THQ’s Relic Entertainment is one of the few internal developers at the publisher that hasn’t been hit by the company’s restructuring, and for good reason. Their last two RTS games were critical and commercial successes, followed by a string of expansion packs. All the recent success means the company has a lot to live up to with the sequel to 2004’s Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. Following the release of three expansions packs (the last developed by the now defunct Iron Lore Entertainment), the developer announced a full sequel that would be ready for early 2009 that would use an updated version of the Company of Heroes engine.
Relic’s early presentations of Dawn of War II made it readily apparent that the sequel was going to be drastically different than its predecessor. With the RTS genre growing stale over years, companies high and low began looking for new ways to attract a larger fan base. Many took cues from the rest of the PC industry, simplifying their titles to enable them to be ported to the larger install bases on consoles. Rather than follow the pack, Relic pioneered a cover system in their Essence Engine, adding tactical advantages for those smart enough to employ it. In Essence Engine 2.0, the developer recycled their cover idea, increasing its importance. At the same time they made the tactic more balanced by creating destructible cover. Heavy units and various hero abilities enable players to break cover, ignore it, or at least weaken its usefulness.
Relic admittedly merged the previous Dawn of War with their other successful RTS, Company of Heroes, but this is no ducktaped title. Dawn of War II brings its own ideas to the table including a complete lack of bases in the campaign mode, and only a single building in multiplayer. The reasoning behind the drastic change from base building follows with the modifications to core gameplay made in the previous titles and expansions.
In the original Games Workshop-based RTS, Relic removed the need for serious concentration on resource management. The sequel takes it one step further, removing complex base building and planning from the title, enabling players to focus on upgrades and combat, all of which happens on the front lines. Warhammer 40k’s sci-fi universe lends itself well to the advanced graphical capabilities of the second version of the engine. Destruction and dismemberment in an RTS never looked so pleasing.
The success of an RTS often depends on the quality of its multiplayer. The original DoW had a budding multiplayer community, complete with realism mods and a parade of custom maps. Rather than continue to grow their previous technology, Relic hooked up with Games for Windows – Live for their multiplayer services. What a bad move that was. Games for Windows – Live couldn’t be further from its wildly successful cousin, Xbox Live. The system is flawed in so many ways that playing ranked matches becomes cumbersome and time consuming. That’s not a bullet point you want on the back of the box. That is assuming you have a box; if you went the Steam route, then you get to play with an interesting mix of part Steam and part Windows Live. This pairing of third party applications makes finding a multiplayer game almost as bad as using Friend Codes. Almost.
We can fault them for choosing crappy technology only so far, though. If you slog through the difficulties, select your race and hero unit, and make your way into a 1v1 or 3v3 match — 2v2 and Free For All ranked modes are not available — be prepared for a new experience. Following the trend of less is more, multiplayer is played through the use of a single building. Your home base is heavily guarded by pre-placed defenses and acts as a retreat and upgrading haven for all units. No matter the race — Tyranid, Space Marine, Eldar, or Orks — the building and its defenses are there only out of necessity for a starting point.
Annihilation is your basic destroy everything scenario, while Control Point Victory assigns critical points to control to achieve victory. Unfortunately, these two modes aren’t very different from one another. Some Victory matches end only because everything is destroyed, essentially merging the modes. It can be argued that the dropping of base building reduces the need for micro-management, or that it forces players to focus on the battles and not extraneous distractions. The multiplayer comes down to a love-it or hate-it experience for both modes. If you enjoy the new direction, then you’ll likely be playing dozens of matches. If you are more of a StarCraft fan, then this is not your fix, but that doesn’t mean you should pass on the title.
Campaign modes for real-time strategy titles are often a passing thought. Many gamers don’t even bother with the mode, because we have come to expect the story to act as a glorified tutorial. Let’s get one thing straight, Dawn of War II’s campaign is by no means a tutorial. For better or for worse the mode stands entirely on its own. You’ll notice that the term “single-player” mode was avoided. That’s because it would be misleading to call the story mode a single-player feature, as players can complete it with a friend thanks to the implementation of co-op.
First and foremost, the campaign only covers the plight of the Space Marines as they attempt to rid their world of the ravenous Tyranid swarms. There is also the issue of all your units being heroes, tough as nails heroes that can take on a parade of enemy forces before needing to fall back. As the campaign progresses, your named units become more powerful at the end of each level due to the incorporation of RPG elements, including gear drops, experience, traits, and leveling. That leads us to the next shiny aspect of the title, the actual story.
The same basic mechanics exist for both the campaign and multiplayer: cover, low resource management, few units, and no base building. While the multiplayer can be hit or miss, the campaign is an innovative success for storytelling in a RTS title. By throwing some accepted RTS mechanics to the wind, the developer was able to get down and dirty with a small collection of units, creating the strongest connection to characters one has experienced in a RTS campaign. The character development in DoW2’s units may not be on the level of Kerrigan or Raynor, but the ingenious design behind the mode gives players an unprecedented level of attachment to the hero squads, if only for their diversity and integral part in a successful mission.
Another distinction between DoW2 and the rest of the RTS genre is that the end of the story does not mark the end of the campaign mode. Relic built in a non-linear mission selection system that enables players to extend the initial story mode via side missions, or continue to decimate the opposition after the completion of the main story mode. Through the creative recycling of maps, the universe’s backdrop of constant all-out warfare, the extra story, various map tile sets, and voice acting, Relic extends the RPG side of the title through a limitless rotation of enjoyable defense missions. The units are capped at level 20, putting some closure on the mode, but that hasn’t stopped me from laying waste to hungry Tyranids or Waaghing Orks.
If there is one thing that Relic should be given credit for, it would be shaking up the RTS genre. THQ’s premiere RTS developer has striven to iterate each and every one of their titles. The small steps allow the company’s games to come off as fresh and innovative, without alienating the core RTS audience. The line is fine, but the company has danced it once again with Dawn of War II. Players may be torn on the multiplayer, but the single-player campaign makes the title a must-have for any RTS fan. This reviewer can’t wait for the first of many expansions to be announced.