Oh, thank the Emperor – it’s actually good.
Dawn of War III is the best Warhammer 40K game ever made.
Not because it’s absolutely the best game to ever bear the Warhammer 40K name – everyone has their own opinion on what that is, and I’m not here to step on any toes. But because no other game has captured the promise of that ridiculous Warhammer 40,000 tagline – “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war” – as well as Dawn of War III. This is a game about zealots in building-sized mech suits stomping across the map, about the pang of fear you get in your chest when you hear the beginnings of an Orc “Waagh” – a game about unrelenting, constant offense.
The game has flaws, some of which will be pretty hard to ignore for a lot of fans. More flaws than I’d like to admit. But the core of the Dawn of War series, everything that really matters, is back, and it’s better than ever.
Thank the Emperor.
Dawn of War III is meant to be a marriage of the two vastly different previous games, but fortunately, it leans far more on the superior original. Traditional RTS-style base building is back, along with the larger squad-based armies, the collection of resources by capturing strategic points, and even the army painter (which I will only ever use to force the hyper-masculine Space Marines to wear hot pink armor forever.) Though changes have been made to the original formula, I find these changes very welcome – the general rule seems to have been “streamline without dumbing down.” For example: every race now has a small number of buildings, and they’re all basically identical (small infantry building, heavy infantry building, vehicle building, listening post, upgrade building, command center, weird species-specific building.) I actually appreciate this, because it lets you focus on the unit composition (which is still very different for each race) while being a lot less complicated than the original Dawn of War’s seemingly endless redundant buildings and the struggle of trying to remember what the hell an “Adepta Sororitas Convent” does.
The nod to the controversial Dawn of War II is the inclusion of ultra-powerful Elite units. You can choose up to three of these (as well as three “Doctrine” upgrades) to include before every battle, and they’re unlocked with a third resource that you slowly gain automatically as the game progresses. These Elites have two or three very useful abilities and completely change the flow of gameplay, but they’re not overpowered – I’ve never faced any Elite I felt like I couldn’t counter with smart troop management (nor did I ever feel invincible with an Elites of my own.) Rather, they feel like a unique addition to strategy, requiring you both to be aware of where your enemies’ Elites are at all times and forcing you to micromanage their abilities to the fullest possible extent.
Everything about the mechanics of Dawn of War III feels like the natural conclusion of the series’ guiding principle, which is that combat should take priority over everything else. The result is absolutely the single most intense real-time strategy game I have ever played. Since the only way to gather resources is to capture territory, you’ll build one, maybe two workers to build a handful of buildings at start, and beyond that, you’ll be focusing exclusively on your army. There’s no defensive buildings, no turrets, and lots of wide-open map space with multiple avenues of approach. The best and only defense is a good offense, and from the first few minutes of a game you’ll be facing total war on all fronts. What’s more, you can’t just focus on spamming a few powerful units anymore – everything has counters, and you’ll need a smart understanding of all your units and their roles if you want to be successful. So much for turtling until I can Penitence Engine the map into submission.
The one element of gameplay where it feels like the first Dawn of War offered deeper strategy is in the three playable factions. Now, I’ve already written plenty about why Dawn of War III should have had more than three races, but it’s even more disappointing to see the Orks, Eldar, and Space Marines turn into the Zerg, Protoss, and Terrans (even though I appreciate the irony of Warhammer ripping off Blizzard ripping off Warhammer.) The Eldar used to be about easily-killed hard counters that needed to be protected, but now they’re just about expensive and powerful units and strong late-game. The Orks used to have powerful vehicles, but now even their strongest tanks feel weak and toothless next to the Space Marines’. Oh, and they have a strong stealth component now, too, and without including the best part about the Orks’ only stealth unit.
I mean, don’t get me wrong – each race is still very fun to play, and they certainly don’t look or sound like StarCraft. Plus, there are some differences – in particular, I really like the way that the Orks’ WAAAGH! Towers work now, with an active that grants a massive boost of speed and strength to any nearby infantry units. It makes constructing a huge army entirely out of trash and sending them off to destroy enemy power strongholds as quickly as possible a viable strategy. But the obvious mechanical similarities to StarCraft II confirms my suspicions that the design of the three races was motivated not because it was best for the game, but to try and appeal cynically appeal to the fanbase of the current Big Thing in RTSes.
I know some people feel that presentation – “fluff”, if you will – is a trivial part of what makes any videogame good, but I always admire games that put effort into the little details. And you need to understand what it feels like to play Dawn of War III. Marine Drop Pods thud into the ground, leaving a permanent crater, as troops run out of it to reinforce the Imperial Knight Solaria in her hundred-foot-tall towering mech suit. In the distance, they hear Ork screams and heavy metal guitar riffs and realize the enemy’s activated a WAAGH! Banner, but they can’t cut through the green hordes fast enough to stop it, even as Solaria stomps her enemies into green paste and fires missiles which scream through the air. As the supercharged Orks, glowing with rage, bring the mighty mech to its knees, they’re interrupted by the soft hum of Eldar and their buildings warping in, mocking the primitive greenskins as they fall under their heavy assault rifles and the explosive, crackling magical abilities of their Elites.
Every sound cue, every animation, every ability sounds great, looks great, and feels great. I love the way the Ork buildings shudder as though they’re going to fall apart at any moment, clearly designed with coolness in mind first, and I’ll admit I giggled when I first heard the Tankbustaz yell “WHO YA GONNA CALL?” I love the tromp-tromp-tromp of the Marines in their ridiculous power armor, the way their enormous tanks recoil slightly when they fire to give it that extra heft. I love Paul-Leonard Morgan’s incredible, pulse-pounding soundtrack. And most of all, I love how everything can look so good while still running smoothly, even on my laptop.
This is why I say Dawn of War III captures Warhammer 40,000 like no game before it. This is why I can overlook my niggling complaints about the three factions. In these moments, when I’m fighting off endless hordes of enemies trying to push through the lines and I feel like I’m there…in these moments, I remember not only why I love this universe, but why I love videogames.
Unfortunately, that smell you’re smelling is a great big Ork “but” coming up. Multiplayer is great (if you can find good players.) Singleplayer Skirmish is great, too. Unfortunately, it’s laggy.
Yes, that’s right, laggy. And not because of the graphics which, as I said, are very well optimized. Dawn of War III has become the latest victim of the two words every singleplayer fan fears: “always online.” Even when playing a Solo match only with AI, I experienced repeated lag from servers I shouldn’t even be using, which is deeply frustrating for somebody who wants to experience the game’s best mode but needs to pause occasionally to, oh, I don’t know, maybe take notes for a review they’re getting paid to write. But y’know what? I shouldn’t have to have even that good of a reason to expect a game mode that’s been a staple of RTS games for decades to actually work properly.
Of course, singleplayer fans could always try the campaign mode, but only if they hate themselves. The singleplayer campaign is every bad RTS staple crammed into one. You know how a lot of RTS campaigns start with a simple but usually short level where you run through a linear corridor with a handful of troops? That happens multiple times, and it always drags on and on. You know how every Age of Empires II campaign is terrible because they arbitrarily limit the technology and units you have access to to create a false illusion of “difficulty?” Yeah. Rather than coming up with innovative gameplay ideas that wouldn’t be possible to implement in multiplayer (the one thing they should have stolen from Starcraft II) Dawn of War III, a game primarily about using big, awesome units and huge armies with diverse composition, doesn’t let you use any of the big, awesome units or diverse unit composition. Absolutely none of the intensity the Skirmish and multiplayer modes offer is present here, replaced instead by boredom.
I much preferred the campaigns in Soulstorm and Dark Crusade. Sure, they were basically just comprised of several rounds of Dawn of War in a loose overarching battleground narrative, but as it turns out, I like playing Dawn of War. This game might have more of a story, but it’s a boring story, a predictable plot stocked with paper-thin characters grumbling about their grand duty with less passion than the voice actors who just yell “Right away, Sir!” It’s a boring story and a boring game mode, whose hobbled version of the core gameplay doesn’t even work as a satisfactory tutorial.
A big part of me wants to give this game a 4.5/5, because it’s hands-down one of the most compelling experiences I’ve played this year and the most I’ve fallen in love with an RTS since Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty first dropped. A big part of me also says I should give the game a 3.5 or a 3, to protest the lazy design decisions that have hobbled both of the singleplayer modes and robbed us of the fully-fledged factions we deserved in multiplayer. In the end, I’ve decided to land somewhere in the middle. Let the fact that I can complain so much about a game and still give it an 80% show how much I absolutely adore Dawn of War III as an artistic endeavor. And let the fact that I can gush so much about a game and not give it a perfect or near-perfect score with a clear conscience show how deeply flawed it is as a product.
So, Dawn of War’s back, for better and for worse, filling its eternal niche as a cult hit that may never truly reach its full potential. If you’re a longtime fan and you (like me) were worried about how this new version would turn out, I think that you (like me) will love the game and continue to play it for years to come.
Just don’t even touch the campaign. Seriously. Better to earn all the currency needed to purchase Elites the slow way than to subject yourself to that garbage.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: SEGA; Developer: Relic Entertainment; Players: 1; Released: April 27, 2017 ; ESRB: M for Mature, MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Dawn of War III given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.