Sunday, April 05, 2009
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II Review
As some of you may recall, We, the Staff (TM) became fans of Relic Entertainment’s Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War series upon the original game’s release back in 2004. Four and a half years and 3 expansions later, a full sequel has arrived. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (herein simply referred to as DOW II) was released back in mid-February, and We’ve spent a fair bit of time with the game since. On the whole, We must say that Relic has provided another excellent effort, while also challenging many of the norms of the real-time strategy genre.
First, a bit of a history of the franchise. The original Dawn of War was released in the Fall of 2004. It was the first truly successful video game translation of Games Workshop’s tabletop-based Warhammer 40,000 roleplaying game, and promoted fast-paced gameplay that didn’t focus a great deal on resource management. The first expansion, Winter Assault, followed a year later, and it attempted to focus more on the single-player experience, while adding one new playable race. Dark Crusade, the second expansion, was released in September 2006, and introduced several new gameplay concepts, such as taking control of an entire planet map-by-map. It also introduced an additional two races. Lastly, a third expansion, Soulstorm, was released in March 2008. Its development was left to another studio (now-defunct Iron Lore Entertainment), presumably while Relic was already working on DOW II. Soulstorm didn’t really offer anything new, aside from two seemingly-underdeveloped new races and the concept of campaigning across multiple worlds. It largely felt like a recycled version of Dark Crusade.
So, all that brings us to the here and now, and DOW II. All told, DOW II is a sensible evolution for the franchise. It blends most of the positive aspects from the best of the original and its expansions: reasonably well-developed characters, like in the original; a persistent campaign, most successfully executed in Dark Crusade; and a very fast-paced, intense play style. DOW II takes the traditional RTS formula, tears it down, and builds something new. Instead of fielding massive armies of dozens or hundreds of units, in DOW II you’ll generally be working with no more than 4 squads of 1-4 units each, especially in the single-player campaign. However, each of the units are quite powerful in their own right. Also, there is no base-building to speak of, either in the campaign or in skirmish mode. In skirmish mode, you only have a single HQ building, which serves as your primary spawn point for new units. In the campaign, your squads are inserted on the map from orbit and then must carry out their objectives. Reinforcements are made possible via strategic points scattered about the map which must be captured. These innovations really challenge the traditional RTS paradigm, and make the game’s focus more tactical than strategic.
Like the first game, DOW II’s single-player campaign is told from the point of view of the Space Marines, superhuman soldiers who defend the galaxy-spanning Imperium of Man from threats both internal and external. The Space Marine commanders from the original Dawn of War and Dark Crusade (Gabriel Angelos and Davian Thule, respectively) reprise their roles during the campaign, although your own ‘hero’ character is one whom you name yourself. Throughout the course of your campaign, your hero character and all the squads you work with gain experience, level up, and earn new equipment and abilities. This provides a very RPG-ish element to the campaign, and it’s done quite effectively. It really adds an element of progression & reward. This also helps because some of the advanced-stage campaign missions get a little on the repetitive side. On the second-hardest difficulty setting, the late campaign had Us defending the same strategic assets (objectives that you capture on the various maps) repeatedly. The experience and reward system helped make this task a little less tedious. However, once all your squads reach Level 20, there is nowhere further to go, so that’s pretty much the point where you want to wrap things up with the campaign.
Throughout the campaign you’ll encounter the game’s three other races – The Orks (go Orks in space!), the Eldar (Elves in space), and the Tyranids. The Orks and Eldar were both featured in the original Dawn of War, and their respective play styles seem to have been adapted well to DOW II’s new format. All four races are playable in the skirmish and multiplayer modes. The Tyranids stand out among the races the most. Given the Warhammer 40,000 franchise’s longevity, it’s easy to surmise that the Tyranid race provided some of the Blizzard Entertainment's inspiration for Starcraft’s Zerg. Like the Zerg, they are a race of nasty-looking creatures who are governed by a hive mind. More so than the other three races, the Tyranids deal with larger masses of units. However, as far as We’ve played thus far, Relic has done a decent job of balancing the Tyranids more numerous forces against the other races’ units.
Some of the design decisions made throughout the campaign had us rather puzzled. Unlike most RTS games, individual missions in DOW II tend to be quite short, owing to the game’s focus on a quick pace. For some gods-forsaken reason, Relic removed ANY option to save your progress mid-mission. That is to say, you can’t save manually, and there are no autosaves either. Furthermore, should you fail a mission, anything that happens elsewhere on the persistent campaign map proceeds (i.e. the enemy may advance on another position). The only save system that is in place is effectively an autosave system on the level of the campaign map. While it didn’t pose that great of a problem during Our playthrough, it still defies logical sense as to why a standard save system was omitted – especially on a PC-based RTS, not a console shooter!
Presentation has typically been a strong point of all Relic’s offerings. Graphically, DOW II is quite a pleasure to look at. The environments on the three different planets you’ll visit all have unique and detailed characteristics, from the deserts and shantytowns of Calderis, to the lush jungles of Typhon Primaris, and the city-spires of Meridian. Textures of the various units are all engaging to look at, and each race has their own clear aesthetic. Visual effects are also quite well done. Weapons fire and the destructible environments are effectual in demonstrating the devastation you can wreak. Each map is shown at various times of day, from dawn, midday, to the middle of the night. Perhaps more importantly than all this however, is the fact that DOW II runs quite smoothly with most options set to high, even on what is now a mid-range gaming laptop such as Ours.
Audio presentation, also true to Relic form, stands out. The voice acting is believable, although perhaps a few lines of dialog from your squad leaders come across as being a little over the top. Sound effects fit well with each of the units, from the visceral buzz of a Space Marine’s chainsword to the rumbling growl of a massive Tyranid Carnifex. The music, similar to that provided in the original Dawn of War, is very atmospheric and epic-sounding. We were impressed to observe that one of the main menu’s pieces of background music is actually played in an odd time signature (music geeks will know what We’re talking about) – something you don’t hear often in game music.
Like a few other titles under the Games for Windows Live banner, DOW II features a full achievement list. While this is great for Gamerscore fiends such as Us, We find that Microsoft’s Games for Windows Live (GFWL) service still leaves much to be desired. Some achievements (namely, the ones given for completing the campaign on various difficulties) simply do not trigger. It’s a little frustrating to work through a campaign, hoping for the typically higher-valued completion achievements, only to see them not go through. While Relic and MS are evidently working on this issue, they’ve also openly stated that it’s not a high priority – balance and other multiplayer issues are taking precedence. Similar to some of the issues We had with Fallout 3 PC, it seems GFWL is still far from perfect, and seems to leave something to be desired in comparison to its X-Box 360 equivalent.
Overall, DOW II makes for a very enjoyable RTS experience. It introduces a wealth of new ideas to the sometimes-stagnating genre, and successfully challenges the status quo. This is assisted by top-notch production values, for which Relic has earned something of a reputation. However, a few seemingly nonsensical gameplay decisions, combined with disappointing performance from Games for Windows Live, mars the experience a little. Nevertheless, if you’re either an RTS or Warhammer 40,000 fan (or both), you owe it to yourself to check Dawn of War II out.