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Two words that aren’t often associated with real-time strategy games: instant gratification. Yet Dawn of War II manages to turn the RTS formula on its ear, putting you in the thick of battle almost 100 percent of the time and ensuring that your moment-to-moment decisions involve picking which alien ass to kick with your giant red armored boot.
It isn’t dumbed down at all, but the focus has shifted to tactical combat. Indeed, Dawn of War II has gone to such lengths to differentiate itself from that other real-time strategy game with space marines fighting aliens that it’s become something else entirely. The transformation goes something like this: take an RTS, add role-playing mechanics like hero unit-leveling, tons of special abilities, and loot, then strip away RTS mechanics like base-building, resource management, and expendable units. The result is a party-based action-RPG with RTS-style controls and camera. Or, like I just said, instant gratification.
It’s a drastic departure, but this formula pays off by dramatically upping the action dosage from your typical RTS - rather than spending half of your time managing unit production and upgrading your troops, you’re in constant combat. Outfitting and upgrading your squads and deciding which missions to take on is handled between missions from the safety of your orbiting battleship in the somewhat shallow meta-game, so all you have to keep track of in battle is the health of your soldiers (they never die, they just become incapacitated until revived). That can be harder than it sounds, because the armor system is difficult to fully comprehend, so when your troops do go down it can take you by surprise.
Everything works brilliantly until your sixth or seventh mission. That’s when the realization dawns on you that most missions are extremely repetitious, dragging down enthusiasm as the 20-plus-hour campaign progresses. Two mission types, each taking between five and fifteen minutes to complete, make up the lion’s share of the game: assaults, in which you fight your way to the opposite corner of the map (optionally detouring to capture factories and shrines to boost to your ship-based support powers), finishing with a super-powerful boss unit; and defense missions where you must protect power generators against increasingly potent waves of attackers.
Only a few of the story missions deviate from these patterns, and there aren’t nearly enough of them to break the monotony. Aggravating this, there are only a handful of maps (three or four per planet) and you burn through missions at a rapid-fire speed, so you’ll probably find yourself constantly muttering, “This map again? Really?” At least the maps are designed to have multiple paths, so you don’t have to play it the same way every time.
Much ado has been made over the cover system; if you set up a gunner squad behind rocks or walls, they take much less damage than they would out in the open. In practice, cover is only really helpful against basic infantry, since nearly every other type of unit has an ability to defeat entrenched units (grenades, jumpjets, teleporters, flamethrowers, rocket launchers, melee charges, etc). Since the majority of the mid- and late-game missions pit you against the melee-focused Tyranids, the importance of cover is diminished. It’s too bad, because when it’s useful the cover-based combat is some of the most tactically interesting gameplay in DoWII.
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