While playing Dawn of War 3, there are times when I'm transported back 20 years, to the first flush of real-time strategy's '90s boom. A character urges, "we're under attack." It's very much like an Orc in WarCraft 2 (1995), scuttling away from a marauding herd of Paladins.
Although the RTS has changed little in terms of basic format, the details have been tweaked so fundamentally, that the genre has been deceptively transformed.
Few developers have done more to effect this transformation than Relic, which, since its founding in 1997, has dedicated itself almost entirely to one genre.
Through the Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War series, and its World War II kin Company of Heroes, Relic has tweaked and refined the RTS, forever seeking to stay ahead of game-spoiling strategies and dull chores, while borrowing from other forms.
Ironically, the genre that Dawn of War 3 borrows from most liberally, especially in its multiplayer mode, is the MOBA, itself the child of real-time strategy's multiplayer shortcomings.
DoW 3's only mode is essentially about bossing lanes, wearing down defensive positions and managing elite units. There is no resource management, save for capturing and defending resource points which automatically generate income that can be used on building up military force.
But DoW 3 — due to be released for Windows PC on April 27 — also includes seriously powerful elite units, which are also earned through possession of territory. The player chooses three elite units at the beginning of the game, and introduces them once enough elite points have been earned. There's a big decision to be made here, as cheaper / earlier elite units are extremely useful, but not nearly as powerful as more expensive / later units.
For the strategist, DoW 3 offers multiple problems. It's essential to capture contested resource points (usually near the center of the map) while defending crucial positions, such as power generators and turrets. The attacker cannot win the game without taking these positions, before launching an attack on the opponent's headquarters.
So it's almost impossible to startle an opponent with a mob of early units. They will be mowed down. DoW 3 sets up wars of attrition. They favor the player who makes the right tactical decisions through various phases of play, and who has the physical and mental agility to keep an eye on multiple conflict points at the same time.
So far as I can tell, it's not really feasible to save up massive armies for a death roll. Early units are expended in center-map skirmishes, while later units rely on upgrades and elite support to make progress.
Another mark of a really strong RTS game is variety in competing races. DoW 3 takes its lead from the richly nihilistic Warhammer 40K world, which in turn is heavily influenced by Tolkien-esque mythology.
So we get our old pals, the Space Marines, who are probably the best all-round race to start with, being pretty good at most things. They can also be dropped into the middle of battles.
Then there are the Eldar, an elf-like people who move fast and can do a lot of ranged damage. They also have magical psychic abilities. Their specialty is hit-and-run raids that can enrage the opposition, luring them toward heavily defended traps.
The Orks are the most challenging and most interesting race. They require constant management, as they make easy targets when stationary. But they have special abilities, like reconstituting scrap and gaining boosts from enemy deaths.
There's no doubt that these three races offer plenty of differences. But each player can bend these traits with buffs that affect strategy and which are way more interesting than the usual percentage boost in firepower. Elites also confer extra power to specific units, at least while they are in play.
So you can see how Relic has spent a good deal of time thinking through all the things that can spoil RTS multiplayer games, from early game catastrophes to mid-game stalemates to late-game ennui. Players always have options to mix things up, most especially with the introduction of those elite units.
I played a 1v1 and a 2v2 game, with 3v3 also available. Relic's marketing says the company is aiming for a sense of "escalating chaos" in its multiplayer offering. At this point, this sounds like a pretty good description. Based on my short time with the game, Dawn of War 3 seems challenging, engrossing and varying. I think RTS fans are going to like it.