Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It's Like Star Wars, But With A Hell Of A Lot More War

Show me what passes for fury among your misbegotten kind!

Since the dawn of PC gaming, real time strategy games have always included one essential element: base building. From Dune to Starcraft and up to the most recent Red Alert game, part of being an effective commander always included building up a collection of barracks and vehicle factories to produce the cannon fodder you’re going to be sending into battle.

Relic, far from accepting this old RTS convention, has taken a chain-sword to the notion of base building and has eviscerated it completely from Dawn of War II. Instead of spending half a game constructing the structures necessary for combat, Dawn of War II has you micromanaging your troops constantly instead of jumping back to your base every minute or so to pump out more grunts.

By adding an RPG element with upgradable wargear (DoW speak for loot), Relic hopes to breath fresh life into the RTS genre, and for the most part they succeed admirably. In the campaign, you’re given control of a small force of Space Marines, led by one Force Commander, who is essentially your avatar. Other squads are added along the way, following the typical Games Workshop army set: Tactical Squad, Devastator Squad and so on. Each squad has their own specialty, whether it’s range combat, or getting up close and personal with the enemy. The wargear that you collect is suited to making the squads better at what they do, and all pieces of armor or weaponry add combat bonuses and stat multipliers.

Furthering the RPG connection, DoW2 includes a leveling system, where your Marines earn experience for defeating enemies and completing objectives. Stats are divided into four categories: Health, Ranged Combat, Strength and Will. Perks are added along the way, depending on which skill tree you level. The perks serve to make your Marines more effective at their assigned roles, and if you’ve got an Assault Squad, it makes more sense to add skill points to the Strength tree. Every Marine squad also has a certain number of slots for their inventory, so you can equip your Marines with everything from grenades to health packs and the ability to call in orbital bombardments.

As far as game play in the campaign is concerned, it’s fairly straight-forward if not highly entertaining. The mission set is pretty standard, with little variation between the different scenarios. Your Marines are tasked with eliminating enemy bosses, defending an important location or wiping out general enemies. The mechanics are what really differentiates the combat from standard RTS fare. As you’re constantly managing your troops and not worrying about a base (you’re dropped in from an orbiting ship every mission), you’re free to use cover, or flank the enemy and take them out. DoW2 feels like it has a lot of strategy to it, as opposed to using a giant force to overwhelm the enemy with numbers. More often than not, you’re the one who’s severely outnumbered, so the use of cover and careful squad management is essential.

The plot for the campaign isn’t anything special; it’s mostly there as an excuse to throw the four races of DoW2 together in one sitting. You’ll fight Orks, Eldar and Tyranids, jumping from planet to planet in an effort to prevent the system you’re in from falling into complete chaos. Character-wise, the squad leaders you’re commanding are fairly likeable, even if they are all gruff military types. After every mission, you’re treated to a few minutes of bickering between your various underlings, and a lot of it is talk about honor and duty, and what that means. Some of it is a little groan-worthy, but it all helps to flesh out the story of the campaign, if you’re interesting in anything more than slaughtering aliens, which the story has in heaps.

Overall, the story line is highly enjoyable, especially if you’ve got a friend to play co-op with. Controlling two squads each, it’s a lot of fun to plan assaults and use the benefit of two minds to confront the enemy.

For the player versus player portion of DoW2, Relic changes it up again. Each player picks their own unique commander, and the three different leaders for every race offer up different abilities to use on the battlefield. You have offense, defense and support commanders, and savvy teams will use the abilities to complement each other. There is no base building here either; everything you need is built out of one structure. Resources are gained by capturing power nodes and requisition points, which is carried over from the first game. This creates several hot-spots as your enemies will be hankering to take your resources points away from you.

You always have an eye on the action in multiplayer, so the game play is fast and furious, leaving little room for breathers. For such an engrossing game, Dawn of War II ships with a rather small number of maps, so you’ll be treading familiar ground for a while before Relic releases some new maps.

For all the praise Dawn of War II is getting, it’s also weighed down by a hefty number of bugs and glitches. Relic has patched a large number of these bugs (such as the one that ate saved games), but crashes are still fairly frequent, especially if you’re playing on Windows Vista 32-bit with the setting on High or Ultra High. For those Vista owners with their machines built specifically to destroy even the most graphically demanding of entertainment software, playing on medium graphics can feel a little insulting. Relic has said that a fix is on the way, but for now you’ll have to tone those graphics down if you want to play DoW.
Another low point is that the game requires the use of Windows Live, Xbox Lives’ inbred cousin. Disconnects are frequent, and it sometimes feels like you’re fighting the Live interface. Windows Live games have always been plagued by this, but this game would have benefited with a smother interface.

Dawn of War II takes everything you thought you knew about strategy games and throws it out the window. The game does so many things right with its mechanics that it’s hard to fault it for the number of bugs and repeated missions that it has. Even if you’re not a fan of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, you’ll find plenty of good game play to occupy you in Dawn of War II.

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