Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II
Developer: Relic
Publisher: THQ
Release Date: Out Now
Players: 1, 2 player co-op and 2-6 online multiplayer
Words By:

In my younger years I used to be an avid Warhammer enthusiast, spending my Saturday afternoons pushing my painted plastic space marines around a tabletop and throwing a bunch of dice about. ‘Fun’ it was, ‘cool’ it wasn't. The original Dawn of War finally did the impossible - made Warhammer look cool. It was a very competent RTS with a novel resource and tactical system, tasty graphics and all in all a faithful representation of the Warhammer 40k universe.

However, in gearing towards a strategy game akin to the Red Alert series it took away from the other fundamental elements of playing Warhammer, in particular all the role-playing elements. In DoW space marines and characters were drones, constantly churned out and thrown into the fight. In 40k each squad was customised with all manner of different weapons, armour and abilities and had their own role to play in battles.

Relic have listened to the geeks and returned with Dawn of War II; a hybrid between RPG and RTS, and it actually works! Resource management has been thrown out the window, as have most of the units from the repertoire which Relic had built up through the last game and its add-ons. You're left with a stripped-down character-driven strategy game.

You drop onto the map with four units or squads and with your limited cadre of troops you have to advance through waves of enemies to complete set objectives. These range from search and destroy to defence or rescue missions. Most end with a tough boss battle, which will need all of your squads at their peak in order to complete. However there are only a limited number of maps on each planet and you'll be re-treading old ground many times throughout the game, sometimes doing the same missions.

So the gameplay isn't the slow advancing war of attrition it was with the original and it feels the better for it. The keyword in DoW2 is 'versatility': each mission can't simply be accomplished by holding back until you've got enough souped-up Land Raiders to destroy everything on the map twice over.

Although you can only take four units in with you, you're given so many variations that four's all you really need. Your squads range from Devastator (Heavy Weapons) and Assault Squads to your commander and the mighty armoured Dreadnought but the real fun for geeks like me is in tinkering with the inventory and skills tree of the squads.

The gameplay follows fairly standard “rock-paper-scissors” rules (or should that be rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock? – Ed.) - heavy weapons pack lots of punch but are weakly armoured and slow, making them vulnerable to assault squads, which are quick and deadly in close combat but are vulnerable if caught out in the open by heavy weapons squads. This goes further when you start customizing weapons and armour - do you equip the rocket launchers to take out vehicles or stick to heavy bolters for troop suppression? There's a lot to play with when you include special abilities such as deployable turrets and orbital strikes but you don't need to know your Lascannon from your melta bombs to work your way around the inventories and you'll pick things up pretty quickly. This level of customization allows you to have squads which complement each other and prepare you for almost every eventuality.

By giving you squads with names and faces you actually get involved in the story and care what's going on between missions, and won't just go make a cup of tea when your brothers-in-arms start bickering about war and sacrifice and all that. That being said the story could have been a little more fleshed out - you still didn't learn enough about the characters to understand why they were saying what they were, and confining the campaign to just three planets made it feel very isolated from the massive scale of the Imperium.

However although the changes were bold and quite original the new approach isn't flawless and sometimes I kept thinking this was all just a mini-game, and the real game would start up sometime soon. But it didn't. Yes, the squad-based play works nicely because you can customise them all and level everybody up but even with this depth it feels like a fraction of the game the original was.

The choice of units is low and still not quite accurate - the game is missing important weapons and accessories and you can only customise the inventory of the squad leader, leaving the other two or three blokes running around with bog standard equipment and acting as cannon fodder to shield the commander.

And die they do often. In order to reinforce a squad you need to capture a strategic point on the map. Because you have very few troops and only the four leaders have more than a pea shooter and cardboard armour to protect themselves, you'll find yourself running back to the reinforce point every couple of minutes to beam down another wave of 'volunteers'. Very strategic.

Once you get the balance right so that you always have a rock, paper and scissors squad deployed (not literally - that would be useless) then no matter what is thrown at you, you'll always come out on top. And if you don't then you can always run back to the reinforce point and try again until you do. With out-weighted squads and infinite respawns the end missions were a doddle, even on the harder settings.

As a 40k and RTS fan I really wanted this sequel to work and to an extent it did. Dawn of War II goes in a very original direction and avoids the pitfall of just giving the old engine a lick of paint. The squad system is great fun to get stuck into and very rewarding when you get things right. However with its innovation in some areas, it has neglected others and as a result doesn't feel like a complete game. With some tinkering we could see a lot of RTSs copying this strategy, however...

Best Bits

- Fantastic graphics
- Original squad-based RTS
- RPG-style character customisation
Worst Bits

- It's over too soon
- Linear and samey maps and missions
- Imbalanced squad system
- Only a tiny part of the Warhammer 40K universe is covered

by: Crazypunk

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