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On Site Review: Dawn of War II

February 27th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 12 Comments · Relic, Review, RTS

Dawn of War II makes one of the strongest cases against component scoring in a review that I have ever seen. You know those reviews – the ones that take graphics and gameplay and multiplayer and then either turn it into a composite score or throw out those numbers for a holistic measure. Those sorts of reviews use the illusion of precise categorical information to cloud whatever final judgment is rendered.

If I were take my checklist of “Things That Make A Good Strategy Game” and use it to evaluate DOW II, I would be forced to conclude that the game wasn’t all that good. But it is good. Very good.

Here’s the checklist. The campaign is fairly bland and only lets you play one side of the war, meaning you learn a lot about human space marines but not much about Orks or Tyranids or Eldar. This means that you will spend most of the multiplayer mode learning about the options available to you – there is no tutorial for each of the quite distinct races. If you want to practice in a single player skirmish, you need to go into multiplayer and set up AI bots; why isn’t there a simple menu selection for this? The AI is terrible, either unaware that it has special powers that can screw me up or completely unwilling to use them. The economy isn’t really about territorial control, like most good RTS games. It’s about localized control. This game has no epic scope in spite of its space epic pretensions.

Dawn of War II could be dismissed as Company of Heroes in space – it has the same emphasis on a resources scattered across the maps and using simple unit/power counters to whatever the enemy throws at you. There are limited maps and you will find that using cover is your best bet in pretty much every situation.

In many ways, DoW2 is a role playing game, especially in the campaign. You have missions to finish and a little bit of latitude in how you complete them. Your small army (never more than four squads until the final mission) will level up and get new loot. You can mix and match their powers and skills based on whatever you think is on the next map. And every now and then you will face a boss monster that will find ways to wipe out your forces. Like many modern RPGs, there isn’t much chance for failure since your Commander unit has a magic Mass Heal button and there are reinforcement points dropped along your path.

Some of the campaign maps are actually quite interesting. Choosing one route might secure a foundry or more supplies but also run you through a nest of evil. Your scout proves to be the most useful, if fragile, member of your squad. Even though none of the missions are particularly difficult, failure is tolerated; you can lose a battle and still win the war.

The game works because the core design is so pared down. Red Alert 3 forces you to build dozens of fragile units and then manage their special abilities. DoW2 does everything it can to keep your armies small so you can focus on using their skills properly. In a skirmish game, you sometimes have to choose between upgrading your hero and making a new squad – the hero is almost always the best choice. Though it would be much nicer to have some tips on what unit is for what purpose – the four sides are very different from each other – the weak AI at least gives you some time to explore the possibilities before you venture into the wilds of the multiplayer world.

The principle of scarcity continues down to the map design. Like Company of Heroes, you will want to grab some strong points or walls so you can use them to mow down a Pickett’s Charge of Tyranids. But many of the maps have very few truly safe spots and buildings come down relatively easy once a grenade or satchel bomb is tossed in. There is a race to not just secure cover, but to maximize its use. Many CoH maps were littered with places to hide; DoW2 forces you out in the open much more often than you would like.

In one of the big silences in the first Three Moves Ahead, 40K nerd Julian Murdoch was talking about how the game also emphasized a connection to the units and their place in the Warhammer universe. Unlike the first Dawn of War game, with its base-building and traditional mass army approach, Julian thought DoW2 (especially the campaign) worked better as an introduction to the mythology and setting. Maybe I can get him to explain it again next time. Familiar licenses do matter. People rip off Dungeons and Dragons for a reason.

Ultimately, Dawn of War II works as a system, as a package whose parts could lead to a disaster in less skilled hands. Sort of like a Picasso painting; when I paint a crooked nose with eyes in the wrong place, it just looks stupid. It has the sort of immersion that comes not necessarily from being absorbed in the world it creates but from an evolving awareness of what needs to be done in a specific situation. Suppressing enemy attackers and then approaching with a stun grenade. Deciding whether an Eldar melee rush will delay the Tyranid swarm long enough for you to get that first giant thingmajig out. And since there are fewer decisions to make, every one carries some weight.

I’m not convinced that the design is all that original or a new-way-forward for the RTS. The way that it uses limited units with minimal base building is reminiscent of a series of World War II games that came out of Eastern Europe four or five years ago. DoW2’s big addition, frankly, is the experience system and we’ve seen bits of that before too, especially for hero units. Maybe one of the reasons that all the parts seem a little peculiar is that they are largely echoes of other design ideas or other game settings. (Is it just be or are the Tyranids just another Zerg race?)

These parts are assembled to give life to a compelling setting. This may not be the future of the RTS, but it is a design that will certainly be copied and butchered by lesser developers. Relic could still break it – they’ve done that before with patches. And then they might fix it again – they’ve done that before with expansions. But Dawn of War II is so different from the first game in the series that it really needs to be played by any serious RTS fan if only to see how a game is not just a system of moving parts, how you can be simultaneously annoyed and enthralled.


12 Comments so far ↓

  • SwiftRanger

    It still needs some work (on all levels aside from atmosphere/music/graphical stuff) but its biggest achievement is that it idd gives you the feeling you can really get the most out of your units and if things go bad there’s always the retreat button which has never been this important in an RTS game.

    The wargear upgrades for heroes felt pretty fresh as well, in a good match there is even the need to get multiple upgrades for the same slot and that you switch between them according to the situation you’re confronted with.

  • Alan Au

    Tyrannids predate the Zerg, although WH40k itself almost certainly draws from even earlier sources. Even the Greeks wrote about the struggles of the cultured elite against the barbarian hordes. It’s just that the barbarian hordes are depicted a bit differently this time around.

    Culture is funny that way, and games are a reflection of how culture converges to reuse old ideas and circumvent the need to explain everything from scratch. Stereotypes and archetypes exist for a reason, providing handy shortcuts that allow developers to skip the tedious explanations and cut straight to the gameplay.

    Of course, the subtle irony is that we’re simultaneously constrained by those expectations, and so you end up with the humanoid aliens and their rigid caste-like social structures. This isn’t a bad thing per se, although everything starts to look the same after a while. Tyrannids, Zerg, same difference.

  • Thomas Kiley

    I pretty much agree with everything you say. Nice review.

    Personally, I thought technically it was superb. The models looked really good and the sound blew me away. Plus, the frame rate was rock steady.

  • Dirk

    Troy, I’m a CoH player who just likes to play the skirmishes, not campaigns. How does DoW2 compare to CoH in the narrow context of enjoyable skirmish battles? Worth a look or not much new to see other than the genre change?

  • Troy

    Alan: Yes, the Tyranids predate the Zerg, but not in their RTS portrayal.

    Dirk: I also prefer single player skirmish, but Company of Heroes is better for that than DoW2. The AI is better and there is a little more variety in approaches.

  • James Allen

    My full review is going up Sunday afternoon, so I won’t spoil all of my comments about the game, but I will agree that DoW 2 is very much enjoyable. The focus on smaller number of units, their abilities, per-unit upgrades, cover, and no buildings to worry about makes it very streamlined and easy for new players, yet still maintaining depth with positioning. People like myself that aren’t the best about using special abilities would have no chance if DoW 2 had a large unit count (part of the reason why I am not at all interested in Red Alert 2), but Relic has come up with a fine balance.
    As for the skirmish battles, they are OK: the AI can give you trouble early on, but the game is the best during online 3v3 play.

  • Cautiously Pessimistic

    I think Orks fill the role of the barbarian hordes. The Tyranids (and Zerg) tap into the fear of insect infestation, in my opinion.

  • Natus

    Maybe the beta just knocked this out of the buying for me. Maybe it’s my love for DoW. Maybe I never completely grokked CoH. Maybe it’s because this feels like a giant retread, perhaps not stylistically, but overall.

    When the demo’s released, I’ll definitely take another gander at it, but it reminds me, a bit unpleasantly, of how WC3 took the franchise from massive battles to hero-led skirmishes. That in turn led to WoW, so here’s hoping!

  • rsm

    Tyranids are, if anything, the direct inspiration for the Zerg. Original RTSs all grew out of minature/board wargaming. I’m sure others more versed in the genre can come up with other direct predecessors.

    Tyranids do play on the insect fear bit, especially in the fiction etc.. They are also the primary ‘horde’ race. Orcs fill the barbarian niche, but I don’t think they fit the horde concept as much (then again, I’m not up on the points cost for the recent editions, and many of the races/armies have overlapping ‘domains’).

  • Tim McDonald

    Orks were a mix between the horde mentality and the specialist mentality. They weren’t quite so horde-y as a swarm of Genestealers (which, if I haven’t commented to this end before, I really missed in the DoW2 beta – even if they aren’t “classically” Tyranid) or Rippers, but they weren’t as specialised as Space Marines or Eldar or, well, most of the other races. As with rsm, I’m unsure on the recent editions, though.

    Will look into DoW2 when I have a proper internet connection, anyway. Bugger trying to get GfW Live and Steam working on this internet connection.

  • LintMan

    I really liked the original DoW, especially its final two “strategic map-oriented” expansions, and I also liked CoH quite a bit, but I’m seriously disappointed with DoW2.

    I don’t do multiplayer, so my complaints are basically about the SP gameplay, which I consider a massive dropoff from DoW Soulstorm or CoH:

    In CoH, you got a wide variety of missions with interesting objectives. In Soulstorm, the maps were limited, but you got a dynamic campaign where you could play as any of 6 or 8 races.

    In the DoW2 campaign, you play over and over on the same tiny maps, with essential one of two objectives: “destroy the boss” or “defend the site”. Plus there’s essentially only 6 units to use in the entire campaign – your choice of which 3 of your 5 companions to bring with you is the only unit choice you get in the game.

    And for some reason, you can’t save your game in-mission – way to make this really feel like a console port.

    And besides damage rating, is there any differences between a power fist and power axe or power sword? Or between a storm bolter and an assault gun? No way to tell.

    Then there’s the scoring based on the mission completion time – if you try to use cover and advance carefully, or try to capture a foundry or clear the map, you can expect a crappy rating for your mission time. Why am I being discouraged from exploring the map or using the cover tactics so central to this game?

  • robert

    I played through dawn of war 2 in a few sessions, waiting for the eldar, ork and tyranid side to make the game more difficult and interesting, like in Starcraft…I really started getting tired of the human component…as it never got anymore difficult…kind of ho-humm…Wondering when can I start playing the Orks…and lo and behold the game abruptly ended…This was the most expensive game I have ever bought and therefore it only added to the the let down of an intentionally truncated game…
    …So, what am I expected to do now? shell out another fifty dollars for the ork part…Not in this*^*(&%^ life time…I’ll just wait for star craft 2…Damn it all to hell!