Visit a dark, distant, gothic future and take real-time command of powerful armies to wage intense, tactical battles in the name of freedom or justice. Following Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior, this is the second game based on the franchise to be published by THQ. Like all Warhammer 40,000 games, Dawn of War is set in the futuristic fantasy universe of Game Workshop's tabletop war game, which first became popular in the late 1980s. Relic Entertainment is known for its original Homeworld, a fully 3D, deep-space real-time strategy game, as well as its more traditional RTS, Impossible Creatures.
While Dawn of War doesn't break any new ground for the RTS genre, it is, nonetheless, a supremely polished and well-balanced example of it, a credit to both the development team, and a laurel wreath for the license it bears.
If you're unfamiliar with the Warhammer 40,000 universe, here's a quick-and-dirty summary. Imagine standard fantasy tropes like orcs and elves and wizards and demons. Now drop them into a science fiction universe so that the Orks and Eldar and the forces of Chaos battle it out using depleted uranium shells, spaceships, and laser weapons. That's the world 40,000 years in the future where the human Imperium, a brutal religious dictatorship, battles for the survival of the race against a universe filled with hostile aliens bent on its destruction.
Dawn of War's strongest point is immediately obvious the moment the game begins - sheer graphic beauty. The beauty is more than just a powerful 3D engine, though. The game's art design is simply stunning. Zooming in any unit or building in the game reveals a wealth of fascinating detail that's been included on the game's models. Hardened human soldiers sport old scars. Space Marine battle armor bears a variety of insignia, ribbons, medals, and battle standards that, while not affecting the gameplay directly, serve wonderfully to pull the player into the world. One particular example of this really brought home how much effort Relic put into essentially bringing the miniature figures of the tabletop game to life - the Librarian unit. Librarians are powerful psychic soldiers that also serve as Space Marine archivists. The identity of the unit could have been easily established just by putting a book shaped design on the soldier's armor. Instead, Relic went to the trouble of creating a real 3D book strapped to the Librarian's shoulder pauldron -- including brackets to hold it down!
The majority of the game's graphic beauty lies in the animations, though. I don't think that, to date, there has ever been an RTS game with battles that are this much fun to watch. Every unit in the game has extraordinarily detailed animations with different types of combat moves based on what they're actually doing and whom they're fighting. Units don't just go through a "fighting sequence," they actually get in there and really interact with their opponents. The result of this is that wherever you look on the battlefield, something insanely cool is going on. My personal favorite is the Orks' "Squiggoth" unit (think Lord of the Ring's Oliphaunt with much less charisma). During combat, the Squiggoth jumps up and down, causing shockwaves that hurl enemies into the air, but occasionally they'll impale an enemy, leading to the sight of a struggling unit gouting blood and twitching on the end of the Squiggoth's tusk.
Of course, RTS games are more than just graphic beauty. They need a solid mix of units, a good interface, and a solid strategic balance to be worthwhile. Dawn of War has all of this - in spades. The game sports four distinct races, Space Marines (humans), Orks, Eldar, and Chaos (evil humans). Each of the four races is extremely distinct. Space marines are the most balanced, Orks are mindless killing machines that throw tons of bodies at the enemy, Eldar are graceful and fast, relying on mobility and stealth, and Chaos has weaker armor and vehicles but more than makes up for it with magic spells and special powers. The beauty, though, is that Dawn of War manages to deliver these races without sacrificing play balance. Every race's combat style is perfectly reflected in its mix of units and each unit in the game is designed for a specific purpose.
The upshot is that the game comes close to that strategic purity that all RTS titles strive for -- there's no distinct advantage in picking one race over another. Multiplayer matches truly become tests of strategic skill between players, rather than just the race to find an unbeatable combination of units or powers. I have no doubt that once hundreds of players on the 'Net start tearing the game apart, they'll eventually find strategic imbalances in the game, but after playing skirmishes and multiplayer matches with each of the races for a couple of days, they all felt pretty solid to me.
The strategic "feel" of the game is excellent, as well. While the game contains the standard mix of base building, production, research, and upgrades in addition to managing troop movement, the emphasis in the game is clearly on fast movement and maneuverability. Most of the weapons and units in the game are clearly built for offense and mobility. Base buildings and constructors are cheap in cost and fast to build, and base defenses are fairly pathetic. The game's two resources, energy from reactors and "command points" acquired by holding strategic points on the battlefield, are abundant.
Any old RTS hand can tell you what this combination means -- "turtlers" need not apply. There is simply no way to hunker down in a base and build an overwhelming force -- movement, quick strikes, and holding certain positions are the order of the day. Whether this is a plus or minus, though, depends on what kind of RTS player you are. For my part, though I usually love base building and research and tend toward the turtle, Dawn of War was so much fun that I found myself adapting my play style to it rather than feeling frustrated that my usual strategies tended to get me killed.
That kind of strategic bias in the gameplay design is what makes the game's single-player campaign -- which actually takes a back seat to the game's skirmish and multiplayer modes -- so odd. The campaign is fun, but at the same time, it's structurally weak. The plot is good enough to keep your interest, but the story of a Space Marine Force Commander getting to the bottom of a Chaos plot on the planet Tarterus is pretty predictable. Many of the missions in the single-player campaign also fall prey to the classic RTS blunder of becoming puzzles. In fact, the missions that were the most fun in single-player were the more open maps that mimicked the feel of multiplayer or skirmish games. The campaign is also quite short, only 12 missions, and only allow you to play as the Space Marines. Fortunately, the actual gameplay is so much fun it pretty much covers for the flaws.
The game's interface isn't bad, although it's not great, either. Every unit, vehicle, and building in the game has a number of available upgrades and research options, as well as several battle stances and types of movement orders. The multi-function display on the right hand side of the interface and the button icons do a pretty good job of keeping all of these functions separate and obvious and I had no trouble at all in single player managing my forces using just the mouse.
Multiplayer was another story, though. Since each squad can be upgraded with a number of different weapon types, and each weapon type has a specific function in the game, properly controlling, outfitting, and reinforcing your squads in the heat of battle can be difficult just using the mouse. It's certainly possible, but if players actually want to win, they're going to have to learn some hot keys. The degree of unit micromanagement required in Dawn of War makes it inevitable.
If the game has one glaring flaw, it's the audio. The game's music varies from bombastic military marches to depressing gothic choirs. When it's not downright inappropriate for what's happening on the battlefield, the game's music is pedestrian, boring, and repetitive. If there was ever a game made for the screaming guitars of your average death metal band, this is it.
More of a problem is the game's voiceover work. Some of it is good: the Orks' cockney accent, for example, manages to be hilarious, yet perfectly appropriate for their characters. The voices for the Space Marines and the Chaos forces, on the other hand, are just awful in that "Look at me, I'M ACTING!" kind of way. Particularly bad is the cringing, subservient voice of the Chaos builder unit. Even worse, the order acknowledgement voice clips are too long and too frequent. Every single time I give an order to a Space Marine unit, I don't need to hear a long passage from the Emperor's liturgy - a simple "acknowledged" will be fine with the occasional longer clip thrown in for variety.
That said, however, there aren't many issues in Dawn of War that would keep me from playing this game until my mouse-clicking finger falls off. Relic had a brilliant insight when they realized that players didn't need a PC version of the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game. Instead, they went and gave us a great PC game that uses the heart of the license as a jumping off point. Fortunately, the Warhammer 40,000 universe is much larger than just the four races Dawn of War gives us, and we're hoping this is only a terrific start to a long and successful franchise.
People who downloaded Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War have also downloaded:
Warhammer Epic 40000: Final Liberation, Warhammer 40000: Chaos Gate, Warhammer 40000: Rites of War, Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos, Warhammer: Dark Omen, Warhammer: Mark of Chaos, Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat, Lord of the Rings, The: The Battle for Middle Earth II
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