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Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II Review

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Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II is a fun and fascinating game with a bit of an identity crisis. In one corner you have an explosively intense multiplayer real-time strategy experience, brimming with savagely satisfying competition. In the other, you have an odd and somewhat enjoyable single-player campaign that plays more like an action role-playing game than an RTS. The relationship between these two disparate entities is superficial; the structure and gameplay of the campaign has little in common with that of your skirmishes against other players or the computer. It's a bizarre dichotomy that doesn't always work, but online play is so deeply rewarding that the scattered campaign missteps are easily forgiven.

The first question that you might ask yourself as you play Dawn of War II's lengthy campaign may very well be: Where does the strategy come in? It's certainly not your typical RTS experience, putting you in control of up to four squads of Space Marines (and only Space Marines) and sending you off to exterminate your Ork, Eldar, and Tyranid foes. You won't be building a base or churning out units, but rather maneuvering your few commander-led squads around the map (likely as a single group) and beating up the beasties that stand between you and your mission objectives. Your goals may entail capturing a particular structure, recovering a stolen object, or even defeating an end-level boss(!). How's that for defying genre conventions?

 

This relatively simple gameplay is not what you'd expect from a strategy game, and strategy fans, including those who adored Dawn of War II's illustrious predecessor, will be disappointed that the "S" is missing from "RTS" in this instance. That's because the campaign is more akin to an action RPG, and if you look at it from this perspective, you're more likely to enjoy the journey. The game isn't going to dissuade you from that approach; the elements of a role-playing game are all accounted for. You will level up your squads and earn new abilities and bonuses, collect items and loot on the battlefield, and spend time between battles equipping your commanders with the various armor sets and weapons that you earn. With these RPG mechanics come the usual addictive loot-hoarding and unit personalization, what with various skill paths from which to choose and usable items that your commanders can equip.

 

Thus, Dawn of War II's single-player campaign isn't really strategic at all, but you will make tactical decisions that move beyond simple mouse clicking. In a mechanic pulled from the developer's own Company of Heroes, some squads can lay down suppressive fire, which slows your targets and hinders them from a quick escape. Units can be garrisoned or take cover behind certain objects, a mechanic easy to implement thanks to a slick interface and simple but effective visual feedback. However, the most important facet of a successful battle is your familiarity with each commander's unique abilities. Whether it is one's rally cry or another's jump-pack-powered stomp, effective use of skills (along with items such as grenades and satchel charges) is not only your key to victory, but also a visual and sonic delight. Seeing a dreadnought squash a ripper swarm, or a lictor alpha yank a powerless assault marine with its lethal flesh hooks, is enjoyably violent and makes battles fun to watch.

Dawn of War II's impressive production values enhance the intensity of your encounters. The game looks great across the board, from its outstanding destructible environments, to shimmering ambient lighting, to remarkable unit animations that make every battle look as though the entire war hinges on it. Although zooming in close to units isn't very helpful from a gameplay perspective, doing so reveals a wealth of terrific details, such as the rusted plating on dreadnoughts or a hormagaunt's chillingly sharp talons. Explosions, warp blasts, and other special effects not only look great, but also sound absolutely phenomenal. A barrage of intense battle sounds will burst from your speakers, but individual touches such as the way Orks call out "dakka dakka dakka" as they fire their weapons emerge with clarity. Assisted by a cinematic orchestral soundtrack that swells with drama without overreaching, the sound design provides a constant stream of audio feedback that puts you in the thick of the action without crossing the lines of good taste.

 

How you approach Dawn of War II depends on what you're looking for in a real-time strategy game. If you're looking for an incredibly fun and intense multiplayer and single-player skirmish experience, few RTSs provide combat this exciting and dynamic. If you were hoping for a similarly dynamic campaign mode, you'll find that the strategy has been mostly stripped away in favor of role-playing elements. This divide may help the game appeal to a wider audience, but it also leads to an identity crisis that Dawn of War II never comes to grips with. Regardless, this is a game that real-time strategy lovers should play, if not for the loot-happy leveling of the campaign, then certainly for the constantly enjoyable online component that will keep you glued to the screen for hours at a time.

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