Reviewed: November 30, 2004
Released: September 20, 2004
The Warhammer 40,000 universe has proven to be a great inspiration for video games with nearly a dozen titles based on the franchise released on multiple formats. I especially enjoyed last year’s Fire Warrior game which took the series into the FPS genre, but when I heard Relic and THQ were joining forces to create an RTS version of this violent universe, I just had to play it.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War is a fitting title because this is the dawn of a new era in RTS gaming, a design that favors action over the more mundane tasks normally associated with the genre. Rather than try to recreate all the rules and intricacies of the original game, Relic has managed to capture just enough of the strategy and flavor of the tabletop game and infuse it with more bloody action than any four other M-rated games you might play this year.
If you are a stranger to the Warhammer legacy, just imagine a universe where fantasy style characters like orcs, elves, wizards, and demons are combined with 40th century technology. Instead of a club, your Ork has a laser rifle. Tanks, turrets, dropships, and other space age technology are employed on a daily basis as the human Imperium wages war against hostile alien races like the Orks and Eldar.
Dawn of War approaches RTS gaming from a somewhat realistic standpoint of acquisition, domination, and attrition. Gone are the days of hiding at your base and building a massive strike force to decimate your foes. You’ll never stand a chance. The enemy will be knocking at your door long before you are ready.
Instead, you are forced into action from the moment you are put in command. You’ll need to get your builders working on new structures and start building up your troops. You’ll need to send out small strike teams to take over strategic checkpoints and possibly setup generators on thermal deposits, all to boost your building power. It quickly becomes a balancing act of acquisition without spreading yourself too thin.
The pacing of this game is much faster than your typical RTS game. You don’t have that slow progression through the tech tree like Age of Empires. Even troop replenishment is accelerated and you can now spawn reinforcements right in the field. I found this a vast improvement over creating new troops at a barracks then having to “walk” them to the frontlines. Now you can have soldiers spawning almost as fast as they are dying, resources permitting. This also hold true for upgrading your units with more powerful weapons.
Best of all, resource management now takes a backseat to the action. You are no longer required to micromanage resource gathering. It’s all handled automatically based on how much strategic property you have under your control. Your available resources are shared amongst your entire army in real-time across the entire battlefield.
Dawn of War offers four unique and well-balanced races. Each is a total blast to play with a few rising above the others for sheer artistry and hysterical (and often disturbing) vocal taunts and command confirmations. The Space Marines are probably the most balanced while the Orks rely on sheer numbers to overwhelm their enemy. I can probably best relate to the Eldar with their preference for stealth and high mobility, but the Chaos are simply irresistible with their flashy supernatural abilities and demonic personae.
Each race is unique and offers a totally new way to approach the single-player experience, but the designers have also put in a system of checks and balances to keep all four races on a level playing field for multiplayer gaming. No single race has an advantage, at least none I could tell after nearly a dozen online matches with each race. Multiplayer matches are truly a test of the skills and abilities of the player in charge of his troops.
I must commend the designers on a functional interface that could have easily gotten out of hand. The bottom menu is easy to read with all of the necessary information right at your disposal. Each unit and vehicle generally has a few upgrades and research options, and you can also issue posturing and movement orders with simple icon clicks.
The graphical interface is supported with a complex hotkey system that takes a bit of getting used to, but if you plan to play (and win) in multiplayer you will need to learn these shortcuts if you want to stay competitive in the heat of intense real-time battles.
The campaign mode is relatively short with only 12 missions of moderate length. You can only play the campaign as the Space Marines, so if you want to play around with the other races you will either have to do the skirmish modes or take your game online. It’s easy to see that this game leans toward multiplayer, and the campaign is merely an extended training tool.
Dawn of War delivers some of the finest graphics I have ever seen in an RTS game. The only thing that even comes close is Ground Control II and that maintained a strictly sci-fi style. Dawn of War blends plenty of fantasy elements with high-tech special effects that combine to create a visual style as rich and unique as the Warhammer franchise itself.
The art design is stunning, on the level of a third-person action title. To that end you can actually zoom in on the battlefield so close that a single unit will fill your screen. Only then can you see the amazing level of detail on each unit. Scars, medals, insignia, and character specific details are all used to bring these characters to life. There are more polygons and textures on a single soldier than an entire level in some of those older RTS games. Fan of the franchise, especially those who are into the miniature figures, will certainly appreciate all the extra detail used to create these units.
The extraordinary level of detail extends into the animations for each unit, which are unique and a total blast to watch. Unlike other games where similar units all move in choreographed patterns, each unit in Dawn of War appears to be under its own AI control, working independently but still part of the overall team. This isn’t scripted animation, but rather reactive AI where no two battles are alike. Some of the battle combos and fatality finishes are very bloody and a bit disturbing earning this game a well-deserved Mature rating.
The pre-rendered opening movie is simply gorgeous and really gets you pumped to play the game. It’s a mandatory viewing the first time you play, but I still watch it almost every time I load the game. The rest of the cutscenes are all handled with game engine graphics, which look nearly as good and seamlessly blend with the actual gameplay.
My only criticism of the visuals would have to be the repetitive backgrounds which are all washed out, hazy, and just plain boring. Admittedly, this is a war torn, ravaged planet so I can accept a bit of gritty realism, but that doesn’t make it any more interesting to look at after playing for a few days. Even when the scenery switches from urban to undeveloped landscapes, it’s only catches your eye for the first one or two missions.
The music in Dawn of War is a thick and heavy mix of metal and industrial rock combined with the gratuitous military marches and even some haunting choir music ripped right from a gothic horror film. It works pretty well considering the futuristic heavy metal style gameplay, but it wouldn’t have been my first choice for background music.
Sound effects are fun, detailed, and enhance the visuals. When you have hundreds of units on the screen the sounds of war can be quite deafening and there is excellent use of EAX surround to put you right in the middle of the fight.
The voice acting ranged from humorously weak to average. The Inquisitor just didn’t sound as threatening as he should have, and the thick cockney accents of the Orks, while amusing, just didn’t work for me. Even the whining of the subservient Chaos drones got on my nerves. A big part of this is that all of the units give vocal acknowledgements to your commands every 10-20 seconds and it’s the same sound clip over and over. Even worse, some of these clips can get rather lengthy so instead of having a unit say, “Acknowledged” or even, “Aye Aye Cap’n”, they often go off on some poetic diatribe that is interesting only the first 300 times you hear it.
Most RTS gamers will finish the 12-mission campaign in 8-10 hours, but the true staying power of this title is the skirmish modes and eventually the online gameplay. All told, I’ve spent about 20 hours with the Space Marine campaign and the rest of the time playing through the countless skirmishes and challenging anyone online who will play me.
I can only hope for an upcoming expansion pack that will give each of the other races their own campaigns, but until then, there is more than enough challenging gameplay in Dawn of War to keep this game on my hard drive for at least another year.
Relic definitely took the right approach with this title. Rather than try to bring the tabletop game to the computer they simply created a quality RTS experience using the Warhammer universe as a backdrop. But they also managed to include a perfect balance of gameplay while eliminating annoying resource management.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War doesn’t try to reinvent the RTS genre, yet it still delivers one of the best RTS experiences of the year in what is arguably one of the most beloved franchises since Dungeons & Dragons. If you are fan of Warhammer or just RTS games in general then you owe it to yourself to buy and play this game. It might be a long time before you play anything else.