An open mind is like a fortress with its gates unbarred and unguarded.
I have been told by many folks – including my editors here at GameRev – that I’m pretty harsh on games. I suppose I am something of an old jaded gamer. It seems to me that just about every new entry in an established genre is something I’ve played before. These days, it’s exceedingly rare for me to sit down in front of almost any game without immediately picking out a half-dozen other games with similar, if not identical, gameplay and story. The result is that I play through an awful lot of games that are great, but just aren’t very interesting. Dawn of War II is just the latest example of this.
[image1]Before we go further, let me say that Dawn of War II is very good. By every objective criterion I can think of, DoW2 is well-executed. So, in all fairness, I’m probably just being a demanding prick – no surprise there. Just a tip, if you think I’m a picky gamer, don’t get me started on alcohol. I have a snob streak a mile wide.
To start with, DoW2 is beautiful. Fantastic texture art, excellent animations, and some nice visual effects make for a very pretty game… that is, if slaughtering hundreds of orks (take notice lawyers, not with a 'c'), bugs, and space-elves is pretty. (I certainly think it is.) Nothing really looks bad. The worst complaint is that the visuals has a relative lack of variety – you’ll be seeing the same effects and areas over and over, so a lot of assets become rote after a while.
DoW2 also has some solid music – not quite on par with the original DoW2, but high quality and fitting all the same. Sounds and voice-acting are likewise pretty good, with a few awkward exceptions. Of worthwhile note is that the voices of a few characters established in DoW1 have completely changed. For those of you who played the first one, expect to cock an eyebrow when you first hear Gabriel Angelos’s voice.
In multiplayer, DoW2 is reminiscent of a stripped-down, shallow version of Company of Heroes. Most of the same basic elements are in place, but they’re much less effective in a lot of cases, keeping the gameplay focused on fast-paced decision-making and army builds. It’s pretty hard to effectively control a position on the maps without being on the offensive, curiously, emphasizing the game's attack and retreat focus.
[image2]The four playable factions offer a variety of gameplay styles, though the balance feels off. Assuming that the intent was to put all four factions on par with each other, DoW2 comes off flawed. The orks and space marines seem the worst two races to play, while the elder are clearly the best. Play a guy who knows how to run the elder, and you’ll quickly find yourself wondering why you’d play the other factions. The tyranids come off as a very close second – their emphasis is on hand-to-hand combat, but they have units that can be made to fit almost any role you need.
The base-management aspect of Dawn of War – reduced as it was when compared to most RTS games – is all but gone in DoW2. The focus is placed almost entirely on force management, and the result is a game that can actually be a little too fast-paced on occasion. There’s relatively little time to pursue grand designs when you’re too busy reacting to every little detail on the battlefield. In DoW2’s favor is that the scale is substantially smaller than DoW1 – you’ll control roughly half the number of units at any given moment than you would in DoW1.
Some seemingly major gameplay elements – such as attacking the rear armor of vehicles and the use of suppressing fire – come through very weakly in much of DoW2. It’s not that these elements never rear their heads, but that when they do make an appearance, they don’t seem terribly significant, at least when compared to Company of Heroes, the game that introduced them. In CoH, tanks were extremely tough – essentially unharmable by infantry who didn’t have some special tool or weapon to damage them. In DoW2, however, vehicles will fold under enough fire of any variety, though vehicle-killing weaponry does make the job much quicker. Infantry, on the other hand, can be curiously resilient – not as tough as tanks, certainly, but they can take surprising amount of fire to go down.
The result is that the gameplay feels fast without having as much punch as Company of Heroes, as if the general pacing of play is off. It’s entirely functional, fun even, but it doesn’t feel as finely tuned and well-balanced as Company of Heroes did.
[image3]In single-player, DoW2 is much more at home. The relative power of your troops seems more appropriate given the level-gain and equipment selection mechanics that come into play. It feels less like an RTS and more like an action RPG, though – not exactly a bad thing, but it’s kind of surprising. Playing through the single-player is fun, but not really an accurate depiction of the competitive multiplayer side of the game. You will learn many of the fundamentals, but you will not be prepared for serious competition right off the bat, so be prepared for a few losses if you dig into the single-player before moving onto the multiplayer.
As stories go, DoW2 does not impress. It also doesn’t seem to be trying to impress. The game makes up in production values what it lacks in originality. Dialogue is fine - there are no moments that make you smack your forehead with your open palm, but it’s just not particularly interesting. So orks show up to muck about the Blood Raven’s planet… then Eldar… then Tyranids… then you go about killin’ ‘em all with your big bad-ass space marine boots.
There’s a little back-and-forth about the cliffhangers from the prior Dawn of War games, but none of it really builds up as a proper subplot at any point, so the emphasis remains on shooting lots and lots of aliens. I don’t really blame the writers for DoW2 – the Warhammer 40K universe strikes me as exceptionally hard to write for, as just about everything humanity sees is filed under the ‘kill it with fire’ category. All the same, maybe they could’ve done something with the inquisition?
[image4]It’s also worth noting that – when compared against the previous Dawn of War – DoW2 feels like there’s much less content. We’re presumably going to see roughly the same cycle of expansions introducing the other major forces of the Warhammer 40K universe, so be prepared to buy a few more expansions before you get access to all the races you’re interested in. I, for one, miss the Imperial Guard. Although they get a couple cameo appearances in the campaign of DoW2, I really want to run around with a 60-man army of lasery death.
As I said before, Dawn of War II is really quite good. But it’s not what I’d hoped for. With shallower gameplay, a dearth of content, and some very distinct repetition, the game feels more like a jumping off point than a complete release. Part of the problem here is that Relic is following up the ridiculous amount of variety and content in the first Dawn of War series with a fresh start – in comparison, DoW2 just feels like the first pour of whiskey. I’ll look forward to the next two completing the glass, but for right now, this seems more like a taste test than a proper drink.