The campaign’s story follows the Blood Ravens, an elite squad of Space Marines defending the three planets of sub-sector Aurelia from invasion by the Orks, Eldar, and Tyranids. It’s your standard “Oh no, the unstoppable horde of aliens is coming!” plot that will surprise no one, but it’s a more than serviceable excuse to gun down and cut to gory pieces thousands of aliens.
Also unsurprising (but in this case, pleasantly so) are the amazing visuals. DoWII is easily the best-looking RTS or action RPG of the past year. Every unit is up to Relic’s incredibly high standard of detail and animation; weapon effects are shock-and-awe-inspiring (I’m partial to the Dreadnought’s sweeping Hail of Fury barrage); and the maps on each planet have their own distinct look and feel. Killing-blow animations are standouts, too - watching larger units like the Dreadnought or Eldar Wraith Lord walker pick up an infantryman and rip him to shreds makes you want to zoom in and gawk at the macabre performance.
The controls are also cribbed from action RPGs, and work great once you get the hang of things. Ability hotkeys are clustered around the Q, W, and E keys, right next to the 1 through 4 keys used to select squads. As your squads earn experience from this visceral combat and level up, you can specialize them in areas like ranged combat or durability, unlocking new abilities - many of which, like Thaddeus’s Merciless Strike, are a blast to use. Further customization depends on what loot - called Wargear - you earn through mission rewards and randomized drops. Finding new and rare Wargear keeps things fresh amid the repetition - when you equip your squad with a flaming power sword, you see them carrying it around and chopping up enemies with nifty new animations as well as increased damage.
However, the fact that you can take only four of the six squads on any given mission means that, unless you’re rotating frequently, two are going to level up much more slowly than their peers. It’s the Space Marine equivalent of getting held back a grade - and those kids always get picked last in kickball.
Multiplayer is a different story - since all of the units have been rebalanced, it’s essentially a different game. There’s still virtually no base-building, and resource gathering is simplified to capturing and holding map points. Victory is achieved by holding strategic points rather than destroying the enemy’s base (a mode familiar to anyone who’s played DoWI or Company of Heroes), which allows for some very impressive last-minute comebacks as desperate underdogs retake territory. The cover system is much more useful here, too, since more basic infantry is in play.
Multiplayer also brings the much-needed variety that single-player lacks, since you can play as any of the four factions and choose from three commander types to suit your play style. But you’ll have to spend some time in skirmish mode to familiarize yourself with the basic mechanics of the Orks, Eldar, and Tyranids, since there are no tutorial missions. Also, since there’s no carryover from the single-player campaign, you can’t use your buffed up squads here (which would be horribly unbalanced, but fun), and loot is replaced by a purchased upgrade system. Instead, your customization is done in the army painter, where you can create a hot-pink platoon of Tyranids to take into battle.
Dramatically different single and multiplayer modes make Dawn of War II a difficult game to slap a single label on, but I can say this: Relic’s bold new take on the series proves itself worthy of the name with instant, intense tactical action - and despite the déjà vu campaign missions, the overall experience is thoroughly engrossing.
PC Gamer scores games on a percentage scale, which is rounded to the closest whole number to determine the GamesRadar score.
PCG Final Verdict: 86% (excellent)
Feb. 19, 2009