Dawn of War is one of those weird franchises which never quite reached the popularity of other RTS games like Command and Conquer or Age of Empires, but it’s a series which will nevertheless inspire real excitement in its fans–even today. Or, rather, a couple of the series’ entries will inspire excitement, and at least one will usually cause rage.
That’s the other odd thing about the Dawn of War games: each iteration has been markedly different from the previous one, so you end up with a fairly fractured fanbase depending on which style of game they liked best. The original was a fairly straightforward base-building RTS; its big innovation was a tighter focus on small-unit warfare. It was then turned into an entire planetary campaign (similar to Battle for Middle Earth’s ‘War of the Ring’ mode) with a huge step up in playable armies in Dark Crusade, while Soul Storm tweaked the DC formula by adding yet more armies and taking the campaign to an inter-planetary scale. Then Dawn of War 2 was released a few years later and completely scrapped everything from the previous games; instead, it focused entirely around a couple squads of hero-led troops who leveled up like characters in an RPG without a trace of the old RTS roots anywhere to be seen.
Predictably, the change from the original RTS gameplay to this new tactical format was the most controversial. Even today many people (like yours truly) prefer, and still play, Dark Crusade while Dawn of War 2 languishes uninstalled in their Steam library. Along with THQ’s collapse, this may also help explain why it’s been nearly eight years since the last full game was released.
So, now with Dawn of War 3 finally here, the question is: has the series undergone another metamorphosis? Or has developer Relic Entertainment gone back to their roots in order to play it safe?
Well, predictably for a series as diverse as Dawn of War, the answer is somewhere in the middle. Dawn of War 3 often feels like a game trying to bridge the gap between the traditional base building and resource farming of the first game, and the hero-led, tactical strategy of the second. Unfortunately, in trying to fill this gap, it can sometimes feel like it’s not doing either particularly well.
Before I dive into the gameplay though, some brief words about the setting. As has been the case in each new iteration of Dawn of War, Relic managed to capture the brutal essence of the GrimDark Far-Future extremely well. Everything is suitably overwrought, over-dramatic, and exceptionally bloody in its execution. Space Marines ham up their lines, Orks sound like a horde of drunken football hooligans out for a scrap, and the Eldar remain aloof and, quite frankly, kinda dickish. Things explode, enormous robot walkers eviscerate infantry units with chainsaws as big as tanks, and everywhere you look someone is probably dying in some awful way.
All of this bombastic action also looks gorgeous thanks to the updated graphics engine which seems to cope excellently, even on my mid-range rig, regardless of how large the Ork horde I’m controlling has become. Likewise, the sound is suitably epic with a musical score heavy on the organ music and pumping action beats that fit together nicely with the sounds of explode-y death emanating from every corner of the screen.
The Campaign mode is where most players will start experiencing these delights and, for the most part, it serves as a good and challenging introduction. It’s fairly long, clocking in at 20 missions, and each new mission is with a different faction from the last; so you experience Orks, Eldar and Space Marines all at roughly the same rate. This does help players get familiar with each faction before moving on to multiplayer–something that was a real challenge in the original and sequel–but it robs the story of a great deal of its urgency.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, the storyline here is pretty standard 40K nonsense. There’s a magical maguffin on a planet that’s been hidden in the warp for centuries, the Inquisition wants it for the Imperium while the Space Marine leader thinks it should be destroyed, the Eldar want it because they’re the Eldar, and the Orks want it because…well, because it’s shiny, and trying to get it will mean a lot of punch ups on the way.
The problem is, when you have a chance to focus in on just one of these storylines it allows you to suspend disbelief in at least some of the absurdity going on. But by flitting back and forth between three points of view all you get is to understand that, yep, this sure is ridiculous. Either that, or you end up siding with the Orks because at least they seem like they’re having fun.
Playing through the campaign will also show you very quickly that what Relic built here is essentially a MOBA in all but name. Yes, base building and unit construction make a welcome return, but each and every unit you can mass produce seems to have the durability of a wet paper towel. You need to make a pretty constant and effective use of your three ‘Elite’ hero characters in order to actually make any progress in any of the missions. This isn’t helped by the fact that when you leave the general units on their own, they can suffer from severe AI deficiency to the point where melee focused units will sometimes ignore ranged units–who are shooting them dead–until you actually tell them to attack.
You can’t ignore base-building as a horde of low level mobs can overwhelm a single elite, but it does feel a little bit superfluous in some ways. This style of gameplay also means tactical considerations are basically gone completely; other than stationing units inside the heavy cover bunkers that dot some of the maps, you will basically always have a horde of guys centered around your elite units. Just keep clicking them at the enemy until everything is dead.
Your Elites take a little more managing as each has a set of powers that need to be manually triggered. I found this, too, a little annoying as the powers are literally vital to get the best use of the Elites, but selecting them individually and triggering the powers at the right time is a pain in the middle of a hectic firefight. In the Campaign you can use the pause button, but this isn’t the best training for multiplayer.
Speaking of multiplayer, this is where all delusions are abandoned as the mode is quite literally a MOBA with a bit of base building in it. Each map is a multi-staged affair where you have to destroy a power generator, then move on to destroy the next part, and then eventually unlock the ability to attack your opponents base. While you can spam low level units at your opponent the truth is that the Elites are the main focus of gameplay here as each player can take three into battle along with unlocking a number of upgrades and doctrines that improve their performance in subtle ways. With some of the tunnel-like progression of certain levels, a single well-controlled Elite can make mincemeat of an opponent’s whole army. If you’re an experienced League of Legends player looking for something requiring less focus, then this is for you.
I wouldn’t say that Dawn of War 3 is a bad game. It does a lot of things well enough in the campaign and provides enough content that it is, at the very least, an enjoyable way to spend over 20 hours. It also has moments of sheer epicness that are difficult to match in other games, as they feel so intrinsically tied to the vast excess inherent in the 40K IP that Relic so deftly manages. However, it feels like this is a game stuck between genres. The return of the RTS base building elements can feel perfunctory and underutilized while the MOBA-lite nature of the elites are unlikely to actually grab the attention of fans of that genre.
This isn’t Heresy, but, to me, it still falls short of the Emperors Will.
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