The Dawn of War series has been a standard for strategic innovation for more than a decade, setting the course for Company of Heroes and ultimately outliving its patron, THQ. The series now returns with a sequel that is even more controversial in the eye of the fans than Dawn of War II.
The story of Dawn of War III’s campaign revolves around a prophecy about the Spear of Khaine which draws, willingly or not, multiple factions on the planet Cyprus Ultima. Blinded by the foreseeable events Inquisitor Holt has placed a blockade on the planet’s orbit while the knights on the surface valiantly fight, alone, against the overwhelming ork forces. The honorable Blood Ravens defy the inquisitor’s will descending to aid the outnumbered imperial forces. As things are set in motion, the obsessed Autarch Kyre prepares his craftworld to secure the Spear of Khaine. The three factions clash in a chaotic war that’s fueled by greed, stupidity and even madness.
The campaign splits the narrative into 17 missions following a cursive thread alternating between the three playable races. The actions of one race affect the others building up into a compelling story, by 40k’s standards, that’s meant to trigger the player’s curiosity. The Blood Ravens fight valiantly side by side with their chapter master, Gabriel Angelos, a space marine that has been fighting against alopecia probably for as long as he has been fighting orks. Suited in a terminator armor fitting the stature of a primarch and flipping his hammer through the air with the ease Master Yi flips his sword (who thought that was a good idea?). The green skins witness the rise of Warboss Gorgutz, an ork with a plan, possessing the cunningness of a lower grade politician, he cleverly takes over the Waagh just to get distracted by a pointy stick. Lastly, the puny space elves go through an internal crisis as the doubtful Macha of Biel-Tan, guided by the legendary Jain Zar, does not get distracted by the prophecy in question. The three are the brightest out of a sorry bunch of leaders that suffer from a severe political and tactical tunnel vision. Their fate intertwines as the action grows dire with the arrival from warp of the planet Acheron holding within its vaults the Spear of Khaine.
The campaign is action packed taking advantage of the new gameplay mechanics and greatly benefiting from well written moments providing savory dialogues with a constant reactivity to the action on the screen. With all its potential the campaign fails to escape the glorified tutorial label due to a restrictive mission design that’s set on killing any immersion factor while hindering the narrative. Much of the strategic value and freedom for tactical engagements is lost in scripted scenarios which lock the playable area to sectors until certain objectives are completed. This utterly uninspired and almost linear design is underlined by a lack of unique elements to differentiate the singleplayer from the multiplayer making the campaign’s gameplay feel stale. Following on what seems to be a curse for strategy games, the ending is unable to salvage the day abandoning all decency and reason for a climax that’s epic just for the sake of being epic, in what can be assumed as an attempt to please the fans of all three races.
The campaign was, for the most part, good fun with epic battles filled with the blood boiling battle cries of space marines and the hilarious chatter between orks. But the lazy mission design meant to make the developer’s life easier kept slapping me out of the battle induced immersion up until the end where the events fell flat on the unimaginative floor. Dawn of War III’s campaign wants to be good and some excellent moments stand as proof to that. But without the enticing story and gameplay ingenuity of Chaos Rising or the unique missions of Starcraft II it struggles to rise above mediocrity.
For better or for worse, Dawn of War III’s gameplay has been striped clean of many iconic mechanics. The cover system, accuracy, morale, synch kills and retreat are some of the fallen victims to this reinvention of the series. The game is now juggling elements from Warcraft III and MoBA into one multiplayer mode that hasn’t been received all that well. This certain change in identity didn’t come without a counterpart and new mechanics have been added to favor a much cleaner and exact gameplay. The new cover is a shielded area for fixed locations on the map providing protection against ranged attacks but vulnerable to melee. The bushes and steam clouds are now places for scouting and setting ambushes. But more importantly, crowd control is a streamlined collective of past mechanics designed as a countermeasure for some of the new and powerful units each faction has in its roster.
The three armies take different strategic paths to victory using specific mechanics that make each of them feel unique. The structures have returned to consolidate on this but not as a gameplay defining mechanic as seen in other RTS games but serving its purpose of gating progression with just a bit of strategic importance. The units are the differential factor between each faction, sharing the same basic army roles but most of the time playing wildly different. This diversity is further enhanced through the customization options granted by the doctrine’s system brought here from Company of Heroes 2. Doctrines change the utility of units granting new abilities and even changing their behavior. This way seemingly weak units can be turned into powerful machines of war. These builds open up all kind of strategies with only the downside of a much more volatile balance.
The unit’s balance follows a rock-paper-scissors system resembling the past but much more fragile and not always that obvious. The infantry has retained the squad structure for management, economical and tactical purposes but to a lower extent than before. On the other side, armored vehicles have lost much of their resilience succumbing to the classic damage model. Each of the two forces can exist separately but the gameplay synergy of combined arms further enhanced by doctrines and commanding units is the key of end game battles. The highlight here are the newly introduced elites, a strong set of hero-like units which are part of the pre-existing build, limited to three slots per army and coming with their own doctrines. The elites resemble the heroes of Warcraft III leading the charge and changing the course of battle with their powerful abilities but without relying on an in-game leveling system. Their variety adds flavor to a slightly limited roster of units, ranging from the campaign’s protagonists to the gargantuan Imperial Knights and Wraithlords which treat soldiers like they are generic MoBA creeps.
As with any modern game, Dawn of War III is trying to kindle the flame of replayability through a progression system that locks doctrines and elite units behind a pay wall of in-game currency gained through campaign and online matches. A practice which most likely pushed away some of the multiplayer oriented players. But while annoying at start, this system could serve as a delivery platform for upcoming content in the form of elite units and skins without compromising the game’s integrity and balance.
Whether we like to admit it or not, the strategy games that stood the test of time and joined the hall of fame were pretty rounded up with a keen multiplayer. Starcraft’s campaign was brilliant but what made it a worldwide phenomenon was its LAN multiplayer which joined the back then selective few e-sports. And the Dawn of War series has made no exception from this rule having a solid focus on its multiplayer component. Dawn of War III’s multiplayer has been adjusted to welcome the new and uncharted path the gameplay has taken. The maps are generally smaller with the layout split between multiple lanes where the resources are the focal point. This design is more linear but with enough routes for outflanking and outplaying enemies in engagements that lean towards micromanagement more than they have ever did in the past. The goal is to overpower your enemies through map control and combat prowess in order to weaken their defensive and gain access to their base. A simple task for what can rapidly transform into a herculean labor. The armies can rapidly grow in number but the bases aren’t easily accessed. Shield generators and turrets defend protect the path to the power core (sounds familiar?!), preventing cheesy strategies and forcing players into outthinking and outplaying their opponents
The multiplayer matches are usually a back and forth battle of attrition where the initial engagements carry more weight than they should, capable of triggering an unstoppable snowballing effect. But while balance is clearly a sensitive subject so early in the game’s life, going past these crucial moments opens up an entirely different experience. “There is only war” has never been more accurate in a Warhammer 40k game than it is now. The multiplayer matches are an endless stream of battles powered by the escalation system which constantly fuels resources for more and more units. The end game is a chaotic yet somehow tactical mess where armies clash in a micromanagement madness that’s set on trimming the playerbase to a dedicated few. Elite and standard units melt together in battles of epic proportions providing an unseen spectacle of large scale war worthy of the 40k universe.
It’s hard to judge how much the third title is or isn’t a Dawn of War game and I won’t dive in polemics about this subject because there are much more dire problems at hand. Dawn of War III suffers from a visibly rushed release leaving the game with problems as simple as improperly positioned menus to as bad as faulty pathfinder and unresponsive units. Existing features like replays don’t properly work while necessary features like rebindable keys are nowhere to be found. The shortage of content doesn’t help either with only 8 multiplayer maps split between team brackets and without a leaderboards to track performance and measure skill. But what drove the chainsword through the wounded hearts of the fans was the exclusion of the Last Stand mode which made Dawn of War II such a popular game.
In the end the gameplay can be a hit or miss. Those too attached to the mechanics of the past will find Dawn of War III rather unappealing. Complexity and entertainment can be found behind the wall of preconceptions but in a different shape and most likely having a slightly different demographic target.
The change in visual appearance has been the first topic of controversy since the first was released and some of the fears the players had back then have come true. Dawn of War is a more colorful, at times a bit cartoonish, looking game with sharper and more distinct visuals yet not devoid of graphical details. The grimness of the setting is being chipped by these flashy aesthetics but its violence is still present even without synch kills and battlefield physics.
Dawn of War III has a much cleaner if not silly look now. Space Marines squads move in a unison formation parading their clean looking armors which have never seen war before. Flipping heroes jump out of the pages of manga volumes and colorful lasers replace the once terrifying beams of lascannons in battles that don’t carry the weight of the past.
The new artistic direction has caused grief to many including myself, but it would be unfair to say that Dawn of War III is a bad looking game. While a certain visually induced feeling has been tampered with, there are plenty of praise worthy qualities in both its technical and artistic components. The graphics have been clearly improved with a much better texture work providing compelling and good looking platforms for campaign and online slaughter. For all the lack of details on the standard units, additional effort has been put into making the elites look spectacular and they surely do! Each elite unit has a model design and skins worthy of a Golden Demon award winner. The animation quality for the imperial knights can put to shame certain modern RPGs with shell’s casings expelled of their monstrous cannons and a brilliant mechanical movement.
Dawn of War III’s audio hasn’t escaped untouched by change, a change that can mostly be noticed in the voice acting. Gabriel Angelos and Apollo Diomedes are rallying the Blood Ravens to battle with the same conviction but not with the same tone in their voice. Much has changed in the voice acting and I dare to say it is for the better. Some of the most brilliantly amusing or immersive moments of the campaign are provided through dialogues. And while that’s in part due to some spot on writing, the voice actors did an excellent job at capturing the personality of each character, no matter how important. There is an equality in voice acting that I don’t usually hear in other games. A Gretchin’s voice feels as important and well done as the one of a protagonist and this feeling stays true for most units. This is an impressive feat that goes unexploited in a weird tradeoff between quality and quantity.
In terms of music, Dawn of War III has an inspiring and rhythmic soundtrack that can go unnoticed covered by soldiers’ cries, explosions and firing weapons. The sound design can be overpowering with a differentiated mix of everything. The weight of the units can be heard as they stomp over the floor foreshadowing an impending doom and the madness of the orks is unleashed by the Waaagh! Towers. There is more attention put into sound design than expected which came as a pleasant surprise part of an overall good audio package.
SEGA and Relic Entertainment have repeated their last mistake rushing another game into an early launch while failing to generate enough excitement and prompting a backlash from the fans. But while some complaints are justified I feel like the majority are directed in the wrong direction. Players seem to have forgotten that Dawn of War II was a much different game from its predecessor yet a solid strategy nonetheless. Once again the Dawn of War series tries to reinvent itself as part of this dying genre by combining elements from previous titles into a fast paced gameplay inspired in parts by other games. Gameplay mechanics had to be removed and adjustments had to be made for this cross-over to work. However, beneath this massive change, and its many shortcomings, awaits a strategy game resembling the traits of old and a new feel that’s waiting to be discovered.
I’m glad I stuck with the game past my initial impression which was influenced by the upsetting issues and scarce content. Despite its flaws and quirks, Dawn of War III is a tactical and deceptively complex RTS in its own way with an immense capacity for epic and satisfying online matches. This is a solid platform to build upon and it’s up to SEGA and Relic to make up for their mistakes.
+ The campaign has some savory moments
+ Excellent sound design and good voice acting
+ Races with unique gameplay mechanics
+ Elite units’ design
+ Epic online battles
+ The progression system can extend the game’s longevity
+ The Army Painter
– Many iconic gameplay mechanics have been removed
– Some of the campaign’s missions are too scripted and lack unique mechanics
– The graphics can come as flashy
– A limited number of official maps
– Plenty of problems ranging from UI to controls and balance
– No rebindable keys
– No leaderboard and ranked matches as of yet
– No Last Stand mode