Realtime strategy games don’t have boss fights, right? This one does. Each one of Dawn Of War 2’s singleplayer missions culminates in a pacy pile-on against some lone uber-character laden with devastating special attacks.
As you shuffle your four small squads of Space Marines around the screen to avoid them, intermittently unleashing powers of your own, you’re using reflexes and tactics unfamiliar to this genre. You’re playing Diablo – but a Diablo set in Games Workshop’s maximalist sci-fi world, with a lone warrior replaced with a small army of power-suited future-fascists.
Singleplayer RTS has struggled for relevancy of late, especially since it’s so often a grudging afterthought to multiplayer. The rigmarole of scripted skirmishes interspersed with cutscenes is a 15-year hangover from Command & Conquer, a series that now elects to make a knowing joke out of it rather than further the form.
With DOW2, however, Relic has made the singleplayer mode an entirely different game, both to the multiplayer mode and to the first DOW. While the compulsive collection instinct that propels players through action RPGs like Diablo and MMOGs like World Of WarCraft can scarcely be called gaming at its most thoughtful, what it does do is make a game feel personal.
The potential for levelling up your fixed squads and equipping commanders with rare loot introduces the sort of short-term, achievable goals that make a player feel so connected to, for instance, their World Of WarCraft character. It does, however, mean that careful military tactical thinking is sidelined, to some extent, in favour of experience-point chasing. Relic is risking a mass alienation of Dawn of War’s existing audience with this sea change.
The RTS devout are famously resistant to change, reacting to any hint of imbalance or over-ease. But if anyone immediately dismisses DOW2 because there’s no base building and it has a heavy focus on special abilities, then they’ll be overlooking a fascinating hybrid. While DOW2’s missions are essentially dungeon crawls (albeit across planetary surfaces), they’re still played with squads. One will specialise in melee, another in heavy, ranged damage, another in stealth, another set as all-purpose squaddies.
They’re persistent throughout the game, rather than built from resources collected from the map (“Space Marines don’t chop wood” is one of Relic’s mantras), but positioning, use of cover and timely deployment of secondary abilities such as grenades is as important as in any build’n’bash RTS.
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