Nail on the Head
Amazing graphics and Wargear loot enhance two modes of engaging tactical gameplay.
Nail in the Head
Campaign dialogue gets annoyingly aloof. Some missions are repetitive.
Fans of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War might feel burned by the barely recognizable sequel to their old favorite, but going in without expecting it to be yet another typical real-time strategy game is extremely rewarding. That’s because DoW II is actually two excellent games in one. Both have outstanding graphics and animation, a complete lack of traditional RTS base-building, and strong tactical gameplay, but the single-player/co-op campaign mode and multiplayer experiences are very different.
In single-player, you command a group of four marine squads (or two each in two-player co-op) in a campaign to defend sub-sector Aurelia from invasion by Orks, Eldar, and Tyranid forces. Without the typical emphasis on base-building, the game feels more like an action RPG. For example, squad leaders level up and never die (they can be revived after their life is depleted). The squads can also be equipped with Wargear to make them more powerful.
In the single-player campaign, the focus is on using your Space Marines' special abilities to maximum lethal effect.
There are tons of opportunities to customize your team, from which three of the five available squads you choose to take on a mission, to how you spend their earned skill points when they level up, to what Wargear you choose to equip them with. Each play-through changes based on your choices.
Those choices lead to some impressive action, like slamming jump-jet assault marines into a group of Orks and sending them flying, or using your scouts to snipe a large Tyranid from a safe distance, severing the psychic link to the smaller beasts and turning them against each other.
The missions tend to become tedious, and the laborious Space Marine dialogue makes you reach for the Escape key, but continue forward and you unlock new abilities and earn new equipment.
Playing in co-op (which works smoothly over Games for Windows Live) lets you focus your attention on just two squads, allowing you to manage their abilities even more efficiently and in coordination with your teammate over built-in voice chat.
Multiplayer changes the rules dramatically and comes without any training wheels attached, so learning to play—especially as the Eldar, Orks, and particularly the unintuitive Tyranids—is not for the casual player. It is, however, worth learning for its tactical, location-capturing gameplay. The action is centered on taking and holding Victory Points on the map (similar to Relic’s Company of Heroes multiplayer), which causes intense fighting for control of neutral ground rather than the typical base assault. Placing your units behind cover for increased defense makes using the terrain to your advantage (and destroying it to deprive your enemy) a key part of gameplay, something not typically seen in RTSes.
DoW II changes the rules of the typical RTS enough to make both modes a refreshing experience without becoming completely alien to strategy players. Even those with zero interest in the rather goofy Warhammer fiction will appreciate this new approach.