Beautiful, bloody, and fast-paced strategy that sometimes gets bogged down in the details.
Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War 3 is as bloody and chaotic as its bombastic sci-fi universe demands. After its predecessor memorably focused almost exclusively on unit tactics, the pendulum has swung back toward larger armies and basic base-building, creating some extremely challenging micromanagement with a complex set of rules that makes it tough to dive into. It’s not big on variety and its campaign has a scattered pace, but it’s a good real-time strategy game that makes some bold moves.
With its focus on controlling up to three powerful hero characters next to disposable troops, Dawn of War 3 feels like a spiritual successor to Blizzard’s divisive Warcraft 3, the game from which DotA and the entire MOBA genre was born. Dawn of War 3 is distinctly set apart by major differences like Relic’s signature control point resource generation systems, but its abandonment of Dawn of War 2’s cover, suppression, and weapon facing systems make give it more of that fun and fast old-school pacing. A little sadly, though, it feels less like Relic’s own unique style as a result.
It’s definitely still big on grim Warhammer 40K spectacle.
It’s definitely still big on grim Warhammer 40K spectacle, including battles with absolutely gigantic super mechs that cut swaths through enemy armies, flashy and bloody effects as lasers, bullets, and melee weapons carve soldiers to pieces, and bodies flying everywhere. Watching the Space Marine leader, Gabriel Angelos, stride across the battlefield and smash an Ork with his enormous hammer is always entertaining, especially since he stands easily twice the height of a normal Space Marine and in order to help you pick him out in the fray when dozens of units (each part of a squad) collide. It looks great, and while the animations might not have quite the gory flourish of those in Dawn of War 2 (moves in which a large unit grab a small one and rip it to shreds are notably absent this time), they’re still outstanding considering how much is happening on screen at any given time. The counterpoint is that high settings were too much for even my GTX 1080 when running at 1440p with no antialiasing – it was hovering around 40fps most of the time.
The lengthy 17-mission campaign is driven by a paint-by-numbers Warhammer 40K story full of Wrestlemania-like shouting, much of which Ork leader Goregutz very effectively boils down to “I WANT DAT POINTY STICK!” The voice acting enthusiastically embraces the over-the-top writing, I’ll give it that. Nearly every subsequent mission cycles between the perspective of the Space Marines, Orks, and Eldar factions, which is a questionable decision for a couple of reasons. For one, you don’t get the same time to get to know any one group of heroes that we did in Dawn of War 2 and its expansions, so most of them feel flat even after listening to the optional expanded dialogue during mission briefings. The other issue is that because Dawn of War 3 is such a complex game, switching between three significantly different factions so frequently meant it was tough to grasp their nuances, and it was close to the end of the campaign before I began to feel comfortable with any of them.
Each mission takes 20 minutes to an hour, so there’s no shortage of content. It felt even longer because there’s no autosave, so it’s easy to lose close to an hour of progress if you don’t save manually and something goes wrong. A few times I failed at the end of a multi-stage mission and had to repeat the whole thing. It was totally my fault for not saving early and often, but also it felt like a reasonable assumption that Dawn of War 3 should have checkpoints at logical points.
The three factions differ from each other in a few interesting ways. The Orks, for instance, upgrade themselves using scrap piles, a unique resource that’s generated by towers or left behind after vehicles or buildings are destroyed. They can even scavenge those piles to build a new mech in the field, and they can also reinforce squads on the go with certain units, letting them keep up the momentum of an attack. Meanwhile, Eldar units are shielded, and you can teleport their buildings anywhere on the map and then warp their armies between any two. At the same time they’re much faster and better fighters when within range of a warp gate, so controlling lots of territory is important for them. And Space Marines, while the most straightforward of the bunch, have tons of armored vehicles and soldiers that can be built at a factory or dramatically dropped from the sky on top of the enemy, plus tricks like a deployable battle standard that boosts them in combat. There’s more than enough variety in the three factions’ unit design to make them feel distinct – even the similar basic infantry units are set apart by different special abilities.
It’s surprising that the level design doesn’t take more advantage of each faction’s traits.
But it’s surprising that the level design doesn’t take more advantage of each faction’s traits to do something unexpected. There’s a fair variety of fighting from point A to point B to destroy a target, timed holdouts against waves of enemies, and scrounging for resources without a base to fall back on, but that’s about it. Very few of the challenges in any of the missions feel like they’re tailored to any one faction over the other two. Maybe StarCraft 2 has spoiled me for RTS campaign design, but straightforward fights lose their appeal after a while.
On the first playthrough of the campaign, Dawn of War 3’s micromanagement-heavy unit mechanics felt complex for complexity’s sake. Especially within the elite hero units’ abilities there’s layer upon layer of status effects, damage types, and subtle rules that make it difficult to tell what’s going to happen when you zap someone with it. I’m still not sure how to quickly tell which unit has which armor type, and it doesn’t go out of its way to teach you things like which units counter which. That will all inevitably bear itself out in the multiplayer community, but the campaign is a separate beast.
Where the interface does a good job is in organizing your existing forces. It displays every squad on the field or in production as a portrait icon along the bottom of the screen, allowing you to easily see which ones are damaged and need to be withdrawn, and the list helpfully rearranges itself as you assign control groups. I especially like that when playing as Orks I can see which units have been upgraded based on their portraits. The information that’s displayed is displayed well.
The Multiplayer Meat Grinder
Dawn of War 3’s multiplayer mode for up to six players (or AIs) on two teams is a chaotic challenge of micromanagement. There’s only one mode, designed around an interesting MOBA-inspired three-stage victory condition: you must destroy a shield generator, then a turret, and then your enemy’s main base structure. It effectively eliminates early-game rushes and allows for counterattacks if one side over-commits on a push and has their army depleted by the powerful turrets. That gives these games a distinctive if slightly drawn-out pace.
Combat is intense and chaotic, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed as you battle over map control points and cover-granting bunkers. It gets especially nuts with large groups of melee units in the fray and all the stun and knockback effects in play when elites are in the mix and death rains down from the sky in the form of drop pods and superweapons. Plus, the rules change every 10 minutes due to the Escalation Phase mechanic, which artificially increases your income and structure health in the late game while reducing the early-game automatic refunds you get when units die. And there’s even more minutia to get lost in by customizing your faction by selecting a set of unlockable modifiers and elite units. It’s a lot to keep track of, and it’s even more intimidating to newcomers than most RTSes.
Considering that Relic went to the trouble of bringing back base building for Dawn of War 3, it’s surprising that it feels so superfluous. There’s no tech tree to create build orders around – you can build everything as soon as you can afford it – and your base is protected by that huge turret until the final moments of a game, making it very difficult for the enemy to destroy them unless you’re already basically dead anyway. So other than structures built out on the front lines (which are helpful for reinforcing) there’s not a lot of thought that goes into where to place what.
One of the most interesting decisions to make was when to summon your elite characters, and which to summon first.
One of the most interesting decisions to make was when to summon your elite characters, and which to summon first. Do you call in a cheap one, like the Eldar’s Farseer Macha, as quickly as possible, or save up your slowly-accumulating Elite Points to get a massive Wraithknight onto the battlefield sooner, risking an early push from the enemy? That opens up some elite rush strategies, as well as options for turtling up for a late push. You can also swap out your elite lineup to not have a super-expensive character at all, and quickly field three less-powerful heroes while your enemy saves up. In another MOBA-inspired idea, the elites are built around roles like support, stealth, and damage-dealers, and while they don’t have as many powers as a character from League of Legends or DOTA 2 (and there’s no in-match leveling to manage) they can turn back armies if used well. Coming up with three-character lineups that synergize well together will take a lot of experimentation, but there are lots of options for customization to your play style.
The superweapons are clever and unconventional, too – Marines can, for example, call down a laser from the sky that can be moved around the map. But in a stunning twist, the enemy can seize control of the weapon and turn it against you (or just render it ineffective) if you fail to defend its control point. The orks’ weapon is effectively a bomb that must be carried into combat by a unit, and if that unit dies the enemy can grab it and run it back, like an actual nuclear football. This adds a great element of risk to using your most powerful attacks, and an element of skill in successful execution beyond just waiting for the right moment to drop the hammer.
As a Dawn of War and Company of Heroes veteran, though, I’m annoyed at the lack of a retreat button in Dawn of War 3. Since it’s significantly cheaper to bring damaged squads back to your base to reinforce them with fresh troops than it is to build a new squad, it’s maddening to have to go back to directing them manually when I’ve come from a game where they’d make a beeline for home at the push of a button. Granted, that’s not an issue if you’re not accustomed to those games, since it’s not a common RTS feature, but when there’s so much other micromanagement going on adding more feels like piling on.
There just aren’t very many maps.
Another issue is that there just aren’t very many maps. If you’re playing 3v3, for example, there are only three maps available that can accommodate that many players. Considering there’s just that one mode, it feels a little one-note, even with the slow trickle of upgrades from the progression system.
And those can feel a little excessive. Dawn of War 3 has separate progression systems for all three factions that allow you to unlock various optional tweaks to your units’ mechanics, such as allowing Space Marines to reinforce from resource point towers or giving Eldar banshees a temporary shield after they’ve scored six kills. You won’t come close to unlocking all of these with a campaign playthrough, as you won’t earn nearly enough currency and about a third of them are locked to a far higher level than I reached at completion. Then you have to level your individual elite units in order to unlock all of their abilities, which is another slow process. (Dawn of War 2’s equipable loot is also absent from this iteration, but you can still customize unit paint jobs.) Unlocking them all seems like it’ll be a privilege reserved for people who put in a great many hours of multiplayer.
Maybe that’s just as well because, I have the same issue with these custom tweaks I had with it in Company of Heroes 2: it makes the battlefield less readable. Not knowing which ones the enemy has equipped – and doesn’t have – makes for a dizzying number of variables you can’t fully prepare for. Some people may enjoy that kind of surprise, but in a strategy game it messes with my ability to, you know, strategize. Fortunately most of them I’ve encountered thus far haven’t been too tough to deal with, but people will definitely figure some surprises out. They always do.