Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, developed by Relic Entertainment and published by THQ in 2009 is the spiritual successor to Relic’s initial adaptation of Games Workshop’s dystopian sci-fi tabletop game, Warhammer 40,000. Dawn of War II has enough relation to previous titles in the series, namely in the its single player narrative, to warrant its claims as a sequel, but fans of the series will quickly recognize the numerous differences that make this follow-on radically different from its forebears.
Dawn of War II takes much of the inspiration for its gameplay mechanics from Relic’s other successful series: Company of Heroes. Combat consists of controlling a single, iconic commander unit and small squads (three to four soldiers) of specialized units. Cover is scattered around the map and divided into light and heavy cover which are identified by yellow and green movement markers respectively. Larger units and some special abilities demolish cover, exposing any troops that were sheltering behind it.
Each unit available to the player fulfills a particular role and is rarely, if ever, made obsolete by advances in production tiers. The standard format for each faction’s army consists of light scouts, adaptable main infantry, fire support and anti-armor infantry, super-heavy infantry, and light and heavy vehicles. The average combat force generally consists of six to eight infantry and one to two vehicles, in the campaign missions the force is limited to four units and the commander.
This style of gameplay actually hearkens more to the tabletop game’s most common format than it does to the original Dawn of War. The Warhammer 40k universe is well suited to this style and it allows the campaign missions to come off as flavorful, immersive, and dynamic. The characters take on more importance to the mission and to the player when each individual unit counts for something when the lead starts flying.
Yet this small squad format departs heavily from Dawn of War II’s predecessors. Large scale combat between armies was far more frequent in previous games and hero units, while still strong, served more as unique tactical assets rather than linchpins around which to form a strike team. In emphasizing small unit tactics Dawn of War II removed the galactic scale and sense of endless war from Warhammer 40k. Missions are engaging, but the player rarely gets a sense of how great an impact the victories are having on the conflict as a whole. Enemy forces, while always numerically superior and still dangerous, seem passive and underwhelming.
Dawn of War II’s campaign follows loosely after the events of the previous Dawn of War series and continues to follow the series’ protagonist faction, the Blood Ravens space marines. Several characters from previous campaigns appear as AI controlled allies or in cutscenes. The player controls a Force Commander that serves as his/her avatar and can be named by the player. Several squads of space marines, each representing a different combat type, serve as the force under the player’s command and are each led by a character that provides flavor and narrative throughout the campaign.
The campaign is played out over three planets. More missions with varying objectives, including side missions that provide benefits but do not advance the main story, become available as the campaign progresses. Strategic play is measured in days, with players allowed one deployment per day, although they can gain additional deployments by achieving a high score in missions or completing certain objectives. Most missions consist of the Force Commander, and whatever squads the player chose before launching the mission, landing planet-side on a tactical map representing desert, jungle, or urban terrain. The player’s forces progress across the map taking tactically important locations before progressing towards a final objective like a powerful enemy that needs to be eliminated or a strategic location in need of defense.
Dawn of War II’s single player experience is nothing if not character driven. The slinking and slug fests of the missions would seem meaningless and wearisome where it not for the thematic import that the characters’ perspectives and personalities applied to it. Cutscenes and in-game commentary bring the dark universe of Warhammer 40k to life, give meaning to the objectives, and explain the motivations and behaviors of the various antagonists.
These squads are also heavily customizable, gaining experience for levels with each mission allowing players to increase their squads combat and support abilities and even defining if the squad is optimized for melee or ranged combat. Armor and weapons, in the form of Wargear, is randomly dropped by enemies or acquired as a reward for completing missions. Wargear can be equipped to a squad during the strategic phase of the campaign and each piece of Wargear lists which squads it is suited for.
Skirmish mode lacks this character-driven narrative and noticeably suffers for it. Skirmish battles are wearisome tug-of-war matches over resource production nodes until the player has built up a strong enough army to actually destroy the enemy’s command center. In fact the command center, while poorly defended, has so much health and armor that a match’s finale usually consists of one to two minutes of units shooting at a building. All races and units are available in Skirmish mode thus maintaining some interest for players willing to put up with the repetition for a chance to try out new units and abilities. However these flashy toys are wasted on a predictable and repetitive AI.
Multiplayer serves as a balance between the two, with the presence and challenge of human opponents compensating for the simple objectives and generic maps. Dawn of War II is well supported for online play and its integration with Steam’s network makes matchmaking and setup a simple process. Players are likely to get the most enjoyment out of head to head matches, as opposed to team games against the AI, but this certainly decreases appeal among casual gamers.
Dawn of War II’s close-in, tactical focus demands high performance from graphic and audio processors. Modern machines are sufficient to run the game smoothly, but any models introduced before Dawn of War II’s release will struggle at higher performance settings.
The shift in mechanical style the Dawn of War II introduces ultimately produces a dichotomy in the game’s appeal to fanbases. Players that enjoyed Company of Heroes will likely enjoy Dawn of War II’s single player experience if they choose to enjoy Warhammer 40k’s narrative. Fans of previous Dawn of War titles can still get a thoroughly satisfying experience out of the bloody, lore-heavy storyline but will find skirmish and multiplayer to be lackluster, repetitive, and restrictive.