Forget your Facebook feed, Warhammer 40K’s depiction of the future is quite possibly the worst imagined in any popular fiction. It’s populated by factions so used to perpetual conflict that they’ve integrated war into the very fabric of their societies, religions and cultures.
All this makes 40K the perfect setting for an RTS game, as we’ve already discovered on two previous occasions with the Dawn of War series. The latest entry, Dawn of War III, is a more self-aware take on the mythos, while also playing like a more traditional RTS at heart. It doesn’t do much new, but Relic Entertainment have made sure that those familiar things it does do are delivered with booming confidence and great character.
In the campaign you rotate between control of three warring factions - the zealous Space Marines, the snobbish space elves of the Eldar, and the Orks… who are every bit thuggish charmers you want them to be. Each side is vying to get their hands on a powerful pointy stick called the Spear of Khaine, while an Eldar prophecy tells of a rogue planet that’s set to crash with the human planet of Cyprus Ultima. The Space Marine and Eldar plots are fronted by old-timer Gabriel Angelos and Farseer Macha respectively, both of whom are having to contend with megalomaniacal, self-serving commanders as well as their rivals. The Ork protagonist, meanwhile, is returning Warboss Gorgutz, who’s amassing an army by overpowering fellow Ork warchiefs and declaring himself their leader, or Megaboss, as I imagine they’d say in Orkish parlance.
The plot is nicely presented using still images and conversations between missions, with the sombre horns and space whirs of the background music establishing a weighty melancholy tone. Each side is given enough motive that whoever you align with, you care about the outcome. The multiple perspectives are fitting for a universe of endless war, where things are rarely so simple as a matter of Good vs Evil (in a way, everyone’s a murderous savage, the Orks are just more honest about it). The erudite arrogance of the Eldar and earnestness of the Space Marines contrast nicely with the freewheeling Ork horde, who won me over through the sheer force of personality that runs through every aspect of their presentation - from the architecture of their buildings, to their soundbites and style of play.
Each faction plays distinctly. The Space Marines offer your standard RTS progression and tactics, with stable bases, upgrade structures, and an array of classic combined arms units. The Eldar’s greatest advantage comes with their movement speed and teleporting bases and units. You can zap all of their key structures pretty much anywhere on the map once you’ve acquired the upgrades, making them great for surprise attacks and keeping your enemy guessing as to your next move. Relocating bases all the time and keeping track of what teleports went where got a bit fiddly for my creaking mouse-hand, but the strategic advantages of the Eldar for more pro-level RTS players than myself are clear.
Then there are the Orks. Man, how I love those guys. They’re such a rowdy, personable bunch that I want to hang out with them, drinking grog, partaking in pissing contests and rocking out beneath the blaring speakers of their WAAAAGH towers. Even just hovering around Ork bases and watching their rickety, shaking buildings clanging away, churning units from their shoddy maw-like entrances is a joy to behold. Along with upgrading their army through buildings, Orks can collect scrap around the battlefield to upgrade and build vehicles. Best of all, you can pump them up for battle by standing them around WAAAAGH towers, and making them listen to 15 or so seconds of Ork Metal music, giving them temporary speed and attack boosts; watching them roar then rush into battle after one of these mosh pits climaxes is a moment of RTS sublimeness. But even the little details are great. From the cowardice of the worker Gretchins when you order them to build a structure, to the broken-voice mania of the Shooter Boyz, the Orks are possibly the most heartily fun faction I’ve ever controlled in an RTS (honourable mention to the Orcs of Warcraft II).
Casting aside my personal obsession with the Orks, Dawn of War III achieves the crucial task of making each faction viable and satisfying. There’s some nice self-aware swagger to the Space Marines too, as cold ‘motivational’ announcements occasionally blare out on tannoys, offering posthumous honours for Marines doing their duty, and thanking them for their perseverance if they’re experiencing problems with their suit air supplies. It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that every soldier - in Warhammer as in the RTS genre - is expendable and replaceable, and acknowledges that the series is at a stage where it can make a little fun of itself.
Being of the traditional flavour, Dawn of War III doesn’t introduce any mechanics that will convince non-RTS fans that the genre has evolved and must be revisited. For returning Dawn of War players, the most notable difference will be the reintroduction of base-building after a hiatus last time round. The system kills off any hope for those seeking a ‘Dawn of Company of War Heroes’, if you will, replacing it unapologetically with unit-spawning and defensive structures that you can plonk down anywhere on the map. There’s micro-management aplenty, as you split your units into control groups, send out scouts to find the enemy, and engage in sizeable skirmishes where you must show prudence in knowing which units to target, when to switch your units’ attacks between melee and ranged, and when to retreat. It’s all very competent, but take away the excellent presentation and you’re left with a rather old-school RTS that doesn’t feel as ambitious as the devs’ previous work.
Each mission feels substantial, usually divvied up into three mini-acts that are a mix of small-scale quests involving hero units, timed set-pieces, dubious stealth sequences and, of course, beefy base-building followed by epic confrontations and base-smashing. While offering a well-balanced and often suspenseful mix of activities, the pace sometimes falters. There were too many occasions when resources were so scarce that I had to wait five or more minutes to rebuild my army, with no threat from the enemy and nothing much to do but watch those overly familiar resource and power counters tick up to a level where I could convert them into units. You’d have thought that after 20 or so years of the genre’s existence in this form, a stalwart developer like Relic could’ve come up with a solution to this kind of thumb-twiddling nothingness.
Every faction’s units brim with unique abilities that balance out their various advantages and disadvantages. Eldar infantry, for example, tend to be more fragile than their rivals, but charge into battle using the Howling Banshees’ Quick Strike, and with them you quickly level the playing field. They also possess plenty of elusive aerial units as well as a genetic propensity for running speed and teleporting. Space Marines have the advantage of concussive abilities such as Whirlwind artillery strikes, jetpacking Storm Troopers, and Dreadnought Slams, while Orks, mindful upcyclers that they are, have a huge array of vehicles they can create out of battlefield detritus.
When all this this machinery of war collides, the resultant carnage is everything you’d want to see from a Warhammer 40K RTS. When armies collide, they do so with impact, as troops wearing seemingly impenetrable armour get disembodied by vicious claws, chainswords and searing laser beams. Battlefields become pockmarked as you bombard them, and strewn with ruined buildings, non-biodegradable corpses and giblets of fallen warriors as you fight for control of them. Seeing a map degenerate from a creaking arena of war into a blood-and-metal bath is very satisfying.
A big swinger in these skirmishes will be Elite units, which are unlocked as you gain battle experience and can be summoned at any point (again, they’re expendable as you can revive them after a set amount of time). These range from clubbing melee tanks like the hammer-swinging Gabriel Angelos and be-clawed Gorgutz, to ethereal caster types like the Eldar’s Ronahn and Farseer Macha, right up to impressive behemoth super-units like Imperial Knight Solaria and the Eldar Wraithknight.
As well as offering obvious tactical advantages, these units carry the gravitas of Warhammer 40K history. There’s a good chance you’ll recognise the hulking Space Marine Terminators, for example, while the skullheaded Chaplain Diomedes (great name) and likeable Orks with monikers like Weirdboy Zapnoggin and Beauty da Morkanaut bespeak the universe’s rich lore and character design. It’s all an impressive showcase of the 40K universe’s heritage, and it’s telling that you can admire these elite units in the menus, rotating them around on round platforms much like you would your old physical Warhammer 40K models (unpainted, in my case). In short, the 40K universe is awesome, Relic know it, and they make damn sure you know it too.
While there are no noteworthy modes or innovations to speak of in Dawn of War III’s multiplayer component (no Halo Wars 2-style Blitz, for example), the arena-like maps help ensure the battles are balanced and brisk. There’s a nice crossover too between single and multiplayer, as you can level up to get doctrines - passive and active boosts for your armies and elite units - that you can transfer between the two. With that said, just the one game mode (for now) and a lack of the single-player campaign’s narrative drive doesn’t compel me to keep at it, although more hardcore players and purists will no doubt enjoy its no-nonsense, esport-friendly approach.
Seeing as Relic redefined the RTS with their WWII-based games, it’s a bit baffling that none of the nuances or complexities are to be seen here, especially after Dawn of War II seemed to take a few small steps in that direction. Defensive structures, infantry digging in, and snipers holing up in the endless ruins peppering the levels would’ve fitted brilliantly with the 40K mythos, especially as these things are such an integral part of the tabletop game. Instead, the environments serve as little more than backdrops (featuring the occasional pre-determined defensive structure) rather than actual battlefields offering notable tactical possibilities. It seems a tad wasteful from a developer known for their savvy use of environments and defensive strategies in RTS games.
But while Relic clearly had no intention of fomenting another RTS revolution here, they at least worked within the existing order to create a vivid futuristic hellhole of awesome spectacle and scale. Gurning, screaming Orks slamming into a squadron of austere Space Marines, slick giant Darkwraiths colliding with clanging Orkine machinations, and large-scale cosmic carnage sum up the ethos here; DoW III is a game of big, meaty encounters and twitch-quick micro-management rather than sneaky ambushes and environmental tactics, and it delivers on that with the shredding impact of a chainsword slicing through an Ork’s skull.
Within that, Dawn of War III nails the narrative and distinctive mechanics for each faction, creating a firm, steely foundation for more factions to be thrown in at a later date. It thrills me to think of how Relic would integrate the Chaos Marines, Tyranids, or my beloved Imperial Guard into this format, and see them given the same high level of attention as the current contestants.
This is the most conventional RTS in an historically unconventional series. While this fact alone may divide players, its quality of presentation and polished mechanics mean that, as it inevitably expands with more content, Dawn of War III may yet become the champion of a genre that remains stubbornly resistant to evolution.