There are, without pinching too many niches, three different types of people that will play this game: the noob who heard of this relatively high-profile strategy feast and gave it a go, the RTS fanatic looking for a fresh take on an established but not completely familiar universe, and the wary Warhammer tabletop fan looking to debunk or revel in the expanded entertainment corners of the franchise. What all three will find, aside from their various prejudices and preferences confirmed or relieved, is something that we’ve all seen before, yet still nails the fun factor with a fairly concussive blast.
Warhammer 40K, for the uninitiated, was released as one of those esoteric bookworm games in the late 80’s, based in a world of science fiction in a time that seems to be about 40,000 years AFTER Dungeons & Dragons, while infusing itself with many of the same cultural categories as D&D. In fact, Dawn of War at its very core is the pinnacle of derivative, from its humble beginnings in the basement of some quietly militant and very patient warring factions, getting together over a weekend to determine the victor of one singular battle, to the very factions themselves. Orks, as seminal warmongers, simply must be included in any game that conveys the heady rush of bloodshed – somehow they’re aliens and not some mythical race – while the Eldar in Warhammer are a wizened and mysterious race of matriarchal elf-types. Space Marines fill the steady role of humans (though with a much richer spiritual purpose than usual) and taking the place marker for the undead are the Legions of Chaos.
It’s hard not to miss all these very obvious similarities to D&D and WarCraft, and in many ways it only simmers where innovation could have been very key or uplifting. In reality, Dawn of War improves upon those aspects of its mentors that are paid attention and create a unique experience in the gritty battles of the vanguard.
Take for instance the basic play structure of the tabletop versus the video game, essentially a change from turn-based combat to real-time-strategy. I’ve heard skepticism so fierce from the tabletop fans, I was loathe to offer a retort that it seems to work quite well for DoW and that if it’s not an improvement, it should at least be considered a very competent change. In that real-time comparison, there’s also another familiar: WarCraft. The factions in DoW fill almost the same roles and plot twists as those in WarCraft III, although it remains to be seen if the story in DoW becomes as intimate or complex. As expected, the four factions present in the single-player campaign are available in Skirmish and Multiplayer, but it was a great disappointment to find that the campaign and its bloody telling of a rather impelling premise restricted the player to the Space Marines and no one else. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the precedent of WarCraft after all.
So nothing new was really tried at Dawn of War’s foundation. It’s the build-up and core of the rest of the game that makes the biggest difference, and the harsh undertones of the environment itself are enough to permeate a dread and urgency in each and every one of the 11 missions available (yet another great disappointment, to have had the campaign cut so short, though multiplayer is sure to fill out the bag of goodies with ravaging, multi-faction fun).
Each mission is preceded with a nifty little journal log of some kind, giving a brief description of the coming events. The story itself plays out nicely in fully-voiced in-game cutscenes, and outlines a righteous crusade and the inevitable co-mingling of faction directives. Although it should not have to rest on its story, it felt sometimes as if that was the only thing holding the missions together, as they didn’t change up much from one to the next. Build up forces, run down some linear control point paths, repeat. A bit more mission diversity would have served DoW very well, especially considering the shortness of the overall single-player game.
What breaths the sweaty fog of war into Dawn of War is easily its crafted presentation. This ain’t yo’ daddy’s RTS. Or perhaps it is, depending on which world war he may have been involved in. We’re talking numbers on the screen. In those numbers, we’re talking about bullets and plasma blasts uncountable, clouding the fray like a high-speed ping-pong match. It’s not only impressive, it’s mesmerizing. Nearly every molecule in the air looks animated when two opposing forces get it on, which is exactly how it should be.
A very able camera can bring you in close enough to smell the cigar of the ork flamer, and each animation is hand-crafted to create a frenetic scrum of the sort that cannot be staged. Unfortunately, this sort of unique battle display, allowing for ranged and close combat fighting (imagine watching your forces go from machine-gun to melee!), causes a bit of slow-down which even the beefiest of systems may suffer from, but it really shouldn’t bother most gamers.
Playing with the unit types is a great deal of fun, as well. Rugged Space Marines and dirty, ambiguously urban-gangsta Orks both have meaty categories of pumped-up soldiers, devoid of the practicalities of estrogen. There are generally a couple different kinds of cheap infantry units, one with an all-purpose utility, while another might have better melee and distance-crossing abilities, like a jump pack. With a game that has “war” in the title must come the big boys, though, and the real thrill is in advancing building structures and upgrades to get to the Terminator squads and Land Raider tanks, a combined force which is nigh unstoppable under any circumstances.
All “worker” units (meaning soldiers on the field) are called and released in squads that start at four members and can be increased up to ten in number per squad. This is done by “reinforcing” them at the touch of a button, filling a queue with the squad’s available upgrades until upgrade limitations have been reached. This unique structure allows one to send a group of, say, beefed up Terminators into the field and, provided you keep them safe periodically, you can build up whatever unit numbers within the squad that you’ve lost before resuming the tirade of destruction. Squads in the field can, consequentially, last much longer and cost a whole lot less than the repeated replacement of individual units every time they die.
Having the squads act as singular units is advantageous in the enhancement realm as well. Commanders and spiritual leaders called Librarians can be “attached” to certain squads (some will not accept “leader” unit accompaniment), bringing with them higher morale, greater strength and health, and an overall increase in squad durability in battle. Apothecaries are lesser, non-leader units that can also be attached, and enhance the regenerative properties of a squad. Suitably upgraded, the leader units have a bevy of interesting special abilities that seem to be designed around blowing the sh*t out of the enemy forces and tossing them through the air in all directions. It cannot be underestimated how satisfying that is to watch.
So how does one “pay” for all this? Keeping the micromanagement of resources to a minimum, there are only two things to keep on steady supply in order to upgrade buildings, drop in forces, and fortify positions: Requisition and Power. Power is a bit easier to control, as the placement of generators just about anywhere you please within the base boundaries will produce that resource. Requisition is a mandatory challenge faced by the player, deriving its cumulative numbers from key flag points on the map which the player must capture and hold (they can also be fortified in order to free up mobile units to capture more control points). Naturally, the more of these control points the player controls, the fewer there will be in possession of the enemy, and the greater the bankroll in Requisition for the player. There are even some control points, called Relics, which open up the more robust units and in turn made me want to send my lowly marine squad into a death trap in order to acquire the bigger guns.
While it may be that DoW is really made for the multiplayer experience, I hold a bit of a grudge that it’s one of the only ways to play the other three factions. Yes, I’m still stuck on that. Provided you don’t mind a little GameSpy on your system (as that’s how you lobby for an online victim), Dawn of War could be your answer to the futuristic, sci-fi projectile/melee combat experience, blood, screams and war cries included. For me, I like a little more premise with my meal, and DoW is woefully short on player interaction/history with the other forces as a result.
Those in need of an RTS war fix with a powerful mixture of guts and glory will find it in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. While there will always be that nagging suspicion that more could have been done with the story (seriously, only 11 missions??), there are so many fun little things to explore that it really should be considered a success. Relic (makers of the Homeworld series and Impossible Creatures) has done well with the responsibility of recreating, accurately, the unit types and ambience of a very established universe. Even the most scrutinizing of critics may see the many things done right that could have ended in disaster. Still, there are a few glitches I found that should have been ironed out before release (sound worms that drawl out certain noises in system-stressing conditions, and a rather nasty bug I found that prevented me from completing a mission after killing a particular enemy squad – beware the Fatal Scar Error!), but I still have to give high praise. If nothing else, Dawn of War has created a cornerstone for itself, with a presence as potent and unique as its pen-and-paper ancestor.