The first Dawn of War is still one of my all time favourite RTS video games.
I loved the different take on squad-based combat, I loved the fact that it created choke-points with its use of control points and, possibly most of all, I loved the fact that it was based on Warhammer 40,000.
After possibly one of the biggest departures in gameplay style in history for the second game in a series (which, I’ll admit, I have never played and have no intention of playing), Relic is back with Dawn of War 3, returning to its RTS roots, at least in part, for a final swansong before the studio goes all-in and throws the MOBA switch all the way.
Okay, perhaps that’s not entirely fair. There’s absolutely no indication anywhere that Relic are switching things up on us that drastically for any future instalments (there are, as far as we’re aware, no plans for future Dawn of War games, anyway) and Dawn of War 3 is, while certainly something of a departure from what most of us think of when we say ‘Real Time Strategy’, still very much an RTS game; with RTS roots, RTS mechanics and a whole heck of a lot of eye-wateringly brilliant RTS combat.
Being an RTS, obviously you build bases, you train troops, you engage in fighting, the size of which range from single-squad skirmishes up to all out, army-vs-army battles, complete with dreadnoughts, deffkoptas and massive bloody wraithlords and, yes, Titans. It’s easily up there with the most tactically-minded RTS games, with micro-management of certain squads’ special abilities a must, even more so when you throw in the incredibly powerful elite units which, also, have plenty of customisation options that lets you change them up a bit between games.
There are three playable races, the advanced human Space Marines, the brutal yet utterly brilliant Orks and the Eldar… which is short-hand for Space Elves. Each of the races plays rather differently from the others and has a range of strengths and weaknesses as well as a central mechanic that really makes them stand apart. The Space Marines can build drop-pods full of troops that can be instantly deployed to the battlefield for rapid strikes or emergency reinforcements. The Eldar have moveable buildings, gates that buff any allied Eldar in range of them and something called the Webway, which can be used to link buildings across the map for retreat or reinforcement. The Orks get what is, perhaps, the freshest ability – all Ork troops can use scrap found around the battlefield or salvaged from destroyed units and buildings to upgrade themselves or, even, to create new units right there in the thick of it.
For an RTS, Dawn of War 3 is actually incredibly good fun and surprisingly deep. The combat is fast – battles are often decided quickly and you always feel like you’re doing something; there’s little time to sit back and just watch your armies go at each other, seeing as though you’re going to have to be on hand to tell marines to throw grenades or get your Eldar farseer to lock the enemy in a stasis field. The story is straight out of 40K – the three factions are brought together on planet Cyprus for different reasons but end up staying there in an attempt to take control of this instalment’s big MacGuffin – the Spear of Kaine. It’s nothing too strenuous but it does give good reasons for all of the fighting to happen and, while a lot of the plot plays out in cutscenes, each mission has its own short story to tell; a mini war-story that helps you get to grips with what’s going on in the wider plot.
Fortunately, Dawn of War 3 has some stand-out voice-acting that really helps to bring the world to life. As it happens, the game’s audio, as a whole, is very crisp and always exciting: everything has some audible feedback and it’s got a meaty weight that fits right in with the 40K aesthetic. The best example of this are the Orks who, as opposed to the other races with their fairly typical soundtracks and rather straight-faced commands and effects, have a crazy mix of cockney voices, slicing blades, booming guns and, best of all, a little dance party theme every time you boost up a WAAAGH! Tower.
Visually, the game is typically above average, though when you zoom in a little, some of the textures and animations can come off as being slightly unpolished; not that I’ve ever zoomed in in an RTS. The campaign missions (of which there are 17) feature well-crafted maps that make missions even more interesting with a variety of strategic choke-points, open spaces, branching paths and long grass so that you can get all stealthy-like. Units look great, too, and, with the possible exception of the Space Marine tactical and assault squads and the Orks’ choppas and shootas squads, they’re fairly easy to tell apart in the heat of battle.
Not that that’s much of an issue because Relic have, masterfully, done away with the screen-clogging UIs of old and have, instead, streamlined affairs so that you’ve got your basic (and still pretty) command section on one side, an incredibly toned-down minimap on the other (that only really shows you what you need to see) and, in the middle, a row of icons, each depicting one of your squads for ease of selection. It’s a welcome addition (and subtraction) that really helps to focus your attention to what’s happening to your troops, as opposed to you having to fiddle around with menus.
Which, sort of, leads us into talking about what Dawn of War 3 is not. It’s not Dawn of War 1. It’s not even Dawn of War 2. It brings some of the ideas of both into its bejewelled, rusted, metallic folds but what it spits out is something else entirely. And it’s something that feels – and I’m sorry/not-sorry to say it – like a MOBA.
The first thing is that resource gathering has been slimmed down to the point where it might as well not be a thing at all. Sure, it’s still vital to secure resource points (like the old control points from the original game), because you’ll increase your yield-over-time; but the trickle of resources is, often, so slow and the cost of new units prohibitively high that, unless you’re willing to sit around for half an hour, not doing anything, you’re going to bundle up a few, small squads with some elites and head out to see what damage you can do, as opposed to preparing an almighty host with which to sweep the entire map. And if that hasn’t convinced you that Dawn of War 3 is putting a sharp focus on downsizing, your population cap is also seriously low, with no way to increase it, limiting the amount of units you can field in total.
The elites are incredibly strong, incredibly powerful units that you’ll unlock as you play through the game, learning how both they and their own unique special abilities work. If we’re talking MOBAs, here, the line units are your minions and the elites are your champions – the only difference is that, in Dawn of War 3, you control them all. Other RTSs have incorporated named, individual units, often with greater health-pools or, in some cases, special abilities that only they can use. But I’ve never played a game in which they’re so vital before.
Starcraft had its share of named units but it wasn’t as though you couldn’t leave them at your base and head out with a couple of squads of templars or firebats or whatever and win the day while they stayed safely back at base. But in Dawn of War 3 you’re absolutely going to need to bring your elites along for almost every fight. They can hold their own against two or three standard squads with ease and I’ve even had games where they’ve been literally my only unit on the field and have bought me enough time to generate some more. Their abilities, too, mean that you’ll lean on them as the workhorse of your army more than a specialist unit. And, when you lose one, you’ll really feel how powerful they were as the rest of your forces struggle to fill the vacuum they leave behind. Fortunately, you can summon them again after a rather lengthy cooldown but, in that time, your enemy’s elites might easily overwhelm you, proving just how vital they are.
Combined with the low pop-cap, the seemingly smaller number of individual unit types and a clutter-free UI, I really got the feeling that I was playing the first real crossover between RTS and MOBA. It’s no surprise, then, that the single player campaign feels like nothing more, or less, than training for Relic’s end-game: the multiplayer.
And the multiplayer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, even more distinctly MOBA-ish than the single player campaign. With only one game-mode (thus far), the multiplayer has you face off across a nicely symmetrical battlefield, both sides trying to protect their power core with the help of a shield generator and turret while, simultaneously, trying to destroy their enemy’s. The RTS elements feel like something of an afterthought – particularly when you’ve got enough units to run out, grab some more resource points and take the fight to the enemy. However, Dawn of War 3 again does something interesting to mess with the formula.
During a multiplayer match, the battle will ‘Escalate’ over time, meaning that, as you play, buildings get progressively stronger, shields get progressively harder and resource points yield a progressively greater number of resources. It’s another move to shift things into high gear: an incentive for players to play as rapidly as possible so that they can capitolise on any advantage in the first few phases of the battle and prevent horribly dull base-camping strategies (the likes of which I often employ in single player RTS games). While it may not make that big of a difference to newer gamers or those of us who just like to dabble in multiplayer here and there, it’s certain to make for incredibly exciting matches for the more skilled Dawn of War players – and it’s another move that seems, to me, at least, to suggest that Relic are absolutely courting the e-sports market.
It may seem like I’ve been using ‘MOBA’ like a bad word and, while that’s true for some parts of the game, I don’t really think it’s that bad for multiplayer. The distinct streamlining of the RTS elements make the single-player feel like a far cry from the brilliance of the original Dawn of War but they bring a frenetic energy to 3 that the first game didn’t really have, as well as a narrower focus as you’re unable to make vast, map-spanning armies and have to make do with only a few carefully selected squads.
Even in multiplayer, the tactics are much wider than in MOBAs due to that RTS idea of having control of all of your units and having to maintain your base. The resource points mean that there are obvious locations for skirmishes and attacks but they also provide players with an array of tactical choices: rush the map to secure as many as you can to bolster your early resources or carefully proceed through the map, securing and reinforcing each point you come to? Will you set up sneak attacks around the points or set traps for your enemy to fall into? Added to that, the reliance on elites may mean that players devise elaborate bait-and-switches, tempting lures to draw their enemies towards them, only to dive into the enemy base while the elites are fighting an inferior force.
Playing Dawn of War 3 has left me with the distinct feeling that Relic are pushing the franchise towards an e-sports focus. Moving away from some of the more traditional RTS ideas, throwing in some better balanced multiplayer conceits, the whole idea of the superpowered elite units and that feeling that everything has been streamlined, made faster and more time-sensitive; I’ll be surprised if I’m the only one who’s seeing a distinct connection between the RTS and MOBA genres, doubly so if we don’t see a greater push towards the multiplayer in the inevitable DLC (which will, I’m certain, also introduce new playable races with their own, short, single-player tutorial missions).
As I’ve said, though, it’s no bad thing. Dawn of War 3 is still incredibly good fun. It’s a well-crafted RTS that eschews some of the tired old tropes for a faster pace and a tighter experience. It’s well designed and nicely realised, with a good (if predictable) story and excellent voice acting and it’s got an intriguing and engaging multiplayer which can only bring increased longevity to the series. And it’s still got that 40K thing going on.