Relic Entertainment clearly had two agendas at hand with Dawn of War II, its latest Warhammer 40K strategy title. The single-player portion of the game plays like an action-heavy, party-based RPG with persistent units who level up and equip loot. The online game, however, takes a more traditional real-time strategy approach with higher unit counts, field upgrades, and some light base-building. Although players might not welcome both sides of this coin, both are polished to such a degree that it's hard to fault Relic for trying to open the game up to two similar but notoriously fractured groups of PC gamers.
Although there are four playable races in the game, Dawn of War II's campaign plays entirely from the perspective of a squad of Space Marines known as the Blood Ravens. Your group of persistent heroes jumps between three worlds, trying to fight back an onslaught by the insect-like Tyranids, while the brutish Orks loot the battlefield and the technologically advanced Eldar treat everyone like ants and try to obliterate the infestation. Though there are a few epic scripted sequences during your fights, the mostly forgettable story is told between missions before deployment. Your involvement in the Blood Ravens' fate will likely be more influenced by your attachment to the Warhammer 40K source material than this game's specific narrative.
Although the main story arc is a structured affair, the game allows you to choose some optional missions in any order, with the caveat that these optional missions themselves are only available for a limited time. Because every mission has some form of loot reward and planetary faction bonus tied to its completion, time can be an important factor, and you'll need to make some choices about what missions you're willing to take on, and when. It's not going to provide a drastically different experience through replay, but the choice is a nice touch that at least lets you avoid portions of the game you might not enjoy.
Aside from some lengthy late-game battles, Dawn of War II's missions are short affairs; you'll likely complete each one within 20 minutes of being dropped onto the map. That brisk pace alone marks a radical departure for the genre, and since you often control only four units at any one time, the campaign feels closer to a Commandos game than a Command & Conquer one. Almost every mission features a fun boss fight of some kind, even though the encounters eventually become a bit predictable.
During missions, your units will earn experience, level up, and find loot that they can equip between battles. Your unique play style will be influenced by a number of factors, such as choosing which four units to deploy, and whether to focus those individual units' development on energy and ranged attacks versus more stamina- and strength-based abilities. On the whole, this system breeds a greater level of attachment to your units than you'd ever feel for the nameless dudes churned out of the nearest factory in other strategy games.
The fighting itself in both the campaign and the online experience will be instantly familiar to those who played through Relic's last game, Company of Heroes. Like that game, the heavy emphasis here is on suppression, cover, and destructible environments, and you won't build a single base over the course of the entire single-player game. The campaign is pretty easy even on the harder difficulty level, mostly due to the low unit count and small-scale battles.
The skirmish and multiplayer components of the game play much differently from the campaign, and feel fairly standard for a strategy title. When playing online, you'll start with a pre-built base and have to capture control points and power nodes to requisition new troops. For some this is going to be a jarring experience, as you'll have to learn new skills and menu elements that don't exist in the single-player game. For those familiar with more typical RTS games this won't cause a problem, but if you're coming to the Dawn of War II with more action-RPG-oriented tastes, you may find yourself in a strange new world after you complete the campaign.
Along with choosing one of the four races in multiplayer matches, you'll also get to choose one of that race's three hero commanders. Each race features a balanced but unique play style. In truth your commander choice seems to most impact your overall strategy, as it defines whether you are playing an offensive, defensive, or support game. With 3v3 and 2v2 matches available in either annihilation or control-point victory mode (think Battlefield), it's important to mix and match your commanders between teams. Focusing too heavily on any one discipline can often spell disaster.
The game requires both Steam and Games For Windows Live and includes achievement points for Live. The integration with both systems works well for the most part, though along with some other users on our forums I didn't receive achievement points for completing the game, which is a minor blemish in an otherwise nearly spotless execution. Dawn of War II also features a co-op mode for the campaign, which makes the game ridiculously easy, though it's a nice addition for those who like playing with their buds.
Overall, the only major problem with recommending Dawn of War II is its minor identity crisis. If you normally don't like RTS games but are a fan of light role-playing that focuses more on the combat than the story, you'll likely find much to love in this game's campaign, and that should be enough to satisfy. However, if you're a fan of traditional strategy games like StarCraft or even the original Dawn of War, you might be underwhelmed by the simplified gameplay of the sequel's campaign, and may want to jump straight to the deeper online experience. Both halves are well done, though there's no guarantee you'll like both of them equally. Whichever choice you make, Relic has done a commendable job trying to kill two birds with one stone. You might just wish they had focused more on the portion of the game you enjoy most.