In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war. And more Warhammer games.
Before we get into things with Dawn of War III, it’s time for a quick history lesson (and yes, this is relevant and important to the new game): the first Dawn of War was released on PC back in 2004. It was a very good real-time strategy video game, and pioneered a lot of things like cover and suppression that Relic would pretty much perfect with Company of Heroes.
Dawn of War II followed in 2009 and was a very different beast. Shedding much of its traditional RTS heritage, it opted instead for a more RPG-like experience, with a big emphasis on a limited number of powerful units that could grab loot from the battlefield.
Now it’s 2017 and we have Dawn of War III, and again, the game’s focus has changed. It’s something of a compromise between the two previous titles, retaining II’s hero units but not their material obsessions, while bringing back RTS stalwarts like base-building and the construction of grunts.
Dawn of War III has two main offerings. One, a singleplayer campaign, takes the player across a number of story-based missions as three 40K factions—Humans, Orks and the Eldar—clash over a mysterious world and an ancient relic. The campaign sees you playing as all three sides, in what amounts to a very long tutorial on each team’s various strengths and weaknesses.
The other is multiplayer, which would be a very traditional series of RTS skirmish maps fought over control points if not for the way the game wants to sprinkle a little MOBA atop your Warhammer 40K carnage.
I say this because a big part of Dawn of War III is the presence of Elites, immensely powerful individual units who are central figures in the campaign, and who are often the difference between victory and defeat in both single and multiplayer. Think of these as Champions or Heroes and you’ll be 90% of the way there: they’re strong and packed with special abilities, most of which must be triggered manually and recharged via cooldown.
This is a rare case where I prefer a strategy game’s multiplayer to the campaign. While I normally like taking my time with decisions and soaking up a story, Dawn of War III’s campaign jumps around too much between factions to hold your interest (you usually only play a mission or two as one side before being yanked to another perspective), and too often presents you with maps that offer little in the way of strategic breadth, instead preferring to force you down corridors and be content serving as a very long-winded tutorial.
Bury me in Relic’s gorgeous 2D cutscenes.
That said, it’s always a pleasure sitting through Relic’s trademark 2D cutscenes, which in this game are lavishly-rendered illustrations that give us a much more vivid and detailed look at the characters than their tiny in-game models could ever provide.
The game’s story may not be of much interest to anyone who doesn’t read Warhammer novels, but the nuts and bolts of your progress (and most of your mouse clicks in general) are at least home to some of the best voice acting in video games, with everyone from the tiniest Gretchin to the massive Wraithknight having a wonderfully grim and British tone.
And despite the dark and foreboding story matter, it’s still a fun game to be around, especially when you’re not playing as the Fun Police/Space Marines. There’s genuine humour in the animation, especially on the Ork side of things, and the entire game manages to strike a surprising balance between remaining true to 40K’s ornate art style (like you’d find on book covers) while also looking playful and chunky (like the actual miniatures you’d play with).
I’m also down with the way the license has been handled here. A lot of the cheaper 40K content you see these days—remember, there are too many Warhammer games—comes across like a bad 90s metal video, digital versions of a fantasy sword hanging on a bedroom wall. Here, though, Relic treat the IP with a little more respect, looking past the sanctimonious trappings to dig into a relatively personal struggle, all the while giving 40K a beauty and heft that you don’t get in many other Warhammer games (Creative Assembly’s excellent Total Warhammer the rare exception).
I mean, watch this clip (made by Axis Animation), which doubles as both the game’s announcement trailer and cinematic intro. And if you’ve already seen it, watch it again. It’s absolutely incredible.
One thing I particularly enjoyed experimenting with in Dawn of War III, and this was a surprise, was the way each faction controlled. While there are stereotypical expectations you have coming into the game that are quickly met—Orks are overwhelming and the Eldar have fancy gear—there are a number of things related to Dawn of War III’s new design decisions that were a blast.
On paper, each faction has a similar roster. Each side has builders who build buildings which produce roughly the same kind of units: ranged and melee infantry, vehicles and support buildings.
But their use is wildly different. The Space Marines, OK, they’re your happy (well, nobly unhappy) medium. The Orks are able to use scrap—battlefield wreckage gained from dead enemies or lying around the map—to upgrade their units and even build new vehicles right on the spot. And the Eldar are incredibly tricky, with shields on most units, a reliance on building support buildings to improve their stats and an emphasis on speed over straight-up combat.
So you can take each faction, combine their base strengths with their Elite’s abilities and really go to town crafting your own approach to playing this game. I had fun as each faction too, and found myself regularly playing as all three instead of quickly settling on a favourite, which is not something that happens very often with me and an RTS. Normally the differentiation comes in the units and structures you can build, so to have every side feel unique because of their powers and perks was cool.
By now you might be thinking that this barely sounds like an RTS at all, at least a traditional one, and I wonder if that was entirely the point. There’s so much tinkering and redefining of what we expect from a game like this going on here that, for all of Dawn of War III’s successes and failures, at least you can’t fault it for trying something different.
There’s this weird thing where multiplayer matches are defined by a timer that does stuff like give resource refunds for early losses, encouraging players to immediately go on the offensive.
The accumulation of those resources are also handled differently. There’s no harvesting here, as the only real way to get hold of the power you need to build units is by first controlling certain points on the map, then building extractor buildings on top of them.
You can’t get resources without the extractors and they’re very flimsy, which introduces a cool twist to the power struggles at the centre of the map: you don’t need to wrest control of an entire point to hurt your enemy, you can simply raid them, blowing up their buildings and denying their supply.
This focus on attack extends to the way the factions are designed. The Eldar rely on certain buildings being teleported to the front lines, while the Ork’s WAAGH towers are similarly designed to be constructed where the fighting it, not deep behind the safety of your own lines.
Dawn of War III does not want you to worry about resources, or base defence, or slowly securing your lines. This isn’t a game about taking cover. It wants you to attack, attack, attack.
Dawn of War III’s Elites are cool and interesting, but you can’t win with them alone, so you also need to fight alongside grunts. But regular units are relatively worthless, weirdly expensive and too easily killed off. This disparity could have formed the basis of a strategy, but I instead simply found it frustrating, like the game was trying too hard to bridge the gulfs in playstyle between the first game in the series and the second and ended up achieving neither.
One of the best things about your heroes in Dawn of War II was equipping them with a bunch of arcane old 40K shit and really getting to know/love the characters. And the best thing about the first Dawn of War was the way your otherwise expendable units could turn into superheroes through proper use of the terrain for things like cover.
Both those things are gone in Dawn of War III, replaced in emphasis by the MOBA-like Elites. Which, don’t get me wrong, on their own are great, not only in terms of how they play, but in the unique and extravagant ways they differ from the design of regular units. But it still feels like there’s something missing at the heart of the game once you look past them.
The most fun I had in Dawn of War III was walking an Elite up to a crowd of bad guys and just unleashing hell on them, in a way more devastating than most RTS games would ever dare. Macha, the Eldar’s lead character, is especially cool: she’s got a range of powerful abilities but also a spear that she can throw. If she’s holding the spear those abilities erupt around you, but if you throw it, they explode out from where the spear has landed, and you can then magically recall the spear to your hand. I must have done it 500 times over the last week and it just never stopped putting a smile on my face as sometimes dozens of units went flying and exploding after just one attack.
But you can’t pull those moves off too often. And while you wait for them to recharge, you’re left in control of an army full of weaklings, and they’re a drag. As I’ve said, a lot of the tactical nuances of regular units has been cut from the game thanks to its simplified maps and terrain, and while an attempt has been made to make them more interesting—all units have special abilities just like the Elites—it’s a pain keeping track of them all, and in most fights I could barely keep tabs on my three Elite’s attacks, let alone the powers available to every regular unit as well.
I brought a lot of Eldar to this party.
By giving players three Elites to control, you feel like you can take on the whole world yourself. Everyone else feels like babysitting, a chore you have to patter around with while waiting for the good stuff to recharge. As though Relic only put regular units in the game to give the Elites something to smash. I found myself wishing throughout that the game had stuck with one approach, whether it be to ditch the Elites and simply make another Dawn of War (Company of Heroes with Angry Space Men) or turn this into some glorious singleplayer MOBA.
The game we got is neither of those things, but it’s the time it comes closest to the latter that it’s at its most enjoyable.
As an experiment in how far the boundaries of what constitutes an RTS can be pushed, I admire Dawn of War III for what it’s tried. It may not have entirely pulled it off, but there aren’t many games that play like this (WarCraft 3 fans, this one’s for you), and there aren’t many trying such interesting things with the way their factions are designed.
It’s a shame it doesn’t all fit, and that its campaign is a bit of a disappointment, but then, war in the 41st millennium is a dark and dirty business. You’ve got to accept that your victories sometimes come at a cost.