First, a little background. The Dawn of War series takes place in the over-the-top and often hilariously â€œgrimdarkâ€ Warhammer 40k universe. The premise has been recycled so often itâ€™s not really worth repeating â€“ you lead a group of grizzled space marines against an alien menace and yadda yadda yadda. What makes the game different and worth noting is how the developer, Relic, drastically shrank the scale of the game from previous incarnations and added in meaningful and interesting role-playing game elements. Instead of leading a massive army of disposable grunts, like in most real-time strategy games, you lead a handful of squads of space marines, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. Your marines then acquire new skills, weapons, armor, and gear in each mission.
There are three layers of choice within the game before you even deploy into a mission. First, you have to choose whom to bring. You can only bring four squads on a mission and by the halfway point of the campaign youâ€™re juggling five or six. For example, I frequently had to choose between the sneaky, sniper-rifle toting Cyrus and the jump-pack and sword wielding Thaddeus. Thereâ€™s rarely an inherently right answer for each mission, but your roster will drastically affect how you play through the mission.
Secondly, you have to pick the marinesâ€™ equipment. This is not a simple matter of swapping a +1 sword for a +2: different equipment offers drastically different abilities. Suppose you know a mission will have enemy tanks â€“ do you swap out Avitusâ€™s always useful heavy bolter for a missile launcher that will be less effective against infantry or do you pack some Melta Bombs and hope that will be enough to squeak by?
The third layer of choice is in upgrading your marines. Like in a traditional role-playing game, your characters gain experience and â€œlevel upâ€ from mission to mission, allowing you to increase their stats and give them new skills. Youâ€™ll want to give your squads different specialties that match their strengths. For example, Thaddeus, who can fly across the screen with his jetpack, has little need of ranged weapons, while slow-moving heavy weapons guy Avitus canâ€™t make very good use of melee. Specialize them, then use them in coordination, and youâ€™ve got quite a combination.
And all of thatâ€™s before you get to the battlefield. Once youâ€™re there, the game offers you multiple paths to solve tactical problems. Letâ€™s say your marines stumble upon enemy troops in heavy cover. There are several different ways to take them out without getting ripped apart at range. You could use Avitus to suppress them while Tarkus gets into range with a grenade, have Thaddeus jump over the cover to land on them, or have your Force Commander charge â€œTo Victoryâ€ straight through their cover before chopping the hapless troopers to bits. With a chainsaw sword.
The first expansion pack, Chaos Rising, adds yet another level of choice to this mix with corruption levels â€“ using certain gear or performing certain actions on the battlefield corrupts your squads. Corruption unlocks new powers, like the ability to regain health from killing enemies, but also denies you certain other â€œgoodâ€ powers. And eventually one of your marines will be turned to Chaos, which is like demonic possession but with a lot more spikes. And skulls. And skull spikes.
In a lesser game, the abundance of choices in gameplay would be an unwieldy mess. What elevates DoW II is the way in which these strategic choices are seamlessly integrated. The first few tutorial levels do a fine job of introducing the basic gameplay mechanics and the tooltips help you compare equipment and abilities without guesswork. The gameâ€™s pacing is finely balanced â€“ fast enough to keep things moving and keep up a sense of peril, but deliberate enough to allow for weighing options. And, most importantly, it has the all important but difficult to define quality of being fun. Most hardcore wargames fascinate me until they bore me â€“ thereâ€™s only so much number crunching and poring over stats that I want to do before I get on with the real game. DoW II lets me skip all that and jump into a fast paced game full of elegant and finely balanced choices â€“ the core of all great strategy games. Itâ€™s these qualities that make it a fantastic game and a must buy for strategy fans. These deliberate choices are also an essential feature that many other strategy game developers unfortunately mishandle or ignore.