The original Dawn of War series spluttered to a mildly unsatisfying halt with last year's Soulstorm expansion. Having thoroughly explored nearly every corner of the Warhammer 40K universe, Dawn of War was left groaning under the weight of nine playable factions and an RTS play style that, while still fun, ultimately suffered from a terrible over-familiarity. What, then, to do with Dawn of War II? Simply transferring the game to the fantastic Company of Heroes engine and giving everything a graphical update would no doubt have be enough to shift truckloads of units, but the developers, bless their cotton battle socks, have brought something new to the table. Well, new-ish.
First contact with Dawn of War II is an enjoyable re-introduction to the blustery, clanging W40K universe. Anthemic battle marches, gravel voiced proclamations of impending doom and a thundery, portentous atmosphere all combine to get you comfortably settled into a world where beating seven shades of snot out of everything is the first and only solution to neighbourhood disputes. The pre-game interface is comfortable and easy to navigate. The game installs under Steam, even if you have a store-bought DVD copy, and all game updates take place automatically. Oddly enough, DoW II doesn't use any of Steam's community features, instead going for Games for Windows Live for multiplayer matching, friend lists, VOIP and so on. We're not exactly fans of Games for Windows Live, but the great surprise is that, all of a sudden, it works very well indeed. While there are some problems with the multiplayer matchmaking service (we'll get to that later on), GFWL appears to have transformed from a sullen, game-strangling troll into a welcome and useful presence. Miracles will never cease.
After you fire up the single-player campaign, you get to name your commander and are then tossed headlong into a galaxy which is undergoing the typical W40K apocalyptic convulsions. Orks are everywhere, the Eldar are up to no good and the Tyranids (finally!) are gobbling up planets like a swarm of spiny, armour plated locusts. Before you drop down to the battlefield, you can outfit your commander and squads with different weapons, suits of armour and accessories. You won't have too many options at first, but after a few missions, you'll start to accumulate a good collection of blood-splattered knick-knacks.
Finally, then, into battle. And you'd be forgiven for having a moment of confusion as you search for the base building buttons. There aren't any. DoW II has completely done away with base building and instead concentrates entirely on your squads. A campaign mission generally won't allow you to build any more units than those you begin with, though you can capture certain locations on the battlefield that let reinforcements beam in to replenish your battered squads. The idea is that rather than building up a base, harvesting resources and eventually launching a game-winning attack, you simply have to get stuck in from the get-go. Careful, tactical use of your squads is crucial - use your heavy machine guns to set up covering fire that suppresses the enemy, move up your melee units to carve up the cowering foe while keeping tactical and stealth squads ready to fend off new attacks. It's much more Close Combat than Age of Empires, and it works brilliantly.
Adding to the fun are frequent loot drops. In the best MMORPG tradition, flattening an enemy will occasionally leave a glowing little bauble on the floor. New weapons, armour and accessories can all be hoovered up during a mission and there's always a particularly tasty treat waiting at the end, usually accompanied by a boss monster. Any squad involved in a mission gains experience and levels up over time, granting them access to bigger and better toys. We'll admit to being a little taken aback by this RPG incursion into RTS gaming, even resentful at this debasement of the genre. When the game is such fun, however, it's difficult to remain grumpy for too long. DoW II's campaign cherry picks the best elements from RTS, RPG and online gaming and serves them up in one irresistible dish. The availability of co-op campaigning only sweetens the deal.
The campaign plays out on an ever-expanding map that lets you hop from planet to planet, fighting off Tyranid infestation, uprooting Ork clans and trying to get the Eldar's sticky fingers out of everything. Optional side missions pop up quite frequently, so you'll usually have quite a few mission choices at any point in the campaign. The objective of each mission, and the reward you'll get for completion, are both detailed in the mission selection screens and the lure of a brand new flamer or power sword will keep you glued to the keyboard way past bedtime. If you capture shrines, foundries and communication arrays during a mission, these will give you certain benefits, such as being able to call in more artillery strikes or getting pre-mission info on the waiting enemy and how best to defeat them.
How does all this translate into multiplayer? By and large, it doesn't. DoW II's multiplayer is much more in line with typical RTS gaming. There are no loot drops and you must build extra units to survive and triumph. There's still no base building, but you do have a single, pre-built home base that generates new squads and vehicles. Building new units requires power and resource and this is gathered by capturing specific battlefield locations, much as in the original Dawn of War and Company of Heroes. Squads can be upgraded and new wargear bought for your Commander, as long as you can pay for it.
The emphasis is very much on moving out and capturing territory, keeping mobile and making the best use of your squads. Smart use of cover makes a world of difference, and the lessons learned in the campaign - use suppressive covering fire and follow it up with a swift kick in the nuts - pays off in multiplayer matches as well. You can play as any of the four races. The Space Marines are the easiest to begin with, due to familiarity as much as anything, and the Orks, Eldar and Tyranids all play differently enough to be well worth a look.
The game uses Games for Window Live's TrueSkill matchmaking system for ranked matches, the idea being that you'll always be matched up with someone who's more or less at your same skill level. The first ranked match we played, however, pitted us (level one) against a highly experienced (level 28) Eldar player. Needless to say, the one-sided bludgeoning that occurred wasn't enjoyable for either side. Our second match, however, was against someone of equal level and proved to be an absolutely thrilling, down-to-the-wire affair. Complaints about TrueSkill's squiffy nature persist and the developers are apparently investigating. In the meantime, it may be best to host your own matches against friends or to skirmish against the AI. It's worth noting that there are surprisingly few multiplayer maps available - only seven at the time of writing - and no map making tools included with the game. We'd be very surprised if new maps weren't patched into the game at some point, but as things stand, expect to become very familiar with the maps on offer.
Dawn of War II looks and sounds terrific. All the various squads are very detailed and intricately animated, and all the guns, rockets, bombs and lasers convey a great sense of a chaotic and lethal battlefield. The original Dawn of War had an atmosphere-ruining tendency to have opposing units stand inches apart and hurl gunfire into each other until one side slowly keeled over. DoW II's gun battles feel much more realistic, with ranged gunfire smacking into enemy cover and kicking up clouds of dust, while melee squads jet-pack right into the thick of things.
DoW II is really two games in one, each neatly tailored to provide a great single-player or multiplayer experience. While it's not the game most of us were expecting, it proves to a be a fantastic reinvigoration of the Dawn of War franchise. Go into it with an open mind and you'll find one of the most spirited and enjoyable RTSs available.