Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II

David Yun David Yun: (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2009-05-12 14:05:26

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II - Rank A

Developer: Relic Entertainment
Publisher: THQ
Date: 2/18/09

Minimum Specs:
Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista SP1
Pentium 4 3.2 GHz or any dual core processor
1 GB RAM (XP), 1.5 GB RAM (Vista)
128MB video card (Shader Model 3); Nvidia GeForce 6600 GT/ATI X1600, or equivalent
5.5 GB hard drive space

Recommended Specs
AMD Athlon 64x2 4400+ or any Intel Core Duo
256MB video card (Shader Model 3) - Nvidia GeForce 7800 GT / ATI X1900, or equivalent

When Blizzard first announced Warcraft III several years ago, they promised it would incorporate RPG elements (like leveling up, ability trees, and loot) to create a unique twist for the Real Time Strategy genre. Those elements never really panned out, but Relic took those concepts to heart. Blizzard and the Warhammer people have been pinching design cues from each other for a long while now, and Dawn of War II does a solid job of delivering those experiences Warcraft III originally intended.

The shift in design is immediately noticeable. The single player campaign entirely does away with traditional RTS staples, such as base building, unit creation, tech research, and resource management. Instead, the strategic aspect of the game consists of managing the skill trees of your squads as they advance in experience and selecting their gear loadouts, in between missions. This aligns perfectly with my own tastes. I much prefer my strategy to be leisurely turn-based, as opposed to a frantic (but ultimately formulaic) click fest.

Eventually, you accumulate six squads, up to four of which can be deployed at any given time. As their leaders level up, they earn ability points that you can place in one of four trees: health, melee combat, ranged combat, and energy. Placing sufficient points into these trees unlocks powerful traits or abilities. It's vital to "build" in a balanced fashion, so your squads complement each others' strengths and weaknesses. One squad can be the "tank" that soaks up enemy fire, while another takes on the "DPS" role by upping their firepower. A wide range of variations are viable, and this degree of customization is a fresh addition to the RTS genre.

"Loot" drops during the missions, following the traditional Blizzard labeling scheme of Blue Rare (exceptional), Uncommon Green (improved), and Common White (normal) equipment. This opens up a bevvy of options. For example, do you give your ranged combat squad a bolter (assault rifle) or a flamethrower? The flamethrower inflicts less damage, but is able to burn enemies regardless of cover. Even if the bolter is significantly superior, it still requires flanking the enemy for proper effectiveness, and is significantly less useful against enemies within the complete cover of buildings. If you have one exceptional piece of armor, who do you assign it to? Do you fill the accessory slot with a limited use wide strike satellite device, or surgical grenades with more charges? These decisions will affect how you approach battles. This is how dudes play dress up: with guns and power armor and chainsaws. And now we get to do it in an RTS.

With the removal of these logistical issues from the actual missions, the action becomes solely tactical. The importance of cover is retained from Relic's superb sister RTS, Company of Heroes. But with only four squads at your disposal, properly positioning them with their skill sets in mind is crucial. Dawn of War II emphasizes micromanagement; instead of a horde of minions to command, you now control a handful of units with a wide array of options to manage. You might have to activate your suppression unit's Focus Fire ability, use your recon squad to snipe a watchtower, order up some healing, and call for orbital bombardment in quick succession, all while directing their movements to quickly respond to the flow of battle. Managing four densely optioned squads can be more demanding than handling dozens of units that simply execute their roles once properly placed.

The Warhammer 40K universe is a fun backdrop to play against. Without taking itself seriously, it oozes tense machismo and purposefully overwrought drama with an unmitigated goofy tone. The campaign has you playing as Space Marines. The seminal film Aliens established this conceit, which has since been parlayed by everything from StarCraft to Halo and Gears of War. Only here, these guys actually call themselves "Space Marines". That's not just a descriptor, that's their proper name.

Two of the enemy races fill out the traditional triangle. The Tyranid are a toothy, bestial horde akin to the Aliens/Zerg. The Eldar are a proud race of warriors that fill the role of Predators/Protoss. But it's the SPACE ORKS that bring the delicious ridiculousness. I've always been amazed that Blizzard managed to turn dwarves Scottish. If anything, history dictates that they should be Germanic. But Warcraft's influence changed that forever, even giving Gimli a Scottish accent in the Lord of the Rings movies. Likewise, thanks to Dawn of War II, orcs now sound like Manchester Yardies in my head. They're space faring British soccer hooligans with preposterous names like "Mek Badzappa". If you don't end up enjoying their comedic frivolity, you need to lighten up.

Although the campaign only offers Space Marine play, it notably allows for two player cooperative action. Each player controls two squads, allowing for more responsive micromanagement. This is another significant contribution to the genre. These innovations are critical to the overall success of Dawn of War, as the missions themselves suffer somewhat from repetitiveness.

The multiplayer portion of the game allows you to play as any of the four factions, with minor variations depending on which hero you select as your leader. It's quite good, but didn't capture my imagination like the campaign did. The resource management, tech researching, and unit creation will be instantly familiar to any long time RTS player. I've had this same experience to the point of fatigue from numerous other games, and I prefer the way Company of Heroes handles it. Dawn of War II's emphasis on micromanagement has a tendency to overwhelm all other tactical concerns - the very parts that I most enjoy. Still, I judge this to be a matter of preference. If micromanagement IS your cup of tea, you'll find a slickly polished RTS experience here. The only objectively legitimate complaint regards unit balance; multiple patches in, some units are still noticeably over/underpowered.

In both game modes, Relic's strengths shine. They have a way of combining audio and physics to communicate a tangible, visceral experience. The world sounds convincing, from ambient noise to the the heavy chatter of storm bolters and the crack of sniper rifles. Positional audio allows you to ascertain enemy locations through the fog of war, an astounding achievement for an RTS. Missile strikes and drop pod impacts believably shake the screen. Walls and buildings crumble and collapse convincingly under the stress of prolonged heavy combat. If the devil's in the details, Dawn of War II is in dire need of an exorcism.

The Real Time Strategy genre is a heavily impacted one, where mere competency is insufficient to gain any notice. There's a certain universal sameness about them, even from quality releases. Instead, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II breaks strongly from the established mold, and delivers a neoteric experience with the unique deftness that only Relic possesses.

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