Blurring the Line: Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II – Staff Review

To hear the Warhammer universe tell it, the far future is bleak and brutal. Across the galaxy, humanity lives in constant fear of assault by impossibly huge numbers of aliens. Be they the brutish Orks, the conniving Eldar, or the ravenous Tyranid, there are countless creatures that see humanity as food, pawns, or just someone else to fight. And so humans genuflect to their God-Emperor and the Space Marines, a legion of genetically enhanced super-soldiers who literally exist just for the purpose of fighting. Thus is the setting of Dawn of War II, and throughout its bleak atmosphere it manages to deliver a compelling, if repetitive, twist on the usual real-time strategy formula.

Following the original Dawn of War, the game focuses on a handful of colony worlds from which the Space Marines draft their recruits. As the new Force Commander in town, you are thrust into a pitched battle between the Marines and Orks — savage, green humanoids who fight with ramshackle equipment and unceasing bloodlust. It quickly becomes obvious that the Orks are being manipulated by someone in preparation for something else. As it turns out, the ‘someone’ is the Eldar, a super-advanced race of psychics, farseers, and the like. They, in turn, fear the impending arrival of a Tyranid hive, an insectoid species reminiscent of the Zerg from Starcraft. It’s on you and your fellow Marines to stand your ground and cut swath through the wave of xenos until help arrives.

Dawn of War II places far more emphasis on squad-based tactics than traditional base-building, to the point where you command only four squads and control little actual real estate. Most of the usual RTS controls still apply; numbered groups for fast unit selection, context-sensitive mouse controls for point-and-click movement and attacking, and special abilities controlled by hotkeys. While objectives vary from map to map, they generally boil down to ‘kill everything,’ ‘kill the leader,’ or ‘defend this area (by killing everything).’ With base management gone, there are no resources to worry about. Fallen squadmates are replenished at your starting point or any captured strategic points, and fallen leaders can be revived by any nearby units.

Any moron with a radio can call in fire support.  Real men bring their own artillery with them.
Any moron with a radio can call in fire support. Real men bring their own artillery with them.

Primary and secondary objectives pop up every day, the details of which are accessible by a map of the subsector. This same map lets you choose, equip, and upgrade your squad. As you kill enemies and accomplish objectives, your men will gain experience and levels. Their stats and skills can be upgraded along the way, allowing for better melee or ranged damage, improved regeneration, and new abilities or attacks. You’ll also acquire better weapons and equipment along the way, from both killed enemies and mission rewards. You’re scored on how quickly and efficiently you complete each mission, along with how thorough you are in hunting down enemies. Score well and you can deploy more than once in a given day, giving you more time to clear side missions and improve your squad.

Although still functionally a real-time strategy game, the above character-building does give it more of a role-playing feel. Assault marines, for instance, are dedicated melee fighters, but with proper leveling up can be taught to use ranged weapons effectively or rely more on special abilities. Traits are unlocked after training enough in each statistic, with benefits ranging from more equipment slots and abilities to a wider selection of weapons and armor. With enough stamina your Commander can equip Terminator armor and simply walk through obstacles. A hard level cap of 20 keeps any one unit from mastering everything, but there’s more than enough room to create both specialized and versatile team members, or to dabble in more complicated tactics.

You’re vastly outnumbered most of the time, so it’s in your interest to build a well-balanced team and know the lay of the land. Your heavy weapons team can dig into hard cover and suppress the enemy, but you’ll want scouts to pick off artillery teams or individual units. Later on you’ll have access to Terminator Marines and a Dreadnaught, which can bust through walls and other cover to deal with entrenched defenders. The steady supply of wargear and experience helps you mold your team as you wish, and it is surprisingly compelling in and of itself. Swap out your scout’s sniper rifle for a unique shotgun or melta bombs and he can disable vehicles. Train your Commander in melee and have him lead the charge, or focus on special abilities to make the most out of drop pods and orbital bombardments. However, once you get strong enough you can essentially steamroll enemy positions and spam specials with little thought for strategy, and when that doesn’t work retreating to friendly territory and starting the process anew does.

Dawn of War II‘s visuals are at times understated until stuff actually starts blowing up. However, the game is chock full of little details that bring the world to life. Squads change appearance based on what they have equipped and adjust their stance depending on cover. Trees, walls, and destroyed buildings topple over with believable weight. Rockets and artillery have visible trajectories and will slam into buildings or even friendlies if they’re in the way. Units have unique melee finishes depending on what they’re killing. Firefights are suitably flashy, and the game’s boss battles are often screen-shakingly epic; improvised Ork vehicles, giant Tyranid monstrosities, and even the avatar of an Eldar deity will all flatten the earth itself trying to squash you. The lone blemish on the visual front is that battlefield design, while interesting, repeats far too often. Jungles, deserts, and urban centers are well designed for gameplay and vary depending on weather or Tyranid infestation, but the visual appeal will wear thin after the eighth or ninth time you have to kill some Ork boss in the same arena.

Thaddeus, you are in no way specced for ranged combat.  No, I don't care that it's easier to pull mobs and hold aggro with that.
Thaddeus, you are in no way specced for ranged combat. No, I don’t care that it’s easier to pull mobs and hold aggro with that.

The audio parallels the visuals in a lot of ways, being far above average in overall quality but at times repetitious. Squad banter between and during missions is usually interesting, as your allies are a diverse lot and their backstories are all told piecemeal as you go along. While true to the source material and well-acted – Steven Jay Blum is virtually unmistakable as a cynical sniper — after a while you’ll get the feeling that nobody has anything new to say, yet they keep talking. Mid-mission unit chatter is more fun, as humans, Orks, and Eldar will audibly react to what’s going on. It’s hard not to like the all-Cockney Orks yammering about ‘dakka’ – their word for firepower – as they’re opening fire on you, and there’s something deeply satisfying when a Marine charges into battle shouting “Show me what passes for fury amongst your misbegotten kind!” It’s all accompanied by a suitably epic soundtrack, which stays subtle during quiet moments and jumps memorably to the foreground when the bullets start flying. Still, like everything else it all starts to bleed together after too many trips to the same level.

While the story doesn’t build on the events from the first Dawn of War, it does make the occasional mention of them and features one returning character. Unlike its predecessor, Dawn of War II‘s story starts off with a few twists but then settles for being a race against time to stop the Tyranid invasion and keep other races from interfering. However, your efforts on the ground have tangible effects going forward: securing relays, foundries, and other points of interest make it easier to earn additional deployments, grant you extra use of super specialties (orbital bombardments, artillery strikes and such), and halt or reverse the effects of Tyranid infestation on a given planet. Story missions start off as quick five-minute skirmishes while each character is introduced, but quickly become more complex and creative. One particularly clever mission has you scrambling for an armory on one side of the map during an Ork invasion, only to have to react to an Eldar commando team elsewhere.


Multiplayer has long been a strong suit of the Dawn of War games, and II is no exception. Online matches consist of more traditional resource management and king-of-the-hill style gameplay, requiring the capture of control nodes to bleed away an enemy’s points. The emphasis is still on cultivating and directing individual units, as each race has three commander units and each squad can be decked out with special skills and wargear. While there is still no genuine base-building, you do have structures from which you train units, which in turn require power and requisition resources to produce. The small number of maps at release can limit the appeal of the game somewhat, but overall there’s little a multiplayer enthusiast won’t like here. There is also the option to engage the campaign in co-op mode, though the lack of a matchmaking feature requires you to know the specific Windows Live ID of who you’re hoping to play with. Furthermore, only the host will have saved progress from each mission; experience, wargear, and campaign progress do not transfer to the guest.

While there are no game-breaking bugs, a few nagging issues are likely to stick out along the way. Mission scripting can sometimes misfire, still highlighting targets you’ve captured or destroyed. Only squad leaders can be upgraded, leaving their lackeys (if any) as disposable cannon fodder. Useful abilities are often tied to wargear, and it’s not all well balanced. Your commander’s battle standard, for instance, can repeatedly heal all friendlies and break suppression, making it an easy choice over other special items. Assault marines, your team’s close-combat specialists, are surprisingly frail in the thick of combat no matter how they’re developed. Games For Windows Live is required for both offline and online play, acting as a middleman between you and the game, which is a hindrance Dawn of War II neither needs nor benefits from.

And then there’s the oft-mentioned repetition, which seems to dampen every aspect of the otherwise excellent experience. The visuals are fantastic, but you keep hitting the same locations. Voices, music, and effects are top-notch, but you’ll hear all there is to hear well before you finish the game. Missions are fun, but you can often win by doing the same thing over and over. To its credit, Dawn of War II‘s solid character management and loose campaign structure make the gameplay itself a reward. The game treats the licensed material with respect, while helping Warhammer newcomers get accustomed to the universe and its inhabitants. The single-player campaign is not as balanced as its predecessor, but Dawn of War II brings to bear enough novelty and design skill to attract players well beyond the usual RTS circles, and even traditional strategy fans would be well served by taking a closer look.

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