Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III seems to want to be all things to all people. Did you miss the base building from DoW2? Good news, bases are back. Heroic units? Large-scale armies? All present and accounted for. It wants to be all things to all people (specifically fans of the DoW series and tabletop game), and it damned near pulls it off.
Dawn of War III is notable in that it removes any real power differential from its three major factions — Eldar, Orks and Space Marines — setting them on a more-or-less even playing field from the jump. From campaign to multiplayer skirmishes, all three are given a moment to shine. This should come as a relief to players who are tired of the seemingly endless parade of Space Marine centric material from earlier games and the tabletop version alike.
Space Marines like getting up close and personal, swords raised and knocking their enemies around with melee focused attacks. Their special calls drop pods containing even more Space Marines to land on their foes and present them with an ever-worsening war of attrition. This makes the Space Marines feel like the easiest army to get to grips with — they make sense and Send Unit, Punch Enemy Until One Of Us Is Dead is a good way to learn the ropes.
For those looking for a race with a little more depth, the Eldar and the Orks should suffice. Eldar are squishy but swift and like to hold their enemies at arm’s length with a barrage of ranged damage. Their buildings can also be used as an ad-hoc teleporter network when linked up, able to move units and buildings alike. This makes the Eldar perfect for those who like to take an enemy by surprise — porting in and unleashing a burst of unbelievable damage from far away before the enemy has time to react is as satisfying as it gets.
The Orks, on the other hand, don’t mind trying to one-up the Space Marines at their own game. They overwhelm the enemy with staggering numbers, out of their minds in a fit of rage called Waaagh. Allowing them to loot you for scrap to upgrade their army with is a very bad idea.
You’re not locked into these particular tactics however. All three factions have a long list of units to choose from across the spectrum of melee to ranged and vehicle combat.
There’s a MOBA sensibility to the proceedings here, which may not jibe with what RTS fans and DoW fans alike are looking for. Everyone’s got a move that will make them valuable if placed within the right unit make-up. Hero skills provide that little bit of extra breathing room when under siege to keep a skirmish from turning completely pear-shaped.
The thing I found throughout was that everyone, regardless of faction, felt a great deal squishier than they had in Dawn of War II. Everybody seems to perish really easily and its one of the few parts of the game that grinds my gears. While unit perishability keeps you from entering an “eggs in one basket” mentality of any kind, it can also make it difficult to nail down a coherent strategy. I found myself drowning in contingency plans — if this guy dies then we do this, but if this guy dies then this and this is going to have to happen. Your mileage may vary depending on the kind of head for strategy you have, but for me it felt like it brought more slog to the game than was strictly necessary. Further decisions by the DoW III team, like the omission of DoW II‘s cover system or any kind of damage mitigation whatsoever make the proceedings a great deal hairier. Those areas that will provide cover for your troops are very clearly marked, but tend to get shredded as easily as your units the moment you make a break for them.
This means a lot of the time you’ll be pressing advantages based on taking high ground and line of sight. If you have units that can cloak, so much the better. Ambushes are the order of the day, at least in my experiences. The trouble is, this means that going on the defensive isn’t really an option. Dawn of War III only seems interested in rewarding the aggressor in an any given scenario, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the multiplayer.
The multiplayer, even the team-based modes, are a mass of endless attack waves. If you aren’t constantly harassing your foes and keeping their heroic units off the battlefield then it feels like you aren’t really doing your part. Whenever I would attempt a more defensive posture, hanging back to build my army or squat on valuable resources, I’d be roused on by my team mates.
If you can get out of the defensive mindset, there is quite a bit of fun to be had in DoW III‘s multiplayer, particularly in the 3v3 modes. This is where the game feels most like a MOBA and, despite my initial misgivings, it just works. You make your way across each level with the single goal of destroying your enemy’s power core. To get there will mean mounting and maintaining an endless, unstoppable attack wave. Know that your opponents will be doing their damnedest to hit you with the same. Skirmishes erupt constantly along with the system of escalation that means resources and building health are bolstered every ten minutes, large armies clanking satisfying into one another. It’s a spectacle for sure, and a fun one at that.
With multiplayer squared away, lets finally talk about the campaign. I’m known among my friends for finding the Warhammer 40,000 fiction and lore to be its weakest component. It all reads like terrible fan fiction penned by a 14-year-old high school goth and Dawn of War III‘s story is no exception. There’s precious little about this campaign that comes together for me — the story is rickety, the characters are thin as grease-proof paper and many of your objectives involve slogging directly across a map from one side to the other, the only change being the distance you are required to travel growing with every passing level.
There’s nothing about this campaign that feels especially strategic. One person I know who was also reviewing this title mentioned in passing that it felt a bit like playing an ARPG rather than an RTS and I find it hard to argue with that. You’re frequently given small amounts of units and forced down levels made up of corridor after corridor of squishy little enemies that don’t put up much of a fight. It all amounts to your units having a perfectly nice constitutional ruined by a few cranky aliens. Thankfully, this only accounts for the first half of each mission, with the second half opening up into something more akin to the real time strategy you actually bought the game to play.
So the campaign feels a bit undercooked and its odd coming from Relic, a developer that knows how to craft strategy titles with campaigns that reward sprawling, open-ended approaches to strategy. We saw it in Homeworld, we’ve seen it in the previous two Dawn of War titles. It’s a shame they weren’t able to find that kind of success here.
Even with these campaign mistakes and overreaches, when looking at the broader approach Relic are taking with Dawn of War III, it’s easy to see it for what it is — the best in the series. This is a solid little RTS that will appeal to fans of the original material as well as those who prefer their strategy a little less crunchy (amusing given the amount of crunch required to play the tabletop game in any capacity). There’s fun to be had here, you just have to disabuse yourself of the notion that you will be playing a hyper-complex strategy title. For that, you should still be looking at your Total Wars and StarCraft 2s. There’s a lot to like here, and I’m interested to see where the inevitable expansions will take this title.
Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Accessible as hell; All three races feel well-balanced
Lowlights: Subpar campaign design; All attack, all the time
Developer: Relic Entertainment
Platforms: Windows PC
Release Date: April 27, 2017
Reviewed on Windows PC.