How does Dawn of War 3 run on PC? Let's fill the screen with units to find out

Dawn of War 3 Space Marines

It’s been a long time since war dawned on the PC, but the Space Marines are finally ready to deploy. Dawn of War III is drop-podding onto Steam, and we’ve been putting it through its paces to see how a regular ol’ computer handles it. Can the likes of an Intel i5 6500k and a GTX 1060 deal with the epic scale that DoW III promotes? Say a prayer to the Emperor, and then take a look at our analysis below. 

Related: the best strategy games on PC. 

Graphics Options

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We’re used to having a list of graphics options as long as your arm when it comes to good PC games, which means Dawn of War III took me by surprise when I opened its settings menu. Just eight options are available: resolution, image quality, texture detail, gameplay resolution, unit occlusion, anti-aliasing, v-sync, and physics. With just three of them directly impacting graphical fidelity, I feel somewhat shortchanged. Thankfully there’s a fair amount of granularity to them. Image quality, which seems the closest option to a typical preset, has six options: maximum, higher, high, medium, low, and minimum. Texture detail and anti-aliasing have almost as many settings, and physics sports just low, medium, and high. 

The resolution side of things allows a great variety of options, capped only by what your native resolution is. There’s also the option to downscale the actual gameplay while maintaining the resolution of the HUD. 

Also included is a handy icon which displays a frames-per-second value that changes based on what settings you opt for. It doesn’t feel entirely accurate, but at least it gives you a ballpark figure. More useful is the benchmarking tool, which will play out an intensive battle sequence to demonstrate how your machine copes. Annoyingly the benchmark tool doesn’t actually provide any data on-screen. To find out what is going on you'll have to check the game's My Documents folder, where the data is noted in a Notepad file. 

Performance tests

Using that benchmarking tool, I took readings of the battle sequence on all six of Dawn of War III’s image quality settings. The benchmark tool uses a very intense battle; hordes of Orks pile into a wall of bolter fire, Whirlwinds spit rockets into the sky, and an Imperial Knight collapses under pressure from an Eldar Wraithlord. To say there’s a lot going on is an understatement. You can see the results below. 

First impressions are what I'd expect for a detailed, unit-heavy RTS. My i5 and GTX 1060 combo are pretty standard fare, and 43 fps on maximum settings is, while not as high as I'd like, very playable. Dawn of War actually appears to be built on a solid engine that makes sub-60 fps look a lot smoother than it actually is. To hit 60 fps I have to drop down to medium. While the difference in graphic quality is far less drastic between settings than in many other games, there's still a notable difference between max and medium. But even on this lower-middle setting, Dawn of War looks pretty great. 

Can we break Dawn of War III by filling the screen with units?

For some 1440p testing and to see how the game performed during both intense and quiet moments, I set myself a challenge: build the largest army possible, fill the screen with units, and launch an all-out attack on the enemy. To give me the benefit of numbers I paired myself up with an AI team of Dark Angels, meaning there’d be dozens and dozens of Space Marines on-screen. 

In skirmish mode, DoW III’s population cap is 250 points. A normal five-man tactical squad costs 10 points, so at the very most you can have up to 125 men on screen. In the name of variety I sacrificed a few point slots for the likes of tanks and more powerful units. My resulting army looks a bit like this: 

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You can see in the top left corner that my frame rate was 58 fps with all those little warriors on screen, running at maximum settings at 1440p. Having a full set of troops on-screen doesn’t actually cause the game to collapse. In the run-up to acrewing this army, I experienced anything between mid-50s and low-70 frames-per-second, depending on the ferocity of the battle. When troops from both sides descended on objectives, such battles would see it dip to the mid-40s. 

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For the most part, then, Dawn of War III is pretty playable at max settings. However, that 26 fps average is still a very present niggle. When marching my full army to the enemy base, I had them pass through a river. They were instantly assaulted by an Ork weapon that causes a rain of cluster munitions. The combination of weapon effects, flowing water, and number of troops caused the frame rate to tank, bottoming out at around 19 fps. That is, of course, unplayable. Thankfully getting away from the raining bombs and water caused it to jump back up to 50 fps, demonstrating that those low rates are only for when the game wants to throw everything at you simultaneously. For the most part of a 30 minute match things were largely smooth, if infrequently above 60 fps. 

Graphics analysis

So we now know how Dawn of War III plays, but how does it look? To offer you a quick sample I’ve gathered screenshots of the game running at four different presets: low, medium, high, and higher. 

Higher

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At the top end of the scale is the higher preset, which is actually as far as the settings will go in regards to textures. There is a maximum setting for image quality, but the perceivable difference is nil. These settings do provide a lovely looking RTS, though, and one that certainly fits the Warhammer 40K mould. There’s plenty of detail on the chunky, gothic buildings that make up a Space Marine base. The snowy ground looks crunchy, and there’s attention paid to the cracked ice and rock around the base of buildings. 

High

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Dropping all settings down to high results in no graphical degradation at all, at least not to my eyes. Cracks in the ice remain sharp, and the finest details in the metal cladding of the buildings stay in-tact. Considering the increase in performance you can get from these settings, as seen in the earlier section, high seems a sensible option. 

Medium 

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It’s at medium settings that we finally see an obvious graphical downgrade, but it’s not a dramatic change. You’ll immediately see that the lighting model used is a bit duff, with entire sections of buildings in shadow for no reason, and even some odd sections where the shadow is cut short, like on the middle structure’s landing pad. There’s also widespread reduction in texture resolution. The ice texture is, in fact, different to that of higher pre-sets, with an alternate crack design and far less definition.

Low

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Low is close to medium in terms of fidelity, but there’s an overall noticeable fuzziness around the edges that’s caused by reduced anti-aliasing. Aside from that and a slight downgrade to texture resolutions, the only real thing that low could be accused of is looking a bit flat. This is more obvious in motion, as things like snow drifting in the wind and fog is removed. If low is your only option though, I don’t think it makes Dawn of War III look overly ugly at all. 

Conclusion

Does filling the screen with hundreds of units break Dawn of War III? Well, under the right circumstances, yes. It requires a bit of extra exploding munitions and environmental effects to tank the frame rate, but it’s safe to say that when everything is going on at once, a standard-spec gaming PC can’t cope with maximum settings. Thankfully the range of graphical settings allows you to find a happy medium without sacrificing all that much visual quality, although I’d certainly have liked to have seen far more options in that department. 

I’d hoped for better 1080p performance on the highest graphical tiers, although it’s understandable why the array of units and explosive effects has such an impact on performance. When things get busy on-screen they really do get busy, much more than they would in a shooter or RPG. But when actions-per-minute and quick reactions are such a core part of DoW III’s multiplayer, I can’t help but think this kind of performance is likely to further upset a community that already felt as if it was opposed to the game in the first place. I personally don’t think it’s a hugely poor situation for Relic - they’re produced an obviously demanding game with great amounts of detail in each unit - but I do wonder how many people will be able to play DoW III at its very best at launch. Unless you’ve got a monster PC, I’d recommend going in with suitably adjusted expectations. 

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