I’ve probably given Games Workshop more of my time and money than I’d care to admit. I’ve spent at least 500 quid on my Imperial Guard army, I own all of the Gaunt’s Ghosts novels and all the Ciaphas Cain novels, and I’ve even been willing to drop cash for their ridiculously overpriced RPGs. In off-hours, I can regularly be found browsing Lexicanum, the fantastic Warhammer wiki for little fragments of fluff that I didn’t already know and I’m even starting to build my own custom models because I want my army to have unique units. I’ve got the bug for the grimdark verse in a bad way, and I can pretty much point to exactly why.
The original Dawn of War and its first two expansions are, in my humble opinion, the pinnacle of early 2000s RTS design. You can keep your crafts of both war and star, and you can command and conquer your way back into the sea. This is the best the genre has to offer in my opinion. It’s a masterpiece of asymmetric balancing, with each army working in subtly different ways and offering different challenges.
Often, these differences reinforce the fluff regarding the characters. The Orks have zerg rush horde tactics, the Eldar specialise in hit and run tactics, the Guard will turtle until they’ve built up sufficient resources and manpower to swamp their foes. Thematically it manages to make each faction feel unique while using identical control methods and a broadly applicable curve for all of them.
The original Dawn of War and its first two expansions are, in my humble opinion, the pinnacle of early 2000s RTS design.
This is also where I fell in love with the lore of the 40k verse. I feel the verse gets a bit of a hard rap for its OTT violence and darkness, but when executed correctly, this is exactly what makes it worthwhile. Other settings may have more emotional range but in terms of sheer scale and volume, the world of the emperor is hard to beat. Dawn of War has a cast of characters that will stay with you for years – General Sturnn and the Cadian 412th have had their epic battles recorded in my memory indefinitely.
The peak of the first game’s release cycle was the second expansion, Dark Crusade. Introducing the Necrons and Tau was good enough, but this saw the series shift away from it’s Warcraft-esque story campaigns to a Shogun-style map, providing you with a world split between different factions and challenging you to tame it for your faction. The unification between the classic RTS stylings and the Shogun-style victory map worked fantastically and breathed fresh life into the game.
Soulstorm felt like capping a beautiful sax solo of a release cycle with the sound of a particularly squeaky fart.
But of course, all things can not be good forever, and the wheels started to come off the wagon with Soulstorm. This shameless cash grab of an expansion introduced the Dark Eldar and Sisters of Battle to the game, which is pretty much the only good thing I can say about it. Other than that, it was buggy, had a plot that bordered on nonsensical and had some of the worst dialogue ever recorded, to the level that “SPESS MEHRINS” and “METAL BOXES” are memes among the community to this day. Neither faction brought anything particularly new in terms of gameplay and ultimately Soulstorm felt like capping a beautiful sax solo of a release cycle with the sound of a particularly squeaky fart.
Dawn of War 2 should be lauded for its attempts to experiment with the series formula. Indeed, I’ve often wondered if it was actually an attempt to explore a popular rules variant called the Fluff Marines, in which the Space Marines receive rules that make them as overpowered and effective as they are in the fluff, but only lets you take 6 of them against an entire army.
DoW 2 sets out to do the same, letting the Space Marines be as powerful as they are in other sources, rather than cutting them to functional size to fit gameplay. Therefore you guide a squad of Space Marines through a series of progressively more ridiculous combat encounters against Orks, Eldar and eventually a Tyranid invasion. It’s full of interesting ideas and experiments to try and allow for real time control over this squad of individually unique units.
It’s a shame it doesn’t really work that well to be honest. I’m sure there are some other players, fans of the second game, who absolutely adore it, and have spent the time and effort to master its complicated systems who can now wield their Space Marines like master tacticians, but to me the system was unintuitive, fiddly and just generally not particularly fun. Almost everything about DoW2 feels like a turn based game that’s been roughly forced into real time and is struggling to keep itself together.
As with the first game, additional factions were introduced in expansions, but these also suffered. DoW2 feels so inherently based around controlling a squad that functioned like the Space Marines, a small group of superhuman warriors fighting an enemy horde, that they lost that unique asymmetry to each faction that made the original so compelling. Every faction in DoW2 operates in a broadly similar way, with only minor differences distinguishing them. Missing are the tactical differences, the zerg rushes of the Orks, the nested defences of the Guard, the hit and run strikes of the Eldar. No matter which faction you play, Dawn of War 2 operates pretty much identically.
But now, six years after the last release for the series, a new Dawn of War is coming.
After 2011’s Retribution expansion, all went quiet on the Dawn of War front. There was hope for a third game, but then of course came the dissolution of THQ and for a while it seemed the franchise was dead. But now, six years after the last release for the series, a new Dawn of War is coming.
Pre-release hype is promising a combination of the last games, with the basebuilding and scale of the first combined with the mobility and heroes of the second. The developers are keen to emphasise that it’s going to be an RTS, not a MOBA but despite that, most maps are going to be two sided with a large defensible structure at either side and a semi-symmetrical landscape. Both sides have progressively harder defensive measures to get through before the key structure can be attacked.
So that sounds very MOBA-esque, but the emphasis on the game being an RTS implies a fascinating change. How is the MOBA affected when players have active control of their minions? It’s an interesting idea, though not one I can predict in terms of quality.
My concern just now is fiddlyness. DoW 1 was simple to learn, but had an astonishing amount of depth if you took the time with it. DoW 2 didn’t even bother being simple to learn. DoW 3 is entering a fundamentally different marketplace than either of the previous installments where the RTS is far from the PC-dominating beast it once was, and it’s doing so with the weight of both previous installments on its shoulders. If all the creators have done is smushed both modes together, we’re probably not going to be getting a great game.
DoW 1 was simple to learn, but had an astonishing amount of depth if you took the time with it. DoW 2 didn’t even bother being simple to learn.
But, for now, I will place my faith in the Emperor that his loyal servants have put the game together and made the needed sacrifices to its machine spirit for I have been anticipating this release for quite some time. Emperor don’t fail me now!