Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, known throughout the online community as DoW, is perhaps the only decent game based on the huge Warhammer 40,000 universe. Sure, Fire Warrior wasn't too bad, and Space Hulk a few years back was ok, but considering what a huge universe the games draw on for inspiration, you'd expect better. A bit like Star Wars games really. Much like Knights of the Old Republic proved that you can have truly excellent Star Wars games, DoW does the same for 40k games. Except, not quite as much really.
The problem with the 40k universe is that it's so large and you're never going to please everyone. This is especially true for real time strategy games when you have a selection of factions, or countries or whatever to choose from. DoW has chosen, arguably, the most popular races from the 40k universe in the form of Space Marines, Chaos, Eldar and the Orks.
Now that would seem like a decent selection to your average gamer. Four wildly different races all needing completely different tactics to win, with an excellent rock, paper, scissors system working perfectly to ensure that a force is never invincible. However, and it's a big however, the majority of gamers will never play as anything but Space Marines. Why? Because Relic only included a Space Marine campaign. This is unforgivable really considering that WarCraft III, a good two years DoW's senior, has an extensive campaign for each race.
The Skirmish mode is usually the saving grace for solo play in an RTS, if, as the case is here, the campaign is painfully short. Unfortunately skirmish isn't as good as it should be, primarily down to poor A.I. The AI isn't bad as such, but the constant 'rush' tactics of your computer opponent, regardless of difficulty setting, means that every skirmish is the same. The more advanced AI also exposes itself as being weak in this mode. For some reason your troops seem to be more stupid in Skirmish. You'll regularly notice units standing still and ignoring all opponents, even if they're being shot at, whereas some troops won't fire unless the rest of their squad is present. Sure it's present in online as well, but when you're facing down one huge rushing force that's constantly reinforced, it's a lot more noticeable.
So far not a very rosy picture has been painted despite the opening paragraph, hmm? OK, where DoW really picks itself up is its new approach to RTS. There are no gatherers, meaning no pointless race to build a thousand SCV's to collect an insane amount of minerals and gas. DoW's approach is a lot more user friendly than that - you have to capture strategic points on the map. These show up as blue dots on your mini map and are always present. When a point is captured your 'Requisition Resource' is increased. You can then fortify the point up to three tiers, each tier adding more defence and more requisition. This makes for a very attacking game, as these points can be captured by most squads, and as in all RTS games, the person, or team, with the most money has the best chance of winning. Of course you may be thinking that there's nothing to stop you sitting back and reinforcing a point with Turrets and mines, and to a small degree this is true. However, turrets aren't particularly cheap and they are particularly weak. The other resource is electricity and this isn't gathered from any degree of mining either. No, this time you must build pylons in order to gather electric. Of course this costs requisition, so you'll have to carefully manage between building units and increasing your resources.
Strategic points aren't the only thing that can be captured in this game; Relics and Critical Locations can also be had. Capturing Critical Locations not only increases your requisition but also act as a game mode for skirmish and multiplayer. Rather excellently, these points cannot be reinforced like strat points can and when a take and hold game is being played, the fiercest fighting will often occur over these points. Relics add an excellent degree of strategy to the game. Once captured, they provide the same basic requisition increase that strat points provide and unlike crit points, they can be reinforced to the same degree as start points, for more requisition and added defence. However, just like crit points, a lot of fighting will occur around them. This is where the importance of relics come in, giving you access to your best troops and tanks. Having these ultra units on the battlefield won't secure you a win, but it'll certainly help your cause.
So apart from reinventing resource gathering, does DoW do anything else different? The answer once again is yes. For the most part DoW does away with single units and introduces squads. Not only will this keep the 40k devotees happy, but it makes for a very different RTS experience, possibly even a better one. No longer are you forced to build five units and a special to go with them; when you build something in DoW you build a set amount. When you order the construction of a Possessed Chaos Space Marine, you'll build a squad containing four. This squad cannot be divided and must always fight together. This may sound inhibiting at first, but when you realise how versatile this makes the game, you'll never want to go back. Using a standard Space Marine squad as an example, you'll build four marines straight out the barracks. These marines can then be reinforced up to an 8 man squad. This will of course mean they survive for longer and have more fire power. You can then add a Sergeant to increase their morale and damage yet further. You can then upgrade their weapons, adding so much depth that RTS fans will be in heaven.
I briefly touched on moral in the above paragraph and this is another little feature that is present in DoW. All squads have moral and when the moral breaks, they become as weak as kittens. Moral can be reduced in two ways: when a squad comes under heavy fire, or when a squad is hit with specific moral breaking weapons. Having a 'broken' squad get torn asunder by weaker enemy troops will ensure that you rethink your tactics for future games.
So that's DoW: full of excellence and new features that you'll love it for. But didn't I say that it's a bit of a letdown in Skirmish and that the campaign is painfully short? Why yes I did and this is where the excellent multiplayer extends the game and uses all of its innovative features to achieve greatness. I have to say at this point that if you are thinking about buying DoW solely for single play, then you may be disappointed. The campaign is a mere 11 missions long with an ending on par with Halo 2 for sheer disappointment. And of course, while the skirmish mode can be fun, it's hard not to start cursing the damned AI and all those little faults and niggles that are seemingly just there to annoy you and spoil your enjoyment.
Alas, DoW is perhaps the best multiplayer RTS I have ever played, easily besting Warcraft III and perhaps even StarCraft as well. Every feature I have listed above works so perfectly and with each race behaving so differently the seasoned player will soon develop tactics for each army in each possible form.
A myriad of game types are available although the 'self explanatory 'Annihilate' game type seems to crop up the most. This is by no means a bad thing as everyone loves battling it out in a straight out scrap, but if you do want to play some of the more diverse game types you'll have to host a game yourself. Sudden Death is a particularly fun game mode, wherein if you lose just a single strat point your force is defeated.
The dreaded issue of lag is always the bane of the online gamer and DoW has it in droves. This is usually down to "newbies". There are a few veteran players that should know better, but quite frequently you'll jump into a game only to discover that you're on a 56k host, or that someone with an old computer is trying to play an 8 player game. Whereas lag can be ruinous, it only occurs in times of major battles and is quite a relief to the novice player as he'll be able to micromanage more efficiently. You'll come to grind you teeth in some games until the lagger is auto-booted. Then you may find yourself grinding your teeth yet further as a member of your team is booted.
Some users in the online community have been quite vocal regarding better servers to counter this, but when this fault is usually down to users themselves, there is little that Gamespy can do. A few extra features for its online interface would be nice, but on the whole, DoW is a great game to play online.
So in conclusion, Dawn of War is a great game that should certainly be owned by all RTS fans out there, as well as the 40K diehards. The single player, whilst good, is terribly short and the skirmish mode can be very annoying indeed. The multiplayer is certainly the most enjoyable mode, be it over LAN or Internet, offering terrific laughs and hours of entertainment. Players who just wish to play single player should approach with caution, whereas online gamers should lap up this excellent title.