There is a form of malaise hanging around Relic’s new RTS set in the Warhammer 40k universe. It’s first two titles in the Dawn of War franchise were by all account massive successes, liked by both critics and players. In the buildup to this third entry, though, the mood has turned somewhat. Early in-game footage showed brightly-coloured Space Marines flipping through the air in their multi-tonne armour, special abilities, hero characters galore and the conspicuous absence of a beloved voice actor. The fan community responded with incredulity, then annoyance and finally resentment.
It was with that apprehension at the back of my mind that I sat down to play an hour of Dawn of War 3. The mission, we were told, was quite late on in the game, with most units unlocked from the start and a lot of the new super-heavy stuff ready to go. Captain Gabriel Angelos - now Chapter Master Gabriel Angelos - of the Blood Ravens Space Marines chapter, is on a mission to destroy an Eldar webway gate that keeps pumping troops and vehicles. You’re plonked straight into the action and given Angelos and Knight Captain Soleria, the latter the pilot of a gargantuan walker, to play with.
The action plays out in a very familiar fashion to the previous Dawn of War games, and is very much a mixture of the two. While there is still a close, squad-based combat focus, you can now control larger mobs and create the armies of the first game. Resources are gathered by capturing control points on the map and by building power generators. Proper base-building is back in Dawn of War 3, with separate buildings required to produce your workaday units ready for the meat grinder.
There is a very prominent distinction in this new title between your average units of the line and your elites. Much like the mobs that saunter around a MOBA, your line units are there to deal continuous low-level damage and try not to be pulverised. Your elite units, of which you can control three at a time, deliver huge damage through abilities and surgical strikes. Your elites need to be decided before you go into battle - perhaps Relic is taking a few leaves out of the DOTA handbook in making players pick and counter-pick their heroes.
Battle, when joined, is a bombastic affair. Relic has gone to pains to make this entry as accessible as possible (another factor that has hardcore fans scoffing), and for that everything is made to stand out. Visual cues are emphases to show the player where damage is being dealt and where it is not. The massive jumps of the Space Marines, though lore-buckling in style, are there to enable them to stand out on a incredibly-detailed battlefield filled with shrieking laser and burning bolter fire. Bringing units into the fight has now been streamlined too, removing the need to have them walk from one end of the map to the other. Players can now charge up a Drop Pod to slam reinforcements straight into the fight at intervals, rather than unlock it as a technology by upgrading buildings..
Dawn of War 3 also includes a new cover system. Gone are the anti/low/medium/high cover that dotted the battlefield, to be replaced with circular barricades that can be captured by units. Once captured the barricades are enveloped by a glowing blue shield that gives them a resistance to ranged fire but makes them vulnerable to melee. It’s a left-field design choice by my book, and as a veteran Dawn of War player I have to admit it left a sour taste in my mouth. I often found myself instinctively moving units into shell holes and behind cover only to watch them get torn apart.
Clearer cover, perhaps, is a symptom of the newest addition to the series’ roster - superheavy units. These, along with ground-shattering super abilities, can swing a battle in the blink of an eye. The Space Marine’s Imperial Knight, for example, has gatling cannons for arms and missile pods for a hat. They can chew through enemy squads but aren’t invulnerable - a savvy opponent (or AI as I found out) can take them down with the right combination of counterfire. The superweapons aren’t entirely new, what with the Space Marine’s Orbital Bombardment ability being in every game thus far, but have been designed to be complete game changers. Activating one immediately makes the screen shake and light up, accompanied by massive waves of sound and confusion. They’re marquee weapons designed to leave an impression and they do just that.
An hour into my playthrough I find myself at the Eldar base, having spent a good portion of my time fending off raiding parties and trying to build my army to a large enough number. The ensuing battle is as epic as any I had in the original Dawn of War and I finish it with a flourish by deploying the Orbital Bombardment to full effect - destroying the enemy buildings and tanks in one fell swoop. I’m slightly annoyed to not have been the first to complete the mission (my excuse is that I was too busy taking notes), but I’m told getting it done in an hour is still quite an achievement for a map late into the game.
Dawn of War 3 will forever be compared to its predecessors, and while it pays lip service to both by combining their best features, it is definitely its own title. The fanbase may be scrutinising it and running features through a fine-tooth comb, but Relic appear to have their house in order and their priorities straight. What Dawn of War 3 is at the core is a bombastic RTS that encapsulates the tabletop battles that many enjoy at home in all their pomp and pageantry. The game is sure to make waves when it hits stores and online shelves later this year.