Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War

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Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War
PC
Developed by Relic Entertainment
Released in 2004

When talking about games based on the Warhammer license, most people will immediately think about Dawn of War, Relic Entertainment’s contribution to the series. While Space Crusade and Rites of War were great strategy games in their own right, Dawn of War is still recent enough to be remembered by the average gamer and it did a fantastic job to bring people into the grimdark world of Games Workshops’ beloved tabletop game. Let’s see how this old boy holds up.

Chaos is throwing a party and everyone’s invited

Dawn of War brings us to the world of Tartarus, an average planet by most accounts, which has come under siege by an army of Orks. As the Imperial Guard struggles to hold their own against the endless stream of green-skinned barbarians, space marines from the Blood Ravens chapter land on the planet and lend their aid. Led by the Brother-Captain Gabriel Angelos and the librarian Isador, players command the forces of the Blood Ravens and their Imperial Guard allies on a campaign to save Tartarus.

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As these things go, it soon turns out that the Orks are but one of the dangers lurking on the planet, so by the end of the road it is a 4-way brawl between Orks, Chaos, Blood Ravens, and even the Eldar. What makes Dawn of War stand out compared to the other games we reviewed so far, at least in terms of storytelling, is that it has actual characters involved. Gabriel, Isador, and plenty of other characters on all sides of the conflict pop up with well-defined personalities and plenty of screentime. Even the Eldar Farseer had me intrigued and entertained despite how little you see of her on the whole.

Cutscenes that begin and end each mission give the entire cast time to shine, which more than makes up for the fact that they are a tad too long. Where the game falls flat however is in its would-be plot-twist. A lot of the cutscenes lean heavily on a dilemma that I won’t spoil, but anybody familiar with the Warhammer universe will instantly recognize who will end up double-crossing who. Here I feel they could have handled things better by either not showing us the interactions between the traitor and the villains or not dragging the twist out for as long as they do. The ending is also kind of a mediocre sequel-hook.

Story score: 7/10

Deep Striking into action

I do believe this is the first real-time strategy game we have reviewed here and fortunately it’s by no means a bad one. All of the four factions in the game operate basically the same with different units and strengths. You build up your base by constructing an HQ and adding barracks for unit development, workshops for research, and other buildings like that in the vicinity. To do so you need resources, which come from control points spread around the battlefield, as well as power that is generated from, well, generators. Furthermore, by building a listening point on top of a control point you enable your builder units (generally servitors) to put additional buildings around it. This can be used to secure a position with turrets, or to create a forward base by putting a new, expensive HQ down.

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To capture control points and fight enemies you need units that need to be recruited. You’ll start with infantry like tactical marines and Ork Boyz (when in multiplayer, the campaign only has Blood Ravens available), but later down the line you can expand to vehicles, giant machines of war, infiltrators, and some real heavy-hitters to specialize your army. What makes this particularly fun is that you can upgrade your units with additional bodies, give them heavy weapons, or add a sergeant or hero character to lead them in battle. This makes your units feel less disposable as the resources run out after a while and you can’t indefinitely spawn 10-man tactical squads loaded with rocket launchers.

Each mission in the campaigns starts you off with some basics and then tasks you with thrashing all the enemy bases on the map, claiming control points along the way and attempting to hold those while fulfilling additional objectives. It’s a bit monotonous because few missions introduce variety, and those that do will generally fall back on all-out warfare again soon, but it’s by no means easy. Even on the lower difficulties the enemy AI is a worthy opponent, constantly harassing you with small raids and eager to exploit weaknesses in your defense. I have lost count of how often I would be attacking a base, only to find out a bunch of units went through a few side-passages and are now taking the control points back and breaking my servitors.

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Control-wise the game leaves a lot to be desired and I find that not being able to pause to input commands gets on my nerves a lot more than it does in other RTS games. It’s a traditional drag-to-select system where you drag a box around the units you want to select, but the units are bulky and the screen small, making it hard to get all your dudes grouped up. Once selected you see cards on the interface depicting the status of each unit, which is definitely helpful. Where it falls apart, is that your units are really picky about fighting.

I can’t get consistent behavior out of my units, besides that everything they do is wrong. Some of the worst moments are when I send marines in to aid a squad that is under assault and they just won’t enter the battle. They’ll get just close enough that one guy in the unit can shoot and then stand still while Orks are tearing my assault units to shreds. Aggro range is also ridiculous, so I’d sometimes find out a road I blocked is under attack and only a single landspeeder engaged the enemies while his buddies stand just to the side doing nothing.

A common reason behind this are the stances, it seems. One mission starts you off with a bunch of artillery guns that literally just won’t fire until you change their stance, which you need to do for each individual unit and unless you play the game a lot there’s really no indication of what any stance will do. I tried switching them around a bit only to find units would still behave pretty much the same, which raises the question why it even needs to be here. Why would I want my artillery guns to do anything other than fire artillery or my assault units to not do anything in their power to get within melee range? The fact that vulnerable artillery units, by default, are set to charge into the thick of the enemy while firing shells is ridiculous.

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After a while you do figure out how to command your units in ways that make them behave somewhat decent, but even near the end game it was a bother how much you need to micro manage. Units lag behind or suddenly decide to return to their original position after wiping out one of the many enemy units, and if you want to throw a grenade you need to click a unit card, click the grenade icon, and then target a foe, all while guns are blazing and lasers are tearing through the battlefield. Numerous times I would be just slightly too late in throwing a life-saving grenade because it takes three clicks to pull it off.

I realize I am ranting on a lot about the AI behavior, and I apologize for that. It’s just really that much of a consistent issue throughout the campaign and a few tweaks would have improved them a lot. At the end of the day the core gameplay is good enough to be entertaining and the Warhammer universe allowed Relic to include some really cool units that you won’t find in your typical strategy game. The enemy can put a worthy fight and while the overall goal of any given mission is pretty much the same, they create variety through the opponents you must face and small gimmicks added throughout.

Gameplay score: 6/10

Burn it all!

Dawn of War creates a nice representation of Games Workshops’ universe by successfully mixing its dark, violent nature with some of the sillier themes. You got your gritty story and tragic loss of human life, standing besides the ridiculous Orks and the mad ravings of the chaos cultists. It’s also fun to see the battlefields you fight on change from lush forests and war-torn cities to the truly hellish landscapes that take prevalence later on. Tartarus is truly changing and you get to be a part of that.

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The units are nicely detailed and in action there are a lot of animations to them. I love how the Dreadnoughts pick up Orks and tear them to shreds or the ferocity with which the mighty Squiggoth stampedes through hordes of foes. Likewise the voice clips for each unit are spot-on, with the aforementioned Orks and equally hilarious cultist stealing the show. The main characters too enjoy great voice work, for the most part. Gabriel Angelos is voiced by a stern and heroic sounding Paul Dobson, with his brother Michael portraying the allied inquisitor Toth. Mark Oliver, otherwise relatively unknown, does a great job as the wise and mysterious Psyker Isador and his nemesis, the Chaos Sorceror Sindri, is presented to us by the massively talented Scott McNeil, who shares several scenes with himself as he also plays the Chaos Lord Bale.

Presentation score: 8/10

Skirmish mode

When you tire of the story mode and its multiple difficulty settings, you eventually arrive at the skirmish mode where you duke it out against the AI or other players. While there are a ton of maps to choose from for all numbers of participants, it really sucks that the game is limited to four factions and that Game of the Year Edition apparently didn’t mean what I think it meant. There are three DLC packs to buy that bring in additional factions, making the skirmish mode a lot more diverse and adding lots of story content to boot. I’ll be reviewing those separately, but outside of a sale you’ll be paying a lot of money to get this game complete, a little too much for a PC game this old.

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The game does let you pick between different sub-factions, so for example you see me playing as the Imperial Fists a lot. However, this has no in-game benefit, it’s just an alternate color scheme to help separate different players that both wanted to be the same faction.

Extras score: 7/10

Verdict

I have owned Dawn of War for quite some time and started it up quite often. I’d play the first few missions, run into the control and AI issues I kept banging on about before, and then quit the game angrily. Having finished it now I must say this was a story I really enjoyed and I actually went out of my way to play some skirmish matches to see how the Orks, Eldar, and Chaos forces differed in play-style. However, the game is lacking in content and really pricey for a title from 2004.

70/100

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