Don’t Worry, Dawn Of War 3 Is Fine

If you’re in the market for as close as you can get to a oldschool RTS in 2017, you’ll be pleased to know that Dawn of War 3 delivers.

Fans have been fairly fraught over the last few months, and with good reason. There was always going to be a schism amongst the community: the original Dawn Of War revolved around base-building, cover and several other tried and tested RTS tropes. DoW 2‘s multiplayer was structurally similar, but the campaign was completely overhauled to become more of an aRPG, where the player controlled a small squad of units and upgraded them with loot after every mission.

It was two games in one. Three, if you include the wave-based Horde mode. And the campaign was eminently replayable because you could play through the whole thing with a friend in co-op.

There hasn’t been much like it since.

The opening mission is reminiscent of Dawn of War 2, with Gabriel Angelos repelling an Ork attack on a sandy planet

So when Relic announced that resource management and basebuilding were back for the Dawn of War 3 campaign, it caused instant concern. It meant walking away from some of the things that made DoW 2 great, although it also meant the campaign could properly explore all of the game’s factions, rather than being a 20-hour love in with the Space Marines.

And off the bat, that’s what you’re presented with. The campaign switches sides every mission, although each mission carries on from the battles preceding it. It’s largely coherent and takes place in a timeline after the original games. Angelos is sporting a fairly healthy scar and only one functioning eye these days, while Farseer Macha and the ranger Ronahn return for the Eldar.

DoW 3 doesn’t have any persistent RPG elements or loot that carries over from one mission to another, but there is a persistent progression system that operates across the campaign and multiplayer.

There’s two core parts: your Elite units, which gain experience as they kill units in singleplayer and multiplayer games. The XP unlocks new doctrines that can be equipped, which often provides a specific buff to a single unit or class of units once they’re on the battlefield. The Wraithlord’s starting ability, for instance, lets you teleport all Wraithguards and Wraithblades (Eldar’s equivalent of mechs, more or less) to its position. But once it reaches level three, you can equip a different ability that lets you relocate Webway gates without having to research tier 2 tech.

You only gain progression for Elite units as they kill units on the battlefield. That’s fun in principle, although it also means you’ll have to grind a lot. By the end of the campaign, I’d levelled the main heroes of the three factions (Space Marines, Orks and Eldar for reference) to level 3, just enough to unlock a faction benefit.

But it’s not just Elites you have to unlock either – every race has a bunch of bonuses to their buildings, vehicles and infantry that can be unlocked as well:

There’s a lot. Each of the doctrines cost 50 skulls (the in-game currency) to unlock, provided you’ve also levelled the requisite Elite enough. A lot of the doctrines are fairly minor affairs, but some of them are utterly critical.

One of the Eldar’s better vehicles, for instance, can get a temporary shield. You need it, because by the time artillery and stronger walkers are available, there’s already enough anti-armour weaponry on the battlefield. Vehicles can’t retreat with the same efficiency as infantry, so you need to keep them alive – and if your flashy Eldar tank gets burnt to a crisp within a couple of seconds, you’ve just binned a major investment for bugger all reward.

It’s frustrating how much grind Relic seems happy to promote in their RTS. But it also offers a window into the different playstyles and options available to players – and having doctrines that can be swapped out with each match could also be a handy tool for balancing the game in the longer term.

I’m sure those units will be fine.

But that’s a small annoyance that will affect people who want to go deep into the multiplayer. If you’re just looking for an RTS campaign to enjoy, and an oldschool RTS campaign at that, DoW 3 fits the bill.

Each mission, on average, took me about half an hour to 45 minutes to an hour to complete. Things ramp up after the six or seventh mission: by that point you’ve had a couple of rounds with every faction, learned the rudimentary basics, and are ready for some sterner challenges.

The core challenge throughout the missions, regardless of faction, is making sure your resource points and production facilities are protected while having enough firepower to clear out the map. The AI is never super aggressive about assaulting your base, but it does enjoy the odd counter-punch, and the individual power of each unit is enough that it forces you to be fairly patient about how you proceed.

DoW 3 isn’t a great game if you’re looking for a quick blast of RTS action. This is a game you sit down and enjoy for one, two, three hours at a stretch. It’s a little reminiscent of Supreme Commander or WarCraft even, where missions will give you a handful of units or a small scripted sequence in the beginning before the map expands, gives you a base to control, and asks you to clear the map.

The campaign is fully voice acted, and in between missions there is even side plot lines between the characters revealing more of the backstory between the Eldar, Orks and Space Marines. It’s surprisingly well done, and even the writing for the Orks drew the odd laugh or two. The side chats are similar to what was introduced in Chaos Rising, the standalone expansion for DoW 2, but they’re a little more fleshed out this time around. If you’re impatient, however, you can skip through the whole lot, and there’s a transcript available for those who prefer to read.

Switching between the different factions helps keep things interesting, but the best move Relic made was to blend scripted sequences and traditional build and conquer elements into each of the missions. Scripted missions are often the worst parts of any RTS campaign – they’re often needlessly padded and you feel like you’re being arbitrarily hamstrung.

But DoW 3 keeps those frustrations to a minimum, save for one Eldar mission that forces you to sneak through a base disabling alarms and activating bridge terminals. But while the Eldar has the campaign’s worst mission by a country mile, they also play host to an absolute cracker.

The animations are nice, although the overall aesthetic isn’t as grim as fans are used to

It’s a simple task at first: you need to make your escape, but a trio of structures around the map block your exit. So you work around the map, freeing allies as you go, clearing bases out of the path.

But after taking out the second base, the mission changes to a base defence where you’re smashed with wave upon wave of Wraithblades, Eldar tanks, charging banshees and snipers galore. Even on Normal, it’s a tough fight – and it’s precisely the kind of mission oldschool RTS fans will love.

Another thing that becomes increasingly clear is just how much micro is required to maximise the value of your units. Almost every unit, from the lowly Ork builders (Gretchen) to the Elite commanders, has an active ability that can influence a battle. Most abilities are AOE-based, although some units will do damage in a line, while others are skill-shot based.

Each ability has a delay of its own before it activates, and if you’re not careful squads will naturally bunch up. With the removal of cover, which was a staple from the first two DoW games, it gives the game a bit of a WarCraft 3 feeling.

You never earn resources fast enough that you have to ignore battles in favour of production. Most of the time, you’ll be pulling units in and out of the firing line, activating abilities, re-positioning your army, sending decoys to harass resource points, and just generally trying to avoid being crippled by some of the larger Elite units.

The top tier Elite units, ones that can’t be called into battle until after 20 or so minutes, are where the MOBA influence is perhaps the strongest. They scythe through squads the way a hero in Dota 2 cleaves through creeps. Late game battles often become an exercise in getting your units out of the way, although it leads to some interesting tactical decisions.

You need a good amount of space to be able to fight effectively, in other words. But say you’re pinned back on a map. Are you better off holding back and spending resources on long-range artillery instead, drawing the enemy into a chokepoint? Taking that option might mean giving up a valuable resource point that generates Elite points, however, which means your enemy might have a window where they can access vastly better Elite units – depending on what you equipped before going into battle.

The Orks kept asking if it was hammer time

The introduction of the scrap mechanic for Orks is a great addition as well, not just thematically but for higher skilled players. Any building or mechanised unit will leave scrap on the field when it explodes; Ork Waagh towers and Elite units can call down scrap periodically as well. All Ork units can be upgraded by collecting the scrap, and gretchen can build advanced units out of the scrap for a discount (although they come into the battlefield with about 80% health).

You can’t automatically collect scrap, though, and some of the Ork squads are vastly inferior without upgrades. It basically adds a level of micromanagement that is akin to creep spread in StarCraft 2: lower tier players won’t lose because they ignored scrap entirely, but it can make the world of difference for those with the speed and concentration to constantly scurry around the map.

Given that strategy games over the last five years have stripped away layers of micromanagement and arduous mechanics, it’s nice for a developer to wind the clock back a little bit. Multiplayer matches have that oldschool feeling to them as well, partially because Relic opted to borrow elements from MOBAs that deliberately slow the game down.

Multiplayer matches have a series of points on the map that effectively limit how much you can punish a player in the early stages of a game. To kill an opponent’s base, you have to first take out a shield generator (which not all units can pierce with their abilities). Next target is one of two massive turrets, each of which has an AOE stun that players can choose to activate; it’s a little akin to the invulnerability in Dota 2, except DoW 3‘s panic button has the downside of wiping the floor with squads at the same time. After that you can take out the enemy’s Power Core.

It’s often too difficult to take down the turret, and sometimes the shield generator, without the help of at least one Elite unit. Lower tier Elite units won’t withstand the turret’s damage for long either, so it can lead to situations where you’re effectively waiting to build up your forces before finishing off a match.

The logic behind it all has some sense: it stops players from getting steamrolled if they make a decision early on, and it opens up the possibility for exciting base trades. But you don’t get rewarded early on for clever strategic plays as much as it feels like you should, and it almost guarantees that matches will never end before the 10 minute mark.

Cheese, it seems, isn’t on Relic’s menu.

Some small gripes that Relic needs to fix: there’s no support for rebinding keys at this stage, which seems a supreme oversight for a developer with as long a history in PC development as them. There’s also no hotkeys for camera locations, which helps immensely in managing multiple areas. The hotkey for workers only selects the next worker, rather than selecting the next idle worker, and it doesn’t snap the camera to their location.

The mini-map can also blend into the action a little too well; it stands out just fine in larger multiplayer matches when its filled with lots of colourful icons, but in singleplayer and 1v1 I found myself occasionally looking around the screen. (Moving the mini-map to the bottom left helped, although it’s partially a habit I developed from Brood War and StarCraft 2. Still, more contrast or a stronger outline around the mini-map would be good.)

I’m not pretending that Dawn of War 3 will be the next big esport, or that the campaign will be as fondly remembered as the co-op experience from DoW 2 and Chaos Rising. But having replayed the original games recently, it’s a vast step up from the level design in the original DoW singleplayer, and the multiplayer doesn’t feel like a half-baked hybrid between a MOBA and an RTS.

It’s a proper RTS, even though there are plenty of changes from the original games that fans will take issue with. But change can be hard, especially for a genre that has almost been pushed to the brink by MOBAs and an industry desperate to accommodate shorter attention spans. Dawn of War 3 won’t solve those issues, but it’s good fun nonetheless.

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