Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Relic Entertainment
Review code supplied free of charge by Sega
Way back in the dark ages of 2004 Relic produced Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, a strategy game that has, over the years, taken away hundreds of hours of my life thanks to its wonderful gameplay and its chunky expansions. Then Dawn of War II turned up and I lost interest as the series ditched base building in favor of more tactical/RPG experience. Now, some eight years after the second game, with Dawn of War III it seems Relic attempted to have the best of both worlds, melding their two previous entries together to form a game that is both frustrating and glorious. For many people it isn’t going to be the sequel they wanted, but taken on its own merits there’s a lot to like here, even if it does mean it’s hard to see exactly what the future of the franchise may be moving forward.
The campaign pops you into the roles of the Eldar, Space Marines and Ork hordes as they battle for control of a planet. You’ll leap between controlling each faction which helps keep things interesting, although on the other hand it can make it a tad harder to completely grasp the ins and outs of any given army. As RTS campaigns go I actually found it surprisingly entertaining stuff, the standard Warhammer 40K fluff serving as a fun backdrop for some reasonably well-designed missions. You do have to put up with some questionable writing and voice acting, mind you.
It’s rendered in a more cartoony graphical style than I was expecting, and OH MY GOD THE BLOOM EFFECTS! Relic seem intent on making this one hell of a vibrant game, the cartoon styles and stronger color palette combining with a massive amount of bloom effects blasting forth from just about every weapon. With a big battle in full swing, especially if it involves the Orks, it’s actually hard to properly absorb what’s going on in the fight, something that is frustrating in an RTS that tends to favor tactics over strategy.
Base building is back but heavily simplified so that there are only a few building types. This and the fact that all your building menus can be accessed from the panel in the bottom left of the screen means you spend most of your time keeping an eye on your army, which is arguably a good thing. Personally, I’ve always preferred having plenty of options for my base, especially in terms of defense, something which Dawn of War III mostly lacks aside from one or two turret options.
Out on the battlefield this is largely familiar Dawn of War stuff, with squads and vehicles waging war over control points that grant the resources needed to continue fighting. These control points Relic introduced way back in Dawn of War are smart, forcing players to push out early in the game and fight over the map, although obviously it discourages more hardcore defensive styles. I’ve always been naturally inclined to build a ridiculous base and then watch as my enemies create a wasteland of corpses as they smash against my walls, but even I have to admit that control points create a back and forth feel to the game, even if it does mean that losing map control early on can make it very, very difficult to make a comeback as smart tactics are meaningless against an opponent who can simply churn out squads at an insane rate.
The cover system has also been reworked, becoming worryingly simplified. Well, I say reworked, perhaps removed would be more accurate. Now there are just two points of cover; one which grants a shield to any troop inhabiting it which shields them entirely from incoming fire – meaning melee units have to be used to counter it or the shield must be slowly worn down – and the generator points which gives a defensive bonus. Added to the mix are patches of bush and shadow that render squads invisible, but they feel gimmicky and more than a little daft when you hide multiple squads in some grass that looks completely out of place on the map.
The moral system has been scrapped entirely.
Arguably the single most important part of your entire army are the three special Elites you opt to bring at the start of a match, overly powerful units that can be summoned onto the map once you have enough Elite points saved up which are slowly accumulated throughout the match. These are essentially hero characters capable of turning the tide of a battle single-handedly, largely thanks to the fact that they all boast lots of health and a range of special abilities the player can activate, meaning amid the chaos of a battle you not only have to use the powers of squads but must also micromanage your elite units in order to use them to your full potential. It’s a mixture of Dawn of War and Dawn of War II that feels like it heavily rewards clicks per minute over genuine strategy.
However, the choice of elite does bring some interesting decisions into the mix. Do you take a big bruiser that costs a whopping ten points, like the Space Marine’s huge Knight Solaria who can take on an army by herself? Or do you take three cheaper units that you can deploy earlier? After all, you can’t judge how long a battle may last, so something like the Knight Solaria might never get into the game before the match is over. Regardless of the three elites you wish to field you have to choose before a match kicks off, and you don’t get to see what the opponents have chosen.
More options present themselves in the form of army doctrines that influence a variety of things. The Space Marines, for example, have doctrines that allow their listening posts to heal and reinforce squads, letting you create stronger front lines. Like elites you can equip three doctrines before a match kicks off, and there’s quite a lot to choose from. As they rank up the special doctrines of elites will become army doctrines, equipable regardless of whether you bring that elite into battle.
It’s a shame that the game insists on hiding its elites and doctrines behind a progression system, although I can understand the desire to give something for players to work towards. Winning matches and playing through the campaign grants Skulls which can, in turn, be spent on unlocking new doctrines and elites. At the very start you’re given enough skulls to grab yourself a new elite or two and some doctrines, but it’s best to save them so you can play around a little first and see which faction you gravitate toward. The rate you get skulls at isn’t very fast, so when you finally get enough to grab some new doctrines or an elite it does create some excitement and careful examination of what’s available. On the other hand it’s frustrating to have what amounts to tactical options in a strategy game locked away, and when playing online it means opponents who have been playing longer have more choices available to them.
It’s also worth noting that the presence of elites seems to have thinned out the standard roster, with units like the Ork’s stormboyz getting classified as elites when they really shouldn’t be. The status of elite feels like it should be reserved for named, individual characters or much more prestigious squads.
The Space Marines are the most newbie-friendly of the three races, their tactical marines and vehicles provided a good all-round style, although outside of their listening posts they lack any defensive structures. But they do have drop-pods that let you build up squads or vehicles and then suddenly crash them into the battlefield, right on top of unlucky enemies. They’re great for surprise attacks.
The Eldar can be a tricky race to use, but once you get the hang of them their impressive speed can be a huge boon. They also get boosted by the use of Webway Gates which create huge areas in which Eldar troops get a boost to their fighting ability. These gates as well as almost every Eldar building can be teleported around the map, making the Eldar a very mobile force.
The Orkz have the most unique feel to them largely thanks to their awesome WAAAGH! mechanic, which even sounds awesome to say. Basically by building WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH! towers you can slowly power up the WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH! ability, which when activated builds up a heavy-metal style music before all nearby Orkz enter a blood-frenzy of sorts, becoming completely caught up in WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH! But on top of that they can upgrade their troops by collecting scrap that gets piled up by WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH! towers and that can be left behind by destroyed enemies, adding new armor and weapons to squads. Gretchins can also use scrap to build vehicles on the battlefield for free.
When it comes to setting up a simple skirmish match against another player or the A.I. it’s hard not to feel disappointed by the barebones package Relic has put together. A single mode and eight maps are all that await you, and those maps are divided up by player count as well, so if you fancy a 1v1 you’ve got a measly three locations to pick from. When you combine that with the three factions in the game it’s hard not to feel like you’ve paid a hefty premium for a game that has less launch content than the original Dawn of War.
As for the single game mode it’s an interesting design to say the least, and may just prove to be the most divisive aspect of the game. To defeat the enemy you first need to destroy their shield generator, bafflingly located outside of their defenses for some reason, then attack a turret before finally annihilating the main power core located within the base itself. This essentially eliminates very early game rush attacks as it’s pretty hard to power through the three layers with a small force before the opposition has time to respond. There’s also a series of escalation phases, with the first granting a 25% refund for dead squads but the resource acquisition rate is at its slowest. As the escalation phases increase all the way up to five the refunds disappear but the resource rate gets much higher, letting players pump out new squads and vehicles at a massive rate.
That brings us to the pacing of a match. The early game tends to be rather dull as people make an initial grab for land and then perhaps a couple of prods to annoy the enemy. The mid-game focuses heavily on the elite heroes with the standard units becoming little more than meat shields, distractions, and a bit more damage per second. Finally, as the match nears its conclusion the amount of resources being generated means that strategy, planning, and tactics all go out of the window in favor of churning out cannon fodder, the narrow maps forcing your army into an incoherent blob. The entrances to bases are all designed to be small tunnels, so any thought toward formations becomes nearly useless. At this point once again the standard units feel like little more than set decoration as the vehicles and elites act as the proper hard-hitting game-enders.
So how does everything come together in a match? Despite my hefty criticisms the truth is the game does feel pretty fun to play. Sure, standard squads can feel a bit ineffectual compared to the mighty elites, but that does have the effect of making elites feel pretty cool when they stomp into a fight and begin turning the ground into a swimming pool of blood and skulls. It’s the first two-thirds or so of a match that feels the most enjoyable to me, where armies haven’t yet devolved into massive tides of bodies simply slamming together and actual tactics can still have an impact.
Many people have accused Dawn of War III of being a MOBA, so it’s a point that needs to be addressed. There’s no denying the inspiration as Relic themselves have stated they were taking cues from the genre, and the bigger focus on hero characters that must be micro-managed and the one game mode certainly are results of this. However, it’s also a bit unfair to say that it is a MOBA; sure, the maps do create lanes, but if you venture back to the original Dawn of War the map design there was similar as it was meant to combine with the resource system to focus battles on capture points around the map.
Dawn of War III is a tricky beast indeed to render an opinion on. On its own merits it’s a fun little RTS, one that would perhaps act as a good introduction to the genre due to its simple mechanics, bountiful on-screen chaos and fast pace. The elites and doctrines bring some nice decisions into the mix, too. However, as a Dawn of War game it’s sorely lacking in numerous areas, a sequel that feels stripped of some of the best aspects of the first two games while still somehow trying to be a fusion of both of them. The simplified base construction, removal of cover and morale, small unit rosters, tight maps and lack of content all go toward making you feel like that the original two Dawn of War games released some 13-years ago, were better. In the intervening time and given Relic’s gained experience over the years one should rightfully expect an evolution, whereas this feels like a step backwards along the evolutionary chain in many ways, ending up as a less strategic game that its own predecessors. Maybe that was the goal, to help introduce new people, but surely it would have made much more sense to create a new game not bearing the Dawn of War name. This feels like Relic trying to cash in on a name rather than focusing on building the sequel so many people have been waiting for. But if there is at least one compliment to be paid it’s that regardless of their reasons Relic haven’t been afraid to try new things with the Dawn of War series, and Dawn of War III is innovative in a number of ways. Whether they’re good innovations is the question.
Oh, and by the way, Relic, not having rebindable keys in an RTS is unforgivable.
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