To begin with a caveat.
This review is for those of our gentle readers who are unfamiliar with the Warhammer 40K miniatures game -- or for those who are acquainted with the game but take no great delight in it. If you are familiar with the game and like it, read no further: just go get Dawn of War and your swerve on. Actually, that's probably unnecessary advice, because if you're a Games Workshop fanboy with fifty bucks, the odds run pretty high that you've already got Dawn of War and are at this very moment yapping profane Mountain Dew Black and Captain Morgan's-fueled l33tspeak at me in the Gamespy lobbies.
That's because Dawn of War is just about a perfect translation of the 40K tabletop game to the real-time strategy genre -- for better or worse. Dawn of War, developed by Relic Entertainment (of Homeworld fame) and published by THQ, is a real-time strategy game set in the Warhammer 40K universe, and from its stunning opening cinematic to its fluffy storyline, it never lets you forget it. Warhammer 40K is one (and by far the most popular) of the many miniatures games published by England-based Games Workshop.
Since Games Workshop's target demographics skew hard to the young male, their games are prime candidates for video game treatment, and indeed many different companies have produced digital versions of such GW games as Space Hulk, Blood Bowl, Warhammer Fantasy Battles, and of course Warhammer 40K.
Unfortunately, most of these games have been forgettable at best, usually because they've failed to capture the miniatures games' combination of fast, fun, gameplay, well-wrought and colorful miniatures, and deep background ("fluff" in the parlance of the GW faithful). Dawn of War manages to do all of these things really well, and if you like 40K, chances are you'll love Dawn of War. However, if your gaming tastes run to the more deliberate and cerebral, you might want to give this one a pass.
It's difficult to overemphasize the important role that graphics play in the Warhammer 40K miniatures boardgame. From the exceptionally well-crafted 28mm models to the amazing paint jobs to the evocative terrain, 40K games look pretty damn spectacular. Games Workshop really pushes the painting and modeling aspects of the hobby in their White Dwarf magazine, and a couple of well-painted 40K armies fighting it out on a table decorated with spiffy terrain is a sight to behold. It's no wonder that the kids pass up the historical miniatures tables (which too often take the sackcloth-and-ashes approach to aesthetics) for the sugar-coated splendor of the 40K universe.
Up to now, most of the video games based on Games Workshop products just haven't managed to reproduce the distinctive GW graphic flair, but Dawn of War does so in spades. It's just a fantastic looking game, and utterly true to the 40K universe, as if the models have been brought to life from the table.
Not only does the engine look good, but the graphics also attend to the most insignificant details of 40K fluff. Chapter badges are placed on the correct shoulder pads, Eldar Dark Reapers sport their distinctive skull masks, Chaos mutants are deformed in the approved GW fashion. Add to this graphic splendor some very nifty particle effect weapons graphics, smooth and "characterful" animations (including very stylish finishing moves good enough for most fighting games), and you've got a 40K fan's daydream. Add a camera that can both rotate and zoom, and this is one of those rare games that's as much fun to watch as it is to play--and it's a lot of fun to play.
The game also includes a very nifty paint program that allows players to paint their armies in personalized colors and to import distinctive chapter badges and insignia. This is of course a huge lure for gamers who wish to see their very own tabletop armies scrapping in the RTS world. The game also includes several pre-painted armies for each faction, all of which will be familiar to 40K fanatics.
I don't much care for the tabletop version of Warhammer 40K. Wait; let me rephrase that -- I don't care for the latest edition of Warhammer 40K. 4th edition 40K came out a couple of years ago, aimed squarely at males aged from ten years old to whatever time it is when they get a serious girlfriend. This new demographic focus required a significant dumbing down of the game's rules. On the one-through-ten complexity and realism scales for tactical squad-based miniatures wargames, 40K gets about a "3." And that may be a little high. The game works on a simple Igo/Ugo mechanic with no overwatch or defensive fire phases, there's a ton of die-rolling involved, and the key to victory usually seems to lie in army selection rather than solid tactics.
I was surprised to find that all the stuff that bugs me about Warhammer 40K as a tabletop game doesn't really matter in the real-time strategy game. Dawn of War's gameplay is very dynamic and oriented towards fast-moving, aggressive offensive warfare at the expense of static base-building and resource management.
In fact, there's not much to resource management in this game. Two very abstract resources -- power and requisition points -- are used to construct buildings and units, and both are dealt with in very abstract ways. Players are awarded "requisition points" for capturing strategic points on the map. So long as they control a point, they receive a certain amount of requisition points, with which they can then buy buildings, units, and upgrades. Players can reinforce these strategic points with point defenses and listening devices -- both of which also increase the number of requisition points granted. That's it. The game's other resource, power, is obtained by building power generators. That's it. There are no peons to micro-manage, and those who find the city management of stuff like Rome: Total War or even Rise of Nations to be excruciating will no doubt be overjoyed. Of course, this abstraction also makes these strategic points very important, and most of the game's battles will rage around them.
Base construction and management is also fairly streamlined. Each army has an easily-replaced builder unit that can be used to construct various structures, and these structures produce the game's units and upgrades for the game's units. Players must defend their bases, but a "turtle" strategy just isn't going to get it; the game's economic system mandates that players aggressively expand their perimeters.
In Dawn of War, players can command the armies of the Space Marines (with some Imperial Guard for good measure), Chaos Space Marines, Orks and Eldar. Players control squads, individual vehicles, and individual characters. Most squads begin with just a few troops, maybe four of five of them. As the player upgrades his buildings, the number of troopers in each squad can be increased. Squads can also be upgraded and equipped with many of the familiar weapons of the 40K universe. For example, Space Marines can upgrade their squads to include plasma guns, rocket launchers, heavy bolters, and flamers -- each of which has its own particular uses. Squads can also add sergeants, and powerful characters can also be attached to the units. 40K fans will be happy to see that many of the basic and even more esoteric units from the game have been included. For example, the Space Marine player can recruit Devastator Squads, jump-pack equipped Assault squads, and two kinds of heavy Terminator squads. Eldar Players can choose from such units as basic Guardian squads, Howling Banshees, and Dark Reapers. The Chaos and Ork forces also offer a wide variety of units.
Likewise, each race gets a nice little selection of vehicles. For instance, the Eldar can choose from anti-grav gun platforms, Viper jet bikes, Fire Prism tanks, and Wraithlords. Space Marines can use Whirlwinds rocket lauchers and fearsome Dreadnoughts. Orks field typically Orky contraptions like Wartraks and Killer Kans. Chaos Space Marines get such nasty pieces of work as the very nasty Defiler. While not every asset in the 40K miniatures Codices shows up, all but the most demanding 40k aficionado should be happy with the choices.
Players can also recruit characters. They are, just like characters in the miniatures game, massively overpowered. Most of the characters have special abilities and spells, but combat is so fast in the game that I've found I rarely use them. Once players have worked their way up to the top of the tech tree (which doesn't take long) they can then recruit a very powerful special unit. Dawn of War isn't really an innovative game -- its interface is much like Warcraft III's, and its very fast gameplay reminds me of the recent Command and Conquer games, with better balance -- but it does have two promising innovations. First, units can take cover in the game. Cover is usually light or heavy, and can significantly increase a unit's survivability. Since most units in this game pack some serious firepower, cover is often a godsend to units on the defensive or seeking to establish bases of fire. Secondly, players can customize their units (for a price) with heavy weapons, grenades, or special abilities. The great thing about these upgrades is that they're actually more like reinforcements, and can be given while units are in combat. This adds a nice new aspect to gameplay -- for example, if a player finds one of his squads isolated and under attack by enemies, he can attempt to reinforce them where they stand, thus giving the player's forces some potentially decisive extra time to ride to the rescue.
Unit morale is also important in the game. Units facing serious losses or particularly terrifying enemies or weapons can sometimes panic and break in combat. In the miniatures 40K game, this usually means they flee; in Dawn of War, panicked units don't flee, but they do lose much of their combat effectiveness.
The only real quibble I have with Dawn of War's gameplay is that the friendly AI can have a difficult time with pathing, especially when squads and vehicles are both attempting to negotiate narrow passages. In a game that plays this fast, needless delays can be killers, and I've spent more than a few frustrating moments trying to coax my sluggish and confused units from one side of the map to another. Overall, however, gameplay is fast, colorful and fun. Each of the races is nicely balanced, and has enough units with enough different abilities to give the game a good bit of replay value.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the game's single-player campaign. While it has a decent storyline (told in cut scenes using the game's engine) that is scrupulously true to 40K fluff, it only allows the player to play one faction (the Blood Raven Space Marines) for only about ten missions. It's pretty short. The campaign's narrative involves an insidious Chaos plot that takes the Space Marine player across the deserts, cities, and jungles of the planet Tartarus. It also offers chances to fight Eldar, Chaos, and Orcs. Most of the missions are very linear and utterly predictable, and consist of fighting one's way across the map to the enemy boss. None of this is a game killer, but one cannot help but wish that the same care was put into the game's mediocre campaign design as into its stellar graphics engine.
Fortunately, the game also includes terrific skirmish and online modes. Though the number of maps included for online play is more limited than I'd like and the game inexplicably includes no scenario editor, the maps that are there are quite good, and Dawn of War's very fast and splashy gameplay makes for excellent multiplayer and skirmish fare. You'll need to know your hotkeys to be successful, but Dawn of War online is pretty much the dictionary definition of mindless fun. Unfortunately, "mindless" is also a pretty fair description of many of the denizens of the Dawn of War's online lobbies. Look, I'm not online noob; I've seen some nasty lobbies. But there are a lot of jerks playing this one, and I've had more than one game ruined by someone's raging hormonal hissy fits.
Bottom line on Dawn of War -- if you demand depth and a strong economic model in your real-time strategy game, this one's probably not for you. Again, Dawn of War is much like Warhammer 40K. It's not very deep or realistic, but it's colorful, fast, and fun. And on those nights when you feel like unleashing your inner Orc, it doesn't get much better than that.Editor's Note: A while after we published this review, we recieved an e-mail from a reader that had written a walk-through for Dawn of War. He asked if we could link to it, and since we're nice people and all for this sort of thing, we thought we would. If you're having any troubles getting into Dawn of War, check out his walk-through here.