Platforms: PC (Reviewed)
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III is one of those RTS titles that, for all of its flaws, is still a solid experience. Despite a UI that sometimes fails to respond, a somewhat confusing set of hotkeys, and a policy on front flips that makes some Warhammer 40K fans cringe, it's ultimately still a lot of fun. The game manages to pull both novice and expert players into the Warhammer universe and the admittedly intimidating world of RTS gameplay in an engaging way.
A Good RTS for Master and Novice alike
A large portion of the game's accessibility comes due to a welcome set of tutorials that allow novice players to gradually wrap their minds around the core traits of an RTS, all while giving experienced players a chance to get familiar with a few of Dawn of War III's unique mechanics without tying them down to the campaign.
For anyone familiar with RTS games already, you'll probably get the most value out of jumping directly into the multiplayer. But if you're not familiar with Warhammer 40K lore, or if you still consider yourself new to the genre, the campaign is easily the next best place to start.
The campaign itself functions largely as an extended tutorial for the bulk of the opening act and allows you to slowly familiarize yourself with the units, mechanics, and controls of the game in a relatively low-pressure environment that encourages you to experiment with each new concept as it’s presented.
Because this is a Warhammer 40K game, the lore and units are pulled directly from the canon. This is great if you're a fan of the universe, but it does mean that you’ll need to do a bit of reading and research before you summon a unit for the first time if you're not knee deep in the glory of the empire. Fortunately, the campaign introduces each unit with a relatively simple mission or a short blurb letting you know when you should summon a unit for the first time.
Units break down into generally close, medium, and long range, and tank, support, or burst DPS from there. Once you recognize the terminology, this makes units easier to pick out for their strengths and weaknesses based off the stats presented early on. Most missions are selectively fast-paced, allowing you to take your time building your army before you kick off the bulk of combat encounters.
Once the combat gets started, you'll find yourself embroiled in a fast-paced adventure requiring you to balance unit management with each unit's skills and bonuses.
Unfortunately, this is where things can get a little dicey for newer players. Managing heroes and the movement of an army of five to ten different units can already be complex enough if you're charging in with anything more than mob mentality. Layer in a few skills for each unit on top of that, and things can get challenging extremely fast.
Fortunately, the game has multiple difficulty settings, allowing novice players to get their feet under them on Casual before stepping up to Normal or Hard where balancing a unit's skills are essential to survival.
The casual game mode still delivers plenty of challenges all it's own, but you'll find yourself getting away with a tiny bit of pre-planning and a lot of mob rushing early on. But as each of your unit piles gets decimated, you'll quickly learn when to make use of both your unit's and hero's unique skills. It's just hard enough to teach you to be a better player, but easy enough to be enjoyable.
Heroes and Zeroes
One of the cooler mechanics Dawn of War III brings to the table revolves around elite units and heroes. These are often significant characters or squads from the Warhammer 40K universe that you can deploy in both multiplayer and campaign missions to turn the tide of battle in your favor.
These units are extremely powerful, with massive health pools, the ability to quickly heal near certain structures, and a set of unique skills that can rip apart the enemy's lines.
In terms of gameplay, they generally perform exactly like any other unit, but the skills they bring to the table blur the lines of RPG and RTS. And on the occasional campaign map where you're required to play them solo, they pose a striking resemblance to characters from Diablo III, with unique effects and abilities that can similarly take down enemies in short work.
These characters do a great job of expanding your tactical options and giving you a chance to customize the way you approach any given situation. A hero can either be a powerful singular asset used for hit and run tactics as an army of one, or a titan supported by smaller units in a larger group, delivering raw firepower or deflecting projectiles and running utility debuffs on a large number of enemy troops at any given time.
You're given a select set of heroes to work with when you start, but there are plenty of others you can unlock by spending skulls, the in-game currency. These skulls encourage you to replay missions on higher difficulties, dive into multiplayer, and focus on using heroes you wouldn't normally use.
Engaging Missions, Occasionally Frustrating Constraints
The campaign itself is very much like playing a novel from the Warhammer 40K franchise, and although the story isn't anything spectacular, it frames the gameplay well and has enough twists and turns to keep most players engaged. In terms of time-to-value ratio, you get quite a bit of mileage out of the campaign alone, with about 17 missions that all take about an hour to complete, depending on your skill level. Each mission also has three separate difficulty settings from casual to hardcore, with bonuses in the form of in-game currency, experience for heroes, and satisfaction awarded to those skillful enough to tackle the game at its hardest.
The one downside is that, in order to keep the campaign as sort of an extended tutorial, it has a relatively slow start and many of the objectives are incredibly restrictive, giving you access to only a very small portion of your army's full power, depending on the situation at hand.
Sometimes this can be a fun challenge, like a custom game of chess. But occasionally it can be more than a little frustrating, especially for players that have already cut their teeth on the multiplayer or that otherwise have RTS experience.
Things get even more frustrating when the game layers in boss fights that occasionally exhibit somewhat broken mechanics. Early on in the Ork campaign, you're required to fight another Ork warboss that hops from platform to platform, summoning more enemies and shielding himself from ranged weaponry with a bubble shield that springs up on each platform. Most of your melee range Orks don't have access to a jump ability, and there's no path for them to walk up to access the individual platforms. Your only option is to either fire them from an Ork vehicle, wait for your ranged troops to destroy the barriers, or use your hero character's grappling arm to throw him up on the platform.
Unfortunately, the grappling arm and the vehicle throw mechanics occasionally have trouble dealing with 3D geometry, sending your Warboss and enemies chucked out of a truck right into the side of the platform. Although it may be a somewhat chuckle-worthy event, it's frustrating because it's inconsistent, and gets more than a little annoying when you're watching your units slowly die while you're waiting on a cooldown just so you can try to throw your Warboss on the final platform.
There's no reason you can't build certain structures in the early game and call more diverse units to the battlefield immediately, but the learning curve is set at an extremely gradual pace with no options to remove the training wheels. This makes some missions extremely challenging at harder difficulties, partly because you don't have access to the high-tier units that could stomp your enemies into the ground, or at least properly deliver them to the enemy.
Of course, it's a bit of a catch-22 either way. To make the game more accessible, the campaign needs to have the extended set of training wheels, but to make it appeal to hardcore players, it needs a greater degree of freedom and a bit more access to the large-scale mechanics.
Luckily, the game's multiplayer has no such constraints, making it the much better option for more experienced players.
Multiplayer like a Space Marine Ballet
Dawn of War III offers a unique multiplayer experience that's challenging in its balance between frenetic combat and quick strategic building. Dawn of War III has a pretty strict unit cap, requiring you to carefully plan your attack and defense. But because the resource system is passive and you're generally quick to recover, you should be able to launch a counterattack even if you lose a few key positions and half of your army.
The result is this unique space marine ballet of extreme aggression and constant unit management, which can definitely be overwhelming for new players, but once mastered is incredibly addictive. This also makes the game incredibly competition-friendly.
If you lose a significant battle early on, it doesn't mean you're out of the fight entirely. It may be an uphill battle, but it's one you can win if you use your heroes and resources wisely. The result is a game that rarely makes you feel like you're constantly being rolled over by better players. Instead, it allows you to make mistakes and recover, and there's little chance that you'll lose outright within the first opening minutes of combat if you play your cards right.
With hero characters offering a tactical opportunity to split and bolster your forces, and factions that each have their own unique feel and playstyle, the variation from match to match and player to player is pretty high. Especially considering each faction has several unlockable heroes and three passive ability slots, called army doctrines, that allow you to buff or modify your units to further fit your playstyle.
Additionally, when you match up with friends or other players to work against another team, things can get more than a little crazy. Your resource nodes and various other hero bonuses tend to cross team lines, allowing your efforts to bolster your allies and encouraging you to protect valuable resource nodes even if you don't strictly own them. So, even if you get nearly wiped out, your ally can still contribute to rebuilding your army and allow you to build up your forces and throw yourself right back into the action in no time. This encourages quite a bit of communication and team play to make sure your resources are secure and that attacks go off when both allies are prepared to compensate for unit loss and rush key points across the map.
Unfortunately, Dawn of War III still needs to work to improve the way these factions work together, as often some of the cooler features of each faction don't boost or allow teammates to share bonuses. This can create a somewhat awkward situation where one player can offer a lot of utility and benefit to their allies, but it's a one-way street.
From a strictly canon point of view, it makes sense that Orks won't exactly play well with any other faction, and the Eldar and Space Marines rarely play nice and guard their technological advances fiercely, but it would be nice to see some more team synergies to make combining each faction a little more nuanced. We're assuming that, on some level, multiplayer play is outside of the Warhammer 40K canon, so it would be great to see Relic Entertainment get a little more creative with certain gameplay and unit combinations to create something really special in the cooperative RTS genre.
We also would have enjoyed a few more variants to multiplayer game modes. Right now, the game is focused almost on a MOBA-style node/turret capture mode, which could eventually get a little stale.
Of course, as we already mentioned, the game's multifaceted combat systems really kept things hopping during the course of our review, so this critique might only be a long term concern that can easily be remedied by the occasional DLC or update.
Optimization, Graphics, and Technical Issues
All in all, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III is a well-optimized release. On a GTX 970, I had no significant frame drops, lag, or issues running the game, and I rarely had any other technical hiccups.
I did experience a single crash that required me to restart a campaign mission, but although somewhat annoying, the crash never repeated itself and the restart was more my own failure because I didn’t drop a save.
Visually, the game looks really great, managing to strip away the common misconception that because a game has a large number of units they can't look detailed and stylistically stunning. Let there be no mistake that this is a Warhammer title, and each unit has all the details and stylistic touches you would expect from a game based off of the original table-top game. The environments themselves manage to feel unique, like you're actively traversing a desolate war-torn planet, or a steel-and-gear monstrosity of human engineering. I found myself more than a little intrigued by the amount of detail and thought put into each map, allowing me to actually feel immersed as a commander – something I've always struggled with in RTS games.
That said, there are a few flaws with the general controls and mechanics that can get a little annoying and could use some smoothing out.
I found that, occasionally, units get a little bit lost moving in a large group, where one or two units would decide that it was more tactically advantageous to stand on the other side of a ravine and watch the battle rather than participate. Usually the only way to get them to actively engage in the battle at this point involved leaving my other units to fend for themselves, so I could manually select and move them a little distance away and then reissue the command to send them into the fray. This happened more than once, which got a little annoying when I was trying to coordinate two separate medium-sized forces to navigate through narrow walkways.
It also doesn't feel like the units are entirely as responsive as they could be. Issuing new commands occasionally takes a tiny bit longer than I would prefer and can waste valuable time. Combine that with the occasional issue maneuvering units around each other to snag a health pack, and it feels a little like the game isn't always listening, or is manually transmitting my orders via radio in a complicated game of telephone.
Additionally, the hotkeys leave a lot to be desired, and although a few of the keys are explained it doesn't go into great detail, leaving you occasionally fumbling in the dark trying to reorganize war parties and swap out units with low health.
It can sometimes be a nightmare trying to click and activate a unit's specific skill in the press and melee of battle. That makes me wish that instead of defaulting to a single unit's skills on the unit interface when you select a group, it would allow you to see every skill available to the units you've selected.
Effective skill management can be the difference between life and death for some units, and the skills themselves are a really cool addition to the game, but the system as it stands right now is bulky and requires enough extra clicking that it can easily be overlooked or forgotten about when it matters the most.
Although that may seems like a lot of gripes, these issues were small in the grand scheme of things, and far from ruin the overall gameplay experience. They occur just enough to be annoying, and can easily be worked around with practice and determination, but they also mar an otherwise extremely enjoyable RTS.