Warhammer 40K Dawn of War III Review: More Waaagh than you can poke a super pointy stick at
Scrap the base building; this RTS brings back the hero's journey.
Reviewed on PC
Back in the early 2000s, the RTS scene stood on the brink of revolution. Games like Age of Mythology and Warcraft III were moving the genre in a new direction, away from grand armies of cut-and-paste units to smaller battalions led by heroes with names and personalities. With them came the introduction of RPG elements like experience points and character-specific abilities, making individual unit management just as important as resource gathering and base building. Given how popular this approach was proving, it seemed certain the rest of the RTS genre would soon follow.
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Then along came Defense of the Ancients, that humble Warcraft III mod that turned the entire RTS world on its head. Stripping Warcraft III down to just its heroes, DotA ushered in the age of the MOBA, leaving the RTS genre to return to its grand strategy roots with games like Crusader Kings and the Total War series. The brief reign of the hero RTS was over.
Now, some 15 years later, Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War III seeks to bring it back. With streamlined base building, disruptive hero abilities, and a character-driven story, Dawn of War III often plays as much like an action RPG as it does an RTS. The result is a game that feels wholly refreshing in the modern strategy landscape, a refined RTS that isn't afraid to do things differently. As a lapsed RTS fan, DoW III has rekindled my excitement for the genre in a way I wouldn't have thought possible.
As the third entry in a 10-year-old video game series based on the 30-year-old Warhammer 40K universe, DoW III might seem like an intimidating entry point for all but the most hardcore of Warhammer fans, but that's far from the case. My own familiarity with the 40K universe is minimal at best, yet DoW III's story had me hooked from the get-go, and it's all thanks to a loveable Ork known as Gorgutz.
With a rich cockney accent and an exuberant, no-guff attitude, Gorgutz is immediately endearing. His love of big booms and bigger battles is infectious, serving as a refreshing counterpoint to the serious sci-fi epic DoW III sets itself up to be. Where the stoic Space Marines and evangelical Eldar speak of ancient prophecies and the vaunted Spear of Khaine, Gorgutz cares only about snatching the 'super pointy stick' for himself and showin' dem humies wot for. Where the other factions approach their missions with reverence and solemnity, Gorgutz and his fellow Orks revel in the prospect of 'Waaagh!', injecting DoW III's campaign with a delightful dose of humour.
Take one of the early Ork missions, for example. You've been tasked with recovering a devastating Ork weapon, one that will bring da pain to dem squishy humies. For all the Orks talk up the weapon's incredible power, when you finally reach it, you discover its fearsome ability is… shouting insults at the enemy to break their spirit. It's a cracking moment, one that had me grinning from ear to ear as the situation grew steadily more absurd. It's this light-hearted tone, more than all the grand conspiracies and political intrigue, that makes DoW III's campaign so engaging.
Humour isn't the only area where DoW III subverts expectations. Its lengthy campaign has you swapping between the Ork, Eldar, and Space Marine factions after each mission, introducing new ideas and gameplay mechanics on a near-constant basis. As the Space Marines, you'll be producing troops in orbit and launching drop pods straight into the thick of battle, delivering reinforcements directly to where they're needed. Soon, though, you'll be turning those drop pods into weapons of their own, shooting them into the enemy's ranks like giant bullets from the sky.
As the Eldar, meanwhile, you'll first make use of teleportation technology to move both your army and your base around the map, keeping the enemy from pinning you down in any one position. Once you've mastered that, you'll start bringing your base into battle with you, harnessing its regenerative aura to give your forces the extra edge.
Finally, as the unflappable Orks, you'll be on the lookout for scrap piles your units can salvage to upgrade themselves with new weapons and abilities. Where it really gets interesting, though, is when you discover that you can salvage the wreckage of enemy buildings and vehicles and fashion it into entirely new units, replenishing your army on-the-fly. Turning an enemy base into a fresh squad of rocket-launching mechs never gets old.
By jumping from faction to faction, DoW III's campaign forces you to constantly recalibrate your playstyle to take full advantage of the tools at your disposal. And believe me, you'll need to, since the game pulls no punches even on Casual difficulty. The enemy AI makes ample use of cover and terrain to protect its encampments, and it will waste no time sending out scouting parties to destroy any resource points you've left unmanned. If you're not leveraging every ability in your arsenal, you're going to have a tough time making it through even the early missions.
On the upside, you won't have to fight alone. Each faction makes available to you a handful of immensely powerful Elite units, three of which you can take into each map. As each mission progresses, you'll accumulate points you can use to call in these Elites, bolstering your forces with their unique abilities. Playing as the Orks, for instance, you can call in good ol' Gorgutz and his fearsome scrap-metal mech. With a retractable claw useful both as a grappling hook to cross otherwise impassable gaps and as a flail to deflect incoming enemy bullets, Gorgutz is as lethal as he is endearing.
The primary Elite unit for the Space Marines is just as impressive. Gabriel Angelos, Chapter Master of the Blood Ravens, wields a psychically-charged hammer he can slam into the ground to send his enemies flying. The Eldar, meanwhile, are led by Farseer Macha and her telekinetic spear, capable of trapping enemies inside an impenetrable stasis field while her own forces catch their breath.
It's these Elites and their unique abilities that really distinguish DoW III from other modern RTSs. Missions rely on you making the most of their powers, emphasising smart battle tactics over comprehensive base building. In fact, a good half of the campaign involves no base building at all, dropping you onto a map with just a handful of units and forcing you to play cautiously if you want to survive. Some of these missions have you stealthing your way through enemy territory, sussing out guard patrols and taking cover in the shadows. Others have you rescuing captured comrades to build up your army for an assault on an entrenched foe. It makes for a refreshing change of pace from the repurposed multiplayer maps that many RTS games shoehorn into their campaigns.
Speaking of multiplayer, DoW III includes a full suite of maps and modes for online play and AI skirmishes. Like the campaign, you'll assemble a loadout of Elites and passive army buffs to take with you into battle. Each faction has a tidy sum of Elites and buffs to choose from, leaving plenty of room to customise a loadout to suit your playstyle. Elites earn experience points as they fight, too, which unlock more buffs and unique skins for use in both the campaign and multiplayer.
To call Dawn of War III an RTS is to sell it short. By prioritising battle tactics over grand strategy, it captures the thrill of the mighty hero leading their army into battle. While it might not boast the scale or granularity of other modern RTSs, it more than makes up for it with its memorable characters, its engaging storyline, and its disruptive battle abilities. Other than its unforgiving difficulty, Dawn of War III is one of the most accessible and refined strategy games I've ever played.
We reviewed Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War III on PC with a copy provided by the publisher.
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