Dawn of War Retrospective Part 1: Dawn of War

Well, the selection of games to talk about this week hasn’t really brought up anything that I feel I’ve got enough time to cover and HVN’s been doing a retrospective as well, so I might as well follow his lead and do an occasional series (which basically means “whenever nothing has shown up to talk about for the free video game slot”) to allow me talk about one of my favourite video game franchises of all time: Dawn of War.

As I’m sure most people who know me will be aware, I am very fond of the Warhammer 40,000 setting. While the hobby itself has more or less dropped off my list of things that I follow (I do still enjoy the game itself whenever I have been encouraged to play it, but I do not approve of Games Workshop’s practices and prices, which have both made me reluctant to want to give money to the company any more and have made my interest in the hobby more focused on the setting and lore for it rather than the actual game), the setting is one which I just love for how dark and grim it can be while still having some genuinely amusing moments in it (even if some of them are more in a black comedy kind of way). The 40k setting is pretty much how I would picture the future would be, if I’m honest: while the optimism of Star Trek’s setting is admirable, I can just picture the 40k setting being more accurate because, well, we still have problems with racism, sexism, classism and xenophobia despite the fact that we should be well past that by this point and I don’t see us getting better just because we have interstellar travel and laser weaponry.

However, that’s not the point of this article. What IS the point is that, in September 2004, the franchise spawned the first really big game related to the franchise: Dawn of War. While there had been other attempts to replicate the 40k galaxy in video games before Dawn of War (Space Hulk in 1993 and Fire Warrior in 2003), it was this game which really showed how to do the setting justice while still making a very good game in its own right, and it says a lot that, over a decade later, the games in the series are still played online now through Steam and are the standard by which all future 40k games have been judged against (and, for the most part, found wanting, but that’s another matter). The game was made by Relic Entertainment, then previously known for the core installments in the Homeworld series and Impossible Creatures, and is probably the game that put them on the market for most RTS fans (since Homeworld was released while StarCraft was still a huge thing and didn’t really find its feet on release as a result, Impossible Creatures didn’t sell particularly well on release, but has developed a strong cult following suince release and Homeworld 2 was basically only picked up by those who already owned Homeworld).

How good is the game now, though?

Well, graphically, it doesn’t look so impressive now, I’ll admit. However, for a game that was released over a decade ago, it doesn’t look as dated as you might expect, still looking fairly decent for its age. Having four races for default multiplayer will feel odd for players who are used to later installments in the series, but they’re surprisingly well balanced, which arguably makes up for the fact that the concept of restricting units that aren’t commanders wasn’t implemented until the next game (which means that you can create some flat out broken forces if you have the resources: 4 Land Raiders or 10 Whirlwinds backed by 5 Terminator squads, anyone?). It’s surprisingly refreshing to play games without those restrictions, though, as it encourages you to consider whether you really need that many of that unit or not. Another fun little fact is that none of the races have especially strange playstyles compared to the other: there’s no army which gets more available resources from building more of a certain building, having enough of certain units, requiring more generators or anything like that, which makes it surprisingly newcomer friendly compared to later games. The game still plays surprisingly well now and, while the lack of limits can result in some broken forces, you have to work hard to produce forces like the examples I mentioned earlier, which is a bit of a balancing line which I appreciate being remedied, but which I kind of like due to it being surprisingly refreshing now.

The thing which may be a sticking point with some people is how you tech up, as you start with a limited number of resources per match and access to a smaller part of the tech tree until you improve your HQ building. Also, some units are only available if you have captured a relic (which is captured like a typical strategic point), which can be an unnecessary restriction in some cases. However, I find this offers some degree of balance, as the former means that you have built up your forces in appropriate response to the level of threat being sent at you and, depending on your playstyle, can either tech up to launch attacks on the enemy or tech up to improve your defenses against the enemy and the latter actually makes some degree of sense when you consider that the units are usually the most powerful units in that faction’s lore, so they would be very difficult to obtain as a result! I do think that there should be a way to disable this restriction for maps which do not have relics on them, but that’s another matter…

The core of the game will seem a bit dated to some players, as the core mechanics are very similar to a lot of RTS games, which means that people who want new twists on the RTS formula will probably be disappointed. However, the controls are still well implemented (to the extent that it still stands up well against a lot of modern RTS games) and it is worth bearing in mind that the game is over a decade old (so the formula for RTS games hadn’t exactly worn itself out when the game came out), so I can’t say the game is bad because of that.

The only thing which I think suffers from age and hindsight is the story of the game. Unlike all later games in the series, the story is one without any branching pathways or extra missions to encourage replayability: you have just the one story for it, with just the one race to play as. While it DOES encourage variety in some cases (mission 2 starts with you actually having to be stealthy for about a third of it), the difficulty does ramp up without ever really becoming overwhelming and the fact that the game slowly opens up units for you to get used to using as the story goes along is a nice touch that makes the game work as a tutorial in the proper use of different units, the story will feel underwhelming to those used to later games. It’s not a bad story, though, and the ramifications of it do have an impact on the series once Dawn of War II comes around, so it is worth a playthrough. Just don’t expect to play the single player campaign more than once.

Ultimately, while you can tell that the game has aged and it doesn’t stand up to its successors, it’s still a fun game. If you want to jump in with RTS games, this is actually a pretty good starting point and worth a look into.