Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dawn of War 2: Review

If you were expecting a traditional sequel to Dawn of War 1, think again. Dawn of War 2 changes so much it is some what surprising that Dawn of War 1, an immensely popular real time strategy (RTS) that didn't introduce a lot to the genre in terms of innovation, is it's prequel. In an industry that seems scared of changing anything out of fear that it might not work perfectly; this fact alone makes Dawn of War 2 stand out. However, on top of this, the changes work really, really, well. If you are looking for an RTS like no other, this game is worth every penny.

Like many RTS games, Dawn of War 2 features a campaign and a skirmish element. Normally, I prefer the skirmish element. I think this is probably down to the fact that the campaign normally shoe-horns you in to a fixed strategy and the story is not enough make me put up with that. However, in Dawn of War 2, I love the campaign. I have spent more time on it that in the skirmishes.

From a story perspective, it is weak. The story is predictable. The characters are shallow at best and it offers no depth. So no surprises there. To top it off, the main characters struggle to get across any emotions beyond the simple, I-like-to-kill-stuff. The story is presented well through a variety of mediums, however. The game uses painting-style cut-scenes interspersed seemingly randomly through the campaign. The odd style gives works very well, giving them a very gritty feel. The voice acting, apart from being devoid of emotion, presents the story clearly.

Fortunately, the rest of the campaign makes up for the story. The campaign takes the form of linear missions. You usually have a choice of missions. Variation is added through optional missions and missions that have to be completed within a certain number of "Campaign Days".

Campaign days are sort of a compromise towards the more modern approach of province capture. In normal circumstances you are only allowed to deploy once per day. For every day that passes, the Tyranid infestation spreads, weakening your hold on the planets. Missions lower the infestation. If you perform especially well in a mission, you are granted extra deployments. This really feels like you are pushing back the wave of Tyranids, giving your campaign momentum. Choosing which mission to undertake also adds to the immersion as you have to fight back the infestation on different planets.

That is just one of the many decisions the campaign will force you to make, however. The various different decisions you must take are really what set this campaign apart from the competition. From choosing how to level up your troops, what equipment to give them and even what troops to deploy, you will find yourself battling over the options.

All of these decisions have the same strengths and weaknesses. They all offer an interesting decision and add to the replayability of the campaign. The decisions have visible effects. The levelling system is an excellent example. As you might expect, levelling in each of the different areas provides a small benefit in that area, eg, upgrading in combat will allow the units to deal more damage when in close combat. However, in addition to this, there are perks that are unlocked every so often. These provide a very noticeable difference, often in the form of a special ability, eg you may unlock a power attack. This blend of micro and macro makes the levelling system very rewarding.

Sadly, the system is, in some respects, over balanced. Their need to not make one dominant strategy sometimes makes your decisions feel irrelevant. Every strategy is so equally viable, that you can choose your options at random.

Overall though, the decisions are largely interesting even if somewhat irrelevant.

The actual missions split in to two main types. The main style involves pushing from one end of the map to the other. While this is hardly anything new, it is quite satisfying and the maps are interesting and well designed. Most of these levels end in a boss battle, of all things. While they don't require any thinking or tactics, do offer a nice crescendo to the mission as you use everything you have got on them.

Also, on each map there are points that you can capture. On the first occasion, they provide you with a special bit of war gear, and each one of that type you capture increases the number of times you can use said war gear. However, they are heavily defended. This adds a nice decision in to the otherwise linear missions. Also, as you can only capture one of these per mission, and there are usually two per map, it means returning to the map the second time is not so tiresome.

The other type is defence. In these you are pitted against waves of enemies and you must protect a building. They are not nearly as fun or as satisfying as the other missions (not least as there is no reward, only a lack of loss) None the less, they add variety to the campaign and make it feel more like a real campaign.

I think the one weakness of the missions is scale. As you have so few units, the maps often feel empty. Obviously, you can't control any more, as this would upset the balance of the campaign. However, I think what they should have done (and, admittedly, did at stages) would be to put in computer controlled AI and have pitched battles going on around you. There would be too many people for you to get involved and they wouldn't be doing your objectives, but it would have made you feel like you were involved in something bigger.

Sadly, my positive thoughts of the campaign are somewhat overshadowed by the fact that I have been unable to pass one mission because of a technical flaw. I can't believe that it is my computer as it meets the specification and some. Nor can I believe that it will happen with every copy, as it happens at the same point in the same mission. Hopefully, they will fix this, as the campaign has been a lot of fun so far and I do want to see how it ends.

Unfortunately, this is not the only technical hitch I have come across. The game repeatedly crashes at seemingly random points. Aside from the bug I mentioned above, these occur outside the intense fire fights and simply after cut scenes or before loading screens! These are minor inconveniences as the game picks up precisely where you left off with no loss of data. None the less, it is quite frustrating.

It may then come as a surprise that technically this game is very impressive. The graphics are fantastic. Even when you zoom right in, the models looks good. Even the organic shapes of the Tyranids look pretty good. The frame rate is rock steady even in intense fire fights. The frame rate only dips when there are hundreds of Tyranids on screen and you are rapidly delivering orders to all your troops. Even then it is only by a couple of frames a second.

The audio, as you might expect from a Dawn of War game, is top notch. The Orks still make me laugh. The noises the Tyranids are genuinely disturbing. Overall, the excellent technical achievements outweigh the inconvenience of random crashes. Sadly, the broken mission is slightly more serious, I will check whether it is just more, or if everyone is having this problem.

Obviously, the other key element to this game is the skirmishes. Most of my online experience comes from the beta as the press online is deserted whenever I search for a game! The online is really good. The movement away from conquering towards the new, more mobile, style is really good. Having played the campaign I wish they had taken it a step further; select five units before the game starts and use them instead of building units during the game. As it is, you still have to have some focus on your base. Furthermore, because your units aren't levelled up (as they could have been with the selection method) they don't have any of the special abilities that they do in the campaign.

I have now had the chance to play some team battles, admittedly with AI, and they work much better than the 1v1s. As there are more units the scale feels much better. Also, the battles go on for longer, allowing more advanced units to be produced.

The integration with Games for Windows Live is a good thing. Stat tracking being tied to your Live profile, easy to use matchmaking, achievements and your friends list are all great. To top it off, they have kept the custom hosting option, so it is win win!

In conclusion, I have thoroughly enjoyed Dawn of War 2. It is refreshing that this game has done something different. Like most people, I was shocked at first. However, this change is good beyond the fact the genre needs change; it is good because it works. Yes, it is disappointing that the game has some technical issues. However, I have faith that Relic will get these issues resolved as soon as they become aware of them. The game is a really nice package, with good graphics, good frame rate and an excellent array of decisions that you must make.

It is also worth noting that this game features co-op campaign. I have not had a chance to try this out. I have my doubts about this, as four units is certainly not too many to handle for one player. None the less, it should be a joy to experience the campaign with another!

This review was based on a review copy of Dawn of War 2 supplied by the publisher.


  1. Anonymous4:47 PM

    wow you got a review copy of dawn of war 2! your like a proper games reviewer

  2. I think the movement away from conquering towards the new, more mobile, style is really good. Having played the campaign I wish they had taken it a step further; select five units before the game starts and use them instead of building units during the game. you have shared nice article regarding dawn of war. Good job done.
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