While there have been almost countless Games Workshop licensed games, especially over the last few years, few have been as successful as the Dawn of War series. After an achingly long eight year wait, Relic Entertainment’s newest entry does more than simply follow in the footsteps of its predecessors.
The Space Marines will be the most familiar feeling faction to play as, and have always been a focal point in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. They’re the all rounders, with an inherent flexibility to their army composition which includes a versatile mix of specialised units and abilities, helping them stay in the fight.
The Eldar, meanwhile, excel at hit and run tactics and a degree of subterfuge, with their ability to teleport base buildings around the map, set up Webway portals that let you move troops back and forth far quicker than the other races, and some powerful Elite units. They’re a tricky race to get to grips with, that’s for certain, and their numbers can dwindle quickly in battle, but used well and knowing when to retreat make them particularly powerful.
However, the surprise package for me are the Orks. While they’re at their best as a horde of greenskins with a smattering of tougher units and ramshackle vehicles, that’s offset by having to micromanage units as they’re produced. In order to upgrade a unit, they have to pick up scrap that is dropped at Waaaagh Towers and from destroying enemy buildings and vehicles. Gretchin can also turn that scrap into vehicles at slightly reduces resource cost, and with the Waaagh Towers able to pump out music that stirs units within range into a bloodthirsty frenzy, making them faster and stronger, a good tactic is to turtle across the map, building towers and base buildings as you go to keep the Waaagh steamrolling onward.
Continuing a thread from the second game in the series, Elite units play a major role in battle, with the possibility to bring up to three from a catalogue of nine per race. Summoning them into battle costs Elite Points, and once on the ground, they’re a vital source of powerful attacks. Despite being mapped to the function keys at the top of the keyboard, I often found it difficult to get the most out of them in battle, especially when also trying to juggle different unit types with their own specialities. Farseer Macha in particular has a singing spear that can be thrown and combined with her other AoE attacks in ways that only micromanaging can get good use out of.
Once unlocked, either by default or by purchasing them with Skulls, each Elite unit levels up as its used, unlocking different perks over time. Progress carries over between single player and multiplayer, as you buy new Elite units for your race, and using them in battle levels them up to grant different passive perks and abilities for your army when they’re present. Through Elites and dozens of unlockable combat doctrines, you can put a personalised spin on your army, emphasising certain units through, for example, having a shield on your Predator tanks or having Devastator Marines be able to pin enemies and prevent them using their abilities.
The campaign flies back and forth between all three races, as various factions vie for control of an ancient and immensely powerful Eldar artefact. Initially, it’s a touch too po-faced and it stays rather serious throughout, but as the trickery, deceit and backstabbing ramps up, it soon wraps you up in its engaging story. One thing that certainly helps are the Orks, with Gorgutz and his shouty minions making for a nice change of pace from the terribly aloof Eldar, led by Farseer Macha and the righteousness of Chapter Master Angelos of the Blood Raven Space Marines.
Mission variety is great as well, shifting from controlling a handful of units on a do or die mission to base building and map control, through to a variety of climactic battles. It can initially be a little confusing, as the way that the campaign jumps from one race to another means you have to adapt to that race’s particular quirks, but it makes sure to reinforce a particular race’s core mechanics, so that you remember how to teleport the Eldar base or that Orks have to constantly make use of scrap.
Even on normal difficulty, it can still be an exacting challenge at times, when it throws seemingly overwhelming waves of enemies at you. They’re possible to deal with if you’re well prepared enough or have the ability to manage the myriad of different abilities at your disposal, but I was caught out on a couple of occasions. When that happened, I butted into the game’s abject lack of checkpointing, a baffling omission in this day and age, but one I soon learnt to deal with through manual saves and falling back on the classic tactic of using weight of numbers.
That’s accentuated by the way that Dawn of War III now handles cover. Dotted around the maps are specific points that you can move troops into, that once captured gain a shield. Troops aren’t locked away inside, but can run in and out as they see fit, and that applies to enemies as well, meaning that while protected from enemy gunfire, they’re still susceptible to melee attacks, especially Assault Marines and their ilk that can leap through the sky to crash into combat. Alongside designated shadowy hiding spots, it’s a far cry from the cover system of Relic’s previous games, whether Dawn of War or Company of Heroes, and saps a lot of the potential nuance from a particular encounter. It’s this that is the biggest sign of Relic gearing their game for scale and speed, than the nitty-gritty smaller battles of Dawn of War II.
Taking the game online, you’re confronted with Dawn of War III’s new multiplayer mode, which strays away from the classic control points and deathmatch modes. It’s another move that will put a few noses out of joint among fans of previous games in the series, but Power Core is a well thought out mode that allows for the battles to swing back and forth much better than before, in taking a single leaf out of the MOBA’s playbook and adding layered objectives.
While you’ll be fighting over control points to build units and farm Elite Points, you also have an overarching objective to consider. In order to defeat the other team, you must first destroy one of their shield generators, then take out one of the turrets that are a step closer to their base, before finally destroying the core. Maps all feature multiple turrets and shield arrays, meaning that you can strategically push down one side of the field of battle or fight on multiple fronts.
It also means that you can lose a fight but still win the overarching battle. The turrets in particular can put out a lot of damage and a staunch defence there can easily turn the tide and create an opening for your own assault on the enemy. However, a lot can ride on how well you manage your Elite units, and in particular the most powerful and most expensive towering heroes like Imperial Knight Solaria or the Eldar’s Wraithknight, which tower over any other unit on the map. If you can take and hold the control point that earns you Elite Points at a faster rate, you have a clear advantage in being able to bring your most powerful units to bear, even if they can be countered with sufficient concerted fire or using your race’s superpower attack like the Orbital Bombardment or Eldritch Storm.
Where most game series can rest on their laurels, Dawn of War III is essentially the third reinvention of Relic’s Warhammer 40,000 RTS. As the game captures a sense of grand scale, it loses some of the strategic nuance in changes to the cover system, and it’s a disappointment that tried and tested multiplayer modes aren’t included as well. That said, the campaign makes for an enjoyable and challenging romp through yet another crisis in the 40K universe, and while some gameplay elements have been simplified, the three deeply contrasting races offer plenty for players to sink their teeth into online.