Format: PC
Developer: Relic
Publisher: THQ
Release date: 20/09/2004

On the frontlines, there is but one commandment:
Thou Shalt Kill


A real-time tactics/strategy game set in the grim future world of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000.

My write-up on this game should take into consideration my personal viewpoint. Like many male Brits, as a socially ill-equipped adolescent I absolutely loved Warhammer 40,000. Although I eventually realised the folly of spending nearly all my money – hundreds and hundreds of pounds – on little lead men and repented from playing the tabletop wargame, I’ve paid a little attention to the computer game visualisations of it whenever they come out. To now, they have always disappointed me (Space Hulk, Fire Warrior). An RTS based on the game has always been quite near the top of my “wouldn’t it be cool if …” list. And I have to say, this time Relic have nailed it. This is a great game by any objective measure, but from the point of view of an old fanboy, it’s absolutely fantastic to see little red Space Marines running around, shooting, maiming and praising the Emperor.

That out of the way, Dawn of War is: quick, aggressive, violent, fun.
It is not: realistic, deep, unpredictable.

Special mention should go to the cinematic introduction sequence, widely available for download before the game’s release. The viewer gets a pretty gory glimpse of what the game is all about; intense close combat between humanity’s finest and an array of extraterrestrial nasties. A Space Marine squad is heavily pinned under fire from a horde of Orks, their armoured support destroyed. A Dreadnought spectacularly wades into the fray, hosing Orks with an assault cannon before being blown up by a suicidal bomber. As the Marines storm a hill, a bloody melee ensues. The clip ends with the Marines’ fallen sergeant planting a banner on the summit as drop-pods of Marines blossom all over the devastated cityscape.

Review

Dawn of War’s graphics are outstanding. Tracer fire zips through the air, smoke and dust kicks up from bullet impacts, and flame weapons burn through squads and scenery alike. One of the biggest features, widely trumpeted in specialist press before release, was the way each soldier animates and reacts to the game world independently and individually. This means that, in melee combat, Marines fighting Orks will pull daggers and start stabbing. The Orks will block, swing back with axes and headbutt. Coupled with the fully zoomable and rotatable 3D engine, this means you can zoom in to the level of the individual marine in combat and see the chaos ensue right up close. This is a real buzz the first few times you play, but really is a bit of a gimmick. To manage your forces practically, a more traditional isometric view is much more often employed.

The campaign storyline will spring few surprises on players who have prior knowledge of 40k’s Tolkien-in-space-on-crack backstory (referred to by aficionados as fluff). The Blood Ravens Chapter of the Space Marines deploy to planet Tartarus to combat an Ork incursion. While holding the line against the marauding greenskins, their commander, haunted by his failure to adequately defend his homeworld, begins to uncover a sinister plot. The story is conveyed through cutscenes before and after missions. These are animated using the in-game engine. This engine, while excellent at capturing dynamic combat actions, does lack a little when portraying what are essentially talking heads spouting exposition. The characters stand almost static, waving their arms and attached weapons a little alarmingly. Oh, and a word on that dialogue – the voice acting is so hammy, so marvellously over-the-top that it goes through bad and becomes, if not actually good, certainly enjoyable. The Space Marine Commander paraphrases Shakespeare, Chaos Sorcerors lisp and hiss like pantomime baddies and Orks are hugely exaggerated, aggressive Cockneys.

The single player game is well crafted. The learning curve is forgiving if a wee bit handholdy to begin with – the first few levels have very limited manoeuvrability and a strategy game really involves very little strategy if there is only a single route to send your troops. New units are introduced well, your arsenal expanding from the destructive to the devastating as you progress. The final levels are genuinely challenging, but never frustratingly so.

The absolute gift for the developers was that 40k gave them not one but many fully formed army structures, complete with specialists in close combat, ranged combat, armour and even builder units. This means you can quickly develop a set of tactics that work well, while retaining flexibility as your army’s capabilities are improved. The addition of unique leader characters is a clever feature, adding both recognisable faces to your army of identical power armoured behemoths and a formidable punch to frontline units. Relic have done a wonderful job porting many, many of the tabletop game’s features to this version. Wargear cards become researchable extra weapons. Psychic powers become unique character abilities. Morale and fear are employed to great effect – squads can break under stress in combat and either flee to rally or continue fighting at greatly reduced capability. Some weapons will induce fear – sniper rifles picking off squad members from afar or flame weapons burning them alive – as will some units – the Eldar Avatar or Chaos Terrors.

The four races encountered in the campaign are all playable in multiplayer: Space Marines, Orks, Chaos and Eldar. One of Dawn of War’s most unique aspects really comes into its own in multiplayer, making it a distinctly different experience to many other RTS games. This is that resource gathering does not take the traditional form of sending gatherer units out to collect ore/gold/lucky charms from inhospitable battlefields. Instead, your requisition total grows at a set rate, allowing you to build new units, upgrade/reinforce existing ones and so on. The rate at which your requisition increases is set by the number of strategic points your forces hold. You take a point by taking and holding it with ground troops for a set time. This makes for a very fast, aggressive game – it is not possible to sit in your base behind a wall of fixed defence, building up a tank swarm. You have to get your troops out and capturing points as fast as possible, otherwise you will simply be starved out of the game. Fast moving units such as assault marines or raptors are best for this. A tactic I found effective as Space Marines was to use two-man Scout teams under infiltration camouflage to mark the strategic points and move on, then to capture them with a jump-pack equipped assault squad. Consolidate with ground units or armoured support – a Predator or two, with a Rhino transport following, carrying builder units to fortify the position.

A pretty vibrant online community has sprung up around Dawn of War, with various groups eagerly poking holes in the engine and finding out what is possible with it. The online aspect is enhanced by the in-game army painter feature. This allows you to design a personalised colour scheme, faction name and insignia for your army. This has allowed much creativity and individuality online.

This noder’s opinion is that Dawn of War is an excellent game, hugely enjoyable. The single player campaign could be longer, but multiplayer promises many hours of entertainment. One note if you’re considering investing: in this game there are four playable armies plus one non-playable allied race. Only one of these has a single player campaign. There are half a dozen more armies from the 40k universe that Relic could lift wholesale and plonk into their wünder-engine. Do the math. I would put money on an expansion pack before the end of 2005.

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