Warhammer 40.000: Dawn of War
Imagine a war-torn landscape where even a cockraoch won’t last long. Place herein four futuristic races, armed to the teeth, which can’t stand a glimpse of each other. Put the meanest and biggest guns ever in their hands and realise at the same time that they could all use a long stay in a madhouse. What do you get with this combination? Right, a bloody, frantic slaughter what could easily be seen as some new wicked kind of artform. Every Warhammer 40.000-fanatic can imagine scenes like this. Now anyone (with a copy of Dawn of War) can enjoy this tragic, cruel but above all brilliant atmosphere too thanks to Relic, THQ and Games Workshop Interactive.
But before I continue with praising the setting further, the story and the campaign need an introduction first. The player takes command of the Blood Ravens, a rather obstinate Space Marines-legion (also called a ‘Chapter’) which orders are to protect the citizens of the planet Tartarus against the continuing growing threat of the savage Orks. Soon enough it’ll be clear that it aren’t the Orks to have most fear of but rather the venominous Forces of Chaos (cfr. the demomission). Later on the Eldar will get involved too; enough material for a reasonable plot and that’s exactly what you’ll get, nothing more or less. It’s a shame this adventure is finished so soon (12 hours) and that the story doesn’t contain much surprises; certain developments can be seen from miles ahead. The urge to keep playing is still present though since the main characters have terrific voices and you just to want to know more about the Warhammer 40.000 universe and the races in particular. Eleven campaign missions are available, each preceded by sober but nicely done briefings and in-game animations clarify the storyline.
So you could call this part of the game a (slight) disappointment because it’s mainly standard stuff and on top of that there are no Orks-, Eldar- or Chaos Marines-campaign.
This real-time strategy game (RTS) still proves to be a worthy purchase because of the skirmish and multiplayer mode. In skirmish you’ve got a LOT more challenge than on a campaign map and the multiplayer mode is just extremely decent. Of course, for both modes there have to be interesting sides and great units and Dawn of War has plenty of those.
First of all there are the four races which all have more or less their own playstyle and a superb design. The fragile Eldar have advanced goodies, specialised infantrytroops and one of the rare female units the game, the Farseer. Not a woman to be toyed with, especially because of her psychic abilities. Warlike Orks seem not so effective at first sight. They’re disorderly and lose courage pretty fast. When you encounter a whole army of them it’s a different tale. With many they feel themselves invincible (and more than once they really are then). The Space Marines are the real lean, mean ‘marines’ and don’t show mercy to anyone. They have a nice punch with Dreadnoughts (Mech built out of a coffin so to speak) and Predator-tanks. The Forces of Chaos on the other hand are the evil twins of the Space Marines. Terrifying units like the Defiler (a devilish combination of a flamethrower, artillery and a powerful blaster) and demonlike units clarifies their ‘bad guy’-role. They also seem to be the side which enjoys the total carnage on your screen the most.
The gameplay is for a large part similar to what you saw from games as Warcraft II/Starcraft. There is a main building, barracks, a research center and other buildings which give access to more advanced units. You can research a bunch of technologies and upgrade some buildings. Resourcegathering works differently than most gamers are used to in an RTS. By taking a strategic point on the map (which always takes some time) your flow of Resource Points heigthens. From the start exploring and trying to take as many points as possible is the message, but that also means a hesitating player has lost from the first minute. The second resource is Power, which you get by building mini-reactors or by putting a big reactor at special places.
Another remarkable (plus)point are the squads, or groups of infantry units that are thrown into battle. The vehicles and special units (heroes, medics) are separately controllable or can be added to a squad in the case of the special units. Units can activate abilities (such as Fury or Frag Grenades) but next to that you can see a unit as some kind of mini-factory. Once in the playing field you can upgrade your troops with new weapons and squads can automatically be supplied with new units (up to a certain amount). The lack of air and sea forces and RPG-influences is greatly outdone by this true micromanagement, which all in all is easy to control.
Although the terrain actually has little interactive elements, you can use it to position your units well. A squad in a swampy terrain will be a lot more vulnerable than when putting it in a crater or between buildings. Once units during combat realise that they’re constantly getting losses, their moral will decrease. They will keep fighting but go down easily. Having a leader in your squad or attacking in bigger numbers can then have a positive influence on this moral. Further on the enemy flamethrowers, snipers and extremely powereful units will have your army screaming for their mother.
The developers easily fullfil the promise that they would include the most vivid unit-animation ever seen in an RTS. Often this aspect is neglected, as it takes a lot of development time, but here they really let themselves go. Infantry is nicely catapulted away when bombs strike and that same infantry will quickly switch from ranged to close combat when the opponent has gotten too close. Unfortunates will be crushed, torn apart or even stuck on a saté-sword as never before. The final death stroke is often given in true “Fatality”-style. Sometimes it’s like the beautiful fights from the intro movie are happening in-game. An intro which you can easily watch 10 times again without getting bored one second by the way. Exemplary craftmanship that unfortunately doesn’t get shown in an outro or other CGI cut-scenes.
Not only the vast unit animation deserves mentioning, also the pure graphical side hardly ever disappoints. With most setting to “High” you’ll get beautiful details shown, not even mentioning the explosions and light effects. Especially the abilities of the heroes will often hurt your eyes (and at the same time please of course). Once you play with lower details the whole gets a lot less enjoyable. On a P4 2.6Ghz with 512MB ram and a Radeon 9600 Pro card however there were no problems with playing in high detail. From time to time there are some graphical bugs here and there (f.i. units that walk through stairs instead of over them) but that doesn’t hurt those things that have been done perfectly.
Without decent sound support all what I’ve written before would have been a “chicken without a head”. It therefore pleases me to see that also this part nicely fits in. The sound effects do their job well, which can also be said about the voice-acting, which at times is funny and always nicely over-the-top. The latter can also be said about the whole setting by the way.
The eccentric Warhammer 40k universe has a strange type of madness and feels very appealing.
On the musical part, the often requested gamemusic composer Jeremy Souls does what he needs to do: his work is never out of tone and makes you hear memorable epic tunes which unfortunately do not differ depending on the race.
An army painter as a joyful extra guarantees that you won’t easily encounter two of the same armies. There even is a possibility to add your own logos/badges/clantags. The skirmish- and multiplayercount of maps is after three patches around 27. The patches are required to be able to play online and frankly, that is the thing to do if you want to discover the real strength behind Dawn of War. The modtools have been made available after release, hopefully publisher and developer will keep maintaining this form of support.
Warhammer 40.000: Dawn of War amazes in many aspects. Relic succeeds in making a nearly worn-out RTS-formula to be refreshing again through features like squadmanagement and the fast way to conquer strategic points. Next to that this game is the ultimate evidence that an RTS doesn’t need thousands of units battling on one screen to have an impressive spectacle shown before you. This game-experience just has a high funfactor. If there is one “fast” RTS of this year you need to have played then it is this one. Only the meager campaign makes that Dawn of War won’t receive the ‘all-time classic label’. It’s pretty close though and I just can’t wait to get my hands on an expansion/sequel.