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Review: Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III (Steam)

Introduction

I consider the rich lore surrounding the Warhammer 40K universe to be the perfect allegory of the dangers related to authoritarian zealotry. It is a very specific topic which is rarely featured in films, let alone video games. The Imperium of Man’s drive towards “cleansing” every planet they touch realistically mirrors humanity’s own penchant for violence and its self-justification in pursuit of an abstract goal (such as domination over “lesser races”). Everything is heresy, if one wants it to be perceived so. I started playing the first game in the Dawn of War series soon after it was launched in 2004. I admit that it took me several years until I matured enough to see the symbolism behind all the bright colors, military prowess and endless bloodshed over seemingly insignificant battlefields. Young or not, I was hooked by this new Sci-Fi universe and its characters that defied conventional film portrayals. Dawn of War III continues this tradition even if the perspective has shifted a lot since 2004.

I am still certain that there are no “good guys” in the Warhammer setting, either its full-on Fantasy or the science fiction-oriented 40K chapters. Morally ambiguous and with a plethora of mature themes to boot, the fact that Dawn of War became a pillar of the real-time strategy genre should come as no surprise. The vast majority of RTSs before it were 2D and featured an isometric perspective. Rome Total War I and Dawn of War I revolutionized PC strategy gaming when they were launched in 2004 with their breathtaking (at the time, most PCs struggled to run such games maxed out) fully 3D environments, units and the fact that you could zoom in and admire specific details within the armies you control. I’d like to add persistent unit corpses too, since the lack of this feature always bothered me in strategy games that “erase” the battlefields of the dead & wounded as if they vanish in thin air after being defeated. Dawn of War still ranks among my favorite RTSs of all time, but its successors as of this writing have yet to reach that high standard set by the first iteration of its series.

Story

If you’re entirely new to the fictional world shaped by constant warfare that is Warhammer in a nutshell, you might want to get acquainted with it somewhere else since you’re not going to read any spoilers or in-depth details from me. You shall find online entire books’ worth of reading material that prove Games Workshop’s dedication to their most successful wargaming franchise. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III has the Campaign section from its main menu split into 17 missions of various map lengths. At first you get to experience each of the three factions’ strengths and weaknesses in scenarios that are slowly revealing the plot. It’s refreshing to see these mortal enemies join forces once more to defeat a greater evil. Fans of the first Dawn of War video game shall rejoice at the triumphant return of the three factional heroes: Blood Ravens Space Marines’ commander Gabriel Angelos, Eldar Farseer Macha and Ork Warboss Gorgutz ‘Ead ‘Unter. No Necros yet, but you will certainly battle Chaos and I really wish not to spoil anything to you. Suffice to say, I enjoyed the SP missions so far.

Graphics

Dawn of War as a series has constantly shifted its visual style across the spectrums allowed by its graphics engines. Yes, those are multiple as well and they seem to change from one iteration to another. The first title in the series used the IC (Impossible Creatures) Engine, while Dawn of War II used the Essence Engine (which explains why even DOW II’s gameplay mechanics are similar to Company of Heores). As far as Dawn of War III is concerned, its graphics engine is yet a mystery to me. I guess it’s still proprietary to developer Relic Entertainment, same as the aforementioned two. The zoom level in DOW III is nowhere near as enhanced as in the series’ predecessors, and that is something that bothers me to point at which I might regard it as a weak point.

Dawn of War I & II were focusing nearly literally on the small unit tactics in the sense in which, for example, the Space Marines could be distinguished from one soldier to another, and zooming in showed a lot of individual details. By contrast, Dawn of War III almost adopts a bird’s eye view of the battlefield and the infantry units seem far too small when compared to the Heroes or mechanized units. Apart from that minor nuisance, Dawn of War III looks absolutely gorgeous, from weapon effects to the sheer scale of the battles. Smaller units do translate in overall larger (and more spectacular) opposing army clashes and perhaps that stylistic compromise becomes better understood even if it’s a departure from the previous Dawn of War titles.

Performance-wise, the game needs some optimization since even my GTX 1070 experienced frame rate dips from the poor implementation of anti-aliasing (AA). As an example, I could run Dawn of War III maxed out and with stable 60 FPS on 2556×1440 (2K) resolution, but opting for the higher options of AA, performance would instantly drop closer to 35 frames per second. No matter what anti-aliasing option I would use, playing at 3840×2160 (4K) resolution would provide great screenshots but the frame rate would oscillate between 30s and 40s. Overall it is still a smoother experience than in the Open Beta, in which for some reason I could only change my in-game resolution by changing the desktop resolution as well. I’m glad that problem was ironed out as soon as the full version was launched on Steam.

Audio

I had high expectations from the storyline voice acting since the previous two Dawn of War games were of the highest quality from the perspective of their convincing characters. Dawn of War III has not disappointed me. So far, I have no complaints relating to the sounds themselves. Audio effects seem well diversified, units are responsive even through audio feedback and the music score was most pleasant.

Gameplay

As I mentioned earlier, a tutorial was present even in Dawn of War Open Beta and it’s been split into three sections, covering basic principles, advanced gameplay mechanics and finally multiplayer goals and tactics. For the most part, these levels which can be played by yourself serve as both an introduction and sufficient assistance to get even real time strategy beginners on the right track. True to most quality RTS titles I’ve played over the last few years, in Dawn of War III’s case we also got to play on a hefty selection of maps, in modes that vary from 1v1, 2v2 or 3v3. I opted for the third option since I was also interested in seeing how teamwork can affect the highly dynamic gameplay.

Dawn of War III may not encourage Zerg/tank rush MP tactics, yet the streamlined base building aspects and the rapid acquisition of the needed resources in order to muster a sufficiently large army most certainly favors offense and quick thinking over cautious defense. Now, please be aware that I’m not a big fan of multiplayer, but I still gave it a shot so I could write about it. The maps are intricately detailed and offer enough space to organize your forces before attacking or flanking the enemy and assisting your allies. A minor complaint might arise from the overall repetitiveness of the process. The goal in DOW III’s featured MP mode is not total annihilation of the opposing army. You just need to strike and destroy some of their structures in a certain order and thus snatch victory from their grasp in a quick succession of events, with chess-like precision and predictability.

The element of surprise gets thrown out the window when you know well before even starting the match what key buildings need to be properly defended at all times or where to focus your troops if you go on the offensive. Even the loading screen before starting the match points out the three targets and the order in which they need to be terminated. Shield Generator, Turret and Power Core. The fact that they’re close to each other, only simplifies things for a determined coalition of players that strike their opponents en-masse. The good news is that eye candy’s aplenty. Even the losing side can at least appreciate the truly epic battles, with infantry resembling ants when compared to the giant Hero units that just focus on killing each other. Screenshot and background material for certain, once the user interface has the option of being minimized or hidden altogether. I’m still waiting for that implementation in the retail version…

There are currently three races/factions that can be controlled by players. The Imperium of Man (Blood Ravens Space Marine chapter), The Eldar Craftworlds (consider them, Space Elves) and Greenskin Hordes (comprised of Orks and Gretchin). Each faction has its unique set of gameplay mechanics that, in spite of clear intentions to balance them out, still provide an extra challenge or lack thereof. For example, the Orks can muster an army much faster than the Eldar, yet they are of inferior quality and low survivability. The Space Marines seem the middle option in terms of both unit cost and battle effiency. No Tyranids or Necrons are present yet, but time will ultimately tell if they get featured in a subsequent expansion or not. Considering their inclusion in the previous two titles from the Dawn of War series, it’s hard to imagine that such powerful enemies won’t confront the Space Marines once more in the third iteration.

Verdict

Despite being a sequel which took some extra risks with its new visuals and even gameplay, I have been pleased by my overall experience with Dawn of War III so far. It’s definitely a different perspective from the first or second game in the series, but I am not going to dismiss this new direction as being wrong just yet. I’m sure that if the game didn’t change at all from Dawn of War II’s more squad-oriented gameplay, there would have still been more than a few angry fans, ranting on the lack of progress and vision. But that’s the gaming industry’s lingering issue with its consumers most of the time. You can never please everyone and there will always be flame wars in the comment sections over even the most insignificant detail or change.

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.

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