The Space Marines have a dark ominous undertone to their voices, as if every battle might be their last. Cyrus' cynical tones reminded me of David Hayter as Solid Snake and I think it's the same actor from Dawn of War who did the Vindicare Assassin voice for the Imperial Guard faction units. There's nothing I can say apart from the voice work and acting in the game is great, my favourite character has to be Avitas for his unwavering loyalty to the Emperor and his no-nonsense 'kill them all' mentality.
For anyone who says the writing is staid, clichéd and the characters seem like stereotypical gung-ho soldiers. I say this; the 40K Universe breeds the Space Marines to fight in war not pick flowers and arrange them like Samurai. The acting reflects this and I felt satisfied by the voice actor's performances, being a huge 40K
For the Emperor
Relic has managed to take the tired, boring on rts genre and turn it on its head. They have take a bold new step in the direction of the genre by removing base building and the unit spam of so many other games. It's now a much more refined experience and with Steam powering the patching, you'll never have to worry about getting another patch on time again. As of this writing we were already two patches in and any bugs that I could have mentioned were well and truly quashed.
Apart from the odd bit of lag online in the play, we've had no real problems with the campaign and the skirmish. Everything runs smoothly on the game machine and the game plays perfectly for hours on end. No crashes to desktop with this system/setup.
As the chant and litany of the Imperium goes:
Burn the Heretic!
Kill the Mutant!
Purge the Unclean!