Warhammer 40,000: Dawn Of War III Review
Due to Games Workshop being somewhat carefree with the licence, there has been a plethora of Warhammer 40K gaming experiences for loyal servants of the Emperor to sample, from the worthy (Space Marine, Space Hulk) to the worthless (Storm Of Vengeance and other such freemium tat). At the time, the first Dawn Of War delivered a much-needed shot in the arm to real-time strategy with its territorial approach, while the sequel pared things down to focus on squad management and powerful hero units. Does the long-awaited third installment have any new blood to offer?
The Warhammer 40K universe is about as subtle as an imperial bolter to the face, and Dawn Of War III certainly doesn’t break with tradition; from the portentous opening quote to the gallons of vino spilling across the screen in lurid crimson arcs as the camera pans through a frozen mid-battle moment, it is just as violent, visceral, and completely over-the-top as it’s ever been. Story-wise we’re back with our favourite battle-hardened chapter-master Gabriel Angelos of the Blood Ravens as he struggles to get in a good day’s work in between dealing with bloodthirsty Orks, smug superior Eldar, and his overbearing Inquisitor boss. A legendary MacGuffin called the Spear Of Khaine has been sighted on the planet of Acheron, a mysterious, cursed world which only emerges from the Warp (Google it) every five thousand years, and everyone wants to be first to lay hands on it.
The campaign leaps back and forth between the three different factions, which is fine if you like variety, but not exactly conducive for the mechanically-minded who are trying to get to grips with the unique units and quirks of these very different factions. The human marines, with powerful units ferried to the front in convenient orbital drop-pods, sit somewhere between the Orks, an uncouth green mob that can upgrade themselves with scrap littering the battlefield and can overwhelm with sheer numbers and the berserker bloodlust of the Waaagh, and the technically superior Eldar, harnessing speed and teleportation with stealth and advanced ranged weaponry. Certain units being able to teleport, rocket-jump, grapple or otherwise fling themselves skyward to higher climes encourages players to consider the third dimension in their tactics, as it can often lend a decisive advantage. New players may be aesthetically drawn to one specific faction, but it’s worth experimenting with them all as the differences are very deep and more than just window dressing. The usual joke with this genre is that RTS campaigns are just tutorials for the multiplayer, and this is more true than usual here; while you’ll get a flavour of each faction from the missions, you’ll have to spend a bit more time outside of it to get up to a competitive standard.
The change of direction the series took in Dawn Of War II split the fanbase pretty hard, and although some wise Librarians would say that trying to please everyone is a fool’s errand, it’s clear that Relic have attempted to combine the best features of the previous games. Bases are back, as is capturing listening posts in order to claim resources. Cover is retained, but only in specific energy-domed bunkers scattered across the map. Hero units, now called Elites, play an arguably bigger role in swinging decisive battles. With up to three able to be deployed at a time they could be considered almost too powerful, although commanding Gabriel or the Ork leader Gorgutz to wade into the fray and send scores of puny normal soldiers flying is undeniably satisfying. New abilities for Elites can be purchased with the in-game Skulls currency which is earned after each match, adding to the sense of progression; level one all the way up to gain their coveted mastery attire.
It might not be the most balanced or finely tuned, but it’s certainly in the running for most visually and sonically impressive recent entry to a genre which is mostly on the wane.
The English tones of the voice acting are solidly performed, the simpering posh yet electronically-affected twang of the Eldar contrasting with the bully-boy cockney slurs of the Orks. Unit chatter is frequent, boisterous and occasionally rather amusing (“Thought for the day: suffer not the Ork to live”). Each faction retains its readily identifiable aesthetic; Eldar buildings have a curved, minimal, glassy quality, the Space Marines’ turbines whir with an oily industriousness, and the Orks’ ramshackle constructs creak and shudder like they could fall apart at any moment. Special mention has to be paid to the Waaagh!!! towers, which work wonderfully as both game mechanic and spectacle; activate one and racks of speakers clank into place and start pumping out crude heavy metal, building to a heady climax of colourful fireworks and a massive temporary buff for your units. Unfortunately there are no awe-striking animated set-pieces between missions like you’ll find in Starcraft II, the story being conveyed on the strength of the voice acting against pictures of planets and space stations.
The multiplayer game has also taken a leaf out of the MOBA world’s playbook, with the three-tiered goal being to take down first an opponent’s shield generators, then their turrets, and finally their central power core. Hopefully you’ll warm to the idea as currently this is the only mode on offer. These kinds of e-sports friendly titles have of late succumbed to a constant stream of updates model as opposed to less numerous but more substantial DLC releases, but even if more content is soon to appear on the horizon, the multiplayer content present at launch is a little weak. A meagre eight maps are all you have to go on until this is addressed. Maybe it’s too early to talk about adding new factions, as the rake of expansions for the previous games did, but I for one am finding the absence of the Chaos Marines sorely noticeable.
What we have then is iteration rather than reinvention, but a well-crafted, if slightly lean one. Pro players will likely uncover a host of niggling minor faults which will hopefully be addressed as the patch/release schedule continues, but for Warhammer die-hards and more casual RTS fans alike who have been waiting for a new battle, this is laden with potential and definitely worth a look.