At the end of Relic's launch trailer for Dawn of War 3, a battle-scarred grunt gazes up at a looming giant. The soldier knows he's about to die. He raises his sword at the impossibly huge enemy, almost in salute. He smiles.
It's not so much that the character is unafraid of his own death, more that he feels he has satisfactorily completed his own destiny, which is to die.
Dawn of War 3's entire trailer is deeply fascinated with death. Its morbid voice-over is a dirge, traipsing through a glittering arcade of merciless violence. Flesh being sliced and stomped is its mournful harmony.
Little wonder that the grunt smiles at his own demise
"In the face of death you shall have no remorse," says the cold voice, while beautiful and horrible warrior units tear one another apart. The grunt seems to agree. He exists in a game about death and he has died.
None of this is accidental. The Warhammer 40K universe is dark and violent. It is a world of battles, populated by beings designed for war. Life in such a place has little meaning and even less value.
Real-time strategy games are also — even by the standards of video games — dreadfully violent. Factories are built to churn out military units, which are then thrown into battle with the full expectation that they will all be slain. Traditionally, the RTS is about killing things in large numbers.
Little wonder that the grunt smiles at his own demise. Wouldn't you?
"I’ve loved Warhammer 40K for 25 years or more," says Dawn of War 3 game director Phillipe Boule. "It’s a grim, dark future. There’s no two ways about it. This is a place where multiple cultures are just in eternal war with one another."
Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War first arrived back in 2004, melding Games Workshop's popular tabletop sci-fi universe with real-time strategy mechanics, which rely on resource gathering, building and overhead combat.
Battle units were taken from the familiar world of 40K. Standard RTS play mechanics were utilized, with an emphasis on capturing territory.
Developer Relic had launched itself into the world five years earlier with the release of the much-admired and innovative three-dimensional RTS Homeworld, followed by a sequel and then a foray into the lucrative Warhammer license. Along with a sequel released in 2009, the Dawn of War series has sold millions of copies. The next game is due out next year on Windows PC.
Vancouver-based Relic has shown itself to be a world leader in RTS games, also responsible for the World War 2 series, Company of Heroes. The company generally tweaks the basic RTS formula with a leaning toward some particular facet of the genre. In the case of Dawn of War 3, expensive and highly powerful units are the big emphasis, directing the player towards tough choices about which units to invest in, while also controlling and efficiently utilizing those units when they are in play.
In the single-player campaign, during which players take on the role of Space Marines, Orks or Eldars, the ability to construct special super units are acquired along the way. Resources are automatically accrued, and at an ever more rapid rate depending on how much territory has been captured. During a pre-E3 demo, Relic focused on Space Marines, which are fierce humans, bred for battle.
"The Space Marines are interesting to me," says Boule. "It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing they’re these shining heroes. But they’re not. There are no good guys in this franchise. Sure, they’re trying to protect the galaxy for humanity."
I wouldn’t want to be a human being who sees them coming, because they’re more likely to wipe a planet clean than save me individually. The individual doesn’t have a lot of place in that setting. It’s those darker themes that make this a deep IP that you can sink your teeth into on a lot of different levels."
Players can bring early super units into the game in order to create an advantage or dig themselves out of a bad situation. Or they can hold off until later, more powerful units are unlocked, unleashing yet more damage. This is really a choice between the early or mid-game rush, as opposed to turtling and then attacking.
As fighting goes on, players can build lesser units to capture objectives or defend the base. These include:
Armies can also use mid-level Hero units such as the Space Marines' Gabriel Angelos, who swings his giant hammer, forcing enemies back and creating a temporary shield. Armies also have their own special abilities, such as a searing laser called in from space, that destroys everything in its path.
Once the bigger units are in play, it's all about making use of powerful weapons that destroy large swathes of enemies, albeit with sometimes excruciating cooldown times.
Powerful weapons destroy large swathes of enemies.
In the demo being shown at E3 this week, Space Marines deploy the Elite Imperial Knight Solaria, who wields a 90 degree arc machine gun as well as an ability to hit six targets at once with powerful missiles.
Units are able to defend themselves using capturable 360 degree cover areas that deteriorate as they takes a pounding. Melee units can charge cover to try to bring cover down. Projectiles are also well-illustrated and take enough time to arrive at their destinations to give skilled players a chance to react.
Larger units are dependent on a separate economy from the basic units, as Boule explains. "There’s a secondary resources we call Elite Points that build up over time. You bring heroes in once you had enough of those points. Some Elites will cost only a few points and you can bring them in almost right away. Others, you just can’t get them in before the 10 or 15 minute mark in a full match."
The overall effect is one of big, complex and noisy battles in which there's really no single path to victory. Players have to react to the emergence of giant units that tip the balance immediately and drastically. We haven't seen any multiplayer yet, but you can bet that this will be the key strategic platform of PvP games.
Bigger units all have their own personalities and will constantly talk throughout the battle, either spewing their own particular trash talk or making some reference to a super ability that the player might have forgotten to utilize.
Part of the charm of this world is its indefatigable darkness and its over the top embrace of the language of combat and destruction. It's difficult to avoid talking in your own head like these characters, with their canting about honor, death and vengeance.
"That's part of what makes Warhammer 40K and Dawn of War so engaging," says Boule. "It has a satirical edge. It has a dark commentary undertone. There’s lots of over-the-top fun. It's a British 1980s thing. I joke that Warhammer 40K, Iron Maiden covers and Judge Dredd were flatmates back in the day."
The heroes give this world more personality and depth. "This is a place where multiple cultures are in eternal war with one another," says Boule. "What’s interesting to me is that that serves as a backdrop. You can then create contrast with interesting and engaging heroes. What does it mean to work in that, to fight in a place where there is no real sense of 'we’ll just fight for one year longer and then we’ll win'. They are going to keep fighting for lifetimes. How does heroism or the individual rise to the surface in there? That’s what we want to explore."
Boule says that the death of a mere Space Marine is just something these guys expect when they begin each day.
"None of them die in their sleep. They exist to fight this eternal war, so they all know they’re going to die on the battlefield. Part of what we can examine is, what does that do to them? They’re supposedly the defenders of humanity. But they themselves give up a lot of what makes us human. That’s an interesting dichotomy."