With Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War nearing completion, we were given the opportunity recently to get the first hands-on time with the game's single-player campaign anywhere. Dawn of War is a fast-paced real-time strategy game set within the popular Warhammer 40,000 miniatures universe. While it must adhere to the look and feel of the tabletop game created by Games Workshop, it is also a real-time strategy game developed by Relic, which was also responsible for Homeworld and Homeworld 2. Both those games featured strong single-player storylines, so we're naturally very curious to see what Relic has ginned up for us this time.
Relic has planned an 11-mission single-player campaign for Dawn of War. While that may seem a bit short, we've been informed that several of the missions are quite large, so you can probably expect 10 to 15 hours' worth of gameplay, which is about par for an RTS campaign.
Dawn of War is set on the planet Tartarus, a remote jungle planet within the space marines' empire. So it's a mystery as to why the vicious orks have invaded the planet. Space marines are dispatched to repel the invaders and to protect the civilians, and the game's opening level serves as a tutorial of sorts as you attempt to clear out a besieged city. After getting a base up and running, you'll dispatch squads of space marines to clear out the streets, and you'll rescue pockets of militia making desperate last stands against the enemy. As the name suggests, there's something not quite right on Tartarus, and once you have the civilians safe, you'll have to delve into why the orks have attacked.
While storylines in real-time strategy games, as well as most other games, tend to be clichéd, we must admit that we're intrigued by the characterization that's taking place. The space marines serve as the good guys for this campaign, but that doesn't mean that all is well within the empire. The space marines are riven with factional and religious politics, and even one of the seemingly main characters in the game once had an entire planet of imperial citizens wiped out for religious purposes. At this point, we're still not sure whom we should be rooting for, which is a good thing, because it should make the plot unpredictable. And all this politicizing and backstabbing should fit in very well within the dark setting of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.
We then fast-forwarded to a later mission a bit down the road. The space marines have established a base camp, but a patrol was wiped out while exploring a strange path carved out of the jungle. The path doesn't appear to be the work of the orks, so, after some bickering, the space marines decide to send heavier forces to clear the path.
Your first task during this mission will be to build up your base, and it gives a glimpse into how the resource and technology aspects of Dawn of War work. You'll start off with your stronghold, which is your primary building, capable of churning out servitors (basically the construction workers of the space marines), as well as conducting unit research. You then must build several other basic structures. Now one of the cool things about the space marines is that they deliver their buildings from orbit, so all you have to do is designate where you want to place a building, and a giant metal pod will slam into the ground, and your servitors will then go about "unpacking" the building and setting it up.
Buildings and units require two resources: requisition points and power. The former is accrued by securing strategic points, which is done by having a squad run up to a point and plant your flag on top of it. If the strategic point is already claimed, your squad will remove the enemy's flag. The more strategic points you've captured, the faster you will accrue requisition points, so it's obviously in your interest to lock down as many as possible. The second resource is power, which you accrue by building plasma generators. Generally, the only way to generate power faster is to build more plasma generators--which may be difficult because space is at a premium at your base--or to upgrade your existing generators.
Walking Sarcophagi of Death
In preparation to go down the path, we built up several squads of space marines. When you request a new squad, it takes a few seconds for it to appear, but a pod will crash down from orbit and the marines will disembark. The basic squad has only four marines in it, but one of the first things you'll want to do is beef it up by reinforcing it with four more marines, as well as a sergeant. You can then attach a commander unit to the squad to lead it, giving you a 10-man squad. You'll also want to research various technologies at your base so that you can upgrade the squad's weapons and abilities. For example, you can arm four of the marines with heavy weapons, such as plasma guns, missile launchers, and flamers, which ups the squad's firepower considerably, especially against enemy vehicles.
With that done, we sent three heavy squads of space marines into the jungle and made contact with the eldar, one of the three playable races in the game. The eldar presence is unexpected, to say the least, and we encountered stiff resistance the deeper we delved into the jungle. At one point, the eldar had set up an ambush, occupying the high ground on both sides of a valley, and the easiest way to deal with them was to requisition some light artillery vehicles from orbit and then have them blast the eldar out of position. Throughout all this combat, your squads will take casualties, but it's relatively easy to replace losses, as all you have to do is request replacement marines, and they'll show up after a minute or two. During these moments of downtime while you're waiting for reinforcements to appear, it's usually a good idea to find a good defensive position that affords your marines cover. When your forces are in good terrain, such as a crater, a small shield will appear over them indicating that they have cover. This means that they get a defensive bonus, but they lose some mobility as a result.
After slogging through the jungle and securing several strategic points, we came upon a wild battle where the eldar where besieging an ork base. Without too much effort, we found ourselves caught between both forces, which isn't a good place to be. This was a good moment to bring up our dreadnoughts, the walking tanks of the space marines that are actually armored sarcophagi driven by the spirits of notable, but dead, space marines. Is that cool, or what? Dreadnoughts come in two flavors: There's the standard dreadnought, which loves nothing better than to dive into the thick of battle, pick up an ork, and squeeze it to death in its giant claw, and then there's the hellfire dreadnought, which replaces the claw with a powerful ranged weapon, so it's not so good in a melee fight. With four dreadnoughts and three heavy squads of space marines, we drove into the heart of the ork base and basically watched the mayhem unravel. One cool effect occurred whenever an ork building exploded, and the shock wave of the explosion would hurl any units standing by it into the air.
Dawn of War has every indication of being an impressive real-time strategy game. While the gameplay mechanics may seem a bit conventional, it's hard not to get caught up in the atmosphere and style of the game. The rich setting of the Warhammer 40,000 universe comes to life like never before, and there's certainly a visceral satisfaction to wiping out an enemy force or listening to the heavy clang as one of your space marines runs up and plants your flag on a heavily contested strategic point. At this point, Relic is almost done with the game, and we can look forward to Dawn of War shipping sometime next month.