Games

Reinventing the RTS in 'Dawn of War III'

In the grim darkness of the real-time strategy genre, Relic finds hope for the future in the shape of a MOBA.

by Ian Williams
Apr 20 2017, 2:00pm

My first thought when I fired up Dawn of War III's campaign was how heroic I was. My character, the Space Marine commander Gabriel Angelos, spouted his lines about protecting humanity while carving through a mass of nameless orks who popped up in dribs and drabs along the long, sinewy walls and courtyards of an under-bombardment fortress. He'd swing his hammer and orks would go flying, or he'd jump high into the air into a mass of enemies with a combination of a boom and a wet squish. Gabriel was a total badass and, by extension, so was I.

Referring to Gabriel as my character is not an accidental slip, despite the fact that I had various units of Space Marines accompanying me on that first mission. The fulcrum of the action was laser-focused on Gabriel, despite those accompanying squads. It was Gabriel's voice which conveyed the story, his awareness of what he saw which determined what I saw. Gabriel was me in that level; I was Gabriel. That's not far from where Dawn of War II was, with its zoomed in, squad-based real-time strategy style. Gabriel and his squads of Marines are iterative, not new.

There's a tension in the Dawn of War series centered on what being a real-time strategy game means. The first two Dawn of War games took very different approaches to the RTS genre. The first was very much of a piece with RTS games of the early 2000s: base-building and masses of impersonal troops ruled the day, and some of the add-ons even came with full blown campaign maps, a bit reminiscent of a more constrained Total War campaign map.

The second Dawn of War was obsessed with micromanagement of small squads of troops. Heroes became an emphasis and tactics revolved around flanking and cover. Base-building disappeared completely. Dawn of War II owed more to Close Combat than just about any other game, perhaps even including the original Dawn of War.

It was a jarring turnaround, one which left some players (myself very much included) preferring one so much that the other was left behind entirely. The shift also mirrored some of the struggles and challenges that Games Workshop has grappled with in its own development of the Warhammer 40,000 miniatures game that Dawn of War is based on. Warhammer 40K was initially a game about faceless hordes of enemies which evolved to include named heroes with elaborate backstories and, finally, nearly demigod level heroes like the recently returned (with shiny new miniature and crazy rules) Roboute Guilliman, Primarch of the Ultramarines—the poster boys for Games Workshop's most iconic franchise.

All screenshots courtesy Sega

Dawn of War III tries to rectify this tension by offering a middle ground between Dawn of War's nameless hordes and Dawn of War II's heroes and squads ducking from cover to cover. Base-building is back, but stripped down and simplified. You have your heroes, but having a strong force of complementary unit-types is vital to navigating the missions, and in multiplayer the heroes (or elites, in the game's parlance) are summoned via a gatherable currency.

The game largely succeeds at this, though it does run the risk of alienating stalwart fans of the older games who fell hard on either side of the Dawn of War/ Dawn of War II spectrum. As a Dawn of War diehard, I more than once caught myself playing and wondering where my campaign map was and why I couldn't just send a few hundred hardened Space Marines into the fray to fix things.

Any small irritation at this new thing being new dissipated in the face of the story. It's really well-told and doesn't limit you to one faction. Avoiding anything spoilery, there are three factions in the game—Space Marines, Orks, and Eldar—fighting over a few planets with galaxy-spanning ramifications. Because you're switching between the three factions, there's a nice cinematic rhythm to the way the campaign folds. That's meant in its most literal sense: the game feels, at points, like a movie. It also taps into the best of 40K storytelling, which is that any story can be told. The galaxy is big, so naturally big things happen all the time in it, and the parameters of the story are only limited by your imagination.

This is the essence of 40K. As a corollary, my brother and I are planning a summer campaign of Horus Heresy (Forgeworld's sister game, set in the ur-event of 40K's history, the titular Horus Heresy). We found a throwaway line in one of the books about a planet cut off from the rest of the galaxy, invaded by Word Bearers (my army), and the fierce but undeveloped fighting which took place. That's our campaign. We're writing it, painting it, playing it, and it will be glorious. The knowledge that a thousand other "galaxy altering events in space" are going on—at other tables, in the fiction, and in video games—doesn't lessen that impact. It contextualizes it, and that's something 40K does very well. It's something Dawn of War III does very well, too.

Still, it wasn't all space roses. There's something weightless about the units under your command in Dawn of War III. This is true in terms of their relative importance compared to your heroic units as well as artistically: they feel slightly too small and the edging when they're highlighted makes them look more like cardboard cutouts than hardened troops. The game's scale compounds this feeling by trying to split the difference between squad and battalion scale—squads just feel like they should be slightly bigger on the screen, as if they were made for a game with more of them at any one time than what Dawn of War III ended up being.

The troops' lack of importance is heavily underscored by the campaign, which at times seems to discard them altogether. I'd use Gabriel's jump power or Gorgutz's ability to bridge gaps with his fist on a chain and the troops with me suddenly disappeared from sight and mind. Not because of any glitch, but because the game keeps the focus on your hero, meaning that sometimes your troops are simply left behind. They're important to the action until they aren't, and then they disappear. That's fine and good in a roleplaying game, less so in a military game with a god's eye view.

Dawn of War III will almost certainly rise and fall on the merits of its multiplayer more than its campaign mode. RTS games find their longevity in long nights with friends and competitive meetings. In Dawn of War III, the specter of MOBAs looms large over the proceedings.

Relic's staff were good enough to make themselves available for multiplayer games with the press. I couldn't avail myself of that due to a packed schedule on my end, but I set up some skirmish games with bots to see how multiplayer worked. What I found was a hybrid traditional RTS/MOBA setup with a lot of potential.

Multiplayer games map closely to the RTS/MOBA split. Starting out, you don't have your elites (distinct from heroes, as you can recruit units like Terminator squads) and have to unlock them via resource collection. As the game wears on and you recruit your elites, the game transitions more to a MOBA style, with the focus on heroes and special powers returning. It's a really interesting and smoothly done concept, charting the way RTS games have evolved over 20 years in microcosm.

You can also unlock Army Doctrines, buffs which you slot in (three slots for these, just like with elites) to customize your force to your preferences. If you like Dire Avengers in multiplayer, you can buff them, or make your jetbikes stronger or buildings healthier. It's too much to say that the options are limitless, but you can really customize the hell out of your play experience with the right doctrine tweaking. The combination of elites and Doctrines makes for the possibility of a really interesting metagame, if Relic commit to ongoing balance as players figure out overpowered builds and exploits. More than anything, it's big; it's too much to say that the combinations are limitless, but you can do some heavy tweaking of skirmishes to fit your preferred playstyle.

It's not going to sit well with everyone; again, I found myself wanting a little more Dawn of War in spots and, undoubtedly, there will be people wanting a little more Dawn of War II, but Relic stated early on that they wanted to hybridize the best from both games and nobody making an online RTS in 2017 can ignore the prominence of MOBAs. Despite my longing for the original Dawn of War, I have to stress that I never felt let down by Dawn of War III in my skirmishes. It really is aiming for something new, or at least a new take on old formulae, and I probably had more fun with the skirmishes than with the campaign because of the more wide open nature of unit recruitment and customization. The MOBA style skirmish objectives, which revolve around destroying heavily defended buildings, also injected a nicely self-aware game-iness to the proceedings, compared to the story and lore heavy campaign mode.

I got what I wanted out of Dawn of War III. It pays the right amount of reverence to the source material and tells exactly the sort of story I like in 40K: important, but contextualized in the big, scary, slightly stupid universe Games Workshop has created for itself. I can't say I have too much attachment to the returning characters from earlier games in the series, but I don't have much attachment to characters from any series; I prefer to see settings as my favorite characters and Dawn of War is no different. As such, I mostly just lost myself in the details which I so love, particularly when I imagined the weird skirmish builds I could cook up, and laying out which iconic troops I could snag with which buildings. I'm still leery of recommending it unconditionally, just because I know how rightly beloved yet polarizing the earlier games are, but there is something here for both 40K fans and people looking for what the future of the RTS might hold.