Dawn of War Retrospective Part 5: Dawn of War II

Well, as I mentioned last time, Soulstorm didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Bugs, bad voice acting, poor ideas and new additions to the armies which didn’t exactly make a huge impact. While the franchise hadn’t exactly died horribly in flames after Soulstorm, it’s fair to say that a new Dawn of War game was expected to be better than it. If you pardon a personal recollection, I actually was reading White Dwarf (that’s Games Workshop’s magazine for their hobby stuff, if you’re unfamiliar with it) when I first heard about Dawn of War II (I think I’ve still got the issue kicking around my room somewhere) and, when I saw the short column talking about it, I was stoked for it, yet such joy died very quickly when I realised that I did not have a way to play it. It looked absolutely incredible and the storyline that had been revealed about the game looked perfect for the setting, so my then-15 year old mind proceeded to spend so long imagining what the game was like that I actually started developing my interest in making 40k narrative campaigns just because I so wanted to play something like it. Fast forward 7 years later and my LONG wait finally paid off, as I picked up the Dawn of War franchise pack to allow me to play the games alongside my friends (one of whom is HVN and another is ex-site member T-Buster). Dawn of War 2 never entered our gaming sessions, but I will say, when I booted up the game for the first time to play the game, I felt like I was 15 again, just joyfully playing the long missing chapter of my whole teenage years.

Said joy did not last long, admittedly, but let’s save that for the actual review. For now, though, let’s fill everyone in regarding Relic Entertainment’s history between Dark Crusade and Dawn of War II.

After the busy year for Relic that was 2006, Relic was relatively quiet. 2007 saw the release of Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts, the first expansion to Company of Heroes. I’ve read that they helped out with developing Soulstorm, but I can’t confirm what extent their help with developing the game was, so, for all I know, they could have either done basically everything or done as little as sending a teasmade to the Iron Lore Entertainment headquarters (although I doubt it was the latter…teasmades are too valuable nowadays!). 2009 proved to be a busy year for fans of Company of Heroes and Dawn of War, though, for not only did Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor drop in April of 2009, but, in February 2009, Dawn of War II was unleashed upon the world.

How does it hold up now? Well…I like it. But I don’t LOVE it, and that’s the second time I can say that about a Dawn of War game (the first time? Soulstorm, but more because of the wasted potential and poor implementation than anything else).

Let’s start with the good stuff about Dawn of War II, because there is certainly a lot good about the game. The story of the game is probably the best story that the franchise has done overall, focusing on the efforts of a small force of Space Marines aiming to defend their recruiting worlds from a Tyranid invasion. It doesn’t sound like a complicated story at first, but, considering the story has to balance four different forces (the Space Marines, the Tyranids, the Orks and the Eldar) and the presence of none of the races feels out of left field or poorly implemented, the hard work into making the story make some degree of sense is actually pretty impressive. The game makes a good point of stressing just how important the recruiting worlds are to the Blood Ravens and the dynamics between the personalities of all of the characters, while arguably a bit one dimensional and in need of a bit of further fleshing out, are certainly very entertaining. A few things do seem a bit off on some levels, though: there are at least two missions where you have to prevent the destruction of a world as part of the mission, yet the world is not actually destroyed if your force is wiped out. I get that this is probably to prevent the game from becoming unwinnable, but I’d have respected the game for having the balls to make it that, if you fail to complete a mission where the world is clearly at risk of destruction, the entire world is gone forever. Similarly, for all the claims that you have to stop the Tyranids from filling the infection meter in the game, all that happens as it fills up is an increase in Tyranid structures on missions: if you fill the bar, nothing happens. Again, I get that it’s being done to prevent the game from becoming unwinnable, but I’d have respected the game more for making it that you can lose the world entirely if the bar is filled and having the game make it clear how badly you’ve screwed up in losing a world to the Tyranids.

Also, minor lore nitpick: the entire reason why there are so few survivors of Tyranid attacks in the 40k setting is that they cause an effect which outright prevents telepathic communication. The Armageddon (the Space Marine ship you operate from during the game) travelling between planets via warp generators, as such, is breaking from the lore of the game. I know, gameplay and story segregation, to quote TV Tropes, but, as someone who loves the 40k lore, that always annoyed me!

Anyway, moving to less geeky commentary on the game (although, considering I’m doing a retrospective on a video game series, I think I’m a bit late to the “be less geeky” memo!), another thing I really like is the addition of RPG elements to the game. On paper, RPG elements sound like the sort of thing that should never be put near an RTS, but, honestly, while it’s a bit odd that some weapons cannot be used until you reach a certain level and you have to upgrade various stats to gain the ability to use some different weapons with different squads if you are a lore buff (in lore, Space Marines are trained to use every weapon available to the chapter before they can be considered for Sergeant status), they do work surprisingly well in practice, making you have to weigh up what weapons are best to take for each mission and meaning that your squads grow more powerful as they move to take on more powerful forces. Again, it’s not completely accurate to the lore, but, as a gameplay mechanic, it’s a truly brilliant one that I cannot help praising.

The actual gameplay is also very solid, although not without complaints on my side of things. Unlike the original game, the scale of Dawn of War II is scaled back to a more tactics heavy affair, with you having to chose squads and equip them to handle different enemies as opposed to building forces on the ground and reacting to what your opponent sends towards you. I’m personally a bit split on this: on the one hand, it means there’s a much heavier emphasis on tactics than there was in the original game (previously, you could win pretty much anything by just filling your vehicle cap and population cap and pressing attack-move over where you knew the enemy’s base was), but, on the other hand, it’s easy to feel that the smaller scale is less impressive after the scale that the previous games played towards. It’s a nice idea and definitely feels closer to the tabletop game, but I don’t think it particularly works for this sort of game, if I’m honest.

The negatives…well, I’ve already mentioned the issue of scale, but another complaint I have is that the maps tend to repeat themselves in the game. There are a lot of missions which you have to do on various maps and they have a habit of getting used again and again. Now, this WAS a bit of a problem in Dark Crusade and Soulstorm, I’ll admit, but you were also fighting six or eight (depending on the game) opponents and the game suited that style enough that it wasn’t a huge issue. Here, though, the repetition can get VERY noticeable, especially once you’ve completed the main missions and are just playing the optional ones to try to get everything you can and hit the level cap in the game (not sure WHY there is a level cap, but never mind…) before you play the final mission, and it can get very dull to constantly have to replay some of the missions as a result.

Due to how I got the game, my version of the game only allows me the option to play the multiplayer for Dawn of War II: Chaos Rising. For the most part, there’s no major change between the two games beyond a few extra units in Chaos Rising, but I’m going to save the discussion of the multiplayer for next time because I think that it’s better to talk about the multiplayer based on what I know the game is like as opposed to saying what I suspect the game is like. Same for The Last Stand: despite being introduced in a patch for this game, I think it’s best to save that for when I get to Dawn of War II: Retribution, because some details related to that are REALLY interesting and you can only play the game nowadays with the post-Retribution details.

Ultimately, I think there’s a lot to like about this game. The problem, unfortunately, is that the game has to be compared to its parent, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest RTS games of all time and is on a larger scale than this is. If this was a game with its own IP and not the follow up to Dawn of War, I could totally see it being one of the biggest games of the late 2000s. In that aspect, this is a game which suffers from the same problem that Iced Earth do: they started out amazingly, then changed their style a bit to something that was still good, but didn’t have the same appeal as their previous sound. Luckily, Relic haven’t proceeded to stagnate so far that they’ve started going backwards, put out a duo of games which are about as comprehensible as Yellow Submarine being viewed while drunk and the TV is on silent and go on political filled tracts in their spin off works that would make Alex Jones look…actually, no, Alex Jones is pure insanity, nobody could make him look sane by comparison!

…I was meant to be finishing this review off, wasn’t I?

Well, yeah, if you take anything from this review, it should be that Dawn of War II is good and, had it not been released under the Dawn of War IP (with some minor modifications to remove it from the 40k galaxy), might well have been one of the greatest RTS games of the late 2000s…but, as a follow up to Dawn of War, it simply doesn’t have the same appeal as the original series. That said, the RTS elements are still very well done and the RPG elements do help to distinguish it from most other RTS games out there, so, for what it’s worth, it’s still worth checking out if you’re an RTS fan.