Most sequels tend to remain fairly consistent with their predecessors; continuity is the point after all, why someone is supposed to be interested. Dawn of War II is nearly a complete break from the original game however, to the point that people who liked the first might not be interested in the second. Patience may be rewarded on the other hand, and in fact, some people who disliked Relic's initial Warhammer attempt might find something to appreciate in the new breed.
The premise for the game isn't terribly shocking, at least: players are once again thrown into the Warhammer 40,000 universe, in which the Imperium of Man fights a losing battle against aliens and heretics. The focus of the Campaign mode is on several worlds in the Aurelia sub-sector, which are initially suffering from an Ork onslaught. The Eldar become involved shortly thereafter though, only to reveal the main threat, the Tyranids – a species which exists solely to feed itself and render entire planets lifeless.
Differences in the game begin to manifest with the campaign structure. Whereas Dawn of War had a linear campaign, and its later expansions provided open ones, DoW2 takes a middle road by providing one primary set of Space Marine missions, supplemented by optional tasks which reward the player with improved weapons, more experience or a reduced Tyranid presence. Given that many missions last no more than 30 minutes, sometimes a little over half that time, there's also little reason to avoid the opportunity.
It's once a player drops to the surface that changes really begin to have impact. The original DoW followed many of the usual real-time strategy conventions, such as an opening phase of base-building and resource grabbing, followed by a major and usually final assault on the enemy. Not so in DoW2; most units are picked before a mission even starts, and there is no base-building to speak of, meaning that units are much harder to replace and can't be thrown at enemies like so much cannon fodder. Players don't even have access to many units, as only a handful of squads can be fielded at any given time, rather than dozens. Armored units such as Dreadnoughts are also much more rare and lethal, mirroring their importance in the tabletop WH40K.
Balancing the sacrifice a bit is the aforementioned experience, which provides points towards improved fighting abilities for both commanders and squad leaders. Characters can be tailored for melee or ranged combat, and equipped with special armor, weapons and accessories recovered from the battlefield. The gear is also sometimes level-restricted, such that taking a few optional sorties to level up can suddenly make core missions easier.
The net result of all this is a game which, in some instances, feels more like Diablo than Warhammer. The campaign maps even play host to crates you can destroy to resupply, and “boss” enemies that are harder to kill in part because of their special attacks. These last two touches are definitely too arcadish for my tastes, and should probably be nixed from future WH40K games.
Mercifully, the greatest influence in DoW2 comes from Relic's other major RTS series, Company of Heroes. The game borrows CoH's cover system verbatim, granting massive defensive bonuses to units behind objects or inside of buildings. Since most units in DoW2 die horribly under direct fire, players are forced to actually rely on strategy, performing maneuvers such as flanking and bounding advances. Tanks, purists will be happy to note, are best targeted in their weak rear armor.
Campaign missions effectively become puzzles, albeit ones with multiple solutions in which the pieces decide to behave differently each time. Coming up to a city square for instance, it may make the most sense to put your heavy weapons in one building while bringing your main squad around from the side, at which point Assault Marines might jump in to do the dirty work. If the enemy decides to be unusually aggressive, you may have to improvise a new plan. Inventing a succesful one, though, can be immensely rewarding.
With a little help from my friends
DoW2 also has the unusual advantage - shared only with Red Alert 3 in RTS games - of a co-op mode. A second player can join in on any campaign mission, after accepting an invite through Games for Windows Live. The game then divides responsibility for squads roughly in two, which can initially be confusing, but then becomes useful for timed attacks. This assumes proper coordination of course, which when it happens it can greatly magnify the fun of the game.
More of a mixed bag is the separate, competitive Multiplayer mode, something I've deliberately avoided speaking about until now because it differs so radically from the rest of DoW2. It's a throwback to DoW in that players are asked to build units once again, fueling their armies by capturing Requisition and Power points. The familiarity can be reassuring; at the same time, the game seems to lose some of its distinguishing features. Time pressure forces people to ignore the cover system, and leveling is simplified to an automatic upgrade the longer a unit succeeds in combat.
I'm also not a fan of the default, CoH-like Victory Points win condition, which requires enough ground to be held in order to shift the "tide" of battle. The problem is that in practice, a player can dominate militarily and still lose to stragglers. The game does offer a straightforward Annihilate mode, but there aren't many structures to fall back on, and it's far less popular as a whole.
A final complaint about multiplayer is that the auto-matching system for multiplayer can take an inordinate amount of time. The manual method is quite easy to use though, and even preferable. I should also commend Relic for letting gamers play with the Marine, Eldar and Tyranid factions, each of which is given three different commander types. Choosing the Techmarine, for example, lets a user call down defensive turrets to hold key points or killzones.
Whether or not you'll like Dawn of War 2 ultimately depends on how welcome the changes are. I doubt that anyone will argue with the cover system, but I confess to being mildly disappointed that the battles have scaled down, not up. The character system should add a welcome bit of personality for most players, yet I can imagine more strategically-minded people becoming impatient. Multiplayer, meanwhile, frequently seems to offer nothing new.
With that said, the heart of the game is solidly built, never in a position to stagger too far out of line. The campaign is surprisingly lengthy, and the unit balance is quite well-tuned. Since most of the changes are beneficial, in my view, I can adamantly recommend Dawn of War 2 to fans of RTS games or Warhammer 40K.