Relic's follow-up to its superb Warhammer 40k real-time strategy game is a curious beast. On the one hand it's hardly an RTS at all. Base building has been completely eradicated and the unit cap has been culled. Now, constructing a monster of a base and surrounding it with turrets is a pleasure consigned to the past, and crushing your opponent with an army full of Dreadnoughts and tanks is a distant memory. Dawn of War II provides an experience more akin to Diablo, with an emphasis on micro-managing a small number of hero units, each one with its own unique set of Wargear and levelled up skills. On the other hand, though, Dawn of War II is very much an RTS, since, by definition, you need to think about what you're doing in a strategic kind of way, and the action plays out in real time.
The obvious reaction among hardcore RTS fans will be to dismiss the game entirely. They will accuse Relic of dumbing Dawn of War down and pandering to more casual gamers by making the gameplay more accessible. Without deep tech trees, masses of units or the need to perfect build orders to the millisecond, the game, those critics will claim, lacks depth. Essentially, Dawn of War II is for n00bs.
Others will commend Relic for attempting to do something different, for stripping away all the unnecessary fluff that has held the genre in a vice-like grip of staleness for nearly 20 years. They will say Relic has innovated, made the Dawn of War experience more fun, more intense, more action packed, more in your face. Essentially, Dawn of War II is better.
In reality, Dawn of War II sits somewhere between these two positions. It's undoubtedly less hardcore than Gas Powered Games' Supreme Commander or Creative Assembly's Total War series. But it hasn't dumped so many classic RTS hallmarks to be considered a Diablo or Baldur's Gate clone. Simply put, Dawn of War II feels like the result of some mad scientist's experiment, the by product of the splicing of Dawn of War with Company of Heroes, Relic's other, more recent RTS. Oh, and with a dash of Blizzard's World of Warcraft thrown into the mix for good measure.
This tearing up the RTS rule-book is felt strongest in the campaign mode, playable single-player or with a mate. You control a newly promoted Space Marine Force Commander, a hero unit that acts as a single squad on the battlefield. The story, told with a level of presentation and grandeur we're not used to seeing from the genre, takes us to Subsector Aurelia, a series of planets the Blood Ravens chapter of the genetically modified super soldiers calls home. Orks are invading, and it's up to you to beat the ogre-ish green skins back, and whatever else turns up uninvited.
You're allowed a take a maximum of four squads out on each mission, with no scope for building more. There's the Force Commander himself, a great all-rounder; Tarkus, a tactical marine useful as a tank; Avitus, the damage dealing Devastator marine; and Cyrus, the sneaky scout. Later on you get Thaddeus, the melee-focused Assault marine, and another hero (we'll keep that one a secret). If you're playing the game on the default difficulty it doesn't make a difference who you pick, really, but a degree of forethought is required on the harder difficulties: should I pick the slow moving Avitus, who takes a second or so to set up and aim his heavy bolter (Company of Heroes fans will be used to that)? Or should I go for agility and pick Thaddeus, whose jump pack ability allows him to leap into the air and slam down on enemies like a armoured frog with rabies? Perhaps neither is essential, since Cyrus, whose squad moves faster than any other, can disappear with the Infiltrate ability and take out powerful enemies with one shot of a sniper rifle.
Each mission plays out similarly - indeed, perhaps the game's biggest problem is that the missions aren't varied enough. You need to work your way around a map, attack pockets of enemies, use the cover system (also drafted in from Company of Heroes) to your advantage, hole up in buildings if need be, suppress whenever possible, destroy the environment as you see fit (the physics at play in Dawn of War II are the best seen in an RTS), capture nodes, which serve no other purpose than to replenish the minions that make up your squads, and eventually engage in a boss fight - a battle to the death against an enemy hero unit from the game's three other races, the Orks, Eldar and, in a first for the series, the Tyranids (cheer!).
The mission objectives hardly deviate from this basic premise. Occasionally you'll be charged with defending a Space Marine relic against a predetermined number of enemy attacks, or asked to retrieve a sample or object, but on the whole you're doing the same thing mission after mission: make your way round the map, capture nodes, kill clusters of enemies, kill boss. As a result of this structure missions usually last no longer than 20 minutes - down massively on the often hour plus missions of the first game.