“In the future there is only WAR!” booms a voice at the beginning of Dawn Of War II. It’s well worth listening to boomy, because right from the off, it’s clear Relic have taken this mantra to heart. For anybody not au fait with the world of Warhammer 40,000 let me offer this single paragraph explanation. In the far-distant future there aren’t any good guys, just four shades of bastard, cheerfully knocking seven bells out of each other in a never-ending war.
The single player campaign places you in charge of the Space Marines: surly, power-suited human warriors dedicated to mercilessly butchering enemies of the fascist empire they serve. Not a cheerful lot then, but in a universe of energy-spitting Eldar, gene-stealing Tyrannids and rampant Orks, a useful bunch to have around nonetheless.
Of course, Space Marines were also stomping faces in the original Dawn Of War , but while that game was a skewed, but ultimately conservative, take on the RTS template, Dawn Of War II is something else entirely. For a start, there’s no base building, resource harvesting or impossibly efficient factories spewing out endless ordinance. Instead of a faceless army of hundreds, Dawn Of War II places you in control of four squads of hulking Space Marines, each led by a commander with their own personality, foibles and strategic uses. No longer is Dawn Of War about you, it’s about them. You’re just along for the ride. Take Avitus, the bad-tempered commander of the Devastator squadron. When not bickering with colleagues he enjoys long walks on the beach and mowing down the empire’s enemies with a machine gun the size of a car. As with Relic’s last game, Company Of Heroes, the effect of the machine gun is to suppress the enemy, slowing their movement or breaking them completely so they turn tail and run. The trade off is that it takes them a few seconds to set up, meaning that, if flanked, they’re momentarily stuffed.
Elsewhere, the grim-faced Cyrus leads the Scouts, who are capable of cloaking and throwing detonation packs, reducing buildings to rubble, but remain wholly useless in a stand-up fight. There’s the commander, a hard-as-nails melee specialist who’ll happily wade into the middle of any barny in order to spread his particular brand of sword-based carnage. There’s Thaddeus and his jet-powered troops who leap heroically into the horde scattering bodies in every direction, and the more versatile Tactical Marines led by Tarkus, capable of soaking up punishment and trading long range fire.
At the beginning of every mission you’ll be allowed to choose three or four of these squads to take with you and that’s your lot. Each of these hero units commands two or three nameless squaddies who essentially act as lives. Once they’re down, your hero unit will fall and need to be resuscitated by whichever other commander is still standing. Once they’re all down, you’ll need to restart the mission from scratch. If that wasn’t enough distance from its parent, Dawn Of War II also changes the pace by borrowing heavily from RPGs. In between missions, each hero unit can be kitted out with new armour, weapons and equipment scavenged from the last mission. They’ll also gather experience, granting points that can be spent on new abilities. If you think Warhammer dressed in Diablo’s snazzy clothes, you won’t be far off.
The effect of this new focus is to finally deliver the unwaveringly tough Space Marines the Warhammer mythos has always promised. Instead of the ten-a-penny cannon fodder of the original, they’re now grim, nearly invincible death machines capable of annihilating entire planets full of murderous aliens. It’s a brilliant evolution and delivered with startling vision by Relic, which manages in every mission to effortlessly capture the unrelenting fury of the universe it’s based on. From the moment your drop-pod of space bastards smashes onto a new world, you’re assaulted with the miniature of war. Bodies clash with agreeable weight, flesh rips, grenades send shattered corpses hurtling through the air, smashing through walls, vegetation and comrades on route. Troops hunker behind crumbling temples as bullets thwack around them, watching the gloriously stompy Dreadnought battle-mechs send enemies fleeing. In the rush of viscera you’d swear they’re actually fighting.
It’s deliriously good fun and perhaps the thing that will keep you fighting to the end. You see, for all the choice and variety on offer, Dawn Of War II never really asks that much of you. Company Of Heroes’ greatest trick was to constantly rotate the resources available in each mission, meaning you had to adapt your strategy depending on whether you had tanks, troops, artillery or armour at your disposable. Dawn Of War II never does this. Instead, strategy is a matter of preference. You’ll find the squads you like, the load outs you like and you’ll stick with them. Every level is a charge to a final boss and very rarely will you be wrong footed by a cunning enemy manoeuvre, or asked to deviate from the strategy that’s carried you to that point.
In multiplayer, where this weakness could have been overcome, the game switches completely, reincarnating the base-building, cannon fodder ethos of the original and at a stroke removing Dawn Of War II’s greatest draw for an all too familiar experience. It’s a strange retreat for a game so gung-ho in its single player campaign.
Ultimately then, Dawn Of War II proves true to its word. There is only war – repeated over and over again. There’s enough here to compensate for that failing, but strangely it’s Diablo fans who’ll walk away happiest.