Review: Dawn of War III

By Ian Boudreau 27 Apr 2017 0

Review: Dawn of War III

Released 27 Apr 2017

Developer: Relic Entertainment
Genre: Real-Time Strategy
Available from:
Steam
Reviewed on: The back of a Dreadnought.

The theme of Dawn of War III is defiance, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a space-fantasy real-time strategy game trying to carve out a name for itself in an RTS landscape that has for years been dominated and largely defined by StarCraft, the sine qua non of professional esports that hit it big in Korea after arguably lifting its theme whole-cloth from the Warhammer 40K franchise.

The story is about defiant characters: Gabriel Angelos returns, now the grizzled commander of the Blood Ravens chapter. He’s down an eye but has enough innate authority now to flaunt orders from the local Inquisitor to stay away from a blockaded planet. Eldar Farseer Macha, who wields a powerful magic spear, is sick of the cultish language spouted by her leader. And the returning Ork Warboss Gorgutz – well, he’s an Ork, and a clever one ready to take opportunities to advance where he can.

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The campaign is spent bouncing between these three factions in an interlocking story that’s daft in the way everything about Warhammer 40K is daft. There’s a magical weapon of unthinkable power that everyone wants, an Eldar homeworld that appears out of the warp after 5,000 years, and floating planetary fortresses that can be sabotaged by a strong enough complement of gretchins. It’s exactly the kind of Iron Maiden album cover stuff that’s always characterized this world, and Dawn of War III isn’t going to convert anyone who already thinks this stuff is stupid, which it admittedly is.

But the defiance that infuses the story also runs deep in the game’s mechanics in ways that often feel like deliberate shots across the bow of the conventions codified by StarCraft. You gather resources, but it’s generally passive, holding and improving strategic points on the map. Base-building is back, but it’s completely subverted by the Eldar’s ability to teleport their core structures anywhere on the map. Orks’ tech level, and thus what they’re able to recruit, is determined by the number of WAAAGH towers they’ve constructed, and these are only useful when built in places where battles are likely to happen. The push is always forward, toward the center, where da fightin’ is.

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What Dawn of War III wants most is to get you into battle as quickly as possible, and nothing underscores this point more than the escalation mechanic. For the first 10 minutes of every game, players are refunded 25 percent of the resource cost of every unit lost in combat, making early, aggressive forays into enemy territory more tempting and viable than StarCraft’s rote, early-game scouting missions ever were. As matches wear on, the refund you get when units are eliminated decreases, the idea being that this roughly scales as you control more resource nodes.

Each faction is meaningfully different. The fragile Eldar are lethal at range, and have Howling Banshees that can charge in and massacre in melee. Orks are best in large groups, but have to prowl the battlefield to find piles of scrap to upgrade themselves and recharge. As ever, the Space Marines are the dullest of the lot, but they work as a convenient anchor point in a game that’s throwing so much at the wall to see what sticks.

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What changes the game more than anything, though, is the elite units. These are either specialized squads like Assault Terminators or “super” units, including the awe-inspiring Eldar Wraithknight. Angelos, Macha, and Gorgutz are also in this category, and they all wield potentially game-breaking power. Angelos, for instance, can wade into withering anti-infantry fire, use his jump ability, and disrupt a carefully-planned ambush or killbox with an AoE attack that sends enemies flying in all directions. Gorgutz’ claw allows him to reach out to a point, stun whatever’s there, and then yank himself to that position.

The elite units are all incredibly cool and fun, but it’s this ability they have to brute-force almost any situation that kind of breaks the game. Anyone who’s played Relic’s Company of Heroes games knows what it’s like to have line units torn to ribbons before your eyes in a wrong move, but Dawn of War III’s elites border on making the rest of the game feel inconsequential. In addition to being overpowered, there’s very little cost associated with losing them: if you do wind up losing an elite unit, you’ll just have to wait out a cooldown timer to summon them again. Gabriel Angelos dying in battle should feel important, but instead you just have to wait 90 seconds before he can rematerialize in battle at full health. What’s worse is how it feels as the opponent: killing an elite ought to be an achievement, but you know you’ll just have to fight the same character again when you get closer to their base. It’s demoralizing, and it takes away from the sense of weight the game could have leveraged with the heroes.

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But this mechanic as well is meant to pull you forward into battle, and what battles they are. Dawn of War III is utterly spectacular, with its lascannons and explosions and rokkits and warp energy all popping off in a rainbow of chaotic destruction. Leading a deathball of Orks into battle creates the kind of dynamic war scene that tabletop warbosses of old could only dream about. The resounding thump of Assault Marines landing in a formation of enemies, or the high-pitched windup of Shadow Spectres’ beams as they zero on a tank, or the Cockney screams of “DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA” of Shoota Boyz as they charge pell-mell into WAAAGH… it’s all beautiful stuff for 40K fans.

The problem here though, as I mentioned in my impressions of the multiplayer beta, is that it all comes at a readability cost. That hasn’t gone away, and it’s often extremely difficult to pick out all but the largest units from a formation. Lootas and Shootas are impossible to tell apart in the heat of battle. When units have individual abilities that make them viable in combat, that’s a big problem. Heroes can easily be lost in the mix of line infantry, and the way the game prioritizes abilities means you will often need to hand-select a particular elite (via either hotkeys or on-screen buttons) in order to fire off a crucial talent.

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If I sound hesitant or left-handed in my praise for Dawn of War III, it’s because I recognize that it’s going to be a divisive game. This is an RTS that tries a lot of big, new ideas at the same time, and not all of them work properly, at least not yet. There are long-time genre fans who are going to hate mechanics it introduces and the lack of balance in its elite units, and that’s completely fair. But it’s worth bearing in mind that StarCraft II has been under what amounts to constant development since it came out in 2010, with monthly tweaks and refinements to its asymmetric formula. Dawn of War III is very obviously Relic’s reaction to that game, and right now it’s impossible to really evaluate how successful it’s going to be.

My reservations noted, I’m having a blast with Dawn of War III, and I admire its Orky confidence in the face of convention. A Warhammer 40K game should not be about structures, it should be about devastation; it should be about power and fragility and mobility. Despite its flaws and structural issues, Dawn of War III succeeds in these crucial elements. It’s a strong, bold, and defiant successor to the series.

A worthy successor to a storied franchise. It's trying too many new things at once, but hits more often than it misses.

Review: Dawn of War III

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