There is only war in the gloomy darkness of the distant future. And more Warhammer games.
Before we get into Dawn of War III, it's time for a short history lesson (and yes, that's relevant and important to the new game): The first Dawn of War was released on PC in 2004. It was a very good real-time strategy video game and pioneer for many things like coverage and oppression that Relic would make pretty much perfect with Company of Heroes.
Dawn of War II followed in 2009 and was a completely different animal. He lost much of his traditional RTS legacy and instead opted for an RPG-like experience, focusing on a limited number of powerful units that could bring loot from the battlefield.
Now it's 2017 and we have Dawn of War III and again the focus of the game has changed. It's something of a compromise between the two previous titles, in which the heroic units of II are retained, but not their material obsessions, while bringing back RTS stalwarts such as basic education and the building of grunts.
Dawn of War III has two main offerings. A single player campaign leads the player through a series of story-based missions, while three 40K factions – humans, orcs and the Eldar – clash over a mysterious world and ancient relic. In the campaign you play as all three teams. This is a very long tutorial about the different strengths and weaknesses of each team.
The other is multiplayer, which is a very traditional series of RTS battle maps that are fought for checkpoints unless the game wants to sprinkle a little MOBA on your Warhammer 40K carnage.
I say this because much of Dawn of War III is the presence of elites, immensely powerful individual units that are central to the campaign and often make the difference between winning and losing in single and multiplayer. Think of them as champions or heroes and you're 90% on the way there: they're strong and full of special abilities, most of which have to be triggered manually and charged over the cooldown.
This is a rare case where I prefer the multiplayer mode of a strategy game to the campaign. While I usually like to take time to make decisions and record a story, the Dawn of War III campaign jumps too much between factions to arouse your interest (usually you only play one or two missions as a side before you be pulled into a different perspective). and presents you too often maps that offer little strategic breadth instead of forcing you through corridors and being satisfied with serving as a very lengthy tutorial.
Still, it's always a pleasure to go through Relic's 2D cutscenes, which in this game are elaborately rendered illustrations that give us a much more vivid and detailed look at the characters than their tiny in-game models could ever offer.
The story of the game may not be of great interest to anyone who doesn't read Warhammer novels, but the basics of your progress (and most mouse clicks in general) are at least home to some of the best screenplay video games, in which everyone, from the smallest Gretchin to to the massive Wraithknight, which has a wonderfully grim and British tone.
And despite the dark and suspicious story, it is still a fun game to be here, especially if you are not playing as a Fun Police / Space Marines. There is real humor in the animation, especially on the orc side, and the whole game manages to find a surprising balance between maintaining the artful 40K art style (found on book covers) while looking playful and chunky (like the actual miniatures you would play with).
I'm also done with the way the license was handled here. Many of the cheaper 40K content you see these days – remember there are too many Warhammer games – look like a bad 90s metal video, digital versions of a fantasy sword hanging on a bedroom wall. Here, however, Relic treats the IP with a little more respect and looks beyond the hypocritical traps to delve into a relatively personal struggle. At the same time, it gives 40K a beauty and power that you won't get in many other Warhammer games (creative assemblies) (excellent Total Warhammer the rare exception).
I mean, check out this clip (by Axis Animation) that acts as both an announcement trailer and a cinematic intro of the game. And if you've already seen it, look at it again. It is absolutely incredible.
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One thing that I particularly enjoyed experimenting with in Dawn of War III, and that was a surprise, was the way each faction controlled. While there are stereotypical expectations that you can quickly meet – orcs are overwhelming and the Eldar have fancy gear – there are a number of things related to Dawn of War III's new design choices that were an explosion.
Each faction has a similar list on paper. Each side has builders who build buildings that produce roughly the same type of units: ranged and melee infantry, vehicles, and support buildings.
But their use is completely different. The Space Marines, OK, they are your happy (well, noble unfortunate) medium. The orcs can use scrap – battlefield wrecks that come from dead enemies or are on the map – to upgrade their units and even build new vehicles on the spot. And the Eldar are incredibly tricky, with signs on most units, dependency on building support structures to improve their statistics, and emphasis on speed versus direct combat.
So you can take any faction, combine their base strengths with the skills of their elite, and really go downtown to develop your own approach to this game. I also had fun as every faction and played regularly as all three instead of quickly choosing a favorite, which is not very common for me and an RTS. Usually, the distinction is made in the units and structures that you can build. So it was cool that each side felt unique due to its powers and advantages.
By now you might think that this hardly sounds like an RTS, at least not like a traditional one, and I wonder if that was the point at all. There's so much tinkering and redefining what we expect from a game like this that despite all the successes and failures of Dawn of War III, you can't help trying something different.
There is this strange thing where multiplayer matches are defined by a timer that, for example, grants resource refunds for early losses and encourages players to go on the offensive immediately.
The accumulation of these resources is also handled differently. This is not harvesting, since the only real way to get the power you need to build units is to first control certain points on the map and then build extraction buildings above them.
You can't get resources without the extractors, and they're very weak, which gives the power struggles in the middle of the map a cool twist: you don't have to take control of an entire point to hurt your enemy, you can just rob them , blow up their buildings and refuse to supply them.
This focus on attacks extends to the way the factions are designed. The Eldar rely on certain buildings to be teleported to the front, while the Orc's WAAGH towers are similarly designed to be built where they are fought, not deep behind the safety of their own lines.
Dawn of War III does not want you to worry about resources, base defense, or slowly securing your lines. This is not about taking cover. It wants you to attack, attack, attack.
The Dawn of War III elites are cool and interesting, but you can't win with them alone, so you'll also have to fight alongside grunts. But normal units are relatively worthless, strangely expensive, and too easy to kill. This inequality could have been the basis of a strategy, but I found it simply frustrating because the game was trying too hard to bridge the play style gap between the first game in the series and the second, and ultimately failed to achieve either.
One of the best things about your heroes in Dawn of War II was to give them a bunch of arcane old 40K shit and really get to know / love the characters. And the best thing about the first dawn of the war was the way your otherwise expendable units could become superheroes by using the terrain properly for things like cover.
Both things have disappeared in Dawn of War III, replaced by the MOBA-like elites. Don't get me wrong, they're great, not only in terms of how they play, but also in terms of the unique and extravagant way they differ from the design of regular units. But it still feels like something is missing from the heart of the game when you look past them.
The greatest fun I had in Dawn of War III was walking an elite towards a lot of bad guys and letting go of them in a way that is more devastating than most RTS games would ever dare. Macha, the main character of the Eldar, is particularly cool: she has a number of powerful abilities, but also a spear that she can throw. When she holds the spear, these abilities break out around you, but when you throw it, they explode where the spear landed, and you can magically remind the spear of your hand. I must have done it 500 times in the past week and it just never stopped putting a smile on my face because sometimes dozens of units flew and exploded after just one attack.
However, you cannot do these movements too often. And while you're waiting for them to recharge, you're in control of an army full of weaklings and they're an obstacle. As I said earlier, many tactical nuances of regular units have been removed from the game thanks to their simplified maps and terrain, and although attempts have been made to make them more interesting, all units have special abilities like the elites – it's a pain, they keeping an eye on everyone, and in most of the battles I could barely keep track of my three elite's attacks, let alone the powers available to any regular unit.
By giving players three elites to control, you feel like you can conquer the whole world yourself. Everyone else is keen on babysitting, a task that you have to romp around while waiting for the good things to load up. As if Relic only brought regular units into play to give the elites something to smash. Meanwhile, I wished the game had sticked to one approach, be it getting rid of the elites and simply making dawn of war (society of heroes with angry space travelers) or making it a great single-player MOBA.
The game we got is not one of these things, but it is the time when it comes closest to the latter that it is the most pleasant.
As an experiment of how far the boundaries of an RTS can be pushed, I admire Dawn of War III for what it tried. It might not quite make it, but there aren't many games that play that way (WarCraft 3 fans, this is for you), and there aren't many who try things as interesting as the way their factions do are designed.
It's a shame that not everything fits and that his campaign is a little disappointing, but then the war in the 41st millennium is a dark and dirty business. You have to accept that sometimes your victories come at a cost.