Dawn of War redefined RTS games as much as Total Annihilation did. Then came Company of Heroes and built upon Dawn of War's play mechanic, refined it and challenged the genre once again. The Warhammer 40K Universe is a perfect setting for a real time strategy game and now it's the turn of Dawn of War 2 to roll onto our PC's. Released in February (the 19th for the US and the 20th for the UK) Dawn of War 2 promises to take us further into the 40K Universe than before, built on an advanced Essence 2.0 engine and pitched in a different manner to the previous game.

Before version 1.0 (and the Day Zero 1.1 patch) rolls out however, Relic and THQ have started a multiplayer beta open to anyone who owns the previous Dawn of War (Soulstorm). The beta began a few days ago and goes public on the 28th for everyone.

The beta is highly focussed upon the multiplayer aspect of the game and features no single-player elements at all; this is purely for online gaming (no offline play) and uses a combination of Steam and Windows Live Gaming. If you have an Xbox360 Live gamertag, you'll be able to sign on the PC just like the 360 and with a tap of the HOME key you'll have access to many of the LIVE features you know (and love).

The good news is that if you want to stomp the AI you can, it's possible to set up a server with all positions locked and just open the slots that you want for the AI. You can also invite friends into your game who have the beta so you can enjoy a good old fashioned Comp-Stomp. There are a mix of maps, some 3v3 and some 2v2 in the beta and they cover a range of environments from a desert to a lush jungle teeming with strange flora.

THQ have been very open with reasons behind certain design decisions and as you play the beta, you can see why they have taken the route with Relic that they have. First things first you'll notice right away that the DoW II graphics engine has been pumped up even compared to Company of Heroes (and Opposing Fronts) with Essence 2.0 handling a lot more. The Army Painter isn't enabled in the beta and after speaking to THQ regarding the reasons behind their removal of custom colours, yes, I can fully understand why they did it. It's a whole new texture system and the textures are part of the engine so they can allow for reflection in the metal surfaces in the game, such as Space Marine armour and so on.

This is not a review however, so you'll have to wait for the technical features and various elements when we take a good look at the game on the release date. The beta is sharp, it's extremely well constructed and THQ/Relic is using this time to stress test and patch DoW II for the full release in February. They have implemented the ranked and unranked match system in the beta so it's possible to rank up, unlocking various levels as so on. As well as just kick back and stomp some Orks into the ground under the metal shod heel of the Adeptus Astartes (Space Marines).

There are four factions in Dawn of War 2 and once again the Imperium's finest return, along with the Eldar, Orks and for the first time ever: Tyranids, the 'nids are an alien menace that will have certain fan-boys of Starcraft crying: But they stole the Zerg. It's time to do a little chicken and egg thing though, which came first? The answer Tyranids, they first appeared in Rogue Trader (1992) and Starcraft followed in 1998.

For the purposes of this article, we're going to cover the Space Marines; later on we'll be looking at the Orks, Eldar and finally the Tyranids closer to the game's release. Each faction has a Hero, a faction commander figure that has numerous special abilities and excels at a certain role. So let us take the Space Marine faction for an example in this case.

Imperium Space Marines have the Force Commander, Apothecary or the Tech Marine to choose from and they are set for three distinct play styles. The Force Commander is a bullet soaking, chainsword wielding battle brother who can take and dish out a lot of damage in up close and personal combat. He is capable of rallying troops and providing morale boosting to a beleaguered squad. The Apothecary is a support class and designed for the player who desires to help out his squad and allies. He can heal troops and basically keep them in the battle longer. He isn't as powerful as the Force Commander but serves a vital role in the Imperium's conquest. Lastly the Tech Marine keeps the war machine of the Emperor functioning as it rolls across the battlefield, he is capable of repairing vehicles/emplacements and laying down support structures such as turrets and teleport relays. You can choose one Hero to serve as your leader in the coming battle; the leader character can level up as you progress through the fight.

So, you've made a game, you've got a Hero and now it's time to enter the fray. Pick a map, either a 1v1 or 3v3 from the selection of 5 maps on offer. You can now choose between fixed or random starting positions and the two game types on offer, Annihilation is a fight to completely wipe out all traces of the enemy on the map and Victory Point capture is a tug-of-war style game mode that was seen in Dawn of War, Company of Heroes and proved to be immensely popular since it relies on a fluid battlefront that is constantly in motion with factions gaining and losing the upper hand.

After a short map load time you'll be presented with a typical RTS style isometric view (with a full 3d camera). However you'll find that the GUI is pretty simple and it's possible to control every aspect of your army from a single HQ screen (accessed with F1) and perform upgrades and so on for your squads with a click of a button. This keeps your attention focussed where you need it, on the battlefield.

Dawn of War 2 eschews many of the standard RTS staples and completely removes base building. This move has somewhat upset many hardcore staunch Dawn of War fans and I can see their point of view, however, it's important to realise that RTS games need to evolve and go in new directions. These are directions that you might not be happy to see things go, yet it shows innovation and a desire to push the boundaries of the genre beyond just a simple point and click mass army battle. It's also interesting to note that Warhammer 40K tabletop wargaming has no base building in the core rules mechanic whatsoever, so in many ways Dawn of War 2 is closer to the game and fluff than before.

That aside, your now ready to do battle with your enemies. The first thing you'll notice apart from the lack of base building is that your HQ has a few small defensive structures, HQ's in the game are incredibly tough and durable, they can withstand a lot of punishment and this is not an RTS for turtle players. Relic wants you out there in battle and they want you to make the enemy bleed. To this end they've made a few changes, every faction builds up a special resource that they can use to call down support abilities, such as an Orbital Bombardment from a Battle Barge (for the Space Marines).

Space Marines build Zeal from battling their enemies. So it's vital to leave your base and get out there to engage your foes if you ever want access to the special abilities that your faction provides. Just sitting back and trying to turtle will allow your enemy to grow stronger whilst you begin to slowly stagnate; this is definitely geared towards a more offensive style of play.

You can build squads from the HQ and deploy them to the battle; you can upgrade your HQ through two tech levels, 2 and 3 allowing access to more units and abilities. You can upgrade your squads with new equipment and commander figures, such as the Space Marine Sergeant. There are a variety of squad types such as scouts, heavy weapon marines, marines with jump packs (Assault Marines) that allow you to leap over enemy cover and surprise the filthy Greenskins before they can overwhelm you with numbers.

You can call in powerful support vehicles and upgrade them, the Dreadnought and the Predator Assault Tank. It can all be done without a single click back to your HQ as well. Relic have managed to keep the focus on your battle and not on building or upgrading, you can keep a close eye on the strategic, resource and power points that you need to capture since it is impossible to now lock them down. Whilst the Tech Marine can build a turret, it's better to have a few squads defending a few key objectives whilst your other squads push forwards and crush the enemy.

Power locations can have nodes built on them and then up to 3 generators can be called in. Be careful though since if the enemy takes that location without destroying your generators, they can build their own power node and capture your generators when it is complete.

The emphasis is on smaller but more powerful squads when you're using the Space Marine faction, you'll find that you will have only 3 or so men, yet these are the armoured fist of the Emperor and therefore take more punishment than the other factions. The cost is higher and the cost when a squad dies is greater. We found that we started to care about the men under our command, just as much as we had a similar empathy in Company of Heroes. Relic has succeeded quite admirably in the evolution of the RTS genre so far with Dawn of War, Company of Heroes and now Dawn of War 2.

Cover plays an important part in gameplay too, it's possible now to get your men behind low walls and use the tactical advantage that provides to prolong a defence of an area. Cover can also be destroyed, a Dreadnought or Predator tank will smash right through a fragile wall and crush the stone in an instant, this makes for a sudden shift in battlefield tactics and again emphasises that the new Dawn of War is all about a fresh tactical approach to a battlefront that is constantly shifting. Combined with smaller squads (in general with the Space Marines having the fewest men) this makes for some exciting battles and skirmishes as you try to capture/defend numerous points across the map.

When the beta opens to the public on the 28th, you'll be able to get a taste of what Soulstorm owners have been enjoying and I have to say that I highly recommend getting in there and getting your feet wet against the AI or other human players if you're up to the challenge.

The dawn of a new kind of warfare is definitely here.

For the Emperor!