Rather than jump to some random mission in the game (as previews so often do), we started right at the beginning and played the first portion of the main campaign. While this meant we didn't get to see some of the more powerful late-game maneuvers, it gave us a great introduction to the basics and a grounding in the story that will be driving Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II.
Stepping into the shoes of a Blood Raven Chaos Marine commander, we were immediately tasked with defending a territory on the world of Calderis. One of two main Blood Raven recruiting worlds, Calderis had recently come under attack by a surprisingly organized group of Orks. Those familiar with the Orks know that organization and tactical planning isn't exactly one of their strong points, so suspicions were raised. A Chaos Marine is less about talk and more about action, however, so the point wasn't dwelled upon for very long. Our troops hit the ground and went to work routing the Ork incursion over the course of the first few missions.
Rather than have you command a grand army, Dawn of War II keeps the focus on four squads of Chaos Marines. You've got your custom Force Commander (who is essentially a squad of one) and up to three more squads at your command. Over the course of the game, you will collect additional squads, but you are limited to four active squads at any given time. Because each squad is specialized, it's an excellent way of forcing the player to pick and choose how you want to approach a mission.
For example, the first support squad you'll encounter is Tarkus, who leads a squad of tactical marines. Good at laying out the lead, these guys are great to have around when you're in the middle of a heavy firefight. Next up was Avitus, who leads a squad of devastator marines. Avitus's team consists of ranged fighters who excel at providing cover. The third squad to join our roster was Cyrus and his scout squad. Not exactly your typical Chaos Marine due to their adoption of stealth, Cyrus's men are adept at cloaking themselves and sneaking behind enemy lines. Finally, we encountered Thaddeus and his assault marine squad. Perhaps the coolest of the bunch, these Chaos Marines redefine the concept of "bringing the fight to the enemy." Instead of charging forth with guns a-blazin', the assault marines use their jetpacks to blast high into the air and then come crashing down on top of their unsuspecting opponents. The force of the landing knocks down weaker Orks, and Thaddeus's assault marines then ripped apart whatever is left in brutal melee combat.
One of the aspects of combat that really stood out was the extensive use of cover present in the game, both for the player to use as well as the AI. Inspired by the cover system in Relic's own Company of Heroes, every object in the world has a height value. This is represented in the game by various colors. For example, when moving into cover, a green dot indicates good cover, a yellow dot signifies average cover and a white dot means that there's no cover. Very large objects completely block shots; you can hide behind them, but they also prevent you from returning fire at the enemy.
The cover system effectively prevents the use of the "dumb rush" tactic. Trying it will occasionally work, but more often than not, it would simply mean the death of your troops. Instead, Dawn of War II requires both strategic moves, such as flanking, and use of special weapons like Blind Grenades (stun grenades) if you want to claim the advantage. In one particularly effective attack, we tossed a Blind Grenade at a patrol, immediately had the assault marines jump in from above and then rushed in with the force commander while having Tarkus and his men lay down front fire. The opposing patrol didn't know what hit them.
In addition to individual skills, each squad leader can be outfitted with custom equipment that is earned during the missions. This is done on an inventory screen that looks like it could have been lifted from any number of role-playing games. Squad leaders have item boxes and can be given a loadout simply by dragging and dropping weapons and items into the appropriate boxes. Some items have prerequisites, so not all squad leaders can use every item.
The inventory screen is also where you'll improve your squad leaders' skills and abilities. Every mission earns the squad leaders experience, and when they gain a level, skill points can be spent. These skill points can give new abilities, enhance existing ones or simply give extra item slots. You'll have to choose your skill points wisely, however, because in Dawn of War II, there are no "give backs," and players will only earn about half of the required points to max out all the skills over the course of a game. This means that a player is forced to choose between specializing and maxing out a few skills or generalizing and never mastering any. It's a deliberate choice that was made in order to encourage replay value.
Because Dawn of War II operates under the assumption that every mission is a single battle in a larger war, you keep any items collected during a mission, even if the mission itself ultimately results in failure. Every attempt you make helps progress your character and improves your chances of success down the line. Failed missions do cost time, however, so having to repeat a given mission may mean you don't have time to complete another mission.
Dawn of War II's novel approach to mission design was driven because the developers wanted to provide players with shorter, but more satisfying levels … and more of them. Key story missions will always have to be completed, but the individual battles can unfold in something of a non-linear fashion. Even the missions themselves can be completed in multiple ways due to optional targets and different missions occurring on the same physical territory over time.
For example, some of the larger maps we played on included special buildings: communication arrays, shrines and foundries. Going out of our way to capture one took extra time, but the benefits paid off in later missions. For example, capturing an array gives you additional intelligence information when operating later missions on the same planet. Capturing a shrine gives you the Rosarius item, which renders a given squad invulnerable for a limited amount of time, but it only works when a shrine is in range. Finally, the foundry gives you automated turrets. Like the shrine, they only work when the foundry is in range, but can be a powerful defensive weapon.
As the story progressed, we discovered that an Eldar warlock was the one manipulating the Orks in order to try and contain the greater threat of a Tyranid invasion in the sector. While our limited time didn't give us the chance to get very deep into the story, the early missions carefully laid out a number of questions, teasing us with the possibility that not everything was as it seemed. Seeing a focus on story is appreciated, as it helps flesh out the game world and gives everything a bit more depth.
In the end, the most telling thing about our time with the demo for Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II was simply the fact that everyone in our group wanted to keep playing even though our time was up. What we were shown was a small slice of the single-player experience, yet it was enough to hook the interest of everyone in the room. For a game that's still early in development, that's an impressive feat, and we're certainly anticipating seeing more. After all, the single-player campaign may be limited to the Chaos Marines, but the multiplayer aspect will allow players to take control of any of the races. Suffice it to say, Dawn of War II is one impressive-looking RTS, and we're anticipating it just as much as Blizzard's Starcraft 2. Next year is should be a good time for RTS fans the world over.
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