The first Dawn of War is generally regarded as being one of the best RTS titles of the past few years, serving up lashings of fast-paced action with plenty of tactical options and a reduced emphasis on laborious resource-gathering. The success of that game won Relic several armies' worth of new fans, and when you factor in the vast legions of Warhammer 40k collectors, it's safe to say that quite a few people are eagerly awaiting the sequel.
When THQ took us to Games Workshop's Nottingham headquarters a few weeks ago, it summoned up a load of memories from our early adolescence: The excitement of spending ten pounds on a midget made of lead; the panic of dropping an open tub of acrylic paint onto our bedroom carpet, and watching it roll under the bed; the sudden anxiety of discovering that we'd super glued our fingers together. Our miniature-painting days are long gone now (and the gold-stained carpet was eventually binned) but it was still nice to revisit the world of Warhammer.
As much as we enjoyed our nostalgia fest, it was Dawn of War II that we were thinking about on the journey home. We grabbed some hands-on time with both the single-player campaign and a few multiplayer versus matches, and while they seem to be offering notably different experiences, we can happily report that they equally offered what the Flintstones would refer to as 'a gay old time'.
First up, let's look at the single-player campaign. RTS purists may be shocked to discover that DoW II has bravely sacrificed one of the genre's sacred calves... which is a long-winded way of saying that there's no base building. At the start of a mission you'll find yourself in charge of a small number of Blood Raven Space Marine squads. You may or may not have chosen exactly which units are deployed, but either way it'll be up to you to complete your objectives. Resource management is handled exclusively through the capturing of command points dotted around the map. Some of these will replenish the health of your squads (replacing troopers who have fallen in battle) and unlock support commands like airstrikes, while others will provide you with intelligence on missions you have yet to fight. There are deeper subtleties to this system - you're limited in the number of structures you can capture, for example - but the main point is that the RTS rules have changed: resource management is now purely a tactical consideration, rather than being the lifeblood of your army.
To an even greater extent than its predecessor, DoW 2 works to build up a relationship between you and your specialist units. Your troops are no human cannon fodder, there to be walked into certain death: they're fighters with dedicated roles, experts who level up as they gain experience. Between missions you'll dish out experience points into different skill areas and equip them with loot and weapons that augments their abilities. It's a tight hybrid of RTS and RPG values, and it works rather well.
The first missions of the campaign will ease you into the game world and introduce you to the forces at your disposal. You'll start out on the Planet Calderis, assisting Captain Thule in his fight against the marauding Orks, with control of just two units - one squad of standard marines and an unnamed force commander (that's you). In subsequent missions you'll be introduced to a heavy artillery squad, a scout party, and some jetpack troopers who specialise in pouncing into close combat. By the time you've met all these guys, you'll have a fair handle on how they operate, and you'll have dished out a few XP and bits of loot to emphasise the tactics that suit your style. After your first introductory outings, the between-stage map screen will start to offer you a choice of missions. In each case you'll be roughly told what you're going up against, and what your rewards will be. Should you go straight after the mission that will give you a nice new power sword for your commander? Or will you hold out until you've picked up the set of armour offered by the alternative quest, which might make the first task easier? The choice is yours.
Either way, you'll find manoeuvring your space marines to be a walk in the park. The controls work pretty much as you'd expect, with shooting and movement mapped to the mouse buttons, and special abilities activated through hotkeys or icons at the side of the screen. Given that every unit will generally have at least two tricks or items up their sleeve, it initially feels like there's a lot to keep track of - but before long you'll be zipping about and issuing commands without a second thought. Moving units into cover or into buildings requires only a single click, and your men will helpfully comment when they spot a decent vantage point or another object of interest. These little touches help to smooth the edges on your command of the battlefield, freeing you up to consider what you should do next.