Ten years later and I still have untold pounds of lead sat in my attic, not to mention the boxes stuffed full of small polystyrene cathedrals, shoebox full of paints and the like, I just can’t bear to get rid of them. Yes, I used to be a tabletop gamer, sitting up late into the night painting up miniature armies and learning the ins and outs of the forces my friends had at their disposal. Battles driving up such fierce pride in ones forces that one game I had was settled with a phone call to Gamesworkshop to get a final decision! That such a richly detailed phenomenon has had such limited forays into the video game world still surprises me, but here we have Dawn of War, and alas, not quite the game I dreamed about all those years ago.
For those unfamiliar with the game, Warhammer 40,000 revolves around a big green table scattered with scenery, which pasty-faced youths then cover in small lead armies before throwing dice about the place and measuring stuff. It is played out in a sci-fi world where a large number of different races blow the hell out of one another, the ones included within Dawn of War being the goody-goody Space Marines, the Elf-like Eldar, green-skinned Orkz and the evil Chaos Marines. Sadly though, arguably the most exotic and interesting race, the alien Tyranids, didn’t get a look in. It takes its influences from many sources, but to just say ‘Tolkein in space’ would probably give you a good idea of the epic scope involved.
As you would expect given the subject material, Dawn of War is an RTS game, and one that feels quite similar to Warcraft 3 in its presentation and structure. Although having said this, the look of the game is unmistakably Warhammer 40,000. The art of the tabletop game has been used perfectly to create the same atmosphere you always imagined the battles would have if they actually took place in some distant world. The range of units has been replicated well and all will be instantly recognizable to fans.
In-fact, probably the most striking aspect of the game is its visuals. I’d say the level of detail models and range of animations in the units at your disposal is the best we have seen in an RTS game to date. Watching the battles pan out can be a real thrill; they look gritty, bloody and dynamic. Exploding artillery shells send troops flying through the air in a cloud of grit and fire, a lumbering Dreadnought picks up an Ork in its fist and crushes it like a paper cup before spraying the rest of them in flame, there are so many little nice touches like this that make the battles come alive. The number of units on-screen at any one time is pretty impressive too without really making a big impact on frame-rate. On the downside though I found the battlefields themselves to be a little low on detail, certainly not matching up to the high standard set by the units.
Taking center stage for the single player game are the Blood Raven Space Marine chapter, the remaining races are slightly annoyingly saved for multiplayer and skirmish mode alone. The campaign initially sees you fighting off an Ork invasion that slowly becomes a greater problem than you initially realized, the story being told out in cut scenes that use the game engine. They work as well as you can expect, with some decent voiceovers, but the story is fairly predictable stuff and is even fairly irrelevant at times as mission objectives aren’t exactly inventive.
Where Dawn of War really lets itself down in my book is the direction it has taken for its gameplay. It’s actually quite a shallow RTS game, it’s all action and very little strategy, victory against the computer is usually guaranteed by just amassing several squads of Marines and then ploughing through the map. Objectives are usually based around a destroy everything mindset, Ground Control style control points are also used as a source of ‘income’, but I don’t ever recall these points being a focus of struggle like in Ground Control. Unlike Ground Control there is very little interaction with the battlefield, buildings cannot be garrisoned, height offers no advantage, and only the odd piece of scenery grants a defensive bonus.
I would have liked to see Dawn of War follow a similar structure to the old Warhammer video games such as Dark Omen where you had the same army to take from battle to battle. Between battles you would make decisions that would affect your journey, meeting new characters on the way who could join you on the branching path to your final objective. Your force had a personality; it was your army, not just a collection of troops you train up by clicking a Barracks. This style of gameplay would be more faithful to the source material, offer greater potential for strategy and still allow for the dark atmosphere and bloodthirsty action sequences. It’s such a shame to see Dawn of War attempt to do absolutely nothing new, especially when you realize Relic were behind the development.
Skirmish mode and multiplayer is where I imagine we will see Dawn of War have its greatest success, its quick pick up and play style suits an online environment and the allowance to play as races other than the Marines is a nice plus. It’s a good thing that there are plenty of options and maps here too as the single-player campaign is extremely short, most players should have it licked within a few days of play. It should be noted though that mod tools have been announced and I’m sure the hoards will create no end of updates for the game.
Dawn of War will be great for the more casual RTS player, the fact it leans more towards fast-paced action than strategy makes it very easy to get into. But I feel the game doesn’t show enough depth and individuality in it’s gameplay to make it a title that stands out from the crowd. Where the opposition in this genre is so plentiful and varied you really need to do something special to make a mark, and unfortunately the license alone isn’t enough to do that.