Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 2, The Other Guys

Oh hey! It’s The Other Guys! Our ongoing, hilariously sporadic feature in which we attempt to diversify the range of games. In other words, it’s a feature centred on wrapping our brains around a bunch of things that aren’t StarCraft II. It’s been a while since we’ve done one of these, but this month we’ve had a sudden hankering to lose ourselves in a real-time strategy game that’s happy to carve its own unique path, one that exists outside the constraints of traditional RTS mechanics. An RTS that eschews base building and high unit counts in favour of careful micromanagement of small squads of elite units. An RTS called Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II.

In case you’ve never heard of (nor played, obviously) this lovely thing before, here’s what you need to know: it’s awesome. As mentioned above, its flow is unlike that of most RTS games, because instead of carefully setting up a base, slowly gathering resources to amass a powerful army and then heading out for a big old bash-up with your opponent(s),  Dawn of War II  removes base management almost entirely, placing all of its focus on your various units their strengths, their weaknesses and how effectively you’re able to utilise them to maintain control of the battlefield. This has the natural effect of making  Dawn of War II a faster, more tactically dynamic, and in many ways far more brutal real-time strategy experience than you’re likely to get from more conventional RTS fare. There’s no flipping back and forth between your base and the battlefield your attention is almost always on the frontline, on the action, all the time. Assuming your base hasn’t become the battlefield because it’s
being overrun, of course.

There are three main ways to play it. There’s a campaign mode, which can be tackled either solo or cooperatively with a friend. Competitive skirmishes can be set up with the AI or other players, catering for nail-biting one-on-one duels or chaotic team-based matches. Finally, there’s The Last Stand, a Horde mode-style offering wherein you choose a hero and team up with two other players to fend off wave after wave of increasingly tough foes in a small arena. The base game comes packing four factions: Space Marines, Eldar, Orks and Tyranids. A pair of expansion packs (the first named  Chaos Rising  and the second Retribution) add two more playable races to the fray: the Chaos Space Marines and the Imperial Guard.

Savage and RedTide abhor new things, so the responsibility of having a great time with Dawn of War II fell upon me and GeometriX. We shied away from competitive skirmishes, mostly because we didn’t feel like being torn apart by random Internet peoples with superior Dawn of War skills relative to our noob-ish fumbling. The Last Stand was the real reason we wanted to dive back into the game, and we’re happy to report that it’s still tons of fun. The way it works is that you’re given the choice of a number of different hero characters representing the game’s different races. Each of them has their own starting abilities and potential upgrade paths the melee-focused Space Marine Captain is introduced as a meaty tank, able to absorb loads of abuse, but incapable of dealing as much damage as some of the other characters initially. The ranged Ork Mekboy, meanwhile, can be geared up to trade health for damage output, mowing down scores of enemies before they even reach him and then quickly teleporting away when any survivors eventually catch up to him.

With each game of The Last Stand that’s played, you gain experience points for your chosen character, and as they level up you’ll unlock new gear and abilities with which to customise your role on the battlefield at the start of each game. Higher-level Mekboys can be customised to explode spectacularly on death, dealing massive damage to any foes caught in the blast. Captains unlock jump packs that are useful for quickly traversing the small arenas (there are two of them, although the second can only be played if you own the  Retribution  expansion), and can even summon a powerful Space Marine Dreadnought to fight alongside them. The Last Stand is supposedly designed in such a way that low-level characters can be every bit as effective as their high-level counterparts, but have fewer options in how to play although we’re not sure how true this really is, given that it definitely seems to become more manageable with the high-level trinkets.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of The Last Stand is that each arena is limited to 20 predesigned waves. You always know what to expect, and there’s always a finish line in sight, with no option for endless, randomised survival. There is, however, substantial emphasis on setting high scores. Capturable points on the map provide score bonuses (you’ll have to ensure that the enemy doesn’t sneakily capture these while you’re not paying attention), and each wave that you survive awards you with score points buffed by a multiplier that tracks how well you’re doing. It’s an impressively fun game mode, and it’s augmented by  Dawn of War II ’s chunky and immensely satisfying combat: the screen constantly shakes with the explosive force of battles, smoke and dust and comical ragdoll bodies are often sent soaring through the air, powerful detonations leave gaping craters in the ground and any cover on the map is gradually obliterated by the chaos unfolding onscreen. Now’s probably as good a time as any to mention that cover in Dawn of War is enormously important. Units can hide behind different types of cover that afford varying amounts of protection against ranged attacks, which means that when all the cover on the map disappears, your chance of survival dwindles.

Playing through the campaign cooperatively is unexpectedly enjoyable, given that neither of us had attempted to play it cooperatively before. Dawn of War II ’s campaign is well worth playing solo (as are the campaigns of its expansions), but playing it cooperatively feels pleasantly natural given its structure. You only have access to a handful of squads, and can only take up to four of them on any given excursion meaning each player is able to choose and control two squads. Missions are short and frantic, often offering a number of different paths to traverse, and splitting up to explore areas of the map independently works nicely, reuniting again whenever large battles (or boss fights) make it necessary. Enemies occasionally drop Wargear used to outfit  your  squads  between missions, and various attributes can be upgraded and abilities unlocked as your soldiers earn experience. In many ways it feels like an action RPG, and it has a similarly rewarding feedback loop. Also, it allows you to accidentally drop artillery barrages on buildings your buddy has garrisoned with friendly squads, insta-killing any troops within and leading to heaps of hilarious, horrified confusion and that’s pretty much the best thing ever[Yes, thanks again for that. Ed].

Recommending  Dawn of War II is easy. It’s packed with interesting features (like suppression mechanics, strikingly detailed death animations and the ability to reinforce squads), it asserts vast tactical depth despite moving at a blistering pace, and it still looks mighty attractive even though it’s just over six years old. If you already own it, now’s the time to dust off those digital cobwebs and load it up again. If you’ve never played it, you should fix that, right now. Digital stores often put it on sale for ridiculously  low  prices, and I can think of at least several million reasons why you shouldn’t think twice about adding it to your collection.

Dane and Geoff were trying to convince me to buy this  Dawn of Chaos 40,000 Warhammers  thing. I think there might also be a “K” in the title somewhere and maybe a “Part Two” as well. The names they’ve given these games are all very confusing, but the thing you need to take away from this is that they sure were trying hard to bait and hook me into buying it. I later found out all the effort was so that I could provide them with a third reliable network anchor point. Seeing that nobody in the country is currently playing whatever they were playing, they were forced to join laggy international games something we all hate. If the naming of this series was perhaps simpler and there were less expansions and instances of “you have to have this for that to work” I might have humoured them and bought it, but I like my gaming nice and simple.

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