Warhammer’s universe is set in what’s called a dystopia – the complete opposite of an ideal and desired utopia. This universe is populated by a number of species, including humans, Orks (the green ones we’ve all come to know and love), an ancient advanced race called the Eldar and those humans who are seduced by evil fairies and gods called Chaos. None of these four get along with each other except in circumstances where they serve both parties’ goals. I mean both because I don’t think you’ll find unity in more than two of these races at any one time. Life in the Warhammer universe is what Hobbes succinctly calls “poor, nasty, brutish and short”. I, of course, was enamored with the pseudo Latin references and invocations of the emperor but after finishing Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, I felt so disenfranchised with the story that I had trouble looking forward to AD 2005 much less AD 40,000 something.
Dawn of War, however, is an excellent real time strategy game. It begins on the planet of Tartarus where the regular defenses manned by the Imperial Guard are having troubles fending off an Ork invasion. The Blood Raven chapter (regiment) of the Space Marines is dropped in to save the world. Captain Gabriel Angelos is the commander you’ll assume throughout the game. He is helped by a psychic called a librarian, Isador. Along the way, you’ll find out why the Orks are mounting a (surprisingly) organized invasion and why scouts are reporting the presence of the other two major races, Chaos and Eldar all on the same planet.
I find the easiest way to identify what type of strategy game you’ll be playing is the default camera view. In Dawn of War, it’s rather close up and no matter how much you use your mouse wheel to zoom away, you’ll get the view of maybe five or six squads at the most. That’s the type of combat you’ll be playing – tactical. Dawn of War’s single player campaign has you exclusively playing the Space Marines. Their buildings are dropped from orbit where they are finished on the planet. Units, in particular larger units, are flown in and in the most advanced games, you’ll have a chance to simply drop units anywhere you have line of sight on the map. This is one of those games where the building tree is simple and the upgrade tree is more complex. Resources are gained through power generators and the capture and hold of victory locations. No peons or mining done here.
Since this is a tactical game, much emphasis is placed on utilizing each and every unit. The default space marine squad that rolls out of the barracks is four people. You can reinforce this anywhere on the map with up to eight people. A properly reinforced basic infantry unit is so versatile that you’ll be using it well into the latest battles. More expensive does not necessarily mean more useful. With a strict unit and vehicle cap, you’ll find that you’ll have to limit your strategy to choosing the best mix of units. Luckily, most squads and vehicles can be upgraded with a variety of weapons. A marine can wield a flamethrower to improve close combat effectiveness or a missile launcher to take down buildings. A tank can be upgraded from shells to lasers.
The developers have made the game a little more unique in that you need time to charge up before using these upgrades. A missile launcher takes time to load so if the entire squad is using missile launchers, you’ll find that the squad can be easily overwhelmed by enemies with more alacrity in their attack. This explains the need for hand to hand combat, which in any other game with guns and explosives would sound plain silly.
You’ll also need to choose the right weapons. In Dawn of War, a mismatch is a miscalculation of colossal proportions. You could have a screen full of marines with anti-infantry weapons but they wouldn’t in ten minutes time be able to disable even one tank.
The graphics engine in Dawn of War is able to paint a variety of terrains. Craters, buildings and barriers can offer cover, denoted by the little shield over units which receive them. Cover, in combination with good choice of arms, will let you combat overwhelming numbers and technology. It’s a pity that craters created by your own artillery can’t be used as cover. The engine isn’t that dynamic. However, the explosions are often devastating. They shake and rattle the screen a little. And some of the bigger units can wreak havoc by bulldozing infantry as bowling ball would do to pins. In other instances, infantry can be picked up, killed and tossed aside by larger units. The only glitches I found were ones where artillery units had to shoot over barriers to reach their targets. Tracers seemed to streak right through walls or bridges.
You won’t have a lot of time to admire this in the single player aspect of the game. That’s because the campaign itself is short. It can be finished over a weekend and for strategy veterans, perhaps even a solid day of playing will let you reach the end of the story. It starts with Angelos and the Blood Ravens and ends with it at a pace that is rather even. Angelos provides lots of good pointers on where to build secondary bases and such.
What doesn’t help much is the horrendous pathfinding. Frequently, you’re asked to traverse burnt out cities with plenty of obstacles. Trying to find an empty place on the minimap is tough. Waiting for your units to get there may be even tougher, especially vehicles which in some maps have barely enough space to squeeze through. Some spaces seem just big enough for the largest of vehicles to fit through. In some cases, your units will simply refuse to move unless you hand guide them with the mouse pointer across the map. This can be quite tedious, especially if you are fighting on multiple fronts.
But the thing I really didn’t like was where they took the story. In the beginning, you’re essentially helping with the defense of the planet. The presence of a subplot, however, will take you away from the frontlines and into hunting for clues and sinister figures until the very end. It’s this witch hunt that takes the energy away from the game – not any of the annoyances I mentioned above. Every mission more or less begins with a base (sometimes you have to clear something to get to it) but you’ll find yourself always amassing troops and defeating someone only to find you’re a step behind because they’ve cleaned house or taken off ahead of you. Ultimately, this makes the game needlessly repetitive. The ending is rather sneaky too, and has suggestions that more of the same may lie in a sequel or expansion pack.
That said many of the missions incorporate cinematic sequences and changing objectives. This is the first strategy game I’ve played that has auto-saves at climatic moments. That was definitely something I would hope other games in the genre would emulate. In between missions you’ll hear expository from Angelos but the best thing the developers did was display a planetary map of Tartarus with symbols representing friend and foe troops. As the Ork invasion grows, you’ll find a menacing red blob grow and point towards cities until it completely overwhelms the planet. A good dramatic gimmick.
Once the campaign is finished, you’ll have the opportunity to play skirmishes by yourself or with friends. The multiplayer setup is not unlike the regular Warcraft style game. You can assign teams, create different objectives and mix human and computer players together. I thought more could be done though. Ground Control II, for example, featured co-operative play for the entire single player campaign. Some hero-based scenarios would have been nice too.
There’s no doubt that Dawn of War is steeped heavily in Warhammer lore. I still left the game with a few concerns. Why, for instance, when they have spacecraft orbiting the planet that there is a thing called fog of war or that unexplored shroud. At the very least, they could give some intelligence about the positions of enemy troops. And then there’s the whole reinforcing business. Practically everyone is dropped or flown into battle from space. Yet when I press the reinforce button on a squad that’s already in play, I get more people magically appearing in battle. These things don’t really make much sense.
However, as a real time strategy game, Dawn of War is not a bad one. Compared to Impossible Creatures, Relic has definitely developed a better title that has less confusion on upgrade/mutation of units and a more expansive story. Yet it cannot really match the epic scale of Homeworld since the entire campaign revolves around the defense of one planet. Strategy fans will find a great game within the box but may end up putting away the disc after a few months, especially if skirmishes aren’t their taste.