Preview: Dawn of War 2

At first glance, the environment around us looks to be nothing special. Certainly nothing worth fighting over. Barren, cracked ground stretches out across the horizon, occasionally broken by whichever exotic looking plant has managed to win the fight for water. Ruins blight the landscape on what could have possibly once been a beautiful planet, now permanently scarred by decades of war. Clearly someone further up the command chain doesn’t see this as a holiday spot though. Gaining a tactical advantage is the name of the game here.

From the first moment, my teammates’ Eldar and Space Marines spread out, hunting for control points. Playing as a defensive field commander, I opt to follow one of my allies in the hopes of fortifying any position he may gain. We win the race to the control point, but are confronted before we have chance to bed in. A blur of action takes place, with shock troops dropping in on jet packs more than once to save my scouts’ hides, and the enemies Eldar troops’ spirits broken on a number ofoccasions. I opt to hang back, the coward that I am, and hope that using cover effectively will give me more of an advantage than the enemy’s greater numbers. Eventually, after several waves of reinforcements and multiple clashes between opposing field commanders, my allies are able to provide enough distraction for me to set up a few cross-firing turrets and truly call this control point ours. We rally, reinforce, and start all over again at the next control point.

Dawn of War II’s multiplayer is full of these miniature dramas, where skirmishes can be won or lost by choosing to move between cover at just the right time, or opting to run out into the open, sacrificing your scouts for the sake of taking out a turret with a grenade. Tiny – sometimes seemingly meaningless – decisions can have a butterfly effect on the whole battle. This may sound like a haven for the neurotic or anally retentive, but DoW II manages to heap pressure on the player’s decisions without ever sacrificing the fun factor or a sense of balance. My team eventually lost the above encounter, and I fully accept responsibility for accidentally telling all three of my squads to hop out of cover at just the wrong time. We lost that control point and were pushed back so swiftly that our entire defensive line buckled, and the day was lost.

To call DoW II “just Company of Heroes with Space Marines” is in some ways correct, whilst still doing the game a great disservice. That Relic have managed to retain the authenticity and wide variety of the Warhammer 40,000 universe and still come out the other side with a balanced and enjoyable experience is nothing short of an RTTS (real-time tactical strategy) miracle. What we do have is an impetus on using cover rather than overwhelming numbers (Tyranids aside) and an emphasis on smaller units with multiple configurations not seen since Warcraft III or the afore-mentioned Company of Heroes. Throughout my weekend blasting through the multiplayer beta, I think the highest number of units I had was 5. Any more than that and the units would become unmanageable, and would struggle to compete for cover in narrow firefights. It made much more sense to spend my resources upgrading my commander and other units (I give my scouts shotguns and a sergeant, who in turn unlocks frag grenades, for example) rather than clutter the battlefield and not be able to maneuver my troops effectively.

To assume, as we know, is to make an ass out of you and me, but we can’t help but get a little bit giddy as we await the arrival of Dawn of War II. Relic’s track record for creating tension and cinematic moments in what is normally a genre so devoid of storyline and actually caring about the troops on the screen is sterling. And if the opening cinematic is anything to go by, they look to have even surpassed the mighty Company of Heroes this time.

Dawn of War II comes out on February 14th 2009, and is available to pre-purchase on Steam now.

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