Dawn of War III Review
Another dramatic shift in direction for the series with mixed results
Regardless of anything else, Relic Entertainment certainly can’t be criticized for playing it safe when it comes to sequels, especially in the Dawn of War series. The first entry was a great spin on a traditional RTS formula, while Dawn of War II pivoted drastically to a smaller scale, more tactical experience that threw base-building out the window in favor of smaller but more micro-management focused engagements that emphasized unit preservation and hard counters. With Dawn of War III, Relic have once again gone back to the drawing board and came up with something again quite different, merging ideas from the first two games while adding in a few new ones. The result is a very mixed experience that quite frankly does not live up to the standard of either of the previous games, though there certainly are some compelling ideas mixed in with the regressive aspects.
While there are elements from both Dawn of War 1 and 2 present here, changes to the pace and style of gameplay ultimately make it feel quite different from both. This might be the fastest paced Relic game to date with a clear emphasis on aggression over defensive play. The general premise likely sounds similar to previous Relic games – there is simplistic base building, but in order to gain resources you must go out and capture resource points, making map control a crucial part of playing well. Units generally come in squads who have special abilities in addition to standard attacks, some of which can be upgraded, and who can be reinforced at your base. There is a mix of vehicles and infantry, and vehicles can only really be damaged by certain units and abilities.
Despite this superficial similarity, Dawn of War III is a very different beast from Relic’s last several games in particular. The cover system, enterable buildings, suppression mechanics, destructible environments and unit veterancy system that defined the Company of Heroes games and Dawn of War II have all either been removed or completely revamped. One of the biggest implications is that unit preservation is no longer as important, underlined by the removal of the ability to retreat your units to base. Aside from space marine squads with upgraded weapons and Orcs who can upgrade their units with scrap, freshly built units will be just as effective as ones who have seen a lot of action.
To replace unit veterancy, each faction has a structure that will let you research upgrades for your units such as improved damage and health, along with a few special abilities. The result is that it is often just as, if not more efficient, to build new units and send them to the frontlines as it is to micro damaged squads back to reinforce. The reasoning behind this change is understandable – a retreat mechanic might hurt the flow of battles, since there are fewer tactical elements compared to previous Relic games; you can usually tell pretty quickly who is going to win a fight before it begins, so the player with the weaker force might retreat before the fighting began. However, the importance of keeping your units alive made encounters more meaningful in past games, and by comparison I felt a bit detached from much of the action as I knew my troops would die regardless of how I played.
One feature from Dawn of War II that has been brought over and expanded upon is the idea of hero units, referred to here as ‘elite’ units. Generally speaking in both the campaign and multiplayer, you have access to a loadout of three elite units of varying capability. While in the campaign access to these units is tied to the mission, in skirmishes they are tied to a new resource type called elite points. These points are slowly accumulated throughout a match, and once you get enough, you can call in an elite unit, with more powerful units costing more points.
If an elite unit falls on the battlefield, a cooldown timer will begin, after which you can call it in again. The progression system across both the multiplayer and singleplayer is partially tied to these elites, as you earn currency in the form of skulls which can be used to unlock access to different elites; any combination of three can be brought into battle. Elite units will also level up between games, which eventually gives you access to bulletins that grant your army an array of meaningful bonuses and abilities.
The elite units vary widely in function, from powerful melee or ranged squads, to single units that more closely resemble the heroes of Dawn of War 2, to hulking behemoths who can lay waste to sizeable enemy forces with ease. These elite units play a major role on the battlefield, with each one having its own set of special abilities that are important to learn both so that you can use them effectively, and know what to expect when an enemy fields them. By themselves, these units are a lot of fun to use, and often have some of the most satisfying abilities and animations in the game. My issue with them is that they require a lot of attention, to the point where it almost feels like you are trying to play two games at once; an RTS and a MOBA.
This might be the core of the issue for me; the amount of micro-management required to play well seems at odds with the scale of the battles and number of units under your command. You really need to babysit squads as they won’t fully engage unless you issue an attack-move order, and in most cases you will need to be actively using abilities as well if you want to win a close fight. With the removal of cover apart from a few energy field zones you can capture, units tend to blob together and die quickly to the myriad area-of-effect attacks present, and selecting individual units to use specific abilities and move around based on their utility generally feels clumsy.
Previous Relic games always had user interfaces that made it easy to play with the mouse without having to rely too heavily on hot-keys, but here the UI is not as well thought out and learning hot keys and assigning units into control groups is a necessity. Even then, with units getting spread out across the map and dying frequently, effectively maintaining control groups is no easy feat, and learning hotkeys for the myriad abilities is a slow and agonizing process. The result is a very steep initial learning curve and a style of gameplay that will favor those with experience in faster paced RTS games like Starcraft.
The campaign seems to exist with the sole purpose of helping you along with that learning curve, and does so with about as much enthusiasm and flare as a dead Orc. Most missions are clumsily designed, with long winding paths leading to your objective at odds with the base-building, meaning you often have to spend a lot of time tediously running units back and forth to heal and reinforce, typically while defending from half-hearted enemy incursions into your base. The story is a bunch of throwaway fluff about the Orcs, Eldar and Space Marines all fighting to gain control of a McGuffin device in the form of a magical spear, though the cutscenes that tell the story are at least visually stylish, and I will admit to getting a few chuckles out of the silly Orc dialogue.
The story is told from the perspective of all three factions, but rather than have you play through each faction’s missions in sequence, you constantly swap between them, which makes learning each one a frustrating process as you might forget important mechanics when hopping constantly between the distinct armies. There are a handful of decent missions, and the game’s most visually interesting moments can be found in the campaign, but ultimately I found it tedious, occasionally frustrating and over-long, with 17 missions taking around an hour each on average to complete.
Fortunately the actual faction design is solid. The Space Marines are probably the most straightforward, letting you call in drop-pods to get units onto the front lines quickly, and call in banners that buff nearby troops. The Eldar have a lot of fragile ranged units but strong shields, and you must build Webway Gates in key locations to speed up shield regeneration. They can also warp their buildings to different locations, and create portals between structures, letting them move their units across large distances faster than any other faction. Both of these factions must tier up to access more powerful units by simply researching upgrades at their bases, similar to how tiers worked in Dawn of War II and Company of Heroes 2.
The Orcs are probably the most complex faction, but they are also my favorite. In order to tier up, they must build WAAAGH! Towers which can be activated to buff Orc units before they head into a fight, blasting heavy metal and shouting as nearby Orcs work themselves into a frenzy in what might be the game’s most endearing mechanic. WAAAGH! Towers also drop piles of scrap, which Orc units can use for upgrades, the nature of which depends on the unit; Shoota Boyz get access to stick grenades, while the basic melee units gain some extra armor. The Orc builder units called Gretchins can also use larger piles of scrap created from destroyed buildings or larger vehicles to build new units for a reduced cost.
Once you launch into the multiplayer or skirmishes against the AI, it quickly becomes clear the game was designed with these modes in mind. The maps are relatively simplistic in design, with each one having three interconnected lanes with resource points located on each one, with stealth areas and cover points letting you set up ambushes on chokepoints. The maps are relatively small, allowing units to get to the front line fairly quickly and letting you move your forces around the map to react to enemy activity. While I found that 1v1s and to a lesser extent 2v2s require a somewhat prohibitive amount of multi-tasking, 3v3 matches allow you to focus your efforts on a smaller area of the map, letting you micro-manage individual battles which is where the game’s mechanics start to come together. There can be some rather spectacular battles when multiple players from both teams bring their armies together to fight over a key location.
It is during these moments that I can see what Relic were going for with Dawn of War III – combat mechanics that are more involved than a traditional RTS, but with a faster pace and more frequent action than the developers' previous several games. Unfortunately, the multiplayer is let down somewhat by a lack of content variety. There are only eight maps in the game, and they are divided among the different games sizes, meaning there are only three 3v3 maps, two 2v2 maps and three 1v1 maps.
Perhaps more problematic is the existence of just a single game mode called Power Core. The Victory Point mode that worked so well in previous games is gone, replaced with something that will feel somewhat familiar to MOBA players. Both teams have a power core that must be destroyed by the opposition in order to achieve victory. The power core is typically located in the base area of each side, and in order to access it, the other team must first destroy a shield generator and then a powerful turret. Given the power cores' location in the base, and the strength of the turret, the attacking team must gather a fairly powerful army to break through. This has the effect of artificially extending the length of even the most one-sided games, and there is no option to surrender for a team that is clearly losing.
This artificial lengthening of games is made worse by a battle phase system. Games start in phase 1, which reduces resources earned but provides a small refund of resources when you lose a unit. As the game progresses, battle phases ramp up to 5, with increases in resource income and access to powerful abilities eventually being granted to players. The issue is that the reduced income in early phases prevents one team from quickly building units that are strong enough to break through the other team’s turret defenses, even if they have control of the entire map.
As a result, many matches seem to play out in a similar way: one team takes control early on by capturing the majority of resource points, giving them an advantage that makes it increasingly difficult for the other team to come back. However, the base defenses and battle phase system prevent the winning team from delivering the final blow until quite a bit later. This means that you need to be aggressive, because you need map control, but not too aggressive, because you will get wiped out by base defenses if you push up too early. As a result, this mode only really works if both teams are exceptionally well matched, otherwise, most games seem to be decided in the opening five minutes, even if they don’t conclude for another twenty or thirty. While I still enjoyed my time with the multiplayer, the singular Power Core mode in combination with the limited number of maps gives me concern for the longevity of the game’s online scene.
Visually, Dawn of War III’s environments and animations appear somewhat static in comparison to their previous games, likely in order to accommodate the larger scale battles. These battles can be fairly spectacular in the later stages of multiplayer matches and in some campaign missions thanks to good special effects, but otherwise the game is somewhat drab looking, and fails to evoke the same gritty atmosphere as previous Dawn of War games. The game runs well enough apart from a couple of campaign missions where I got some major frame rate drops, and a few of the more powerful abilities in multiplayer can cause some brief but significant slowdowns as well. The audio design is very much on point however, with distinct and detailed sound in both ranged and melee combat. Music and voice acting are pretty much on par with previous games.
As someone who greatly enjoyed the slower pace and more tactical gameplay of previous Relic games, Dawn of War III left me feeling somewhat alienated. Slower, more defensive strategies aren’t really viable here, but if you are the kind of player who enjoys playing faster-paced RTS games online, this might be worth checking out once more content has been added, as Power Core multiplayer is not without merit and contains no shortage of depth and complexity. For those who prefer a slower, more thoughtful approach to RTS games, I struggle to recommend this sequel.