GameSpite Journal 11 | Dawn of War II

Relic/THQ | Windows | 2009

Dawn of War II: The Sequel

Every computer I have ever owned until recently has been a Mac, and always one that would be called at least five years out of date the day it came into my possession. StarCraft II was the game to finally break me from that habit, as grabbing a Mac that could actually run the thing would have come at a price with one more zero on the end than the cheap refurbished PC I went with. As a bonus, this offered me a way to play catch-up on hundreds of games Iíd missed over the years, as both Steam and Good Old Games had just begun serving up all the treasures I never had the processor for before. The Dawn of War games were a high priority on my list. Iíd played the original a fair bit at a friendís, and I was rather impressed by what Iíd seen. It was a competent, well-polished RTS, and more importantly, it had a lot of unique unorthodox concepts that made it an entirely different beast from Warcraft and StarCraft (which is funny really, given how blatantly influenced by Warhammer they are to begin with).

Dawn of War II in particular struck me as the place to start, largely because Steam happened to be running a sale the very day I set up my cheap new gaming rig. Usually, with strategy games, sequels are a straight-up improvement in every way. While, say, a platformerís sequel will build on what little plot the original had to offer, and play with your expectations with more elaborate level design, strategy sequels focus more on polishing whatís already there, with a focus on competitive balance. Even for a game with no multiplayer option, factions are tweaked to play off each other in interesting ways, maps are laid out to avoid bias towards particular strategies, and thereís little or no plot to deal with More importantly, Iíd heard some wonderful things over the years about how they were building off the original. For the second expansion, they decided to revamp the single player campaignís structure into something like Risk, with several factions taking turns, vying for territory on a planetary map. My understanding was that, at some point in the process, it was promoted from expansion to full sequel. I was further intrigued by the comments people were making about StarCraft II. At the time, half the internet seemed to be totally aghast at some of the design decisions, speaking as if it were a living fossil, completely ignoring the amazing leaps forward Relic had taken with their series to modernize the genre.

As it happens, I was way off base on pretty much all of that. What I thought was rare chance on Steam proved to be a permanently reduced price. Much more importantly, that second expansion to the original Dawn of War did not in fact mutate into the sequel. It was released three years prior, and as I would later discover it was exactly the release Iíd hoped it would be, living up to my every expectation. It was even followed by a third, which included both the board-game-style map and a whopping nine factions. I also learned, sadly, that Dawn of War II made absolutely zero advancements to the world of real-time strategy games, and none of these people saying so had the slightest clue what they were talking about.

Dawn of War II: The RTS

You see, it would be impossible for Dawn of War II to be an innovative new RTS, for the simple reason that Dawn of War II isnít an RTS to begin with. Iím not being a dismissive jerk when I say that. It literally does not fit within the definition of the genre. Saying Dawn of War II does things youíve never seen before in an RTS is like saying Oblivion does things youíve never seen in a first-person shooter. Technically itís true, but itís because youíre comparing apples and oranges. Itís an easy mistake to make if you have a limited frame of reference because hey, they both have a first-person perspective, right? In this case, the genre to which Dawn of War II actually belongs is the oh-so-rare real-time tactical game, or RTT.

You may be thinking to yourself, ďArenít strategy and tactics completely interchangeable terms? I mean, half my friends call Final Fantasy Tactics a strategy RPG.Ē They absolutely are not, and that half of your friends is wrong! Tell them I said so! But to be fair, the two genres are pretty close cousins. Both generally boil down to ordering several characters to move around a nice big top-down map, usually wiping it clean of enemy forces. The big difference is, in a strategy game, the main emphasis is on the macro scale. You have a home base of some sort where you gather resources and build up infrastructure. From there you produce new units to send out to the rest of the map, more often than not taking it on faith that their AI will handle things without you, as you continue to build up and crank out new units. Meanwhile, tactical games are all about micromanagement. You have a fixed number of units as your only concern, typically facing overwhelming enemies (in number if not in strength), with the primary focus of the game being how you precisely position those units to take advantage of the terrain, isolate and overwhelm targets one by one, and generally make the most out of every tiny advantage you can find.

Now, plenty of games exist that blur the line between the two. Warcraft III, for instance, is an RTS whose base-building is so quick and simple that victories usually hinge on superior tactics (or who snags more experience for their heroes in the early game), and the Advance Wars titles are primarily tactical games at heart; theyíre focused on holding choke points and sneaking troops through mountains yet still involve capturing resource structures and building new troops. Dawn of War II however is as firmly in RTT territory as itís possible to be. You have a team of four characters (give or take), you march them from one end of a map to another killing everything you find along the way, mainly by carefully positioning everyone to fire out of cover and use their various special skills, and thatís it. There are no resources to be managed, bases to construct, or new units to train. Calling it an RTS is flat-out false advertising.

Dawn of War II: The RTT

Personally, I was quite disappointed to realize Iíd been given a bit of a bait-and-switch when it came to Dawn of War II and found myself shelving it for some time in favor of the original. Once my indignation was out of my system, I decided to give it another spin. I do enjoy a good RTT now and then, and it is a shockingly underpopulated genre.

Unfortunately, even its developers mistook it for an RTS during the design phase, so thatís the toolkit they used to build it. Given a sufficiently robust level editor, people will frequently try and recreate games as best they can. Anyone who has ever had the chance to play around with LittleBigPlanet or Warcraft III can tell you that itís entirely possible to recreate Super Mario Bros. level 1-1 with the former, or build a kart racer with the latter, but the physics and controls will feel off. The same general principle applies here. Even though you have only four characters to worry about, and almost the entirety of the gameplay is focused on carefully positioning them behind various bits of cover, we still use an RTS interface. Click a unit, right click a destination, and theyíll use their own AI to get themselves more or less to that particular point.

Thereís no handy line showing you their intended travel path so you can make last minute corrections. No option lets them advance slowly, ready to get the drop on anything that wanders into view, or crawl along the ground, staying out of sight behind the various low walls strewn about everywhere. Thereís no option to have them react differently to the sudden presence of enemies. Often a character will stop and start fighting before quite reaching the nice safe position you were sending them to, or overshoot their mark, pressing their back up against the front or side of a wall in clear view instead of the sheltered backside of it. Holding your click to select cover as a destination grants you a little fine-tuning, but the semi-autonomous AI still gets confused now and then. This is particularly noteworthy with certain characters, as they constantly walk around in the company of two or three nameless sidekicks whom you position individually. Theyíll move with their leader, generally trying to conform to a vague clump, and spread out bothersomely when trying to attach themselves to cover. Melee characters can be even worse, typically destroying any cover they move near, which is wonderful on the offense but can cause them to veer off and kick over your own defenses if they decide to chase after a squirrelly enemy.

Granted, this simplified interface does makes it easier to quickly order your whole squad into position, particularly once youíve acclimated to it, and the enemy is just as clumsy as you are, but the problem isnít so much a lack of control as it is a lack of interesting decisions to make. When thereís a firefight approaching, order everyone to a secure position and youíre pretty much done. You might want to periodically lob a grenade out to flush the enemy out of hiding, or activate some temporary buff, but if itís all smooth sailing, youíll just be sitting there watching your team slowly and methodically shredding a clump of orcs. The basic strategy tends not to change much, either. Get good cover, remove theirs. If they remove yours, fall back to the next wall. Rinse and repeat.

Then there are some design choices that are downright questionable. Thereís no real option to pause during a battle and simply take in the scene, as most similar games offer, or even a safe way to cancel out of a mission so you can, say, quit out and take a break for a while. There is an option to abort out of a mission and return to the map screen, but if you ever take it, youíre punished for doing so (time advances, which can subject you to enemy attacks, where failure has permanent consequences), and the game auto-saves any chance it gets. Any mistakes are permanent, unless youíre willing to start the whole game over.

Strangest of all are the optional objectives. Almost every mission contains two optional side objectives. Completing one gives you some global advantage, like turrets appearing in defensive missions, or extra deployments before the enemy starts their turn. These are activated by straying from the beaten path and clearing out optional clumps of enemies, which can be surprisingly difficult to do, as missions often end abruptly when it looks like thereís still more map to be revealed. And of course, securing one temporary objective locks you out of being able to claim the other, which makes no in-game sense at all. However, aborting out of the mission after claiming one allows you to keep it, after which you return to claim the other. One would think that meant you could revisit a completed map, wasting your precious time, and claim bonus structures you missed; but no. You can only deploy to areas still controlled by enemies. Itís a buggy, poorly implemented concept and looks all the stranger compared to the expansions of the previous game, where similar benefits were conferred and lost simply based on whether you controlled a particular territory.

Dawn of War II: The Oddity

All that said, Dawn of War II isnít completely without merit. While the gameplay is a bit shallow and the autosaves are bizarrely unforgiving, missions tend to be quick, breezy romps with a number of set piece battles and a bit of that odd Warhammer charm. The abilities available to units are pretty limited, but things like suppressive fire and panicking units make it feel surprisingly close to its tabletop wargaming roots.

The multiplayer mode also makes for an interesting curiosity. Much like Advance Wars, it actually does incorporate some strategy elements, with you and your opponent getting to deploy new units by taking control of strategic points on the map (which are also used to secure victory, king-of-the-hill style). Simply trying to overwhelm with superior forces still wonít win a battle, though, as units are cheap to replace and secure positioning trumps everything. This puts the game into a rather unique niche which is otherwise generally unfilled, as most RTT games are single-player only.

Personally speaking, though, the whole no-retry/single-file auto-save structure is a total deal-breaker. Thereís a quirky little oddity in here Iíd like to play around with, but the structure doesnít really let me experiment. That said, if they were really to embrace what they have and flesh it into a properly robust RTT, Iíd be all over that. And Iíd also play an RTS that incorporated some of these features. Wherever Relic takes things next, I just hope they get their genres straight and plan accordingly from there.

By Jake Alley? | April 25, 2012 | Previous: Dark Castle | Next: Demon's Souls