Real time strategy is a special genre in computer games, in that no game has really dominated in years. Role playing games have Oblivion, for example; massively multiplayer online games have World of Warcraft, of course; first person shooters have Call of Duty; but nothing has been the RTS since StarCraft hit the market over a decade ago. So, the opportunity is ripe for someone to take this long abandoned crown, and developers Relic Entertainment decided the best bet for doing so is making a game (technically a sequel) around the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game.
Warhammer 40,000 is to StarCraft what Warhammer Fantasy Battles is to WarCraft, except for the rather critical difference that, when it comes to commercial success, games with “craft” in the title do vastly better in the computer games marketplace. Any hope of changing that must come from innovation, and Relic absolutely did their best here. The first Dawn of War used many of the standard real time strategy game conventions, but DoW 2 essentially blows many of them apart, unfortunately by making choices that may not appeal to all fans of the genre.
The single player campaign, usually a write-off in RTS games, plays well but also plays very differently. Played solely from the view of a human Space Marine chapter, the Blood Ravens, the campaign plays much more like an action RPG like Diablo 2 (yet another Blizzard title) than anything else. Your squad members gain experience as they fight through the semi-linear campaign, and you spend those points to increase their stats, like health (for survivability) and energy (for activating special abilities). Nearly as important as experience points are the weapons and pieces of equipment (i.e., “phat lewt”) you find on the battlefield, strongly motivating you to search every square inch for caches (“treasure chests”) to open for these extra bonuses, dramatically influencing the later stages of the campaign. The player might be tempted to do the side quests of the campaign as well, but, mercifully, even the end bosses of the each battle can be taken down without necessarily having cleared all the earlier “dungeons.”
The system works well, and you’ll find you spend nearly as much time in the campaign outside of battle, playing dress-up with your squad members to arrange into very functional fighting units. It’s often worthwhile to dramatically restructure your squads, depending on what you believe you’ll see in the very next battle. For example, against Tyranids, you’ll likely want close combat and mass attack weapons, to deal with swarms, as opposed to the more standard-issue weapons suitable for dealing with Orks. I think it says something – not very good – about RTS as a genre, that the best “innovations” for it are to make it play like some other game. The real problem with this RPG-style play is that it has little to do with multiplayer, as the army-destroying heroes of the single player game just aren’t a factor in the multiplayer action.
Multiplayer, too, gets a smack from the “new ideas” axe, in this case with the elimination of base building from the game. Instead, players get one building from which all units emerge, although it’s still needed to control resources and upgrade this building to build better units.
This is a big deal, as base building is a huge part of practically every other RTS – almost every game is essentially decided by how well the player can set up his resource-gathering base in the first five minutes. This can be rather repetitive, since those first few minutes play identically every time. There’s still resource gathering, and players must battle for control of various far-flung points on the map; an additional “resource” is inflicting casualties, which generates the opportunity for bonus powers.
In addition to the Marines, multiplayer allows for Orks, Eldar, and Tyranids. A nice addition is that not only does a player select a race, he also must select from one of three commanders for that race, with commanders having their own special leanings. The Mekboy Ork commander has special technological abilities, while, say, the Kommando Nob is much more focused on assault combat. It does add to the game, although it really seems balance issues are even more prevalent here than in other RTS games. Also, once you spot the enemy commander, you can start to make good guesses about what types of units he’ll favor, which in turn gives you a chance to build the proper counter-units.
Victory is determined (usually) by controlling various critical zones on the map; as you own them, your opponent’s victory points decrease, and a player/team loses when the points reach zero. This means that all games are essentially on the clock, so drawn out stalemates are impossible. Alas, it also means that sometimes the game is over a good five minutes before it actually ends, and all the losing player can do is just sit and watch.
Well, there is something else the loser can do, and that’s appreciate the awesomely detailed graphics. You can zoom in close on the units – worthless in the heat of a winnable game, but watching your pieces get torn to shreds in exquisite detail is still worthwhile, at least sometimes. Relic really put a lot of effort into the artwork here.
The speech acting is as uneven as always, and, of course, repetitive at times; there’s really not much you can do in this type of game, where even a “simple” battle might involve a thousand mouse clicks – any response at all is doomed to become repetitive.
In short, Dawn of War 2 is a strong addition to the RTS genre. Only the marketplace can determine if it’ll hold the long-empty “top spot,” but Relic certainly did all they could to make it so.
Pros/Cons+ Great Warhammer 40k look and feel