Fiery skies shall light the way, and blood shall spill over the wandering world as Relic Entertainment returns to the universe of Warhammer 40,000 with Dawn of War III. The original Dawn of War and its expansions rank among the all-time RTS classics, so this newest entry has some big shoes to fill.
Although it survived the death of publisher THQ, Dawn of War III experienced a tumultuous development. First discussed in 2013, only to fall off the face of the planet as THQ crumbled, it arose three years later under the banner of Sega.
However, skepticism met its new art style, which moved the series away from Dawn of War II's gritty realism and back to a more colorful, defined palette – one reminiscent of that of the first game. There were also some nonsensical complaints that the game was somehow becoming a MOBA. Rest assured, the game is as far from Dota and the like as can be, though it might not be the strategy revolution you were hoping for.
Dawn of War III offers a return to the broad, chaotic conflicts of the first game over II's smaller-scale real-time-tactics, and features an enormous unit cap as well as expansive, detailed maps to duke it out in. Matches start out slow, with teams participating in a land grab, and gradually shift into high gear as time goes on.
Battles are won by crushing the enemy's Power Core, which is protected by Shield Generators and Turrets. Every 10 minutes, the fight progresses to a new Escalation phase, making resource generators more valuable and increasing the health of objective structures. The game really shines when Escalation caps out at the 40-minute mark, at which point matches descend into hilarious, all-out bloodbaths.
Control of armies is plagued by a few unnecessary headaches due to the clumsy interface and frustrating absence of stance controls. Unit portraits and healthbars are carelessly shoved into a cluttered pile at the bottom of the screen, and coupled with an irritating lack of unit feedback, it can be difficult to tell when you're suffering losses, as troops will often stand still and eat incoming attacks instead of reacting on their own. Mismanaging resources or losing Elite Units can lead to an agonizingly slow early game and potentially a short match, which is a shame – Dawn of War III's skirmishes feel at their best during the later escalation phases.
III's triumvirate of factions feature greatly expanded mechanics over the previous games, with each offering a unique playstyle. The Space Marines serve as an introductory point, with tough squads, explosive Elite Units, and the ability to orbitally drop troops just about anywhere on the field. Meanwhile, the Eldar focus on map control with teleportation networks and fleet-footed strike teams.
Lastly, the Orks are all about charging into battle with huge mobs, as well as wielding a fourth resource in the form of Scrap, which is generated by their base buildings or pillaged from enemy vehicles and structures. It can be used to augment individual units with special abilites, such as throwing axes for Nobz and shield generators for Trukks, or even cobbled together into ramshackle vehicles on the spot.
Each faction can be personalized with the use of Doctrines and Elite Units, which essentially act as perks and heroes that are selected before a match. If you favour a certain tactic or need some extra firepower, the right selection of Elites and Doctrines might just do the trick – Space Marine Terminators offer heavy fire support while the Eldar Phoenix Lord cuts a bloody path through enemy infantry, and standard units can be outfitted with powerful abilities such as smoke bombs for Ork Shoota Boyz and teleportation beacons for Eldar Dark Reapers. The variety of Elite Units and Doctrines offers options for a wide array of playstyles and tactics, and finding out what works best for you makes for a remarkably satisfying experience.
Multiplayer activity was sparse at the time of writing, so it's difficult to speak on balance just yet, although it's starting to look like we might have another Dawn of Eldar on our hands with absurdly mobile Falcon tanks and nigh-on-indestructible Wraithblades – but this can probably just be attributed to me being awful at strategy games.
Dawn of War III's campaign drops the RPG-lite story mode of Dawn of War II in favour of a linear campaign akin to the first game. The story sees a few familiar faces such as Gabriel Angelos, Farseer Macha and Warboss Gorgutz in pursuit of the Spear of Khaine upon the wandering world of Acheron. The plot jumps between each of the three factions to offer different perspectives on the chain of events, which makes for a few interesting situations: a victory for one team might have you switching to the losing side in the very next mission to figure out how you'll recover from that loss. Or often, in Gorgutz' case, how to capitalize on that faction's defeat.
This has come at the cost of the story not being as fleshed-out as it could've been; a few plot points and side characters are completely forgotten about towards the end. A late-game plot twist offers to spice things up, but is promptly silenced by an abrupt ending and a cliffhanger that's already teasing an expansion pack.
Relics' tales have always been backed up by charismatic voice acting, and Dawn of War III is no exception, for the most part. The new Ork voices are spot-on, and all sound like they're having a ton of fun (Gorgutz especially), and the Eldar hit just the right notes of pride and condescension. The Space Marines are the odd ones out: the rank and file marines just don't sound quite as into-it as in the previous games, and the new Dreadnought voice sounds like a tired intern with a crummy voice filter.
III's sound design is mercifully lighter on bass than in the second game, but that's not to say it's any less punchy. The Imperial Knights in particular are joyous to see in action as they storm across the field, blasting enemies to pieces with their thundering cannons. However, the soundtrack leaves something to be desired, its faux-epic electrical noise lacks the moody orchestrations of Jeremy Soule's music from the first game, or the overpowering brass of Doyle W. Donehoo's soundtrack from the second.
Dawn of War III is perhaps not all it could have been due to clumsy controls, interface irritations, and a disappointing roster of only three factions, but that's not to say it's a terrible game by any means. Experimenting with different Elite and Doctrine combos makes for a unique experience, and individual units and mechanics are great fun to play around with. Time will tell if the inevitable expansion packs can mend these weaknesses, but until then, we're left with a fun – if uneven – venture into the forty-first millennium.