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.
How the game feels to play on the battlefield, however, is a different matter altogether and really is what a purchase should be determined by. Despite the changes, Dawn of War II is still insane fun, it's just different fun. There's a relentless pace to proceedings. You're never far from combat, and when you do engage the enemy it's immensely satisfying. Teleport your Force Commander into a pack of Orks with the Command Teleporter Commander Item, trigger the Battle Cry ability, which makes him immune to knockback and turns every melee hit into a special attack, then teleport out again before the enemy even knows what's going on - absolutely savage.
The noise Avitus' heavy bolter makes, especially when his Focus Fire ability is on, is a joy to the eardrums. Using Tarkus' Taunt ability to drag a swarm of Tyranids into Avitus' arc of attack is another satisfying ploy to pull off. And the graphical and sound effects at play when Thaddeus assault jumps into a pack of enemies, knocking them back, suppressing them and destroying the surrounding environment, never get old. Put simply, Dawn of War II is great, addictive fun, and is guaranteed to appeal to anyone who passes by a Games Workshop and stops to gawp at the little models spinning in the window.
And, really, there is a great deal of strategy involved, although only if you play on the harder difficulties. It's not in the management of massive armies, or in the speed of build orders, but in micro-management. You need to send one unit into cover, another into a building, tank with the other and do damage with that one. You need to use special abilities constantly. You need to use hot keys to command your hero units. All these techniques will be alien to RTS players who enjoy sending large groups of units off to trample all over that enemy base, and sitting back and watching the fireworks. With Dawn of War II, you need to get your hands dirty.
Outside of the actual RTS bits of the game, there's a Risk-style meta game that players of the last two Dawn of War expansions, Dark Crusade and Soulstorm, will recognise. As the story unfolds and the Tyranid invasion becomes more intense, you're able to travel between planets within Subsector Aurelia, picking and choosing which missions and option missions you wish to engage in. Every deployment takes time, however, and missions won't be available forever, so you need to think about what you're taking on, and that decision is usually based on what Wargear is offered up as a reward. Ultimately, though, you don't feel as if your decisions have any bearing on the narrative or the system as a whole. You don't care, at the end of the day, if you're reducing the Tyranid infestation or not. You just want that new heavy bolter.
The squad loadout screen is where you'll spend most of your off-world time. It's here that you equip your hero units with Wargear collected from looting enemies and completing missions, and advance their skills by putting points into the four advancement tracks: stamina, ranged damage, strength and will. You get two points to spend every time you level up a hero, and the level cap is set to 20. You get that "one more hour" feel with Dawn of War II, something MMORPG players will be all too familiar with. It's 3am and you're dog tired but if you play just one more mission then your Force Commander will level up and you'll be able to equip that Power Axe you looted from that Ork boss you killed half an hour ago. This feeling is exacerbated by the fact that missions are short. It's not a revolutionary mechanic, but it keeps you playing all the same.
In most RTS games, the single-player campaign acts as a glorified tutorial for the multiplayer. With Dawn of War II this isn't so much the case, one, because you only get to play as the Space Marines in the campaign, and two, because multiplayer works completely differently. Here you can pick from the Space Marines (great all rounders), Orks (work best in large numbers), Eldar (mysterious tech heavy sci-fi elves) and the Tyranids (rabid aliens inspired by the aliens from Alien). Before each match, which can be played 1 versus 1 or 3 versus 3, you need to decide which hero unit will lead your army. There are three available to each race, each with different specialities. On the Space Marine side, for example, you can pick between the Force Commander, who's great on offence, the healing Apothecary or the defence minded Techmarine. Also contributing to making the races feel different to play are race specific global abilities, unlocked by gathering a resource specific to each race (earned by fighting, killing, dying, capturing points etc). These can help turn the tide of battle significantly - the Space Marines' devastating Orbital Strike, for example.
Again, there's no base building whatsoever, but there is resource management, unit building and a three-tiered tech tree. You begin with an HQ, from which you can build your units, including tanks and other powerful vehicles, like Dreadnoughts. You need requisition and power to purchase units and upgrades for your army. You get this from capturing requisition points and power nodes on the map. Simple.
To win in the Victory Control Point mode you need to run down your opponent's victory points to zero. To do this you need to capture and hold more Victory Points than your opponent. The in your face, quick to the action philosophy that Relic has employed for the campaign remains, in fact it's turned up a notch - you're almost always fighting with another player immediately after the beginning of a match. And without base building, turtling (hanging back, building a massive base and army) isn't an option. Skirmishes, then, can feel like they're over in the blink of an eye. And while you never get armies as big as those in the first game, skirmishes are fun in a chaotic, no holds barred way.
Dawn of War II, then, is a curious beast. On one hand it's addictive, polished, satisfying and action-packed. On the other hand the campaign lacks variety and the meta-game has no real bearing on anything. But through it all a tinge of disappointment can't help but be felt - one that nags as you play the game. You miss being able to build a big base, in a real "boys and their toys" way. And you miss having a huge number of units to choose from. Yes, Relic should be commended for trying to do something different with the RTS genre, one that is fiendishly difficult to innovate in, but the end result is a game that won't be for everyone - indeed, it won't be for every RTS fan. Ultimately, though, it's great fun, whether you're playing the campaign on your own, with a mate, or in a skirmish. There's something eternally compelling about the Warhammer 40k RTS experience, about Dreadnoughts, sci-fi elves, cockney orks and rabid aliens. And that's enough to carry you through to the bitter end.