Sunday, March 01, 2009

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II Review

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, developed by Relic Entertainment and published by THQ.
The Good: Approachable but deep tactical gameplay, action-oriented multiplayer, cooperative campaign with RPG elements like upgrades and loot, emphasis on small numbers of troops, quick matches, accessible user interface
The Not So Good: Smaller battles and no buildings may irk fans of the original, recycled single player maps and objectives, few defensive structures (and small unit count) causes frequent and very annoying resource point flipping in multiplayer
What say you? Company of Heroes minus base building plus role-playing, not that there’s anything wrong with that: 8/8

The computer game sequel: money-generating beacon of hope! Add a couple of new features, a handful of maps, and call it a day. But, lo, what is this on the horizon? Dawn of War II! But, wait, Dawn of War II is not really much like Dawn of War at all? Where’s the base building? And what is all this role-playing garbage? What has Relic done with my real time strategy game? Made it better, that’s what.

After that disturbingly short opening paragraph, it’s time to talk about the looks and sounds of Dawn of War II. In short, it looks like what you would expect a top-notch strategy title to look like. The environments have nice otherworldly designs with a variety of settings (desert, a different kind of desert, and tropical swamp) and enough small objects scattered around each location for cover. While craters do not populate the areas where intense battles occurred, Dawn of War II does have plenty of weapon hits on the ground during battles with destructible buildings and plainly obvious portions of the map where super weapons were used. The character designs are well animated, brining the violent future setting of Warhammer 40,000 to life: the game looks like war. The weapon effects are equally impressive and distinctive for each race: the cacophony of bullets and lasers flying across the level is a sight to behold. You’ll probably miss out on a lot of the small details in the game because Dawn of War II, like most strategy games, is best played from a zoomed-out perspective. Still, the game looks great and runs smoothly enough. The sound design is slightly less impressive, however (although it’s still pretty good). The weapon effects are satisfyingly powerful and chaotic, coupling well with the aforementioned cacophony (sounds kind of dirty!). The voice acting is one area where the developers can really infuse some personality, and it’s just OK. While the Orks are by far the most distinctive race, with their funny quips that I find quite humorous, all of the races suffer from repetitive dialogue after a while and nothing truly memorable or different than what’s present in other Warhammer 40,000 games. The music is enjoyable and fits the setting but, like the dialogue, becomes repetitive after a while. Nonetheless, there are no major complaints about the graphics or the sound in Dawn of War II and the result is a satisfying presentation.

After you sit through the mandatory opening movies (the key is called “escape,” Relic), you’ll find that Dawn of War II comes in two flavors: the campaign and multiplayer. I’m not one for single player campaigns, but the one in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II is pretty entertaining thanks to the inclusion of role-playing components. Of course, the first wrinkle is that it’s not technically a single player campaign, as you can play cooperatively with anyone, starting at whatever point of the campaign you are at. The space marine-only campaign takes place across three planets being invaded by the other three races in the game. You are given a number of storyline or optional missions at one time to complete, although for the first ten missions or so the game is strictly linear. The optional missions have a time limit, so you must decide which success bonuses are most worth your effort. Typically you will be attacking an objective, defending an objective, or killing some enemy boss. Failure is an option, but it may limit your choices for subsequent missions. Since you must also prevent the Tyranid invasion (*spoiler alert*…oh, wait, am I supposed to say that before the spoiler?), you can’t fail too many times before aliens start to eat your face. While there are a lot to choose from, the missions generally take place on the same maps with the same objectives and the same bosses; this feeling of monotony does become wearisome later on in the campaign, although the role-playing elements of the game certainly makes this more palatable.

You’ll be given a choice of four heroes with their squads for each mission; eventually, you’ll have a roster of six available groups, so you can choose which setup is most appropriate for your playing style. The available squads pretty much cover every aspect of infantry-based military operations: melee units, scouts, suppression, ranged, and a mix. Dawn of War II features a nice user interface that lists all of your squads along the right-hand side of the screen with a health indicator (and the icons light up red when being attacked) for easy access. Selected squads can also be switched between using the abilities panel in the bottom-right corner of the screen, which makes using special abilities easier as well. The decreased unit count in Dawn of War II makes micromanagement significantly easier, and the interface certainly helps to streamline this process. Since you will never produce additional units during the game, Dawn of War II is purely a tactical affair where unit positioning and using abilities matters the most. The game uses the cover system from Company of Heroes, where green dots indicate the most optimal cover available. It works well here, as it did in the original. You are given a range of special abilities, much like spells present in any role-playing game: healing, specialized weapons (like grenades or turrets), speed buffs, improved damage, and so on. Using these abilities at the right time can mean the difference between success and retreat. Commanders who die can be revived by another friendly commander, and the only time you fail the mission is when everyone dies simultaneously. This should never happen, though, as you can retreat to the nearest base at any time; unless you are completely surrounded, failure shouldn’t be a problem, although you can get “stuck” and be unable to successfully kill the enemy no matter how many times you reheal.

Dawn of War II features some very clear objectives, indicating important locations on the minimap and on the main screen; you are never in doubt of what the game wants you to do. Each map usually has more than one path to the main objective, with resource points for respawning along the way. You can also capture buildings to aid in future missions: for example, communications towers give you artillery strikes and foundries grant turrets. All of the missions are short (15 minutes), which is great and keeps the action constant. This short mission length (almost) makes up for the lack of mid-mission saves. Instead of mindlessly pumping out units as in most real-time strategy games, Dawn of War II values tactics, since you are given a limited number of units (granted, they can reheal an infinite amount of times if you can retreat them in time). Since leaders carry over from level to level, you need to order retreat, reheal, reorganize, and go kill some more. The difficulty strikes a nice balance between challenge and frustration, providing enough to keep you playing without overwhelming your skill level. The AI is not the best: enemies have scripted positions and don’t use special powers as well as you can. Dawn of War II uses the tried and true formula of “lots of enemies makes the game hard,” and any half-way decent strategy gamer will be able to dispose of the relatively simple-minded AI opponents. The campaign kept me interested enough that I wanted to keep playing, although once you get near the end of the campaign, the repetitive maps (there’s only about twelve total) start to wear you down. Better mission performance (in terms of damage caused and speed of completion) can result in experience bonuses and additional missions during the same business day, and that brings us to the role-playing aspects of the campaign.

Dawn of War II features a heavy dose of role-playing elements. Although there have been several strategy games that infuse role-playing elements, I don’t recall another game being as in-your-face about it as Dawn of War II. This is prominently on display between missions, where you outfit your troops in preparation for the next mission. Enemies drop loot: weapons, armor, accessories, items, and supplies. These can be switched out between missions to make for a more deadly force. As anyone who plays a role-playing game can attest, a lot of time can be spent simply switching out gear. Experience gained on the field of battle can also be used to increase your stats in four areas: health, ranged damage, melee damage, and energy (for spells/abilities). Reaching a certain level in each category unlocks a new trait. The strategy in this aspect of the game is to improve the squads in the appropriate areas and then use them accordingly during the game. Of course, this means you’ll be playing the missions the same ways using the same troops, based on your squad’s customized role, but the campaign is still very enjoyable and it maintained my interest much longer than most campaigns in strategy games do. The quick mission time and infusion of RPG elements makes the campaign at least somewhat different from more traditional strategy games.

If you are reading this review, then you probably got a chance to play the multiplayer beta for Dawn of War II (as I did), and it’s pretty much the same here (minus that absurd resource rate increase in the beta patch). And “pretty much the same” can be translated as “fun as all get out.” Dawn of War II focuses on the relatively-unique three-on-three multiplayer dynamic: I prefer this because it’s less discouraging than losing a head-on or two-on-two game, but you are still a significant part of the outcome. Unlike the campaign, multiplayer allows you to choose from any of the four races in the game: the traditional Space Marines, the Orks with a “k,” the energy-based Eldar, and the swarming Tyranids. They basically have the same units, although there are differences in the number per squad and the health and some subtle strategy changes as well. There are only two modes to choose from: annihilate (not recommended, since the headquarters take a while to defeat) and victory points (much better), where you must capture and hold three places on the map. Dawn of War II unfortunately uses Games for Windows Live!, which seems silly and extraneous since the game requires Steam in the first place. Matching does a poor job overall, pitting unbalanced teams against each other, and the server browser is very laggy and essentially garbage. There's nothing quite like waiting five minutes for an “ideal match” that pits level 2, level 2, and level 1 players against a level 10, level 8, and level 5; nice job balancing that one out...NOT. Games for Windows Live! needs to be stopped immediately. But at least you don’t have to run Rockstar Social Club too.

Before you begin your match, you get to choose a commander unit. Each race has one for melee attack, one for defense or support, and a specialized hero for that race: Space Marines heal, Orks have stealth, Eldar can teleport (Warp Spider FTW!), and Tyranids tunnel underground. The offensive commanders are far less interesting than the more specialized roles: deploying turrets and unpredictable unit movement has more of a strategic value than simply running head-on at the enemy. The rest of your units are pretty typical: assault, suppression, anti-tank, tanks, scouts, transports, and uber-powerful destroyers. These units are made by collecting the game’s two resources: requisition and power. These are all contained at specific places on the map, and the capture process takes about thirty seconds. You will not build any structures in the game, other than the occasional turret available to specific commanders. This is fine by me, as long as the rest of the game picks up the strategic slack (which I feel it does). The requisition and power nodes are change hands easily because of the lack of defenses. This can get quite annoying: because of the reduced unit count, you cannot hold every point on the map and things switch almost constantly. This does allow for comebacks and prevents turtling, but it does come with some disadvantages that might turn some gamers off. I think this could be fixed by allowing five units to capture a point faster than one (a mechanic employed by the Battlefield series, I seem to remember); races with cheap units (like the Tyranids) are at an advantage since they can just run around all game capping stuff.

Dawn of War II has the same conventions of cover and abilities used in the campaign, and because building structures has been removed (for the better), you must rely on proper positioning and use of powers in order to be successful. I found that the amount of micromanagement is actually pretty low, thanks to the interface and the reduced unit count. Troops will engage automatically, but there is no option to auto-cast abilities, so that part of the game must be done manually. Because there are few (typically a maximum of eight squads with four to five at one time) expensive units, you must retreat to your headquarters. Experience actually matters (instead of being just a tacked-on feature) as higher-level troops are more effective and you also spent all of those resources on per-unit upgrades. It helps, though, to do at least some killing, as global powers are available based on how many enemy units you have killed. These consist of commander-specific abilities (buffs, weapons) to large artillery strikes. As I stated when talking about the campaign, the fast pace is great. Why spend an hour playing a multiplayer game that should have taken fifteen minutes to decide a victor? Even with these shortened game times, you can still tell who is probably going to win in the first seven minutes of the game. The come-from-behind victories that were prevalent in the first version of the multiplayer beta seem to have subsided a bit (for better or for worse), but this might be due to having unbalanced teams (thanks again, Games for Windows Live!). Although multiplayer is obviously intended for human consumption, the skirmish AI should be evaluated: it’s OK. Hard and expert difficulty puts up a fight and uses the abilities well enough to serve as good training for actual competition.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II is certainly different from Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War I (using the full titles makes my review appear to be longer), and as long as you are able to accept the infusion of role-playing conventions and removal of base building, as I was, then you’ll have a grand time controlling less but meaningful troops in short tactical games. The cooperative campaign really leans more towards being an action role-playing game than a traditional strategy game, with loot, upgrades, and party organization tools. There is still an amount of strategy involved in where to place your troops and when to use your abilities, but the repetitive maps and same objectives become grinding. The thing preventing the campaign from becoming tiresome is the character customization: choosing your specializations and gear highlights the same nerdy fiddling that makes role-playing games so darn popular. I found the emphasis on small numbers of units, in both the campaign and multiplayer portions of the game, to be quite welcome: using all of your abilities would be almost impossible with a larger number of units at your disposal, and I’m not a fan of micro-heavy strategy games anyway (part of the reason I never really got in to Dawn of War I). Multiplayer is as enjoyable as the single player campaign, putting action at the forefront with almost constant engagements and quick (15 minute) matches. I don’t miss the exclusion of buildings, except for some defensive structures to prevent the almost constant cycling of resource points. Sure, it removes something that can separate two teams, but the combination of cover, placement, troop composition, and abilities is more than enough to compensate for the inability to grow food. Dawn of War II also features an excellent user interface (something that doesn’t get enough credit), listing all of your units on the main screen with subtle health and damage indicators, and allowing for easy ability usage. This is not technically a sequel to Dawn of War I, but I definitely like the direction Relic has taken the game, making it more accessible and ultimately different from your run-of-the-mill real time strategy game.