I’ve been watching Star Trek: DS9 lately. It’s such an interesting piece of Science Fiction, because it centers around an idea of peaceful coexistence – it’s all about inclusion and discussion – looking into the future with hope and understanding. In this way, Warhammer 40k universe seems like an absolute anti-thesis of everything the Trek used to stand for.
Here, the interracial talks are an incomprehensible yell of slain xenos – it’s Us against the universe, and the only peace we’re gonna get is the one where we wiped Them out completely. Accept that, praise the Emperor and look into the sky with fear of what the darkest corners of space hide. It’s death and war out there, and the human-based Space Marines are one of the main forces eager to bring it upon anyone foolish enough to stand in their way.
Of course, the basis of both universes vary immensely, Star Trek was created to last long and prosper in its small TV budget. The medium defined it. The same can be said of Warhammer 40k but it’s originally a tabletop miniature wargame. So the setting must involve war for the game to thrive, and the creators aim to deliver just that. When the main objective in many large gaming titles is to annihilate the enemy and see their bodies exploded before you, a W40k title feels absolutely appropriate. The virtual metal and bones shall viciously grind together forever.
But that’s the ugly outside built around bloody interactions. Dawn of War II the game is not a slave to its story. It’s the other way around. At the verge of the human-known space lie three, important to your chapter of Space Marines, planets. One of them have been having trouble with Orcs, so you go there to purge them. Then the Eldar show up, so you fly to another planet to burn them, after mission four or five the last piece of intergalactic puzzle enters the picture – Tyranids. They’re alien too, so by now you surely know what to do with them. The story leads the enemies straight into your power-armored hands in the name of the gameplay.
Despite the fact that the conflict escalates throughout the game and the war takes place across three planets, the gameplay actually centers on small-scale encounters. You are the Force Commander and there are always three small squads under your command. Every of these little warmongering units count, there are no buildings to build, just you and your squad blasting through an isometric map, ravaging everything until the boss fight. And then on to the next one.
There could be a certain amount of repetitiveness spawned from this. The game also often repeats maps, just repurposing them with different objectives. But Dawn of War II is an explosive mixture of RTS with RPG elements. It borrows equally from Company of Heroes and Warcraft 3. It’s a re-skin of the former (same company, same engine) and heavily-inspired by some of the modes and mods of the latter. Anyway, yhis all comes down to one thing – DoW2 has strategic depth.
It’s a tactical team hack and slash, with high scores and equipment waiting after the missions. The game requires a lot of micromanaging of your four squads – tell them where to go and what skills to use, which sounds challenging but it’s extremely rewarding too. One team pins the enemy down with heavy weaponry, the other squad throws them a couple grenades, the sniper takes out the general, and the assault team rains down from the sky to clean out the rest.
All this thanks to The Player frantically mashing the keyboard and swinging the mouse. Q for a granade, W for a defense aura, click for the Emperor! Order that squad to hide in the building, the other to fly to a higher position, and the third one to destroy the barricade. The environment play a large role in the goings-on of the battle. Surprisingly, most of the levels are completable in five minutes if you push forward to the boss. The adrenaline certainly keeps pumping the whole way through, but I don’t think such haste is advisable.
On one hand, being so quick doesn’t suit everyone’s playstyle and may lead to mistakes, on the other hand, there are points and medals for speed. The game doesn’t mind being played like an arcade – it’s all part of the meta-game in the campaign. After each mission the program sums up how many enemies you’ve destroyed, how long did it take and if any of your troops lost consciousness in battle, and you’re given an appropriate title, like Justicar of Doom or Angel of Death. But these score points are mostly for bragging, and affect the game only marginally. The real heart of the meta-game lies in equipment management.
Between each battle, you have a chance to set up each squad, change their weapons, armors, accessories and divide skill points. With each mission they become stronger and better, and one can feel it, when they tear trough the basic enemy units with growing ease. The other thing, one feels in the process is an attachment to the characters, they may not be the merriest of groups but they have plenty personality to level things out. Cyrus is the voice of reason, Avitus a projector of wrath, and I still remember them quite well
Dawn of War II has graphics and sound and music too. I don’t think any of these elements drive the game by itself, or is especially memorable, but all are crucial in creating the specific, a bit dirty and bloodied, atmosphere of Warhammer 40k universe. There’s pathos in the music, emotion in dialogs and the warring units are fun to watch because of good animations.
DoW2 is tactics, adrenaline and agility put into a real time strategy package with some role playing elements. It take place in a rather unpleasant dystopia where war with other species will never end. Honestly, the game may have some short comings but I’ve played it right to completion and didn’t even blink, or angrily curse the developers. If the type of game is your thing, there’s no saying no, to the Space Marines. Deploy them and get your mouse clicking in the name of the chapter.
[Technicalities: the game is PC only, it uses Steam for security and GFWL for multiplayer, which is far from optimal for the player, but luckily neither gave me any trouble. Also, the multiplayer modes are extremely enjoyable, and there’s even some population still on the servers, playing the game despite it’s age and the existence of newer versions of Dawn of War. I might write something more about it in the future, because I’m still playing multi a bit.]