Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War

It seems like every time we see this game of far-future, apocalyptic warfare in action, a new colour has been added to the palette of treats. That's why, this time, we thought we'd throw two of the game's most vibrant elements into sharp relief: super-units and battlefield tactics.

Every tech-tree in every RTS has its high branches, and usually lurking at the top is a piece of uber kit so powerful that Donald Rumsfeld has sweaty dreams of owning it. Dawn of War is no exception. But the main difference here is that each of the four army's ultimate weapons are embodied by a single, vastly powerful battlefield unit: the leader.

Leaders are the figureheads of an army, and come in many forms, from the battle-hardened Marine Commander, veteran of a thousand campaigns, to the Chaos army's big gun: the Bloodthirster, a towering horned demon born from the miasmic ethers of warp space. It's a reflection of the original tabletop game - leaders lead from the front, and they lead by example.

As in most RTS games, the rank-and-file are the backbone of your army, and are expendable to a degree. Squeezing the most out of the grunts' sadly limited lifespan is the name of the game. Fight from good positions in cover, pitch troops against enemies that are susceptible to their specialist attacks and, above all, keep their morale up. When a unit loses its bottle in Dawn of War, its effectiveness is slashed. But add a leader to a bunch of ordinary troops and their abilities soar. Their aim improves, their weapons hit harder, and they'll withstand a much greater pounding before their nerve cracks. Still, when the chips are down, the true measure of a leader's worth is always in his combat abilities.

Your standard grunt fights with low-level weapons: a blade and a pistol, just enough to take down an enemy soldier. For the most part, troops lack killer hand-to-hand weapons, and this gap can be plugged using a leader. The Marine Force Commander, for example, wields a mighty Thunder Hammer, powerful enough to rip through body armour, bowl over multiple enemies or crack a vehicle's armoured hull like a walnut. His inclusion can turn a standard unit of troops into a deadly strike weapon. And by the same token, the squad he joins provides a certain amount of incidental protection for him - after all, he's a lot less likely to take hits when he's mixed in with a large bunch of cannon fodder.

Watching rival leaders clash head-to-head is an awesome sight to behold. One of the scenes we witnessed involved a Marine Commander battling a demonic Bloodthirster. As the two super warriors charged towards each other, the battle seemed cut-and-dried from the outset, as a Bloodthirster literally towers over a human. But as the blows began to hit home, the fight became more even-handed.

A gargantuan swipe from the Bloodthirster's man-sized axe sent the Marine flying, but a return blow from the Thunder Hammer sent the demon staggering. When another blow left it swaying like a willow tree, the Marine saw his opportunity and leapt onto the demon's back. After a struggle reminiscent of Starship Troopers (remember Rico jumping on the carapace of that huge plasma bug?), the Marine drew back his mighty hammer, and landed a blow squarely on the demon's gigantic, steely cranium: Crump!

The Bloodthirster dropped to his knees. Another blow: Crump! The creature was on all fours. A third mighty strike: Crump!

The demon lay prostrate on the floor. The marine leapt off to deliver the coup-de-grace, raising his hammer aloft, bringing it down on the foul creature's skull, and crushing it like a Doc Marten stamping on a box of eggs. CRUMP!

The feature that made this battle even more impressive was the slo-mo function. It enables players to view the titanic struggles at leisure, from any angle - perfect for capturing the moment of victory with a screenshot. For obvious reasons, this is something Relic have made available in the singleplayer game only.

Resources in Dawn of War aren't mined, or grown, or harvested. The fact is, you've got a whacking great mothership in space, packed to the bulkheads with soldiery, tanks and dreadnoughts, so why would you need to harvest? Nope, to get the hardware planet-side, you need to impress the Top Brass upstairs, and to do that, you must capture SPs - Strategic Points.

Dotted across the map, SPs symbolise territorial advantage. Troop units can be ordered to capture them, at which point builder units can build radar stations to clear the fog of war, and gun turrets to protect the area from incursion. But crucially, SPs supply you with Requisition Points, or RPs. This reflects High Command acknowledging your growing contribution to the war effort, and supporting you with more arms for the fight. RPs are drip-fed, but you can speed up supply by capturing more SPs. RPs can then be spent to call in new units, or upgrade existing technologies.

Special Strategic Points, known as Relics (there are normally only one or two per map), represent locations of grave tactical importance. Glorious capture of these hotspots can unlock elite units on the tech tree. As a Space Marine Commander, you don't get uber-units like Terminators every day of the week - only when there's something damned important to protect.

The correlation between SPs and troop disposition is an obvious one. Unlike a traditional RTS - Warcraft, for example - Battles in Dawn of War are generally fought on the front line, as armies expand and clash over SPs. It's extremely hard to charge straight into an enemy's base and start pounding on his structures. You've got to gain the tactical upperhand first. Or die trying.