Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dawn of War II

Build your base, order your troops, and command them in the field of battle. It's been the standard operating procedure of the real-time strategy genre since Dune II cemented the foundation. Now with Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, Relic has smashed apart a major pillar of the RTS formula by eliminating base building. In its place have been fused elements of role-playing games, whereby the squads you control in each of the campaign carry over mission to mission, grow, and evolve according to what gear you decide to equip and what skills you decide to improve. The notions of persistence introduced in the expansions to the original Dawn of War have been expanded, the cover system and destructible environments from Company of Heroes imported, and the capture point mechanic for resource acquisition built in and simplified for the skirmish mode. It's a game that, like Massive Entertainment's World in Conflict, slices the strings that bind genre entries to tradition, and in the process emerges as something as strange as it is familiar, that sometimes stumbles in its newness but still manages to find its footing.

The game is divided into a campaign mode and skirmish mode, all of which feature multiplayer. In the campaign, Relic gives you the option to play cooperatively, with those participating working together to vanquish the enemy, though it's only the host who reaps the persistent rewards. In the skirmish mode, you
can participate in 1 versus 1 or 3 versus 3 matches online with others or against AI-controlled opponents of several difficulty levels using Tyranid, Eldar, Space Marine, or Ork armies.

In the campaign, you'll play strictly as the Space Marines, and though both modes illustrate Relic's move to eliminate base building, the campaign is the more obvious example. Instead of constructing a linear, mission-to-mission campaign, Relic has opted for an reworked version of the persistent campaign map that showed up in the Dark Crusade and Soulstorm expansions to Dawn of War. This time there's a far greater narrative element that's woven into the action. As a newly promoted Force Commander for the Blood Ravens chapter of the Space Marines (genetically altered superhuman soldiers) you'll battle against the Eldar, Orks, and menacing Tyranids to save your home planets.

Aboard the starship Armageddon you'll only ever amass six squads throughout the campaign, and you'll never build a unit-producing structure; you only capture relays and buildings to reinforce squads and net other bonuses. It's up to you which four squads to bring into any mission, as well as how to equip them. Unlike real-time strategy games past where each unit has a specific function with a few ways to differentiate through research upgrades, Dawn of War II lets you gradually accrue an assortment of wargear throughout the campaign that can dramatically affect functionality. Collected as a reward for completing a mission or dropped from enemies killed in the field, wargear consists of new armor sets, weaponry like chainswords, power axes, and heavy bolters, as well as a large number of accessories like melta bombs to smash up vehicles or Terminator armor-mounted missile racks for annihilating structures.

In between every mission you can swap out bits of equipment, so if you're tired of your Force Commander charging into fights with a power sword, slap on that set of Terminator armor from your inventory. Now your armor is boosted and you can crush the cover the enemy is using just by walking through it. Equip the fancy teleporter unit you just picked up from the last mission and drop in that Thunder Hammer and Storm Shield and now you're a melee powerhouse capable of blinking directly into entrenched enemy positions, crushing a few faces, then blinking right back out to safety, ideally before the orbital strike you just called down using an equipped beacon accessory purges the area of the living.

Contributing to the versatility of each squad is not only the wargear and accessories but individual abilities, something that can expanded upon by investing points as squads level up. By killing enemies in missions, completing assignments, capturing structures, and recycling unwanted equipment experience points are gained. Upon leveling up, skill points are allocated to that unit to be distributed however you see fit, and with the units' progress capped at level 20, you can't max every skill bar. If you don't care about your Dreadnought's ranged abilities, then you can skip adding points to the ranged skill bar and focus on melee. As points are added into the skill bars new abilities get unlocked as the overall category is strengthened, similar to Mass Effect's system, meaning there'll be abilities you never see on your first time through. In this way, Relic makes multiple playthroughs more worthwhile, even after you know the story.
This kind of fully-integrated equipment swapping and skill set management is pretty strange for the real-time strategy genre; it's something to be expected more from titles like Diablo or Titan Quest. Yet here it works really well, making for a steady stream of rewards and establishing a connection with your individual units more effectively than the limp dialogue of the story sequences. Instead of thinking of squad leader Tarkus as the respected elder of the bunch, you're more likely to think of him as the guy who's carrying your med kits, melta bombs, and frag grenades. Unless you're a sucker for anything Warhammer 40K, this narrative and the way it's presented likely isn't going to draw you in, shifting the focus to how the game plays, which in this case happens to be really well.

From your starship you'll float between three planets, selecting missions of critical narrative importance or side-missions. It's a flexible system, allowing for wins and losses, and in some cases, should all your squads die, closing off a mission for good. If successful, each mission provides a reward, and after each performance you're rated on the number of enemies you wiped out, how many of your squads survived without requiring a revive, and how quickly your tasks were completed. Even on the longer missions, an outing rarely lasts longer than 15 minutes unless you're being extra careful or have the difficulty cranked up above the default level (which I recommend doing), and during that time you'll dig into some excellent tactical gameplay.

For instance, should you toss a grenade to blow apart enemy cover or jump in your assault troops to land on enemy heads as you pick apart those who get tossed around with sniper shots? Or maybe sneak in your scout troop and throw a satchel charge at that tower the enemy garrisoned to blast it to bits before charging in your Dreadnought walker while your heavy bolter lays down suppressing fire? Making these kinds of decisions and the number of options given to players for implementing a range of battle plans helps to keep things interesting as the campaign progresses.

While the missions directly related to the story are strong, as some highlight the viciousness of the struggle between the fiction's races and the action proves to be more dynamic, you may grow weary of the side-missions' similar goals. This won't be an issue early on, but as you continue to kill what seems to be the same boss time after time, or defend captured foundries and shrines day after day in the campaign, the content may seem to get a little stale. What's refreshing is that there is any mission variety at all, and each outing isn't just "kill the enemy base" intermixed with "solo commando infiltration" missions. Since each mission tends to be short, you're never stuck for hours slogging away at enemy defenses like you may have experienced in the campaign for Gas Powered Games' Supreme Commander, a title that reveled in its complexity and economic management. In Dawn of War II, you're never going to have huge armies or have a hard time keeping track of resources. It's all about small groups of units tackling other small groups, utilizing each group's versatility according to what the situation demands, and having the freedom to choose where you want to fight. It's also a system that, because it allows for losses, forces the player to make calculated sacrifices when determining where to strike next, incorporating decisions about which rewards are most valuable, and the overall worth of each territory when faced with time-sensitive assaults on multiple fronts.

With multiple difficulty levels and the ability to effectively "grind" optional missions for better gear before entering into the final battle, the campaign offers quite a bit of gameplay hours, and should help players get acquainted with how at least the Space Marines play before testing out the skirmish mode. In it, the three other factions are opened up to you, including the Tyranids for the first time in the franchise. Depending on which style of play you prefer, either swarming with the Tyranid hormagaunt melee units or laying down destructive arcs of fire with the Eldar's array of anti-vehicle and anti-infantry mobile weapons platforms, you should be able to find a style to your liking.
Add to that three selectable heroes for each army, each with individual skills and the ability to level up and be equipped with performance enhancing items, and there's quite a bit to learn here. Aside from the more powerful heroes, many of the regular units can be upgraded in a number of ways as well, so it'd be best to test yourself out against the easy AI first before heading online to figure out what options are available. In skirmishes you do have one base structure, but that's pretty much it and it exists right from a match's beginning. A few of the units can erect defensive or reinforcement structures of their own, but the majority of your success in battle is being able to quickly move out into maps and capture resource points to fuel unit production. It's a system that encourages combat and makes turtling, the process of building up base defenses in order to tech up and raise an army, essentially impossible, so that even within a minute or two of a match starting you can expect to be in combat. And with the low population cap and smaller number of unit groups moving around, it makes every troop on the field that much more valuable.

Of the seven maps included with the game, three 1 v 1 and four 3 v 3, the overall layouts are smaller compared to titles past and allow for fluid battles. While a few maps do feature structures and pathways players must follow, rarely are there hard and fast choke points. If there is a bottleneck, there are usually two or three other avenues to access the area, making it difficult to try and lock down any section of the map without giving up something else, meaning games are in an almost constant state of flux with regards to control point ownership. Anyone who's played the original or particularly Company of Heroes is going to be familiar with the setup here, especially considering the victory point mechanic is pretty much the same thing from the latter.

Destructible terrain is another contributing factor to the seesaw nature of battles, as buildings can be knocked to the ground, cover positions flattened and even larger walls and structures broken to pieces by explosives or run through with vehicles. You may be able to set up a decent defensive position for a little while, but it's only a matter of time before a grenade eliminates whatever you're hiding behind or your opponent pulls off a flanking maneuver, keeping you on your toes, forcing you to pay attention to exactly how the battlefield is changing, and ensuring there's always a conflict raging somewhere on the map.

The ferocity of the fighting is, like the original, emphasized by a gratuitous amount of blood and gore. Units hit with hammers will sometimes sloppily shatter into bits, explosions send troops flying across the map, and there's the occasional special animation as a unit kills another with a grisly, multi-hit flourish. The level of detail heaped onto each character model is impressive, as are the animations, such as the wild jet-jumping spirals of the Ork stormboyz and the slow, inevitable advance of hulking Tyranid carnifexes. As might be expected there's a lot of personality packed into the unit acknowledgements as well that helps to set them apart and, in the case of the Orks, achieve a degree of humor. Like with Company of Heroes, the sound effects built into the game are top-notch, heightening the sense of conflict as heavy bolter fire pounds amidst booming explosions and crumbling structures.

A side from the derivative talking head narrative delivery, the game's presentation values are strong. From the slick interface menu that's presented as the Armageddon orbits planets to the story cinematics and easy-to-manage in-game interface that lets you know what's going on within the planetary system, everything's set up well, giving you access to all the information you need. The game even auto-assigns hotkeys to your units as they're pumped out of the production facility during skirmishes, further streamlining management. As campaigns progress you're scored on your overall performance, again encouraging multiple playthroughs for higher scores. Leaderboards, race-specific statistics, and a custom army painter are also added into the game, providing a sense of permanence with online play and, with the painter, the option for Warhammer 40K fans to imbue armies with a little individual flair.
We did notice a few glitches here and there on our way through, including enemies shooting through solid structures and some not appearing to respond to incoming fire, but they seemed to be relatively minor. For online play Dawn of War II uses Microsoft's Games for Windows - Live, meaning you'll have to sign up for a free account if you haven't already. Also, if I'm not mistaken on this, this game is the first PC-only title to feature achievement points. If you don't know what those are, don't worry - they're not important.

Minimum Requirements

* Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista SP1
* P4 3.2 GHz (single core) or any Dual Core processor
* 1 GB RAM (XP), 1.5 GB RAM (Vista)
* A 128MB Video Card (Shader Model 3) - Nvidia GeForce 6600 GT / ATI X1600, or equivalent
* 5.5 GB of Hard Drive space


* Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista SP1
* AMD Athlon 64×2 4400+ or any Intel Core 2 Duo
* 2 GB RAM (XP and Vista)
* A 256MB Video Card (Shader Model 3) - Nvidia GeForce 7800 GT / ATI X1900, or equivalent
* 5.5 GB of Hard Drive spac

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