For those of us who have been waiting for the next big RTS title to drop, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III (DoW3) is finally here. While this title plays it safe, sticking to the proven elements of the genre, DoW3 does experiment with a campaign that’s more narrative focused than the first installment. With races and mechanics faithfully following the Warhammer universe, this still manages to be a solid entry for the genre, despite a lack of creativity.
A long awaited release.
Back in 2004, Relic Entertainment released Dawn of War. It came two years after Warcraft III, and while Blizzard’s strategy games are still more popular, Dawn of War’s mechanics were a godsend to players that were more focused on macro management and tactics. Starcraft II would come along and fill a similar niche six years later, but for a number of years, Dawn of War, and its expansions, were a constant source of joy for anyone that knew about them.
The variety of races, with their extremely different play styles that were still skillfully balanced with each other, plus mechanics like reinforcing squads and capturing strategic points, set Dawn of War apart from its peers. Age of Empires II had a huge variety of races, but their play styles were all pretty similar, and RTS titles are almost ubiquitously focused on mining resources with worker units instead of capturing and defending strategic points. DoW was a unique and entertaining game.
Then Dawn of War II came along, but it was an attempt to radically change all of the elements of the genre and focus on troop tactics and terrain rather than base management. This was a huge letdown to players who loved DoW’s macro play style.
This put some pressure on DoW3. Would it be the economically-driven, massive army experience of the first title or the more micro-heavy troop tactics of the second title?
A little from column A, a little from column B.
The answer turned out to be a little bit of both, but overall, DoW3 returns to the successes of the first title. Terrain and troop tactics still matter, but the base building and macro are back the way they were at the start.
DoW3 also borrows from Blizzard, focusing intensely on the strength and abilities of up to three hero characters in your army, called elites. The focus on elites is not as heavy as in Warcraft 3, in which the heroes can carry and use a number of items, but the emphasis is definitely there due to the elites’ tankiness and nuke abilities. This feels somewhat like a half-measure or compromise because, without items, you may be relieved to spend less effort on micromanagement, but you may also feel a little powerless when your elites run out of moves to cast.
Overall, the greatest success of this title is the Orks, whose mechanics reflect their character almost perfectly. This race progresses through tech tiers by building more Waaagh! Towers, which of course can also send the Ork troops into a Waaagh! frenzy and provide a buff to their combat. The towers also attract orbital debris, and the scrap can be used to upgrade troops or build giant fighting mechs. Their main elite, Gorgutz, can jump around the battlefield with his robotic claw and brutally smash into enemy troops. That, plus the Orks’ iconic English thug accent flesh out the race in an incredibly effective way that is true to Warhammer canon. The entire race is an excellent example of skillfully crafted narrative told through the very mechanics of the game.
The other two races are a bit disappointing, however. The Eldar are much the same as they were previously. They are a tricky race to master, since their strategy involves hit-and-run tactics that utilize movable base structures and often expensive and fragile units. You may find yourself frustrated, trying to figure out how exactly to use them to their maximum potential, and you would not be alone in this – the Eldar have been this way since the beginning. It is confusing why such a technically difficult race would appear in the initial release alongside two of the most straightforward and simple races, but at this point, it’s tradition.
The humans are the same-old, boring humans we’ve seen in every previous RTS. Their main elite, Gabriel Angelos, truly owns on the battlefield versus mobs of enemies, but he is one of the few exciting elements of the race. The space marines are essential to any Warhammer 40k title, but the other human races like the Imperial Guard or, my personal favorite, the Sisters of Battle are far more interesting. Unfortunately, DoW3 launched with only three races, all of which (Ork, Eldar, and Space Marines) have appeared in the initial launch of every game in the series. Fortunately, without spoiling anything, I can confidently say there will be at least one expansion featuring one of the more interesting races. But if they don’t bring back Sisters of Battle soon, I will mutiny.
DoW3’s campaign now features a story.
Warhammer is an extremely story-rich universe, but the campaigns of the various installments and expansions in the Dawn of War series, so far, have often been very story-light. Most of the time, you were given a campaign map and simply told to conquer all the territories.
Now, however, you play the three races in alternating missions as they compete for an ancient and powerful weapon on a single world. Cycling through races for each mission in one local conflict allows you to be acquainted with the elites that are now the center of gameplay. The plot isn’t deep, and it doesn’t have to be – it’s readily apparent from the trailer and opening cinematic that this series is about war for the sake of war. This theme runs through the character design, the gameplay, the music, and the canon itself (and very effectively, I might add). The fact that the plot centers around three races killing each other to gain a weapon to be even better at killing is totally fitting.
That being said, there is nothing incredibly deep or self-aware about the theme of “war for the sake of war.” The characters don’t reflect much upon it, and when they do, they react in a somewhat predictable way (I can’t say any more without spoiling the parts of the game the publisher specifically asked me not to spoil).
Warhammer in general also suffers from the unique problem of almost too much story. There are countless books, games, and other media in the universe, and this leads to a fair amount of reading of story explanations in small, dense text chunks for those that want to keep up (be it on the Internet, in-game, or elsewhere).
This brings us to accessibility. DoW3 is not accessible to casual gamers.
While it is a big plus that DoW3 has launched with graphics that can be run by older machines, that’s the limit of the title’s accessibility. It’s ironic, because the lowest difficulty setting in DoW3 is called “casual gaming.” However, if you haven’t played an RTS or Warhammer tabletop game before, it’s doubtful that you’ll be able to easily pick this one up.
The campaign is structured extremely well, teaching you how to utilize and execute all the tactics you will need to play the game, but the mechanics just aren’t accessible to new players. That’s because they are all refined from other RTS games and added together for a tactically rich but difficult experience. This is unfortunate, because it means DoW3 doesn’t actually bring any new elements to the genre. An accessible yet innovative mechanic would have made this title revolutionary, but it seems to be catered to hardcore RTS and Warhammer fans as well as e-sports. In that goal, DoW3 may be successful, because it is a challenging experience that requires both strategic thinking and reflexes.
There is an attempt to bring new mechanics to multiplayer, where you need to destroy three of the enemy’s key structures in order to win, but this just makes the game potentially more appealing to e-sports instead of new gamers. Plus, sometimes you want to play an RTS to utterly destroy your enemy instead of just three structures – adding different play styles with new victory conditions is great only if you don’t take away the classic RTS win conditions, but DoW3 doesn’t give you the option, for some reason.
The menus and interface for this title aren’t very inviting either. You find yourself squinting at the small text and searching for options that should be common to every video game. There are no auto-saves after you’ve completed objectives in the lengthy campaign levels, and the saving and loading interface is bare-bones, without even timestamps to help you out.
The in-game interface is also a bit clunky and complicated. In some aspects, this may be intentional – the mechanics give you a feeling of slow-building inertia which reflects the massive armies and colossal elites you eventually find yourself managing. Once you get into this groove, you start to feel the power of your units, but it takes some time to build up to this level.
However, there are flaws that definitely aren’t intentional. The simple task of clicking and dragging a selection box around groups of your units – a mechanic that has been smoothly integrated into every RTS since, well, forever – often ends in failure. It is incredibly frustrating to try to react to an ambush by dragging a box around your troops, only to have the box get stuck to your pointer even when you release the button. Apparently this is a glitch, and hopefully it will be patched soon, but it reflects the overall feel of DoW3: It is solid, but there are small, annoying rough edges here and there.
Still, you can feel the culmination of all the time, money, effort, and history that was put into this experience once you find yourself involved in epic clashes between breathtakingly colossal elites.
Dawn of War III is very a solid foundation for the future of the franchise, but it lacks fresh flavor. The expansions to this title are sure to add races, storylines, and mechanics that are simultaneously new and nostalgic, but this initial release is somewhat bare-bones. As always, the Warhammer universe produces great characters, units, and artwork, but there is not much to set it apart from the original Dawn of War or other RTS titles. Also, there are no Sisters of Battle, and that’s awful.