A nearly sufficient amount of dakka.
Anyone who’s listened to the Hey Poor Podcast (this episode in particular) knows that I’ve been pretty critical about the upcoming Dawn of War III. It’s not because I’m not a fan of the series, far from it in fact – the original Dawn of War is one of my all-time favorites, the sort of game I go back and replay a couple of times a year or so. But from announcements that it was gonna be a “mix” of the first Dawn of War and the bizarre sequel-in-name-only Dawn of War II to the fact that it was only going to have three races and looked like it might become little more than a rip-off of StarCraft, fans like me had a lot to be worried about with the latest entry into this storied series.
I’m still angry about the three races thing. But playing the closed beta for Dawn of War III melted away most of my other fears about the game. If the final product’s campaign and multiplayer can deliver on the promises of this preview, this could turn out to be something really special, even in a year already jam-packed with stellar releases.
Dawn of War III is, at least in terms of gameplay, a direct sequel to the first Dawn of War. The traditional RTS base-building is back, as are resource-granting strategic points, unit squads, and everything else that made the original game what it was. Personally, I think this was the right choice – the second game did have its weird charms, but it really had no right to call itself Dawn of War, focusing as it did on single-digit groups of powerful units and RPG mechanics. This feels more like what a game calling itself Dawn of War II SHOULD have been – the same gameplay as the original, but refined to perfection.
Where the second inspiration’s influence – the purported “mix” of gameplay – comes in is through the introduction of DoWIII’s biggest deviation from the original game: Elites. A natural extension of the first game’s hero units, Elites are powerful units with incredibly strong abilities. For example, Gabriel Angelos, the Elite introduced in the tutorial for the Space Marines, can leap into battles, stunning when he lands, and swing his hammer for area-of-effect damage that’s almost a one-hit-kill for most squads. Elites are summoned with a new third resource, Elite Points, which are gathered from captured strategic points in the same way as Requisition (it’s a mechanic similar to the Sisters of Battle’s Faith resource in Dawn of War: Soulstorm.) Elites are a lot of fun to use, and their high price (which means that the more powerful heroes can only come out in the late game) combined with the fact that everyone has them means that they don’t feel too overpowered. Their attacks are powerful, but their health pools are low enough that a smart player with good micro (and, preferably, an Elite of their own) can take them down if they focus-fire. As a result, Elites feel like an important part of a balanced force rather than a game-breaking nuke, though it’ll be interesting to see if this changes once thousands of players are working to break the meta.
But what really impressed me about Dawn of War III wasn’t the major addition of Elites – it was all the little things that the game gets right. Most of the changes from the original Dawn of War are minor tweaks that help the gameplay stay focused on the core principle that sets the series apart from other RTS franchises – keeping on the focus on combat. For example: strategic points are now upgraded at the point, rather than at a listening post built on top of it (though those still exist as defensive structures.) Playing as the Orks, my favorite of the three civilizations on offer, it felt like everything was a little faster, a little more brutal, than the original game, often in ways I couldn’t pinpoint. The result is a game where, yes, basebuilding is still important, but the focus is always going to be on the front lines, the ever-shifting balance of controlling and upgrading strategic points.
And the presentation really is phenomenal. We all knew the game was going to be pretty going in, but I assumed I’d never get to see the graphics at their full potential if I wanted to play without performance issues. Well, I’m here to tell you that not only is the game stunningly beautiful in a way that makes StarCraft II look like a dated pile of garbage, but my two-year-old laptop had no problems running it at the highest graphics settings, even in the no doubt less-optimized-than-release beta. Here, too, the little details really sell it – like when you build a building and the orbital pod satisfyingly thuds into the ground and leaves a permanent crater that will remain even if you destroy the building. Everything feels great, looks great, and sounds great – particularly BAFTA award winner Paul Leonard-Morgan’s awesome soundtrack.
Troops even have different voice lines for different situations, like when you give a squad of Marines plasma rifles and they start saying “Plasma squad reporting in!” when you click on them. It’s a nice touch I’m glad to see, even though part of me will always miss the laughably horrible way the original game constantly spammed the same two or three lines of dialogue. (“YOU’RE STRONG. IT WILL BE GOOD TO HAVE THAT STRENGTH. YOU’RE STRONG. IT WILL BE GOOD TO HAVE THAT STRENGTH. YOU’RE STRONG…”)
My biggest concern about the game so far actually has very little to do with the game itself, and more to do with the fact that the letter Relic Entertainment and SEGA sent us accompanying the beta code was mostly dedicated to the Masters of War skin pack. It encouraged us strongly to talk a lot about how great these skins were and why you should pre-order the game because of them. I saw the skins. They’re fine. They’re skins.
Let’s not forget that SEGA’s last release in this particular franchise was Total War: Warhammer, a game which was criticized quite rightly for carving its content into a million DLC packs, including turning the beloved Chaos Warriors faction into day-one DLC. It’s therefore been disheartening to me to see so much of the promotion of Dawn of War III similarly focused around all the exciting ways you can pay extra for a $60 game. I’ve been making snide remarks about the lack of more playable races, but it really is a sticking point for me that I won’t be able to play the Sisters of Battle at launch and will instead have to pay for the $isters® of Battle™ Super DL© Skin™ Pass™™ at some future date (nothing’s been announced yet, but come on, you know it’s coming.) And even if the three races really are about making the game “perfectly balanced,” I still don’t agree with the decision – Dawn of War shouldn’t be about technically perfect chess-like balance, it should be about large-scale battles and bringing the 40K universe – all of it – to life.
As far as pre-ordering goes, remember that, as with all previews of this kind, I’m evaluating the game based on a closed beta that was carefully designed to make the game look as appealing as possible. The amount of content on offer was very limited – a handful of multiplayer maps. We still know next-to-nothing about the campaign, and since Dawn of War has never had and likely never will have a huge multiplayer scene, the campaign is what’s going to matter most to a lot of people, myself included. Whether or not you choose to pre-order the game is between you and your wallet, but you should make a more informed decision than you can get from reading one preview on one site.
But for me, playing the Dawn of War III beta really assuaged most of my fears about how SEGA and Relic are handling the game. Playing my first match as the Orks was like breathing a sigh of relief – “Oh thank goodness, it’s actually good.” I’m looking forward to playing the whole game, and if the campaign can display the same degree of impressive polish that the multiplayer has, this could easily end up becoming one of my favorite RTSes of all time.
YOU’RE STRONG. IT WILL BE GOOD TO HAVE THAT STRENGTH.