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.

Everybody dyes their hair in the future. This shade of pink was very trendy in the year 40,218.

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.

This guy may look scary, but he'd probably taste delicious if you boiled him and squirted lemon juice on his face.

As with the first DoW (and indeed the excellent Company of Heroes), winning battles with your Blood Ravens will require a good degree of careful consideration. Simply rush into a large mass of Orks and you'll likely get shot to bits; pin them down with artillery fire, send someone to flank them and you'll reap the rewards. We grew particularly attached to our scouts, with their sneaky cloaking and their tower-demolishing satchel charges. These guys are obviously great for reconnaissance, but they also proved invaluable against Skykilla - an Ork Flyboy Nob who acts as a boss for one of the early quests. This chap launches himself sky-high before crashing down on your hapless marines, but by laying down explosives in the area he was about to land in we were able to swiftly deplete his health bar. Of course, that was how we chose to play. You might prefer to use your commander to tie the Ork up in melee combat, buying time for your heavy gunners to pummel him in the back.

The single-player levels we tried out had an average length of around 15 to 20 minutes. While we're sure that some of the later quests will last longer than that, we get the impression that Relic wants to offer a higher volume of missions with a shorter duration than normal. This structure fits the need to regularly reward the player with XP and war gear. The slightly shorter-than-normal missions should also mean that you'll play through more battles within a set period of game time. We didn't get to the stage where we were fighting on multiple fronts (the Eldar had just showed up in the story by the time we finished with the single-player campaign, and we had yet to see the Tyranids), but once this happens you'll end up choosing between missions on different planets - a setup that should enforce the idea of a huge, galaxy-spanning conflict.

The initial campaign that will ship with DoW 2 will focus entirely on the Space Marines. While the game's other three races will almost certainly get their moment in the sun via future expansion packs, fans of the Eldar, Orks and Tyranids will at least be able to flex their tactical muscles in competitive multiplayer and skirmish matches. The gameplay here is perhaps a little closer to more traditional RTS fare, but there's still a fairly strong emphasis on the value of your units. Unlike the central campaign, you do have a base in multiplayer battles, but there's still comparatively little in the way of building construction. Resources and energy are both delivered via a steady stream which can be increased by capturing command points and power points dotted around the map. Acquiring these will speed up the flow of your supplies and will eventually hand you victory.

Your choice of units is determined via a fairly trimmed-down tech tree that is linked to the level of your base, which can be upgraded if you have the resources. Aside from these improvements, the only structure that is immediately available for you to build is a substation for any power station under your control. Setting up one of these will obviously increase your energy flow, but if the station falls into enemy hands then the benefits will transfer to them. During our test matches, control of these buildings changed back and forth fairly frequently - so we'd say that upgrading a power point is something to be carefully weighed up.

Red and white camoflage? In the jungle? Doesn't seem too smart to us...

While your troops are undoubtedly more transitory in a multiplayer game than in the campaign (in the sense that when they're gone, they're gone), the make-up of your army will reflect the high expense of your units, and the relatively strict limitation on your headcount. Unless you're doing particularly well, it's likely that you'll only possess a handful of squads at any given time. You can upgrade them, of course - but to get ahead you'll need to make careful use of your commander unit. Each of the four races has a choice of three leaders, chosen at the start of the match - and the option you pick will largely define your approach to the following battle.

The Space Marines, for example, get a choice of a Force Commander, an Apothecary or a Techmarine. Sticking to what we know, we started out by choosing the first option. The Commander specialises in standard combat, but we found that he kept getting overwhelmed by the combined forces of our opponents (we were playing 3 versus 3 matches, and the other side was a bit more organised). After a few shameful defeats, we decided to switch leaders. The healing tactics of the Apothecary sounded a bit wimpy to us, so we tried out the Techmarine - a sort of armed boffin who has the ability to set up automated gun turrets. Once we got the hang of this, we found this skill was ideal for safeguarding key areas of the map - an advantage that allowed us to swiftly capture a large number of control points. This eventually let us build some really cool toys, like a pair of Dreadnoughts (giant, mech-like walkers) and a beefy-looking tank. These powerful units allowed us to repel our rivals' Tyranid menace - salvaging a small amount of pride in the process.

Of course, we're sure there's an effective way to overturn this tactic. A choice of three leaders per side may not sound like much, but it's actually quite a lot when you consider that this essentially gives you 12 different generals. The hero units appear to fit into one of four or five specialist areas, so while the Techmarine and the Ork Mekboy have technical skills and bonuses, the Kommando and Tyranid Lictor work better with stealthy sneak attacks. To be honest, there's a huge amount that we've yet to see, but we're pleased to see that the unit models have all the attention to detail you'd expect from an official Games Workshop title - we particularly liked the Ork Dreadnought, which lurches about like a terrifying killer dustbin on legs.

As we say, there's so much to see in this game that we feel like we've barely scratched the surface. That's perhaps inevitable on a project this size, but we were certainly encouraged by how much we enjoyed both the single and multiplayer elements of what we've played so far. The customisation afforded by the RPG-like touches seems like a particularly smart move - and we've yet to see how this will work in a co-op campaign. Will Relic have us elbowing our mates in a rush to grab decent loot? Or will the spoils of war be divided equally? We don't know yet, but on the basis of our trip to Nottingham, we do know that DoW 2 is going to be a lot of fun - with or without your chums.

Dawn of War: II will be out next spring on PC.