Considering the weaponry that humankind has already invented during the past couple of thousand years, it's difficult to even begin to imagine what kinds of implements of destruction will exist in the 41st millennium. However, England-based Games Workshop has done an excellent job of imagining what will come with its unique Warhammer 40,000 universe, which originated as a tabletop wargame but over the years has spun off into a variety of computer and video games. Dawn of War is the latest of these, and it's probably the best of these. Developed by seasoned real-time strategy maker Relic (best known for Homeworld and its sequel), Dawn of War is a testament to what can be so great about this style of gaming, and it captures the grim and brutal world of Warhammer 40,000 extremely well.
Those unfamiliar with Warhammer 40,000 will get the perfect primer in the game's brief, spectacular, introductory cinematic that shows off a pitched battle between two forces that are bent on ripping each other to shreds--and are well equipped to do so. Dawn of War actually features four of Warhammer 40,000's most popular factions: The tireless and imperialistic space marines, highly versatile warriors who have access to a variety of vehicles as well as terminators, the strongest infantry in the game; the savage green-skinned orks, whose tough forces can vastly outnumber and therefore overwhelm their enemies; the enigmatic and technologically advanced eldar, who are the sneakiest and most maneuverable of the races, and who have access to numerous specialist units; and the traitorous forces of chaos--former space marines who have been warped by demonic energies, and whose strong infantry are assisted by terrifying demonic creatures.
Each of these factions has a great deal of personality in the game thanks to the imaginatively designed, vibrantly detailed, and beautifully animated units available to it, along with equally good speech and audio effects. Even the way in which the respective sides build their structures is interesting. Whereas chaos summons its buildings through arcane rituals, ork structures unceremoniously arrive from orbit in big heaps of junk parts. Visual differences aside, each faction is distinctly (though not drastically) different and playable in the game's skirmish and multiplayer modes, although the single-player campaign exclusively focuses on a space marine chapter called the Blood Ravens.
The game's relatively brief campaign of around 10 missions begins when the Ravens are called in to assist with the defense of the planet Tartarus, which has suddenly been overrun by the warmongering orks. In addition to fending off the orks, the Ravens soon experience some "misunderstandings" with the eldar, who are already on location investigating something sinister--something that chaos is after. It's a good setup to pit you against three of the game's four factions, and the main character of the story, a veteran space marine commander named Gabriel, is quickly likable because of his ruthless, loyal, and valorous attitude.
The campaign itself isn't great, though, since it's just a linear series of missions that typically involve building up a base, mustering your forces, and crushing the enemy. So, basically, it's standard stuff. Some missions have some interesting set pieces in them. In one mission, a computer-controlled battalion of the imperial guard--human allies of the space marines that lack the marines' cybernetic enhancements and power armor--covers your flank from an onslaught of orks as you conduct your operations. It's tempting to help the guardsmen in their defense of you, or at least it's tempting to watch as their tanks and laser weapons stave off the aggressors. However, the campaign is brief and conventional overall, so any remotely experienced RTS player should find it to be a cakewalk at the default normal difficulty setting (two tougher settings are also available). The actual story is pretty good, at least, and it unfolds between missions through some excellently over-the-top dialogue between the game's main characters. However, the between-mission cutscenes, which are rendered using the game's 3D engine, simply don't look good. You'll see characters flapping their gums and animating awkwardly, which is in stark contrast to how terrific they look in battle during actual gameplay.
Playing through Dawn of War's campaign at least teaches you to respect the space marines' abilities in battle. In addition, the game features four separate interactive tutorials--one for each of the game's factions--which get you acclimated with the respective sides' buildings and units. As mentioned, the four sides in Dawn of War aren't drastically different, since they're each dependent on the same resources and have roughly analogous military units. However, these similarities are to the game's credit, because they serve to reduce the learning curve involved in switching from play as one faction to another. Consequently, the thought of learning to play as each of them, in turn, doesn't seem intimidating. Nevertheless, as in any great RTS game, it can take an indefinitely long time to truly master the different options of any one of these factions. Therefore, the devil's in the details of the various units, vehicles, weapons, abilities, and tactics available to them.
One of Dawn of War's accomplishments involves how successfully it translates some of the tabletop wargame's elements into effective twists on the conventional formula for real-time strategy games. For example, the action in any given battle revolves heavily around the capturing and holding of "strategic points," which have an abstract concept but literally take the form of beacons on the map. You may capture these points with most infantry squads, which is a process that leaves your squad immobilized and vulnerable for a number of seconds. But then, the captured point grants you a steady flow of requisition resource, which is necessary for purchasing new buildings, units, and upgrades. The idea is that the better you're faring in battle by capturing more strategic points, the more likely your faction is willing to support you from orbit with additional troops, structures, and supplies.
Your strategic points can be recaptured by the enemy, but you can defend them by building listening posts on them, and then you can upgrade these listening posts into respectable automated defenses. Moreover, upgrades to these structures also increase the flow of resources from that point, so they're a good investment. In addition to strategic points, maps contain similar points that represent relics and critical locations. These, too, add to your requisition resource rate. Relics also unlock the most power elements from your arsenal, while capturing and holding the map's critical locations for a sufficient length of time may win you the match. That is, if you play with the default settings, in which you may alternatively achieve victory in this fashion--or by capturing and holding two-thirds of the map's strategic points. Of course, you could always go the good old-fashioned route of annihilating the opposing army. Regardless, Dawn of War is decidedly unkind to overly defensive play styles, so the best defense is a good offense here.
The game's other resource is power, which is automatically accumulated when you build generators. A few points on each map let you build special ultrapowered generators for a major influx of this resource, which becomes especially important in the late-game, since large quantities of it are needed to marshal your strongest units. At any rate, the game's resource model is simple, and there aren't an overwhelming number of buildings or upgrades available to each faction, which creates some pretty clear-cut strategic choices in battle from an economic standpoint. Do you "tech up" your best units, or do you quickly throw together some fighting forces with which to rush your enemies and prevent them from gaining the upper hand? Actually, in practice you'll probably want to do both. The game's economic model, through its simplicity, does a great job of putting the emphasis on combat. You can't just hunker down and hoard resources; instead, you need to get out there to capture strategic points. This will inevitably cause you to encounter the enemy quite early in a match. So while there's a fair amount of repetitive base-building in a given battle, it's an easy and relatively quick and painless process that facilitates some interesting strategic choices. However, it doesn't much take the emphasis away from the action out in the field.
As well it shouldn't, since much of the game's underlying strategy unfolds during the heat of battle rather than back at base. Despite how you gain access to some extremely powerful vehicles and other units in the later stages of a battle, Dawn of War strikes a fine balance of requiring you to use your relatively inexpensive infantry throughout rather than simply replacing your less powerful forces. It's these infantry units that you'll use to capture strategic locations on the map, so you may want to upgrade your infantry and other units during the course of a battle. Interestingly, Dawn of War lets you upgrade and customize individual squads. So while you might research an upgrade back at base that allows you to equip your squads with additional heavy weapons, you then need to decide which squads to equip with which weapons. Furthermore, infantry squads can be reinforced, since they usually don't start out at full strength. So, for example, whereas you initially get a squad of four space marines out of your chapel-barracks, you may reinforce that squad with up to five more marines--and the squad will move and act as a single unit.
Dawn of War lets you comfortably focus your efforts on managing a relatively small number of versatile military forces. Your units do quite a good job when left to their own devices, but there are several behavioral presets that let you determine how they should act when confronted by the enemy. The default defensive position works well in most cases. It's not all automatic, so there's plenty for you to do. Squad reinforcements and upgraded weapons materialize out of thin air, making it possible to upgrade your squad from anywhere on the map, which gives you the power to counter your enemy forces on the fly. You can also summon squad leaders, and you can even attach powerful hero-type characters to your squads, who'll empower their brethren and who are extremely strong in their own rights. Some options are noticeably lacking, for better or worse. For instance, if a front-line unit is taking damage, you can't just walk him to the rear ranks to keep him alive, since you can't control him independently of his squad. In fact, there's not really an easy way of tracking individual casualties anyway, so it's common to have to quickly cycle through your squads to then commission more reinforcements and heavy weapons as your forces take damage. Also, larger units sometimes have a hard time maneuvering around smaller ones, so you might need to help them get around. Since you don't have too many units to work with, though, this level of micromanagement doesn't seem excessive or unwelcome.
You'll also need to keep an eye on your units' morale, which is governed by a blue meter above the green meter that represents health. The game's morale system is simple, but it works well. Basically, units lose morale in addition to hit points as they take damage, and some types of attacks (and attackers)--while not necessarily the deadliest in the game--are particularly damaging to morale. A unit's morale is broken when its meter empties, and while the unit won't automatically turn and flee at this time, you'd do well to get it out of the fight. Otherwise its strength will be severely crippled until it escapes from battle and recovers. So, when faced with overwhelming odds (such as at the hands of the swarming orks), it's viable to try to break enemy morale to turn the tide of battle. As such, not only does the morale system add a strategic element to Dawn of War's combat, but also it helps differentiate the playable factions. For example, the space marines are extremely brave and won't ever break under typical battlefield conditions. But when faced with some of chaos' most hideous demons, even these stalwart men may lose their resolve.
Dawn of War offers a similarly simple but effective implementation of battlefield cover. Basically, your forces can fight from behind cover to reduce the amount of damage sustained. Cover usually takes the form of large craters, though certain maps have rivers, which actually incur a defensive penalty upon the units caught stranded in them. Context-sensitive icons lets you clearly see which units are in cover, and your cursor noticeably changes when the area on the map you're pointing at will grant the benefits of cover. Cover doesn't always work as you'd expect, so a unit standing within the ruins of a building might seem like it should get some sort of protection. However, one of the only obvious rough edges in the game is how it's possible to shoot straight through solid walls in some cases. This really isn't as bad as it sounds, though, as most of the game's maps are battle-torn wastelands without too many such obstacles to deceivingly stand between you and your foe. Along similar lines, there's no need to be worried about friendly fire, because your squads can safely shoot past (and sometimes through) one another.
There actually aren't a ton of maps that ship with the game, and, surprisingly, Dawn of War doesn't ship with a scenario editor either. Nevertheless, it's possible to squeeze a lot of variety out of the available maps, the largest of which support up to eight players. By customizing the victory conditions and by taking on different numbers of computer opponents of various skill levels (from "easy" to "insane"), either in a free-for-all or in team-based matches, you can keep busy for a long time just playing the game offline. The game's difficulty settings are appropriately named and tuned. The easy artificial intelligence is practically brain-dead and is just fine for RTS neophytes, while the insane AI is inhumanly efficient but apparently doesn't cheat. So if you want to learn the game quickly, try saving a replay of one of your battles against the insane AI, and carefully observe your defeat when you play it back.
Of course, Dawn of War also supports LAN and online play, and its online player-matching service optionally lets you easily get into a random game (based on a few parameters of your choosing) via an automatch feature. There's a lot of potential for fun to be had online, especially since some of Dawn of War's superunits--including a couple of huge demons that stand about a hundred feet tall--are so satisfying to watch as they crush their foes. We expect many players will forfeit the match (their own morale, broken) at the mere sight of these things. For good measure, Dawn of War's army painter lets you create your own custom color schemes and insignia for your factions--or you can choose from a number of preexisting types that Warhammer 40,000 fans will instantly recognize.
It's worth discussing Dawn of War's excellent interface, in general. The game offers pretty much all of the interface innovations developed to date in a real-time strategy game (plus unique interface graphics for the four sides), making it eminently easy to play if you're accustomed to using a combination of the mouse and some keyboard hotkeys for games like this. The game's especially quick to get into if you've recently played Blizzard's Warcraft III--the apparent inspiration for Dawn of War's interface design. In fact, the overall look and feel of Dawn of War--and its brutal, relatively small-scale skirmishes--is actually quite reminiscent of Blizzard's latest RTS game, as is the fast pacing and the average 20- to 30-minute length of a battle. This is at least a little ironic, since Blizzard's own strategy games have evidently drawn from Warhammer 40,000 and its fantasy counterpart, Warhammer, for creative inspiration.
As suggested previously, Dawn of War features a superb presentation, and it's also a case of when a game's audiovisual elements serve to significantly enrich the gameplay experience. Few real-time strategy games pack in this much detail and personality into their units. Dawn of War's units are not only spitting images of the meticulously detailed pewter miniatures that Warhammer 40,000 is known for, but they're animated extremely well. The larger units are especially a joy to behold (or a terror to behold, as the case may be), since they boast a surprising variety of different attack animations. Space marine dreadnoughts will grab hold of enemy infantry and squash them like grapes before tossing their listless bodies aside like garbage; the eldar's avatar of Khaine, which takes the form of a fiery demon, impales its victims on its burning sword and causes the earth to blacken with ash in the wake of its footsteps. Generally speaking, a lot of blood is spilled, and the game's 3D camera gives you front-row seats to all the mayhem. Meanwhile, the backspace button instantly allows you to snap back to the game's default isometric viewpoint.
Dawn of War also features a fittingly grand orchestral score by Jeremy Soule, who's been responsible for many other such great game music compositions over the years. It's bombastic at times, but it mostly just adds to the game's ambience. And the game's audio effects are a suitable match for the graphics. The speech is particularly noteworthy, so Warhammer 40,000 fans should be thrilled at how appropriately the various voices capture most of the respective units' personalities. The game also sports some great audio cues for when units' morale falters or for when your forces first catch glimpse of their enemies. Unfortunately, you'll notice a few weak points in voiceovers, such as chaos' whiny cultists and heretics, who sound just a little too sycophantic. And as in other RTS games, the speech is inherently repetitive. But it's mostly quite entertaining, and in some cases, dare we say, it's quite quotable.
Fans of the source materials will especially appreciate Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. However, this is simply a great game, regardless. It's also another step in a good direction for the highly evolved real-time strategy genre, because it takes what's great about this style of game--the process of outmaneuvering and outsmarting opponents to defeat them through military might--and puts pretty much all the emphasis on the parts of the gameplay that inherently seem exciting and satisfying. And while we'd be tempted to say that the skirmish and online multiplayer modes are the main attractions in Dawn of War, that's actually not quite the case. Instead, it's the game's four different sides, each brimming with personality and intriguing tactical potential, that steal the show.