I’m assured – by a reasonably reliable source – that size doesn’t matter. But even someone as understanding as myself notably cringed when I saw the size of Relic’s long awaited follow up, Dawn of War II.
Being on the other side of the virtual Y-fronts when the game dropped trou and revealed its girth initially made me doubt that size was as unimportant as I’d been assured. Naturally I felt that apologetic embarrassment at having reflexively cringed at Dawn of War II’s diminutive stature, but by then it was too late – things were awkward between us.
Anyone who’s dabbled with Warhammer’s initial attempt to bring the 40,000 battles to epic life will be surprised to hear how constrained this game is. Indeed, the first title went all out to be as humongous as it could possibly be, and in many respects overstretched itself and wound up falling short of unspoken promises made by its own… enormousness.
I know what you’re thinking, and no – I’m… I’m not gay. Oh! You were thinking that it’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it? Ah, yes… ahem. And you’ll be glad to hear that you’re quite right. Dawn of War II reigns in the grandness but lets the freedom completely off the leash.
You’re taking control of just eleven fighters. If Dawn of War II put you in control of just eleven units, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a serious reduction in typical RTS expectations, so commanding what’s essentially less than a single unit is reason for serious concern.
Let’s pause here for a second, just in case you’re a huge Dawn of War (or Warhammer in general) fan and are thinking about emptying your basket over there at the online games shop. Yes, this barely has enough units to constitute a proper RTS, but it’s worth knowing it makes for a pretty awesome RPG.
Perhaps we weren’t expecting Dawn of War II to suddenly switch genres like that, and if you cornered the team at Relic with pitchforks and flaming torches, they’d probably remain adamant that it’s still a strategy game – it simply challenges the established conventions of the RTS genre. But these few characters behave almost entirely as they would in a role playing game, and a damn good one at that.
You’ve no longer got any buildings to cobble together, or bases to fortify. Your crack team of mechanical mercenaries are dropped into an enemy territory, and it’s up to you to put their unique attributes to the gun and forge a path through to the far end of the map. These characters are individually named, and are equipped with personal abilities they could easily be considered as representing different classes.
So choosing these classes is quite vital to conquering a map. And if you want to continue down this path of suggestion that Dawn of War II has switched styles (which I do), you’ll even find yourself levelling up these characters in ways quite specific to your personal gaming style. They never really get wiped out, as you’d reasonably expect to happen to plenty of units in an RTS, so these quickly become team mates, rather than expendable, mobile weapons.
As you wage your miniaturised war through the gorgeous looking battle zones, loot is left behind by dead enemies that you can use to upgrade your men, and that pretty much puts the cherry on top of the mechanical RPG cake for me. So there we have it – if you absolutely refuse to play an RPG over an RTS, then Dawn of War II probably isn’t going to please.
But even if you’re vaguely curious as to what kind of war-hungry bastard-child these two genres might produce, then push on with this mighty sequel and you’ll find – ultimately – it delivers on all the Warhammer promises just as well as an epic RTS could ever do.
Climbing into the rusted beauty of those Space Marine suits, you take your heroes on a host of missions – which pretty much behave the same way beginning to end (though that’s not a criticism) – in an attempt to play out a grand theatre of war thrown into motion by the Eldar. This probably means more to a staunch Warhammer fanatic, but it’s not something the rest of us particularly need to worry about. We’re given a pretty good reason for each mission, but the ever evolving plotline never gets under the feet of the game’s momentum.
Despite all this talk about reduced numbers, you’ll be glad to know that the enemy hasn’t suffered so many military cut backs. The Orcs come in droves, but now your Blood Raven Space Marines are capable of taking on countless aggressors individually, rather than relying on fairly equal numbers to win out. So the battles are still blisteringly action packed and every bit as majestic as any (standard) RTS.
These conflicts also make an attempt to branch the plot, with side missions and non-compulsive objectives. So if you’re an achievement junky, there’s actually a good reason to scour the maps and really get some blazing guns exploration in, though it’s not necessary if you’re more interested in forging ahead with the overall story arc.
Skirmish mode probably comes closest to the old style of gameplay, though it still doesn’t include any building work. Instead, it leans toward a broad type of capture the flag, with a single structure representing your (vulnerable) base of operations. This mode deviates quite a lot from the campaign system, and hands the entire game over to a superbly divergent gameplay mechanic.
It’s this same mechanic that comes into use during the multiplayer mode, and helps get Dawn of War II around the obvious sticking point of any human-controlled Orc armies sporting vastly greater numbers. It’s a harsh break from the single player mode, but it’s impossible to deny that it works beautifully, and it also gives completionist gamers the vital opportunity to play as the different races such as Orcs, Eldar and the infamous Tyranids. Nice.
Of course, none of this is to say that ‘boots first and brawn’ tactics will win out. Regardless of the massive genre restructuring, this is still a game that requires a cunning and cerebral general at the controls. The realism of the maps and believable fortification of the enemies means you’ll need as much nonce as you will firepower to break through even the simplest of Orc defences – especially if you can convince a few mates into a competitive multiplayer battle. And it’s highly recommended that you do.
Roll all these awesome, yet unexpected features up into a big action-RPG-adventure-RTS ball, and any aspects you might think you’d miss from standard strategy fare will feel pretty insignificant. Anything that’s been removed has been replaced by two extra functions, and that’s the kind of digital bargain that really blows our skirt up.
Yes, Dawn of War II is less, if you consider typical RTS gameplay to be more. But the surprising chances Relic has taken with the game mechanics have paid off, and not only put together a challenging and encompassing woolly mammoth of a game, but it’s evolved the franchise more than we could ever have anticipated.
Dawn of War III is going to be spectacular.