I’ll hold my hands up now: the only reason I started to play Dawn of War II was because of the fond memories I have of the small plastic figures which the game is based on. Darn you, Games Workshop, your marketing machine has worked on me once again.
Set in the grim future of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, a place where armoured Space Marines fight to protect mankind against the constant threat of alien races, the original Dawn of War was a traditional RTS. With the sequel, however, gone are large scale battles and in their place you are granted control of just a handful of units. The emphasis has shifted to a much smaller, tighter scale, as opposed to army building of old. Operations have a more covert feel with your chosen units dropped behind enemy lines, tasked with fighting their way to and destroying a named boss. It’s an interesting shift in perspective, one very akin to Relic’s Company of Heroes and quite reminiscent of Cannon Fodder, too.
To keep combat levels high, each map is structured to filter you through key combat points on your way to the objective. You may be missing out on epic warfare but what you are presented with instead are numerous scenarios where good judgment and keen placement of your men are just as important as knowing the best build order for a tank rush. Angles will need to be covered, cover sought and knowing the best way to dispatch your foe is as key as ever.
These key tactical choices all stem from selecting which units should be sent on each mission. Your Captain will always lead his men into battle but it’s then which three from heavy support, scouts, close combat specialists or all-rounders should follow? As always in these situations it’s a tradeoff between each of the four’s skill sets and having such a small selection has allowed Relic to produce a great balance between each of them. Scouts, for instance, may be weak but their abilities to stealth and flatten buildings more than make up for that.
Personally, I love tactical games where you are not overwhelmed with selection. I enjoyed Halo Wars for its stone-paper-scissors approach to combat, meaning that the right selection of troops was never far from hand, and in much the same way Dawn of War follows suit. A botched mission can only be down to either you incompetence or bad unit selection. You never feel lost in a see of tech trees searching for the one upgrade that will turn the tide.
Where Dawn of War further stretches the predefined RTS limits is in its lashing of RPG trimmings. All your units level up with captured objectives and vanquished enemies and can spend skill points on specialist areas. Each can edge further down close- or ranged combat, improve health or special powers.
Furthermore, there are loot drops. Most Orks and Eldar will at best drop a grenade to top up your supplies but on odd occasions a rare item can be found. The age old question of just what an Ork grunt is doing with a highly sought after upgrade for Space Marine power armour should be left to one side and it should instead be appreciated as another way to customise your force.
The term “accessible” can easily be sneered at by many for being another word for “dumbed down” or “casual”, but whilst Dawn of War II is neither of those I honestly think that limiting the number of units has made it far more accessible to those not familiar with either the Games Workshop license or strategy games as a whole. In much the way that Full Spectrum Warrior tried to do something a little different with third-person shooters, shifting the focus from twitch shooting to strategy and placement, Relic continues to do the same with the RTS genre.