Dawn of War III: Closed Beta Impressions

By Ian Boudreau 11 Apr 2017 0

After the untimely demise of THQ, it seemed unlikely at best that we’d ever see another iteration of Relic’s fantastic spin on the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Dawn of War. But the Emperor protects, as they say, and the third full Dawn of War title is set for release later this month. Sega held a closed beta this weekend, and I was fortunate enough to be among the players chosen to try out one of the game’s multiplayer modes. Here are some thoughts based on several frantic rounds of 3 vs. 3. Bear in mind, these are all based on a limited slice of a beta build of the game, and a lot of these may change once I get a chance to dig into the full experience.

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Practice makes perfect

Real-time strategy hasn’t exactly been an “it” genre in a while, despite some valiant attempts at revival including Grey Goo and Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. The first thing that struck me about Dawn of War III is that it’s very much a hardcore RTS in the vein of StarCraft,requiring players to split their concentration between economy macro and intense micro (more on that later).

And while there are some familiar concepts at play, Dawn of War III made me feel at sea the way I did when I first put my toe into the waters of StarCraft II ladder play. There’s a lot to keep in mind at one time: When to attack resource nodes, build orders, which units to be pushing out, and where to focus defences. Before you even head into battle, you’ll have to pick a loadout of Elite Units and Doctrines, both of which will shape how you’ll fight.

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Elites come with their own Doctrines, such as Gabriel Angelos’ Slam Barrier, which adds a reflective shield to the Dreadnought’s Slam ability. Then there are whole-army Doctrines, which tweak the way certain units work by upgrading or adding abilities.

Speaking of abilities, most units above your basic infantry have at least one. These are helpfully mapped to the Q, W and E keys by default, so you won’t have to memorize different hotkeys for each different unit and ability. Hotkeys, by the way, are essential — there’s simply no way to compete in this game using the on-screen buttons. Recruiting units, positioning troops, and directing Elites all must happen simultaneously, so if you’re not already a hotkey player, Dawn of War III is going to be a learning experience.

MOBA-ility

It’s immediately obvious that Dawn of War III is a conscious pairing of the base-building mechanics of the original game with the Company of Heroes-style squad tactics of the second. But the game also reflects the influence of games like Dota 2 and League of Legends, both of which have attracted much of the RTS player-base over the last few years.

Elite units are essentially the heroes you find in MOBAs, each with a role (assassin, tank, nuker, etc.) and set of unique abilities. They range from individual Space Marine heroes and squads to titan-class super units like the spectacular Eldar Wraithknight and hulking Ork Morkanaut, Beauty. Each has a cost in Elite Points, which you can choose to amass at resource nodes. If they’re killed, you’ll have to wait out a cooldown timer before deploying them again.

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And this is where things get a bit too busy for my taste, at least at this beginning stage of learning the game’s rhythms and rules. There’s the ever-present need to manage your economy and position your units, so devoting time to focus on what an elite is doing almost always feels like the wrong move. They’ll auto-attack on their own, generally, but their abilities require good timing and/or skill to use properly, so leaving them on their own feels wrong, too.

Juggling all of this kept me on my heels for most of the (admittedly brief) time I played in the beta. After you’ve made first contact with the enemy, chaos erupts, and it’s difficult to keep your wits about you (I was not often successful on this front). But that brings us to my next point.

The Red Ones Go Fasta

Dawn of War III is gorgeous. Plasma fire reflects off Space Marine armor, artillery leaves smoldering craters in the ground, and psyker abilities consume the screen in blue-green maelstrom. The Space Marines’ ultimate ability is an absurdly enormous orbital laser that can be directed around the battlefield, and when it hits enemy units, they’re lifted bodily into the beam as they disintegrate before your eyes. If you are a fan of dakka, there is a lot of dakka to be had here.

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But all this delicious visual flash means battles can quickly become nearly unreadable. With smoke, fire, chaos storms, and glowing Imperial Knight gatling guns all thundering across a scene, line infantry units and even smaller hero units easily get lost in the mix. While they’ve maintained an impressive sense of scale, that’s come at a cost of easily being able to determine which unit is where and what you need to be doing.

The good news, though, is that everything performs well. I’m running a gaming rig that’s starting to show its age, with an i7-4790 and a GTX 970, but these kept things running at a pretty stable 60 fps at some of the highest graphics settings in the game. As always, results will vary depending on individual PC setups, but it’s encouraging to see a beta this well optimized before release.

Wrap-up

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I’m as excited now, after playing several matches of Dawn of War III, as I was before going in. I’m a sucker for anything with Warhammer written on the box (for better and for worse), and this is a series I’ve loved from the outset. I have my concerns, true, but a lot of this comes down to jumping head first into multiplayer without having a chance to mosey my way through the campaign, which for an RTS ideally serves as a chance to get familiar with the mechanics and units one or two at a time.

What’s clear though is that Dawn of War III is a meaty title that’s shooting for a high skill ceiling, and games like this can be daunting to pick up if you’re planning on playing primarily for the multiplayer. It’s a gutsy move to push out something this technically demanding in an era when real time strategy is having its lunch eaten by the likes of League of Legends, but that may be exactly what the game — and the genre writ large — needs to retain a devoted player base.

We’ll all find out after Dawn of War III launches April 27.

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