Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (PC)
Relic knows the good parts of a real-time strategy game: the bits where the little soldiers fight each other. All that stuff about economy? It's a formality. It's a dance you do to determine who gets how many soldiers. All that base-building? Peripheral -- literally. Your base is shoved against the edges of the map and you visit it to tinker with your economy. The other guy's base? Think of it has a victory point location. Smash it and the game will grind to a halt with only you left standing. In all this, what really counts are the men/tanks/Zerg fighting each other. That's ultimately why you're here.
So in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, Relic has decided to cut to the chase. It's performed an econo-ectomy, deliberately and ruthlessly carving away everything that isn't the men/tanks/Zerg fighting each other. You can go from zero to chainsaw-cutting-into-Ork-flesh in 30 seconds, at which point it won't slow up. To some RTSers, this will be like watching an action movie with only the action scenes, missing any characters or motivation or setting. They will cry, "Where is the back-end strategy? Where are the strategic decisions? Where are the tech upgrades? What has become of the long tail behind my army?" To them, Relic has butchered real-time strategy. They aren't necessarily wrong.
But leaving aside for a moment whether Relic's dramatic decision works, consider that this is nothing new. Just ask anyone who played Myth way back when. Or anyone who's playing World in Conflict right now. Or anyone who has a soft spot in his heart and a couple hundred megabytes on his hard drive for Sacrifice. Whereas some old-school RTSers might whine that this is a dumbing-down, the truly old-school see it as a return to the deeper roots of the genre: combat, physics, cool units, cool powers, considerable bloodshed; all over quickly so you can immediately do it again. It's nothing new.
What is new is an established series that used to do it the old way changing its mind mid-stride. Between Dawn of War and Dawn of War II, Relic has recanted the old ways, blindsiding some fans with what must seem like a bait-and-switch. Here was one of the faithful, playing by the usual rules of economies and base-building. And they've come to this? It's the sort of change of heart you could mistake for a betrayal or a console port. No one would have cared if Martin Luther was some random pagan who decided, "Hey, screw the church!" Instead, Luther was a devout Catholic, a priest and a theologian. World in Conflict can't very well nail its theses to the door of Traditional Real-Time Strategy, because it was never part of that church. Dawn of War was all but sainted.
But does it work?
First of all, make no mistake: This isn't some glib action game. It's certainly an action game -- if far more tactically fussy than Company of Heroes ever was, thanks in part to the crazy freedom afforded by Warhammer 40,000's sci-fi -- but it's still got an economic basis and it still relies on some broad decisions. You have to control the map to make the money for new units, each spit out of your headquarters, which is more of a spawn point than a base (you'll spend 99 percent of a game ignoring it). This money is split between two resources: requisition and power. Each is distinct in terms of how you earn it, how you can protect it, and what role it plays in the overall scheme. And then there's the ultimate resource: your victory point pool that drains when your opponent controls more victory locations. So while there's a lot to be said about how the economy is streamlined, it's still an economy, and it still involves some important decisions.
Then there are the decisions involving your units. The first and most important decision is which faction and hero you'll play. Each of the four factions has three heroes with varying abilities and powers. Then the game starts, and none of its handful of different units comes cheaply or quickly. You'll only get a few of them, which means each is more important, which further means the interaction among them is even more important. This then puts a lot of weight on how you upgrade each unit. These upgrades to equipment and abilities are the substitute for base-building decisions. They have an immediate and noticeable effect on the battlefield. Although it's got all the fury and grit of the previous games, Dawn of War II plays at a more intimate scale. It's more of a parlor room drama among a few actors than one with the previous games' operatic sweep.
It all comes down to the simple fact that your time in Dawn of War II is spent figuring out where, when and how to fight. That's the central premise. It's less about bigger pictures and more about combat snapshots. It's one of the truest real-time tactical games you'll ever play, so let's just pretend the "S" in real-time strategy really is superfluous. If you're invested in that "S," here's a great place to take a stand. But in the process, I hope you'll recognize that Relic hasn't abandoned the genre. On the contrary, it takes a lot of love to start a Reformation.
What went wrong
I've been mostly talking about multiplayer. For all intents and purposes, single-player in Dawn of War II is a waste of time. The artificial intelligence is so incapable of playing, and the single-player campaign is so limited, that there's very little to recommend here for the guy who wants to go at it alone. Relic has obviously put a lot of thought into multiplayer, which works wonderfully over Games for Windows Live (by the way, it's about time I can combine the phrases "works wonderfully" and "Games for Windows Live"). Good player matchmaking, and a ranking system similar to what you see in shooters, are exactly what Dawn of War II needs. There's even a party system similar to that in Halo to encourage 3-vs.-3 matches.
But I have to wonder whether Relic's Reformation will "take" when it's aimed squarely at people who play multiplayer, to the exclusion of those who want a good campaign or a way to skirmish against the AI (a feature curiously buried three menus and one click too deep). The competitive multiplayer community, fired up by an extended and generous beta period, is sold. But what about the less-competitive players? Given the pace and micromanagement load of Dawn of War II, why did Relic cut the variable speed it had in its earlier games? Why can't we play at a slower pace? Hopefully the ranking system will balance this out as equally inept players lose track of what's going on and fumble their ways to winning and losing. But as far as action RTSes go, this is one of the more demanding. It's going to confound a lot of casual players who jump into multiplayer matches.
The single-player campaign seems like a great idea: an action role-playing-like RTS with persistent units. Kit them out with equipment, spend points on their attributes, learn new skills, and choose your party for each mission. Great idea -- until you realize you can only play one of the four races. Space Marines again? We've played these guys to death in Relic's earliest single-player campaigns. Heck, we play Space Marines in nearly every science-fiction game ever. Dawn of War II is a wonderful toy box of Warhammer 40,000 races, 75-percent of whom are off-limits for the single-player campaign. The story grinds back and forth over the same territory for far too many too-long missions, minus in-mission saved games, invariably played out against canned enemy setups and absurd boss fights that have no place in any self-respecting RTS. Here are a lot of the trappings of the cool campaign Relic created in the Dark Crusade expansion for Dawn of War, which is one of the finest single-player campaigns of any RTS. So why the backwards step? Why does Relic invite comparison if the campaign doesn't live up to Dark Crusade's? Why not offer one truer to the multiplayer focus, or at least one as dynamic as it pretends to be? Why not a campaign with some actual choice instead of a smoke-obscured rail-ride through scripted obstacle-course maps?
I suspect one reason for the backwards step is Relic's inability to make an AI that can actually play the game it's carefully designed. This is what effectively kills Dawn of War II as a single-player game. The AI uses very few of the tools available to human players. Instead, it simply swarms around the map to grab resource points, stupidly dancing in and out of weapon range, using none of the strengths of the different races. I'm not being coy when I say I'm not that good at Dawn of War II. I'm really not. So I shouldn't be able to easily win every single game at the hardest AI setting without having to try hard. Relic has always been at the cutting edge of graphics and game design. How about keeping pace with the AI?
Where's the rest?
And despite their insistence that more maps are on the way, it's a slap in the face that a game with such an emphasis on multiplayer ships with only seven multiplayer maps, particularly since they rely on two or three tile sets: Tatooine, Dagobah and a ruined temple. Also insulting is the lack of polish that should be here, given such a long public beta test. Why is the interface so confused and underdone? This is a considerable step backwards in terms of unit management, hotkeys and in-game feedback. Relic has designed a superlative game. And then failed to build around it the single-player game it deserves.
Given these failings, why the "Buy It" rating? Because it's worth buying. Even if Relic were to stop patching -- unlikely, given its penchant for messy, dramatic overhauls -- this is an important real-time strategy game well worth experiencing. This isn't a "Buy It" recommendation based on potential; it's a "Buy It" recommendation based on a developer approaching the genre from a refreshing new angle, using a familiar license, and doing it with a canny appreciation for the fundamentals of real-time strategy gaming. Yeah, you're going to have to deal with multiplayer to appreciate it. But next time you want to complain about how there isn't any innovation in sequels, look to whether or not Dawn of War II was a commercial success. This wasn't a safe choice, but it was the right choice.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.