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Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 2

Over the last few years, Relic has been crafting and evolving their very unique take on the real-time strategy genre with every new title they have released. Their shift in focus from a game like Homeworld to their, now, action/RTS genre blend was most apparent in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War (2004). Dawn of War introduced the concept of cover as an actual game mechanic that players had to think about and plan a strategy around. The game also provided players with a lower unit count than most other strategy games released at the time while also treating infantry units as somewhat customizable squads rather than individual units. Dawn of War also was the first of Relic’s games that really attempted to differentiate itself from the conventions of the real-time strategy genre at the time by reducing the gameplay emphasis on resource management.

Unlike games like Warcraft, Starcraft, and Age of Empires, Dawn of War treated one of its two resources as a capturable commodity. The map designers placed several important requisition points at key locations around a game map and these capturable points were the only means of harvesting requisition. Once a resource point is captured the flow of a given resource was dependent on nothing else but time (and maybe an upgraded listening post on the capture point). There were no workers to manage and not supply flow to contend with, simply a group of “hot points” that littered a game map. There were, however, constructable power nodes that players had to build in order to acquire power — a design mechanic that felt out of place in the scheme of the game. Relic’s next game, Company of Heroes, took this design methodology one step further and made the source of all resources a capturable point on the game map that had to be claimed and then, in some cases, enhanced through the construction of a building atop the point.

Dawn of War 2 makes resource “gathering” such an integral portion of the game that, moreso than Company of Heroes, multiplayer matches are a constant struggle for each team to keep both its resources points and the capture points which govern the fate of each teams’ “ticket” — whoever has the least number of these capture points will see a slow reduction in their team’s ticket count and the first team to reach zero loses. It’s a geographical tug-of-war where players shift from one thoughtfully-placed point of interest to another. This is, no doubt, a game mode that any player of multiplayer first-person shooter games over recent years is familiar with; in particular, the primary game mode of the entire Battlefield series. What Relic has essentially done for the multiplayer portions of Dawn of War 2 — even more so than they did with Company of Heroes — is to bring the intensity of a good match of Battlefield to the real-time strategy genre; a game I experienced last night actually had my two allies and I come back to win a match after being beaten from 400-some points down to four points.

Resource management aside, Company of Heroes’ general gameplay progression still owed a lot to the typical real-time strategy formula. The base-building was minimal, but the construction of defense structures and some key base structures was still a strong aspect of the game. The multiplayer gameplay in Dawn of War 2 (the multiplayer is completely different from the single-player) gives the player a starting base which consists of a headquarters and a single defense turret. Throughout the a match a player can take his headquarters from level one to level two, then level two to level three. That’s the extent of the base-building.

I was skeptical about the radical shift in game design from Dawn of War to Dawn of War 2 but, after a handful of games, it was absolutely the right choice for the franchise.

Everything about Dawn of War 2 revolves around a player’s ability to choose a handful (or so) of unit types/squads and closely manage them to fit a player’s specific strategy and the best strategy given the layout of the map terrain at any given time. In the beginning of a match, properly-chosen infantry will dominate all battles. The map’s structures and defenses will be in-place for various squads to find cover behind, there are points all over the map which are unoccupied and begging to be captured, and there are no enormous vehicles or mega-units that infantry will eventually cower in fear at the sight of. The beginning of a game of Dawn of War 2 is a very unique, short-lived section of the game where infantry rule the terrain. Which players can properly set-up their emplaced units (heavy bolters, plasma squads, etc.) to watch over the light ranged units (scouts, light infantry) as both ranged squads work to suppress enemies so melee units can move in for the kill will find great success here.

Once each player’s hero unit starts gaining some levels and purchasing upgrades and the vehicles and mega-units start popping up as a part of each player’s employed units the composition of a Dawn of War 2 match changes. The vehicles and mega-units can topple over even the best of the cover that infantry were previously using to great effect. Now the game becomes a war of attrition as each team works to build the perfect combination of infantry, vehicles, and mega-units as each side works to either defend their currently-held resources and capture points or go on the offensive to take new points from their enemies.

It’s the effectiveness of the back-and-forth of point capturing and defending that works so well in Dawn of War 2. In Company of Heroes this gameplay was great for its time but the maps required players to treat the map geography territorially; this design focus forces players into a “hunker down and defend” playing ideology which didn’t seem terribly convenient for the kind of gameplay the point-based Company of Heroes modes encouraged. Dawn of War 2 gives players maps which place important the primary three capture points in very difficult-to-defend areas. This simple change in design of multiplayer maps ends up creating an entirely new game flow. Players simply cannot go entirely on the defensive in Dawn of War 2, the maps either don’t allow it or the structures which segregate various components of the map can end up being broken by a number of mid-to-late game units.

One of my favorite features of Dawn of War 2 crops up often during the mid-game portions of a multiplayer match: the ability for players to take certain infantry squads and set them up to be makeshift defensive emplacements. In a recent game I expended a great deal of time and resoruces to take back a crucial capture point that my team needed to recapture in order to come back from almost certain defeat. Once I managed to get this point back I built a squad of heavy infantry who wielded a gigantic plasma weapon that, essentially, ruined squads of infantry and did significant damage to vehicles and hero units. I sent this unit to guard the capture point I just took back from the opposing team while the majority of my army went off to help my teammates; I set the plasma squad up behind the only remaining segment of full cover in the area and for the next five minutes of the match this squad annihilated any unit that approached the area. Once the opposing team was wise to my plasma gunner they sent in a large army to take back the area, at which point my army returned and side-swiped them.

The dichotomy that exists between melee and ranged combat in Dawn of War 2 feels like the most problematic area of the game. At times it feels like the effectiveness of melee units is “random” — it’s almost assuredly governed by a very complex set of armor/weapon mechanics but these don’t seem to be made obvious or easy-to-understand for players. Sometimes a melee unit or commander can walk right up to a ranged enemies and thrash them in less than a second. Sometimes a melee unit will get suppresses by melee fire and end up being slaughtered by enemies as the melee unit attempts to make its way to its ranged assailants or retreat from battle entirely. I imagine that these mechanics will make themselves more known to me as I play through more and more multiplayer matches but, as of now, it seems poorly explained.

The interactions between some of the vehicles and mega-units seems to be even more perplexing. Some infantry units fare very well against the enormous walker units and some squads of infantry get ripped up by the same walker units in quickly and violently. I had similar problems with the original Dawn of War, though, so these should be things that players can just pick up through time and experimentation with the different races.

Dawn of War 2 isn’t a typical real-time strategy game; in fact, I am even hesitant to call it a real-time strategy game in the classical sense. There’s no base-building and no resource gathering in the way that Warcraft and Age of Empires have conditioned RTS gamers to expect. Dawn of War 2 is, by far, the best incarnation of the Action/RTS hybrid genre that I’ve played to-date and all I have been playing are three maps from the freely-available beta. My cautious anticipation for the full game has become a pervasive level of excitement.