Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II

By Scott Parrino 16 Mar 2009 0

Author:  Anthony Micari

Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War?s success cannot be better exemplified than through the fact that it has had three successful expansions.   Each one evolved the gameplay to some degree, added new units and tactics for existing races, and also added entirely new armies, so that by the end of it nine different factions could be controlled in a total of four campaignstwo of them dynamicand dozens of skirmish maps.  Is it fair then, to use this as the cornerstone in judging Dawn of War II, which with its recent release has had mere weeks to rest on our hard drives?  Yes and no.

Backstory is a tad hard to cover in a single review, as the Warhammer 40K universe is massive in scope, fleshed out in voluminous tomes of fiction stories and role-playing guides.  But the basic premise is still rather simple.  Every race hates each other and wants to see the others annihilated.  The ?main? race is the human Empire, which is led by a practically omnipotent Emperor who commands his will with a not very subtle xenophobia mixed with religious paranoia.  Every other race, especially the antithetical forces of Chaos, is filled to the brim with heretics, and needs to be wiped out.  And thus war rages over hundreds of planets. 

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Space Marine reporting for duty.

Dawn of War II scales down the number of races to four, with more to surely come in expansions.  Returning are the Space Marines, which are genetically enhanced super soldiers that are the first line of defense for their empire (the second line being the Imperial Guard, which did not make the cut in this initial release).  The Eldar are aliens suited up in flashy metallic armor that rely on higher tech weapons and the ability to use psychic powers and hubs to instantly warp around the battlefield.  The Orks, one of the series? mainstays, are back with their distinctive text messaging-like overuse of the letter ?z?.  ?Deez boyz rule?.  The fourth race is the Tyranids, which can best be described as the Warhammer version of the Zerg, relying more on melee combat and bio-weapons.  I was personally hoping for their inclusion in the first series, but at least they?re shown some respect here.  Surprisingly, the forces of Chaos do not return in the initial release. 

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This is one of the coolest intros gamers have seen in a very long time.

This fact, however, allows the storyline to focus on a different enemy, the Tyranids.  Traditonally Warhammer games have always had the forces of Chaos as the main enemy.  Dawn of War II?s campaign focuses on the Space Marines investigation of events on various planets that lead them to confront the Tyranid threat.  It is about as involved as the first game?s storyline, which was told in between missions with often underwhelming in-game cutscenes, and gets the job done.  The occasional CG cutscenes are just as incredible as the original game?s, with one of the coolest game intros in a long time.  As I said, Warhammer?s fiction is so massive that any storyline in the games is simply an excuse to just get these cool armies mixing it up.  In that the story succeeds and generally held my interest, though it plot devices have already been done to death.

So we have returning races, settings, and a big ?II? on the box?this has to be the sequel, right?  This is where my main caveat with the game comes in.  The single-player game just doesn?t feel like Dawn of War

Installation and Manual

I was forum flogged for my previous review of The Political Machine 2008, in which I neglected to mention that Impulse, a separate game service, was required to run the game.  So let?s get this out of the way.  To play Dawn of War II, you must install Steam, and you also have to create a Windows Live ID for online play (though my ownership of an Xbox Live Account means this was already complete).  Both are free, relatively painless, but necessary.  My opinion on this is mixed, because while I like having the game automatically updated when logging on to Steam, I just wish it was optional.  But, this type of thing has never been a deal breaker for me so it is for individuals to make up their minds on this.  So, if giving your email address to Valve or Microsoft is a no-no, than you?re out of luck.  It should be noted that some users have significant issues with Steam.  This review is not the place to fully examine such issues.  There are several threads discussing the merits of Steam in our forums, and users concerned with potential problems would be well advised to read up on user?s comments as well as the Steam support pages (https://support.steampowered.com/) for common conflicts and solutions.  Some solutions are resolved with recommendations to disable firewalls and anti-virus programs; users who experience problems sometimes find these conflicts are not trivial. 

The manual is good so far as it goes, but only covers the game features and those relatively briefly.  There are also descriptions of all the units for each race.  Other than that, nothing stands out.  There is a pretty nice full color mini poster showing the game?s units and upgrades.  There is also excellent in-game help.  Fortunately, nearly every feature of the units are introduced as you progress through the campaign, and these are summarized in very helpful encyclopedic entries that can be recalled later.  This really negates the need for a detailed physical manual provided players invest time in the single-player campaign.  The days of comprehensive printed manuals have long been over.

Graphics and Audio

Dawn of War II is on the whole, a beautiful game.  The music and sound effects keep the game thematically linked to the first title, with many of the same lines being uttered by troops and similar sound effects.  Troops have different things to say depending on the situation or who they are fighting and this adds fantastic flavor to battles.  While there is no stand out theme in the orchestral score, it does a great job of ramping up the tension. 

What really shines are the graphics and physics engine.  Everything is so beautifully textured and the maps have so much detail that they are really a joy to behold.  Add to that structures and walls that can crumble under enemy fire and some really fantastic effects, and the whole thing takes on a very lifelike feel.  It is very much like Company of Heroes in this regard, another Relic title that lends its engine to Dawn of War II.  Going back to the original, one can see how much more cartoonish the graphics were.  The sequel takes on a grittier, lifelike feel.

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Dawn of War II?s gameplay can only be discussed in terms of single-player as a separate entity than multiplayer.  The two different modes are almost like two separate games, with multiplayer leaning more towards the gameplay of the first installment.

Dawn of War originated the strategic point gameplay that would later be used in Relic?s other series, Company of Heroes (unless of course we don?t count Z and Steel Soldiers).  Instead of harvesting resources, capturing strategic points gives the player a trickle of requisition points, which are used to call in new units and upgrades.  While vehicles and many units were trained individually, the mainstay of one?s armies, the infantry, were trained as squads, which through research could be expanded to include more members.  Also, these squads could be heavily customized by choosing the types of weapons they would carry.  For the Space Marines, for instance, one could choose to equip a squad with heavy ballistics to take an anti-infantry role, or rocket launchers to specialize against enemy vehicles, or a mix of the two.  It was an elegant system that worked beautifully.  It allowed for huge battles without the game degrading into rushing, as the player is required to not only defeat the enemy but also protect its vital strategic points around the map from being wrested away.

This is not the case in Dawn of War II?s single-player campaign.  While Dawn of War is akin to storming the beaches at Normandy, Dawn of War II is the struggle of the 82nd Airborne behind enemy lines.  It has an almost special forces feel to it, with limited units, the inability to build bases, and trial and error gameplay.

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The single-player campaign is only playable as the Space Marines.  Each mission starts with a predetermined force, though on some missions players do get to swap out a squad of their choosing.  In addition to the main character, a hero unit, each squad can only have a maximum of one squad leader and three auxiliary units.  So in each mission players never have more than about 12 units to control?a far cry from the massive armies that could be trained in the first game.  The missions, however, put the player up against hundreds of enemy units?with the later missions being particularly brutal in terms of enemy concentration.  This necessitates that the missions are a little less dynamic than in the first title.  After all, if all of these units rushed, it would be over in seconds.  Instead, groups of enemies typically guard certain areas and it is up to the player to figure out how best to overwhelm them by using his squad?s abilities and items such as grenades, demolition charges, and droppable turrets.  Luckily there are a plethora of items strewn around the maps that can be acquired to aid you (oddly to pick this up units don?t have to be near them, or they can be in the midst of enemy forces.  Simply clicking on them places them in inventory.)

So for instance, if the player must fight through a narrow path to take an Ork infested town, I might position my heavy bolter team to lay down suppressive fire as the rest of my units rush in and have another squad lob grenades into the enemy ranks, or I might order my commander use his orbital strike ability to call in an explosive bombardment.  Changing a unit?s facing is done by holding the right mouse button and changing the direction of an arrow that appears.  Using this control scheme players can also position their units behind enemy barriers such as rocks, walls, and other obstacles?another feature carried over from Company of Heroes.  As in Company of Heroes, however, the action can get so intense that it can be hard to select squads and use their special abilities in the midst of battle, despite the excellent interface.

If a squad?s numbers start to thin, there are certain beacons around the map that can be captured.  The player can retreat back to these to restore members of his squad.  But if the squad leader is taken out, then they must be restored by another squad once the enemy is cleared out of the area.  The only problem is that the AI is very scripted.  The enemy stays put until you enter their proximity, and with a few exceptions, only pursues to a certain position on the map.  What this means is that gameplay starts to boil down to a kill, retreat, reinforce, and repeat pattern.  There is certainly challenge to be had and I found I needed to repeat some levels, but overall it greatly decreases the challenge of the game. 

Certain missions add some variety, such as one which has the player holding out against a massive Ork army rushing his position.  Later missions involving the Eldar add some surprises as they utilize their warp gates to suddenly appear in your flanks.  Also, many missions end in a boss fight, facing a particularly powerful enemy unit and maneuver friendly squads to avoid his special attacks and wear him down.

Once a mission is complete, the player receives rankings based on performance, as well as gaining experience points for squads.  In RPG fashion, squad leaders gain levels, which gives the player the chance to add points to four different attributes.  These attributes grant special bonus abilities, such as an extra item slot or an increase in firing range.  Special weapons and armor picked up during missions or for defeating bosses can be equipped as well.  Generally, however, this is never more involved than switching one gun for a better gun, or switching the level ten armor for level twelve.  I think a better way to have implemented this would have been to award some type of currency for completing missions and give access to an armory with an inventory to purchase from.

All of these RPG elements feel a bit tacked on, however, because generally there are really no choices in the missions, so while I often felt like my squad leaders were getting more powerful and better equipped, it is because the game hands these things out.  Even if I failed a mission, I got to keep the items and experience accrued in my failed attempt, so this makes success more likely the next time around.  Again, however, the mission doesn?t change because the player failed it, so the enemy positions and challenges are not a surprise the second or third time around. 

Still, I had fun playing the single player campaign, and look forward to what could be done to expand this in the future.  I think a more dynamic campaign, such as the ones featured in the later Dawn of War expansions, would meld well with the more tactical, RPG focus of Dawn of War II.

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