Relic’s Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III has been released, marking a return of the long-running RTS series. A PC-exclusive, we played the game through Steam.
Dawn of War III was definitely eagerly awaited. Every time the game was brought to one of the big trade fairs, opportunities to see it were booked faster than you could blink your eyes – causing us to miss out on more than one occasion. In retrospect, this is probably not too surprising – the previous Dawn of War titles were well received, and the RTS crowd isn’t spoiled for choice. When it comes to futuristic titles, it’s been almost seven years since Starcraft 2 and since then we’ve only really had its expansions, Deserts of Kharak and the fairly entertaining (but poorly titled) Grey Goo.
Dawn of War III is of course based on the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and was developed by Relic – also responsible for the RTS classics in the Company of Heroes and Homeworld franchises (though not Kharak). Although they’ve kept us supplied with expansions, it’s been eight years since Dawn of War II and Relic’s moving the franchise into a slightly new direction yet again.
Where the first game in the series was a fairly traditional RTS game, the second one did away with base building – perhaps disappointing some of the fans of that classic Command and Conquer-type formula. Instead, the inclusion of stronger elite units gave the game more options for tactical warfare, a tweak that helped the game be successful enough to carry its momentum throughout all its expansion packs. Dawn of War III walks the middle ground between those formulas, offering a return to base building and resource gathering as well as the option to use (and defend against) elite units.
What that results in is another new (though subtle) direction for the Dawn of War franchise, with many different ways to play the game. This is demonstrated very well in the game’s single player campaign, in which you assume control of all three factions. This change of perspective is great for diversity, but also makes sure you never quite master the intricacies of each race during a single playthrough – giving you the sense that there’s always more to discover and try out. On top of this, the story campaign is also extremely well crafted in terms of storytelling and audiovisual presentation.
The quality of the audiovisual presentation also extends beyond the storytelling aspects of the game and into its in-game dynamics. Dawn of War III is simply gorgeous to look at, and a testament to how far RTS graphics have come. Starcraft 2, by comparison, looks quite dated next to Relic’s latest – which has also been well optimized and ran without any problems on our test rig. Even in crowded scenes with tons of gunfire and explosions, the game engine didn’t falter – a welcome change after some of the recent unoptimized releases we’ve seen.
Also optimized well is the game’s balance – this is where Relic’s many years of RTS experience really shines through, because despite three very different factions none of them seems overpowered. The Orks prefer melee and fighting in crowds, whereas the Eldar prefer to strike from afar and retreat, hitting you where it hurts without exposing themselves too much. The Space Marines are somewhere in the middle, with strong individual units rather than large numbers. The alternating perspective during the campaign makes sure you won’t have an outright favorite right away, but this is bound to happen once you dive into the multiplayer portion of the game.
Of course, multiplayer is what many gamers have their hearts set on. I’m personally much more of a single player campaign kind of guy, but did try out the multiplayer gameplay as well and was surprised at how different it felt. Much like in the modern MOBA genre, the tide of battle can turn quickly when playing online multiplayer. I got the feeling that it’s a change that won’t be enjoyed by those who favor a more traditional RTS approach with careful base building and a carefully considered military approach – the action during online matches seems far too frantic for that.
Because of this change, the game caters very well to the modern crowd. A more traditional approach is possible, but not with any kind of random matchmaking it seems – unless you get lucky. Playing with like-minded friends is your best option here, and perhaps something that will be optimized if additional game modes are added to Dawn of War III’s online multiplayer. If you prefer a less hectic experience, then 1 vs 1 will appeal to you way more than 3 vs 3.
Dawn of War III is a formidable return for the franchise, and one that doesn’t favor single player over multiplayer gameplay – fans of both gameplay styles should be very pleased, although time will tell how many old time fans will stick with the new formula for online multiplayer. Hopefully, by the time we grow tired of the game, Relic will have announced their next expansion. Until then, it’s time to play through the campaign once more and try out some bold new tactics.