Before there were Zerg in “Starcraft” and the SPARTANS in “Halo,” there was “Warhammer 40,000.” This series, which started as a tabletop miniatures game in 1987 by Games Workshop, has evolved over the years into a role-playing game as well as various computer games. The newest in this illustrious series is “Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II.” It was released on February 19th, 2009 by Relic Entertainment (makers of the wonderful “Homeworld” series and “Company of Heroes”) and has since occupied a spot on my hard drive.
Why do I have those examples from much more modern games? It is because they took those ideas from the iconic figures of the Warhammer 40k universe and tried to make them their own. The Zerg from “Starcraft” are the Tyranids, insectile hive-minds that feature a prominent role in “DoWII.” The SPARTANS from “Halo” are the Space Marines that are the feature of the single-player campaign in “DoWII.” Other races you will encounter are the Orks who are just as orcish as they sound, the Eldar who are your requisite Elves, and the Imperial Guard who are the massive armies fighting with you on the side of the Emperor, the immortal savior of humankind. The introduction to the game sums it up well, “It is the 41st Millennium, and there is only war.”
Unlike the previous title in this series, the original “Dawn of War” and its myriad expansions, this game focuses more on squad combat than cranking out units and trying to fight with massive armies. This fits the universe more as your Space Marines are designed to be small squads with no more than five to six members a piece. You also do not crank them out of a base structure in single-player, they are sent down from your orbiting battleship as reinforcements. You can only reinforce at certain points so it behooves you to maintain close control over your squads as you advance through the game. It is still very much a real-time strategy game in its control scheme and viewpoints though you can zoom all the way down to ground combat. I highly recommend this as there are some impressive finishing moves.
The tutorial to the campaign brings you into “DoWII” very smoothly and is a baptism by fire. You immediately begin by having to retake your home planet by reinforcing Captain Davian Thule of the Blood Ravens Space Marines and fighting to him. The game mechanics are introduced to you slowly but in a manner that makes sense. As you progress through missions for the first fifth of the game things such as “orbital strikes” and “automated factories” are shown and control is turned over to you of them. The story stays coherent throughout and there are several surprises in store for you as you play. There is intrigue aplenty and you never know who is up to what. If you are familiar with the “Warhammer 40k” lore through the novels of Dan Abnett, Ben Counter, and others then it will not be as surprising but still pleasant in how they are carried out.
The other races are designed well as they should be considering the amount of established lore that exists. Games Workshop has dozens of manuals that exist and the “Black Library” of fiction for the universe is huge. The Eldar “psykers” are as ethereal and elf-like as you would expect and the Orks are as brutish and bloodthirsty as their regular “Warhammer: Age of Reckoning” counterparts. Watching an Ork pick up one of your men and throw them across the screen does not get old. Having your Space Marine slice them nearly in half with a chainsword is better as it means one of your men is not dying. Multiplayer allows you access to the other races for play but it changes the mechanics of the game by requiring some base building and construction of units. It is here that “DoWII” feels like a regular real-time strategy game. I understand that it is necessary in order to provide a multiplayer experience but I prefer the squad-based format from single-player.
There are a few problems with the game that do need to be addressed and some of them have been already through patches. One issue is that in order to play you must have a “Steam” account through Valve. This is nice because it will automatically update the game for you but if you are not permanently connected to the internet it will mean you have to connect every time you want to play. “DoWII” also has the same achievement system as a normal Xbox 360 game because of its association with “Games for Windows Live.” I do not have an issue with this as they do give you goals to shoot for but they can be disruptive during gameplay as they issue a sound and appear in the upper-right corner of the screen. As long as you have a system that is no more than two years old you should be able to run “DoWII” with no problems but I do recommend having a decent graphics card if you want to see the bloodshed in all its glory.
Overall, I would highly recommend buying this game. If you like a dark, dystopic, gothic science-fiction game with extensive lore it is right up your alley. If you like a squad-based game with excellent tactical AI and beautiful graphics, this game is for you. If you prefer your elves with bows and arrows and your humans puny and week, this is not the game for you. Want to see the source of all of your current gaming heroes? Then “FOR THE EMPEROR, KILL THE MUTANT, BURN THE WITCH, PURGE THE HERETIC” and buy this game!