The highly anticipated next entry into the Dawn of War franchise has finally hit, and I must admit I've been looking forward to it. I had my misgivings, though. A lot of the press leading up to it rubbed me the wrong way. Only 4 factions? Fewer units in a squad? So it was with cautious hope I dove in.
While DOW1 (and its many, many expansions) was no graphical slouch, it was starting to look ever so slightly dated thanks mostly to models that didn't age very well. While incredibly detailed for their time, today they have comparatively low polygon counts and some of the movement patterns left them a little cartoony. DOW2 is very pretty to look at and needs some horsepower to make it so. Unfortunately, there's a very limited number of locations to the game, and so it is very easy to get bogged down in visual monotony even in a lush jungle of millions of colors if it's your 15th trip through that exact same jungle.
Similar to previous DOW titles, the auditory experience for DOW2 consists largely of yelling, battle cacophony and status updates over a backdrop of grim martial musical scores. It is capably handled.
This is going to be a long one.
Dawn of War 2 feels very different from DOW1's legacy. By its last expansion, DOW1 had 9 factions and myriad different unit types. The first thing you notice in DOW2 is that the factions have been whittled back down to 4, although one of them never made it into DOW1: the Tyranids.
In the single player campaign, the player takes the role of the Space Marines (the Blood Ravens chapter again, of course), dealing with an Ork uprising in their home subsector. It is revealed that the Orks are being subtly incited by Eldar, and conflict is joined with the space-elves as well. Then, the reason for the Eldar's abetting of the Orks is discovered when a Tyranid hive fleet descends upon the sector and starts raining fanged, taloned death on the planets there.
The game then becomes one of repeatedly deploying to the same 10 or so locations repeatedly, balancing efforts to stall the Tyranid invasion while simultaneously trying to attack Ork and Eldar targets of opportunity. It quickly starts to feel like "Warhammer 40,000: Whack-a-Mole edition." Exacerbating the repetitive nature of the game is the fact that there is almost no variety between each mission; they all consist of "make your way across the map to where you have a boss fight with an artificially tough enemy boss." Seriously. Boss fights in an RTS, complete with big "boss battle life bars" right in the middle of the screen.
The method of progression across each level brings me to another change from the previous paradigm - there are no bases. You are initially dropped with your full complement of troops in a drop pod at one end of the level, and you never get more than you start with. To reinforce troops killed in battle, you must either return to the drop pod or take a strategic point on the map, around which you can reinforce. No buildings, no tech tree, nothing.
Furthermore, your "full complement" of troops consists of never more than 4 squads (including your commander character, counted as his own squad), of never more than 4 units per squad including squad leader (and usually less). The squad leaders gain experience through combat and slain enemies drop loot for you to pick up and equip: more powerful bolters, chainswords, armor, etc. Yes, you heard me right. DOW2 has taken a hard right, exiting the RTS freeway and circling around onto the RPG express loop.
Another important change is that the rudimentary (you could even call it slap-dash) cover system from DoW1 has been replaced with the more obstacle-focused cover dynamic used in Company of Heroes. But this doesn't stop the game from feeling less the excercise in strategy and more the RPG session. If I had to compare the feeling I got playing it to any other game, it actually reminded me more of Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights 2 than any RTS title. Just with less cutscenes and dialog.
The multiplayer side of the game alters things a little bit. There, there IS a base, but it is a single building from which you requisition units and you never build any other buildings or defenses. The units all feel "down a man" because the squad leaders are not present, although you can at least get more than 4 squads.
There are some positive changes, however. Melee units are now a much more viable option than they were previously due to changes in the nature of combat and collision, as well as improvements to the jump pack mechanism. No longer simply a method of moving across terrain marginally faster or jumping obstacles, jetpacking into combat is now an excellent tactical move. It is quick and devastating, because landing on top of your target now knocks them over/down/back for a few seconds, giving your assault marines/storm boyz/whatever time to start carving them up, and they tear stuff up really well. In fact, the plain old vanilla space marines with their bolters and whatnot actually start to feel kind of low damage by comparison. Of course, it's rather hard to melee from behind cover or from the inside of a building.
So basically, rather than the sequel to DOW1, it feels more like Company of Heroes and World in Conflict got together, had a baby, sent it to school at RPG academy, and somewhere along the line it got hooked on Warhammer 40k. All in all, it's not a bad game, but to be honest I was rather expecting Dawn of War 2 to feel... well, like a Dawn of War title, not an RPG where you slog the same ground over and over. The plus side of this however is that it does actually come across as a decent proof of concept that the 40k universe CAN make the RPG transition, and therefore, the MMO transition.
Verdict: B. Ok, it's fun and all, but it feels kinda wrong... and where's my damned Imperial Guard? I'll definitely be looking into the expansions when they arrive.