It's hard to keep a good Space Marine down. After an incredibly successful run with the original Dawn of War and its three expansion packs — Winter Assault, Dark Crusade, and Soulstorm — it's about time that THQ and Relic got to work on bringing us a proper sequel. We recently got an extended sneak peek (sadly, no direct hands-on) at the game and saw both the Space Marines and the Tyranids in action.
After taking the story in a number of different directions, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II attempts to refocus the action by giving the player direct control of a squad of Space Marines. These aren't just throwaway characters; this is your squad, and they stay with you throughout the entire game. Unlike most RTS games where each mission stands alone, everything in Dawn of War II carries over from one mission to the next.
Do well, and you are appropriately rewarded. Fail a mission and you might not get the big reward, but you also won't be faced with a game over screen. Rather, the game is designed to take failure into account. After all, you're a single strike force in the middle of a massive war. As you play through the game, various missions will present themselves. You can pick and choose which you want to take on, but beware: The conflict doesn't stop just because you're off killing bad guys. Each mission is on a timer, and even if you win every single mission you attempt, there will be some that fail simply because you didn't have the time to take them on.
Now now, stop looking all offended. Not being able to win every single mission might sound pretty harsh, but in the context of Dawn of War II, failure isn't permanent. It's merely a temporary setback in the middle of a larger conflict, and even failure isn't total failure. Because everything carries over, you don't lose any items you may have found during a mission just because you had to abort. No matter what, you're always progressing your characters.
Balancing time is an issue because you need to ponder every action on a risk/reward basis. Your missions will see you returning to the same planetary locations as the combat moves back and forth. Sure, it may be tempting to simply power through a mission in order to complete it quickly and take on another task, but sometimes it's better to hang back and explore another part of the map because you might find an enemy base that offers a strategic advantage. Attacking it early won't fulfill a mission parameter, but capturing it will certainly give you a long-term advantage. The next time you return to that map, the base will be under your control, which makes further missions in the area less of a risk. Territory bonuses can include mana bonuses, better intel, special briefings and morale bonuses for the sector.
Developing your units isn't just about earning experience. It's about gearing up your strike force in order to make them the most badass Space Marines in the entire galaxy. You start with your Force Commander and three support squads, although you can add more squads to your command as you progress. Early on, the available squad leaders are Avitus (Devastator Marine Squad), Cyrus (Scout Marine Squad), Tarkus (Tactical Marine Squad) and Thaddeus (Assault Marine Squad). Because you can only bring three squads in addition to your Force Commander, it's important to properly equip before a mission.
Customizing your combat troops is done in a way that's very similar to Diablo's inventory screen. You bring up one squad leader at a time and equip weapons, armor and accessories before each mission. The Force Commander also has access to special commander items, which are powerful but exceedingly rare. War gear can be obtained by completing missions, and they're also randomly dropped from vanquished enemies. Since you keep everything you earned on a mission, even if you fail to complete the goals, there is a certain incentive to play aggressively.
Each squad leader also has a skill tree. There are four attributes per leader: energy, health, melee and range. You can choose which attributes to increase as you progress through the game, but make sure you choose wisely because all skill choices are permanent. There is no skill buyback in Dawn of War II, as the development team wanted to encourage replayability. If a squad is killed in battle you can revive the squad leader, but the squad itself can only be reinforced at Orbital relays. In this way there is a penalty for death, but it isn't devastating.
After getting an overview of the game mechanics, it was time to jump into the mission, so our Space Marines traveled down to the planet in order to fend off a Tyranid attack. A familiar enemy to 40k fans, the Tyranid should also seem familiar to Starcraft players. After all, the Zerg were no doubt heavily inspired by the Tyranid.
An alien hive-mind, the Tyranid are dangerous in large groups because they can coordinate attacks to an incredible degree. As long as there is a synapse creature in range, all Tyranids will move and attack as a single entity. Taking out the synapse creature will revert the Tyranids back to individually minded animals with a much lower reasoning capacity.
This was demonstrated by way of a grenade. Toss a grenade over a wall into a group of Tyranids with a synapse creature, and they will immediately recognize it as a weapon, move to avoid it, and search out the attacker who launched it. Use a sneak attack to eliminate the synapse creature before tossing in a grenade, and the reaction is quite different. The individual Tyranids won't know that the grenade is a threat. Some may ignore it. Others may sniff it. But they won't run, and when it blows up, it takes out most of the group.
Another new feature in Dawn of War II was borrowed from Company of Heroes, the cover system. If an enemy can't see your squad, it won't know to attack until you move into view. Creative use of the cover system can help even the odds when a small squad is facing an overwhelming force.
Our mission finally ended with a boss battle. As we approached the pickup point, a massive Tyranid creature attacked, putting the squad on the defensive. After a bit of combat, Captain Thule arrived inside a Dreadnaught and helped to eliminate the creature. Thule's appearance helped advance the story, and it also added a new squad to our team. After the mission, Thule's Dreadnaught squad was selectable.
In terms of playable races in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, only the Space Marines are playable in the single-player mode, but all of the races will be available in multiplayer. Unfortunately, that's all that Relic would let slip, so there's no real word on how the Tyranids perform when under the control of a human player as opposed to computer AI. For now, we're just going to have to wait, but based on what we've seen, it's safe to say that our anticipation runs high.
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