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Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 3 review

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 3 is a war game in which I view the battle from above, like a child of yore playing with tin soldiers.

Its central activities are building futuristic, fantasy warriors and sending them off on sorties in order to capture strategic points, destroy enemy units and demolish enemy infrastructure.

With that in mind, I approach a one-vs-one encounter with all the necessary precautions. I build, I prepare, I attack.

Sneakily, I send a small detachment of snipers and space marines to maul an enemy resource point to my left. They will die, but their sacrifice will be worthwhile.

By the time these soldiers are intercepted by the enemy, my gigantic main force will be well on its way to crushing heavily defended redoubts to my right, punching through to a bold assault on the enemy's central fortifications.

As expected, the enemy rushes defenses towards my feint attack. But then, something odd happens to my main force.

A giant spiral of red mist descends from the sky, like a Biblical column of death. It only lasts about 20 seconds, but in that time, my entire army is obliterated.

The weapon is so powerful, it undoes my entire strategy. This is not something I'd anticipated. I'm not exactly doomed by this reversal — there is time to recover — but my dreams of a quick breakthrough are dashed.

In truth, I really ought to have understood that packing my army together and setting off like a giant fist would come to grief. I'd already played more than 20 hours of Dawn of War 3's single-player campaign, making use of just such a mega-weapon.

But multiplayer contests always pose different kinds of problems than single-player campaigns. Unfortunately, I'm the kind of person who learns best through experience. The more annihilating the experience, the better I learn the lesson.

In my next multiplayer session, I take the time to upgrade my systems to the point where I can use my own version of the sky bomb. I make sure to separate my units into more discrete squads, making use of handy quick-keys to separate melee and range units. Things work out better for me.

Dawn of War 3 is a real-time strategy game from developer Relic, a company that has spent 20 years working almost entirely on the same genre. From Homeworld to Company of Heroes to the Dawn of War series, Relic has repeatedly produced well-liked, highly rated RTS games.

In Dawn of War 3, Relic has sought to scatter the remnants of lazy RTS loopholes, like my ill-fated mob attack. It has also strengthened the previous game's range of selectable and powerful heroes. Finally, it has sought to create battle simulations that demand aggressive action, rather than dull, defensive attrition tactics.

Making real progress to the RTS is a significant challenge and, indeed, like all such games, Dawn of War 3 follows the rote template of building, amassing, attacking and consolidating. Not much has changed.

While other genres like action-adventures and first-person shooters have progressed a great deal in recent years — benefiting from technological improvements in processing power and graphics as well as in storytelling — the RTS has stayed comparatively static. Perhaps the top-down boardgame view of these games only allows for incremental progression.

As a genre, RTS games have colonized mobile platforms and the nauseating world of free-to-play. But on its native PC, it has merely become more esoteric and specialized. Dawn of War 3 fits this pattern, but it's nothing if not ferociously competent.

Dawn of War 3's entire world is based on the Warhammer 40K space-age tabletop/fantasy fiction universe, a nihilistic environment of murderous warfare.

Three races are on offer, each pleasingly different than the other, though adhering to long-established stereotypes.

Eldar, a elf-like race of wistful mystics, are angelic and magical. They produce powerful ranged units, supported by persistent melee fighters. They are motivated by scripture and so are prone to schisms. They bear themselves like aristocrats, haughty and dismissive of lesser beings.

Human Space Marines are the most centrally balanced, with a good mix of melee, range and mechanical units. They are motivated by honor and loyalty to their emperor. When they speak, they sound like a bunch of English coppers enjoying a weekend rugby tour, well prepared for a bloody good scrum.

The Orks are, as you'd expect, ugly, mean and vicious. They speak — like so many of their kind — in the manner of 1950s Cockney gangsters, a dirty rabble of working class oiks. They are motivated by loot and the attainment of power for its own sake. They are treacherous and violent. This is the standard class-snobbery of fantasy fiction, from the donnish Tolkien to today.

Apart from the grotesque Orks, most of the characters in this game spout repetitious lines that would not be amiss in the most absurd medieval chivalric fables. These people exist for no other reason than to kill one another, and they seem perfectly content with their lot in life.

The single-player campaign is long and comprehensive. Unlike previous Dawn of War games, in which the core game’s playable campaign races were the humans (non-human expansions came later), Dawn of War 3 required me to play all three races in a series of chapters that amounted to a thin story about the capture of a mega-weapon and the awakening of a dark force.

Missions ranged from resource capture to stealth to wave defense. While I found the campaign to be a useful way to familiarize myself with the game's many systems, units and tactics, it's also repetitive, with a few missions that are downright frustrating. I made much use of save games in order to get through the most enraging scenarios.

Like most RTS games, the real value is in multiplayer. Dawn of War 3 offers 3-v-3, 2-v-2 and 1-v-1 on a single space station map. It's here that Relic's dedication to the genre is tested to the full.

Over the last 13 years, the Dawn of War series has evolved significantly. When the first game came out in 2004, it was widely accepted as a reasonably standard addition to a fading genre, albeit one that sported good-looks and an attractive fantasy world.

Resource gathering was a semi-automatic matter of capturing territory and building resource points, rather than fussing around with resource units. This central tenet remains in Dawn of War 3. There are no workers in this world.

Resources can only be secured by conquering and holding resource points. These can only be harvested by investing in upgrades. They require defensive building projects. There are a finite number of these points. The ones that matter are situated at the center of the map.

Dawn of War's 2009 sequel swerved into Diablo territory with upgradeable squads that were designed to stay with the player. It also dispensed with base-building, and introduced Heroes.

In Dawn of War 3, buildings are back, but there's not too many of them. There's generally a standard barracks, a building for specialized mid-tier units, one for advanced machines as well as another for handling upgrades and buffs.

Units have retained some of the RPG-elements of the last game, with upgrades and secondary abilities on offer. There are also pre-game selectable buffs that affect favored types of units, allowing the player to focus on particular strategies. But these units carry a far greater sense of disposability than in Dawn of War 2. Large armies and massive battles are encouraged. In any given game, lots of soldiers die. Many of them die quickly.

In early phases of the game, the player gets refunds on killed units. As the game progresses through specific timed phases, these refunds diminish. This — and the contested resource points — encourages probing attacks in early parts of the game, pressuring players to range outwards, rather than digging in behind fortification.

Multiplayer maps are confounding, to say the least. They require multiple defensive points on home turf, as well as on those fiercely contested middle grounds. The loss of resource points is a significant disadvantage, and although not an automatic losing position, does make it extremely difficult to win the entire contest.

There's no question of attempting to win by building multiple basic units fast and early. The win-state requires the destruction of three placements, including an array of powerful guns. Victory must be earned through a combination of surprise attacks, smart attrition and solid defense.

Undoubtedly, the main departure from previous RTS game is in the imposing power and personalities of the Elite units, a beefed up version of the last game's Heroes. Elites are earned over time by the accretion of Elite points, which is mostly automated but is also hurried by capturing resource areas.

Elites have cooldown moves that yield major destruction against enemies, scattering them to the ground. There's also a hierarchy among them that adds complexity to their tactical use.

Some can be introduced fairly early to a game, while others require the patience of holding out until late in the game. These late game giants are so powerful that they tend to tip games one way or the other.

At times, the use of these Elites focuses so much attention, that the business of creating and upgrading lesser units can seem almost marginal. An Elite can stomp a medium sized force out of existence, but it takes many standard units to take out an Elite. In any case, Elites don't die. They just take a timeout for a few minutes.

Even so, I found myself figuring out that Elites need to be supported properly, by making the correct use of standard units, most especially how they interact with cover and stealth positions. This is not a game for those who like to build lots of units and throw them at an enemy, hoping that force will win the day. Correct use of snipers, air-power and melee units makes an enormous difference to combat outcomes.

Dawn of War 3 makes an admirable attempt to nudge forward a genre that has struggled in recent years to progress. The addition of Elites offers intriguing and complex challenges for those who are prepared to put in the necessary practice. Relic has obviously thought long and hard about how realtime strategy might best be improved — even if true evolution seems out of the game’s grasp.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 3 was reviewed using a pre-release Steam key provided by Sega. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.