When it comes to real-time strategy, a few different companies are brought up as truly enhancing the genre. Westwood Studios's Command & Conquer defined modern real-time strategy, Creative Assembly's Total War series saw the number of units on a typical battlefield increase from 100 to 10000, Blizzard's Starcraft introduced the world to the idea of truly competitive RTS gaming, and Relic's Company of Heroes brought cover mechanics to the genre. With the release of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, Relic has again challenged traditional real-time strategy values, and has created another game that will go down in the annals of RTS history as a game changing release.
For those who don't know, Warhammer 40,000 is essentially high-fantasy in space, where Orcs, Elves, and all of the other staples of the genre are represented by different alien races. Dawn of War II has players battling against Orkz, Eldar, and the Tyranid enemies, in an effort to defend the Imperium of Man and its people. The campaign is broken into deployments, giving the Blood Ravens different objectives, both mandatory and optional, to complete before the end of any given day. Oftentimes it simply isn't possible to complete every quest offered, so picking and choosing interplanetary battles becomes a major component. Even more importantly, every mission that doesn't push back the Tyranid swarm counts against the commander, so it's important to balance optional missions for items and mandatory missions for the stability of the galaxy. To balance out this problem, each mission ends by rating the player in their fury, resilience, and speed, which reward players with additional deployments. It's a non-linear, but guided experience, and doesn't put a huge amount of emphasis on the actual narrative. While Dawn of War takes leaps away from its contemporaries in terms of unique gameplay, it stays fairly close when it comes to storytelling.
During deployments, the Space Marines need to complete different objectives with varying goals. Some see the units being asked to defend key locations, while others might use the same terrain to capture enemy bases. Along the way, Marines earn experience for completing missions and will level up accordingly, allowing customization of their characteristics. Putting points into health, melee, ranged, and energy unlocks unique abilities for every class, similar to a typical RPG. It's actually fairly in-depth, featuring different skill-trees for each of the different squadrons. Dropping points into health for the Space Marines might unlock a passive trait that makes them immune to knockdown, for instance, while the Assault Marines might gain a stun ability when they land from their jetpack jump for the same points spent. At maximum level, it's impossible to have filled out every skill tree, so the customization is important.
Additionally, items will drop during battles, and are color coordinated like typical MMO gear. Seeing a special, powerful weapon drop after destroying an Ork boss elicits a sense of euphoria that should be well known to RPG fans, though is fairly new to this type of game. Items are actually represented on the character model, which can be viewed at any time by simply zooming in on the action. Relic has done a fantastic job with animating all of the units, and while the graphics might look a little sketchy up close, they're definitely nothing to complain about. The wonderful score and sound effects more than make up for any minor visual blemishes, creating an incredibly engrossing environment.
The reason the gameplay works so well is because of Relic’s unforgiving abandonment of all things RTS. There’s no base building, no upgrading, and no unit creation. It might actually be easier to call Dawn of War II a tactical shooter than an RTS, as the main similarities to the former are in the camera angle and controls, not the actual mechanics of the game. Instead of focusing on controlling large armies, there are usually only a few units being directly controlled. Though six squads becomes available, only four can be taken into battle at any time, so it's up to the Force Commander to decide who stays and who goes. Creating a core group of four might not always be the best idea, since defensive missions usually rely on the Heavy Weapons Marines, while assault missions could benefit from the presence of a stealthy Scout. It adds an unprecedented feeling of control in the genre, and being able to fully customize and outfit squads fits the new mold well.
When selected on a squad, typical RTS controls dictate that movement requires a mouse click - and that remains. Enhanced, however, are the actions they take when they arrive at the destination, and depending on their location they will actually take cover behind appropriate world objects. This isn't the first RTS to add anything like this, as stated before, but it's implemented better than any game has in the past. The seemingly small enhancements make cover as important for Dawn of War II as it is for Gears of War. It's topped off by destructible environments and well-created levels that take advantage of the unique features. Battles aren't resolved by simply clicking on an enemy, it's been turned into an art, requiring as much planning as it does skill. Surveying the battlefield, finding optimal cover locations, moving squads into buildings, targeting supply drops to replenish items, and using them strategically changes the way every encounter plays out, and masterfully learning the places for each squad becomes a deep affair. Cooperative play of the singleplayer campaign enhances this strategic element even further, requiring communication atop the typical strategy elements.
In typical RTS fashion there's a skirmish mode, which can be played against AI or online. While it does an adequate job of repurposing the Dawn of War II style to the conventional RTS, there’s a definite a shift towards formality. They don't digress completely; there's no base building or resource gathering, but it's a much different experience when upgrading units and managing resources are added. The basic mechanics of cover, flanking, and taking territories remain, livening up the otherwise stale experience, and giving the skirmishes enough of a Dawn of War flavor to stay unique. It's a weird hybrid of the progressive ideas presented in the singleplayer mixed with the long-established customs inherent in the genre, and it takes some getting used to after being immersed by the innovative singleplayer. Then again, it could just be that being able to play as the four different factions might feel strange at first, especially after spending several hours intent on eradicating their existence.
Not enough can be said about Dawn of War II. From the exhilarating singleplayer campaign to the frantic multiplayer offerings, Relic has again achieved greatness, and it came from blending the ideals of traditionalist real-time strategy with the rapidly changing shooter market. Some might see it as a betrayal, like Bob Dylan putting down the acoustic guitar in favor of a Fender Stratocaster, but there's no denying that the title brings necessary enhancements and changes to the genre. It's a game that should be played by anyone with means to do so, and will hopefully remind developers that there's plenty of room to improve in the modern RTS.