Real Time Tactics at its Finest
The common misnomer of real time "strategy" has persisted throughout the gaming community since the days of the first Command and Conquer. A strategy dictates which large scale battles to fight and which to avoid while tactics are the choices said battlefield, a division few games place emphasis upon. Relic has chosen to focus on tactics in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, and that focus creates a brutal and exciting experience.
The piece of gameplay that the two modes share is combat system. It is designed around brutal and oftentimes bloody squad on squad combat. Squads themselves are diverse in ability and use, some designed for long range while others close combat. In essence, it is rock-paper-scissors, simply with seemingly uncountable numbers of each type that oftentimes blend into each other. These choices lead to a highly reactional multiplayer game and force players into interesting choices when selecting squads in single player. Each choice also impacts the tactics the player must use to succeed. Grenades and flame throwers can be used to flush enemies out of cover while heavy weapons can be used to surpress and slow other squads. A easy to control cover system also complicates combat giving it much more depth. Beyond that, the combat is plain old fun.
There is also a leveling system that both modes share, largely put in place by Relic to encourage the players to become more invested in their units. In multiplayer this system is not nearly as impactful, but encourages players to take care of their units as a level disparity can be a factor in matches. The singleplayer leveling is slow, and will take most players twelve to twenty hours to reach the level cap of twenty, gaining ability points to distribute and earn abilities. Overall the singleplayer leveling leads to units that feel satisfyingly more powerful.
Appart from those two pieces, the gameplay of the two modes differs fairly significantly. Singleplayer features the return of the Imperial Space Marines Chapter known as the Blood Ravens in the games only campaign. Familiar names are present from the first Dawn of War, but previous experience with the series is not necessary. The story is largely told through talking-head dialogues and brief cutscene introductions to missions. Centered around the Blood Ravens' recruiting sector, the campaign begins with a new field commander defending an Ork attack and slowly introduces the other races. The player gets to select missions to undertake and the playground quickly expands from a single planet to three. It is worth noting that the story is by no means up to what gamers have been expecting from Relic, but that may be largely caused by Relic desiring the player to be more involved in the story process by making the campaign as seemingly non-linear as it is.
Perhaps the largest weakness of the singleplayer campaign is that there are only three or four maps per world. This means that the maps are recycled during the campaign with set-piece maps thrown in occasionally, but most likely a player will not play on the same map more than twice. Each mission presents the player with ample to do however, and contains rewards in the form of both randomized loot and set loot for completion at the end. It is possible for a player to fail a mission, but defeat does not have any lasting sting for most missions as your squads are safely whisked away. It is important to note that there is no resource collection or base building present in the singleplayer campaign, a fairly dramatic shift from the strategy genre.
The loot system has several reviewers calling it more an action-rpg than a tactics game, but I largely disagree with that. DoW2's loot is not in the game for the soul purpose of improving your characters like in a traditional RPG. Instead it pushes players into making tactical decisions prior to mission deployment. Should you outfit your tactical marines with flamers to push ranged units out of cover? Should you turn the scouts into shotgun wielding ninjas, or give them the sniper rifle to supress enemy infantry? The loadout choices do have meaningful impact on how you play each mission, but on normal difficulty and below they are less important.
The multiplayer offering is closer to a traditional "strategy" game, but only in that the player now has a base comprising of a single structure. Instead of choosing squads to deploy before each match, the player only chooses their race and hero unit. All four of the games races are opened up to the player; each playing differently. In addition to the Space Marines, the elf-like Eldar and beloved Orkz make another appearance. New to the series are the Tyranids, a species of carniverous insect-like mutations that make squishy sounds. Each race has three hero units with slight differences between them; subtle enough that they lead to different tactics, but not so overpowering that they remove the general tactics of the race.
Multiplayer matches are brutal and fast, most lasting somewhere around fifteen minutes. Unlike some competitive RTSes, it is not the first battle that determines the match, rather which player can adapt and anticipate the other. There are two types of games offered, 1v1 and group battles. Again, each provides a different feel. So far the races are fairly ballenced, with most players acknowledging that Tyranids are slightly more powerful that the other races. Relic is extremely quick at responding to ballence patches though, so expect this to shift within the first few weeks after the release. Additionally there are leaderboards, and the multiplayer makes use of Windows Live TrueSkill system, which seems to do a good job matching player battles.
I personally purchased the Steam version, so I can only speak to it. From my experience it utilizes both the Windows Live and Steam platforms well, though it only uses Steam for versioning and Steam chat.
Dawn of War II also does a fantastic job of capturing the look and feel of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. A large part of this is the excellent use of audio. The music is fittingly dramatic while voices of friend and foe cuts through the thud of explosions and rattling firearms. The units themselves are fantastically detailed, as you should expect from any game based upon the 40k license. Seemingly everything in the world blows up, and looks and sounds great doing so.
Overall, the whole package is excellently put together with a few smudges that will be easily overlooked because of how much fun the game is. All told, it's a fantastic experience, and one that will leave you excited for its next inevitable expansion.