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Dawn Of Diablo
The original Dawn Of War did not settle well with me. Although most gaming critics gave it rave reviews, I bought it, tried it, and un-installed in a matter of days. My problem with the game was that it was diluted. On the one hand, you had the base-building aspects. These were somewhat fun, but because the camera's field of view was no broader than looking out a second story window, and because the game was largely offensive and based on point control, the bases became a burden. While you were back at home, your brave units might be getting slaughtered by some micro-managed alpha-strike. Besides, I come from the Total Annihilation base of RTS fans more than the Starcraft camp - to me, if you can't build a base with tank traps and a line of twenty plasma cannons, there isn't much point.
This meant that I was one of the few that rejoiced when I heard that Dawn Of War II was dropping bases altogether. But Dawn Of War II goes further than that, adding more elaborate hero units and all sorts of war-gear upgrades, as well as modifying the focus on units such that more players will only have four or five squads out at any one time, even in late-game mufti-player. These changes have disturbed the faithful, who've been playing the original for years now. Will Dawn Of War II shake their faith, or strengthen it?
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Single Player Campaign
The most dramatic departure from the original DOW actually comes in the single player experience. Some hype has been given to its revolutionary mix of RPG and RTS elements - but if its a revolution you're looking for, you'll be disappointed. Fundamentally, DOWII plays much less like a mix of Diablo and Starcraft, as some people have suggested, and much more like the Myth games with gear and leveling elements added in. The campaign structure is an open ended mix of missions the advance the storyline and side missions that you essentially play in order to help level up your characters and take a break from the more intense campaign missions, which usually end in very difficult boss fights. As you play missions, you'll get experience, and at the end of each level you'll be rated on your performance based on how well you kept your units alive, how many enemy units you killed, and how quickly you achieved your goals. Performing well gets you bonus experience. These experience points can be spent on various upgrades to your units abilities. For example, one of your squads is a Heavy Bolter squad. These squads require a set-up time and are vulnerable to being knocked down, but by spending experience you can shore up these weakness with special abilities and passive buffs. You'll also at various times be able to pick up loot, called Wargear, which can be used to upgrade your unit's armor and firepower, as well as grant special abilities.
These RPG elements are not trivial. They help connect you to your units, as your squads are not faceless nobodies which are expended in each mission and replaced by more clones in the next. They also give you goals to strive for besides simply beating the campaign. The levels and upgrades, combined with the highly developed tactical elements of the game and the difficulty of the more advanced levels, will give hardcore players a reason to play the campaign numerous times.
That said, no mistake should be made about this being a role-playing game. There is no real character development, and the storyline can be summed up as "Aliens attack, and you must kill them!" Despite the game's focus on squads, there are still to many individual characters on the field at any one time to be overly concerned about any of them except your hero unit, and the lack of visual distinction between levels and Wargear upgrades puts a damper on the traditional pleasure of becoming strong in an RPG.
Still, the levels and Wargear add a lot to the game. As mentioned, there are many more missions then the plot-advancing missions which are critical to the campaign. These missions suffer from a lack a variety. There are only a few different objectives, and there are only a few different maps. Before long you will have exhausted the combinations and you'll find yourself wishing for something a bit more varied, but the chance to earn better Wargear and more experience means that you at least get something out of yet again defending a outpost against a hoard of poorly lead Orks. The campaign missions themselves also suffer from a lack of variety, but they are massively redeemed by the boss fights. At the end of each campaign mission you'll be pitted against a very tough boss who has nasty special abilities. You'll need to learn how to counter those abilities and outlast their massive hitpoint pools if you want to survive, and this challenge is like the whipped cream on top of an otherwise poorly brewed mocha.
Overall, DOWII's campaign is worthwhile, as long as you're into tactical fights, gaining loot, and leveling characters. There is nothing really revolutionary here, but the concept is solid and rewarding.
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Let's get one thing out straight right out of the gate - DOWII's multiplayer match-making is among the worst to disgrace a PC game in years. Even Supreme Commander's generally clunky out-of-game multi-player matchmaking is preferable to this load of malarkey. The problem is that DOWII uses Games For Window Live, which is for all intents Xbox Live for the PC. If you've played Xbox 360 games, then you know many of them make use of skill system. As you play, you are rated with a certain skill level depending on how well you do. The aim is to pit you against other players with a similar skill level so that you don't get dominated or dominate too easily. This system seems to work fine in games like Halo 3, but the system in DOWII is utterly, fundamentally broken. Finding a game based on your skill takes between five and twenty minutes in most cases, during which you can do nothing but stare at a "Searching For Game" screen. Then, once you find a game, you're thrown in with little chance for communication between opponents, and with little indication of what you're getting into. Which is a problem, because the skill system routinely pits green-nose noobs against hardened vets.
That rant aside, DOWII's multi-player can be described as pleasant, but raw. One major surprise is that the multi-player games does not make use of the leveling and Wargear elements in the campaign (Wargear can be purchased, but the Wargear that can be bought never changes, and is really just a system of fixed unit upgrades). This means that the RPG elements go out the window. DOWII in multi-player is a straight-up tactical war-game, no fluff or fat added. The fundamentals of this war-game are actually solid. The use of cover is very important, and the basic relations between different units are complex, never relying on a simple rock-paper-scissors approach. A melee unit against a ranged unit can do very well if used smartly, but will do very poorly if used wrong, and this remains true for most of the units in the game. Add in four playable races, plus the hero units and their upgrades, and you've got the start of a smart tactical game with a lot of value for both competitive and casual players.
But as mentioned, Relic didn't keep the pie in the oven long enough, and as a result the multi-player is a shadow of what it could be. For starters, the races are not well balanced both externally and internally. It is generally accepted that the Tyranids are the most powerful of the races, and have several tactics that are extremely hard for anyone except another Tyranid player to counter. The units are also not well balanced inside each race, so some units are almost never built - for example, Space Marines tend to rely on Tactical Marines because their other infantry units are inferior in the majority of situations. There is also an extreme lack of maps, only two multi-player modes, and even a lack of support for player numbers, as the maps available are designed for 1v1 or 3v3 matches.
The most disheartening problem is that Relic does not seem eager to patch the game. DOWII has been out for a couple months now, and still there has been little effort to address balance concerns, the broken skill system, or several major glitches. It is a shame, because DOWII is a strong game at its core, and as a result it is often fun to play in multi-player despite its flaws. If you're a casual player, who won't be overly frustrated by balance issues or a small selection of maps, then DOWII might be a lot of fun. But anyone who plays with the intention of learning the mechanics of the game won't be able to ignore DOW II's many oversights.
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Value And Verdict
Right now, DOWII is selling well, and is typically going for $49.99. Is it worth it? Maybe. It is the kind of game that is fun despite its flaws, and there are many hours of fun to be had. But Relic did not take the RPG elements as far as they could have, the campaign missions are too repetitive, and the multi-player is only fun for those who don't much care if they win or lose. On the whole, DOWII is an average game yearning to be good. That means that if the high points of the game sound exciting to you, go for it. You'll probably end up having a good time. If you're on the fence, wait until it goes on sale. The game has a lot of potential, but it will need an expansion before it is considered as great as its predecessor.