The real-time strategy genre hasn’t really seen much innovation over the last decade or so, at least until recent titles such as Company of Heroes and World in Conflict, which defied genre conventions and actually created a new sub-genre of strategy games. Relic Entertainment’s Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II takes it even further by bringing in elements from the RPG genre and removing most of the conventional RTS mechanics. While the first Dawn of War game was a fast-paced strategy game, it still retained many of the classic RTS elements like base building, resource management and tech trees. Dawn of War II, however, feels like a totally new game altogether.
From the moment you start off with the campaign, it’s pretty clear that the game does not play like a standard RTS. There is absolutely no base building or resource management involved in the campaign mode. Instead, the gameplay revolves around managing a group of units broken into multiple squads along with the Force Commander unit, who also happens to be the main character. Each squad is specialised at a particular area of combat so you have the heavy weapon wielding Devastators, who can lay down heavy fire and suppress enemies, or the Scouts, who can move undetected into enemy territory among others.
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Each squad also has an associated leader, basically a “hero” unit with multiple special skills at their disposal. Since these characters are vital to the plot, they cannot die and can be revived by the other leaders if they fall. However, if all the leaders fall, it’s game over. Most of the campaign missions involve moving the squads around a map and navigating to multiple objectives with enemy skirmishes in between. The maps are highly interactive and allow you to take strategic advantage of the terrain as well as the environment. Units can take cover behind walls, garrison structures, lay suppressing fire on choke points or snipe enemies from vantage points. Giving directions to the squads using the mouse and setting them up behind cover is pretty intuitive and works very well. Hotkeys make it easier to use special abilities, grenades or health items in sticky situations.
Perhaps the most interesting addition to the gameplay is the inclusion of RPG elements. Dawn of War II isn’t the first game to do this, but here it’s rather prominent and becomes an important part of the gameplay. Each squad earns experience points on the battlefield, which raises their level. Each level grants you skill points that you can invest in upgrading the squad. Points can be spent on increasing their health, ranged or melee damage and energy regeneration, which allows certain squads to use special abilities. Obviously, you’ll want to make sure your heavy gunners have maxed ranged damage or your stealth squad has maxed energy so they can use their special skills more often.
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Putting enough points into a particular skill tree unlocks a special ability, which can either be a passive boost or an active attack or defense ability. The skills trees feel a lot like Mass Effect. If that wasn’t enough RPG for you, the game also features some basic RPG style customisation options. Every now and then, enemies will drop weapons or armour on the field during battles. These can be picked up and used to customise your squads. The only downside is that this gear cannot be equipped on the field and can only be done between missions. Supply crates can be smashed to obtain items like grenades, explosive charges, health packs etc. The squad customisation interface itself is pretty slick and leveling up your squad and collecting loot soon becomes very addictive. With all this going, the game starts feeling closer to an action RPG than a strategy game.
While the core gameplay itself is quite addictive, the campaign falls short in some areas. The story is serviceable, but is just another take on the standard “tough Space Marines fighting against aliens” theme. The writing could have been a lot better, especially considering the rich lore of the Warhammer universe. The missions themselves are not too varied and typically consist of the same type of objectives. You’ll either be asked to defend an area for a fixed time, destroy an enemy camp, or defeat an enemy boss. Yes, you read that right, the game actually features boss fights! These fights can be quite easy in the beginning, but start to get tougher around the halfway mark when you’ll start facing some pretty tough foes.
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This is made twice as challenging considering the game does not feature any kind of save function during a mission. If you fail, you’ll have to start all over again. The upside to this is that you’ll retain the experience earned during the failed mission and also the fact that most of the missions are pretty short, ranging from 10 to 20 minutes. This design decision may turn out to be hit or miss depending on how much you enjoy the gameplay, but it also makes it punishingly difficult on harder modes. The game also rewards you points based on your performance during a mission based on stats like the percentage of enemies killed, time taken and number of squad units lost.
The campaign is fairly long and can also be played co-operatively with a friend over Games for Windows LIVE. However, the real appeal of the game lies in its multiplayer modes. The first game was quite popular amongst online strategy veterans so expectations here are pretty high. There are only two multiplayer modes in the game – Annihilation and Control Point Victory. As the name suggests, Annihilation is all about eliminating all enemy units and structures while Control Point Victory revolves around capturing and holding various Control Points in addition to power and requisition nodes.
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The multiplayer modes do feature some basic resource management and a single structure per side, which is used to train units and upgrade them with new gear and abilities. Capturing and holding requisition nodes nets you requisition points much faster while power nodes grant better tech and upgrades. It’s fairly basic stuff and the focus is more on combat and constantly being on the offensive. As a result, the online games are extremely fast paced and brutal. Depending on your and your opponents’ skill, online matches can take anything from 5 to 30 minutes to end. The game features only 1-on-1 and 3-on-3 modes for ranked matches, which is somewhat restrictive. It does, however, feature 2-on-2 matches in the unranked Free For All mode. Unlike the campaign mode, where you only play as the Space Marines, the multiplayer modes also let you play as the other factions from the Warhammer 40,000 universe – The Eldar, Orks or the insectoid Tyranids. Each faction also features three different “commander” units to select from, each with a different set of abilities and advantages.
The game supports online matchmaking over Games for Windows LIVE and although games can be found easily, the matchmaking itself doesn’t always work too well. It often puts you up against players with much higher skill than yours. The matches themselves don’t feature much strategy since most players seem to resort to early rushing in the Control Point Victory modes. It’s fairly obvious that a player who gets the upper hand early on in the battle always has an advantage. Some players might enjoy the fast paced matches, but strategy veterans who love long and more slow-paced battles will be disappointed. There is also a lack of variety, with only a couple of modes and only a few maps to choose from. For those who want to learn the ropes before jumping online, a skirmish mode is included, which lets you play against the AI on varying difficulty levels; and trust me, you will need that practice! Overall, the multiplayer isn’t bad by any means, but isn’t something everyone will enjoy.
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Dawn of War II sports some pretty high production values. The presentation is pretty good and the voice acting during the campaign is solid. It may come off as rather cheesy at times but it goes well with the game’s setting. The Space Marines themselves are over-the-top, larger than life bad-asses so the hammy dialog and voice acting doesn’t feel out of place. The game’s visuals are a little disappointing though and at times it looks like only a minor upgrade over the first game. Still, the units are nicely detailed and animate really well in battle and just like in the first game, you can zoom in to ground level to see the carnage from up close. The game is pretty violent, whether it’s chainsaw swords and heavy weapon fire ripping through units and blowing them to bloody chunks or a large Tyranid impaling and tearing a space marine apart. On the flipside, the maps you fight on look rather bland and there are only a handful of environments that are featured.
Installing the disc version of the game can be a huge pain as it forces you to install and upgrade the Steam client and Games for Windows LIVE (if you haven’t got them already) before you can play it. The game needs to be activated over Steam and has to be updated to the latest version before you can start playing. So don’t expect to start playing the game any time soon after you get it. It also supports Achievements over Games for Windows LIVE, but needs you to be online with a GFWL or Xbox LIVE ID for that. Needless to say that while these are not issues with the game itself, it’s still a part of the experience and is something you’ll have to live with if you want to enjoy the game to its fullest.
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Dawn of War II is indeed an interesting title and something that every strategy fan should look into. The gameplay is solid and features some interesting ideas. However, a bland story and repetitive missions prevent the campaign from achieving greatness despite the addictive RPG elements, while the multiplayer feels somewhat basic and restrictive at times. With a few minor tweaks and fixes, it could become a whole lot better and with the many expansion packs and enhancements that will follow, you can be sure of that. For now, Dawn of War II stands as a solid RTS/RPG hybrid that’s quite enjoyable but just falls short of greatness.
(+) Great mix of strategy and RPG elements
(+) Squad management and customisation is highly addictive
(+) Fairly lengthy campaign by today’s standards
(+) Multiplayer is pretty robust and (mostly) lag-free
(-) Weak story and repetitive missions make the campaign less appealing
(-) Only a few multiplayer modes and maps, matchmaking isn’t up to the mark.
(-) Installation process is long and tedious
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 2 is now available on PC for Rs 699