When Dawn of War 3 was first announced, I was excited. I still now occasionally give Dawn of War 2‘s Last Stand mode a spin. I also had a good time with the original Dawn of War (only missing out on the DLC Soulstorm for reasons I really don’t know). With the same developers behind the wheel, I had a lot of faith they could bring to the table something fresh and fun. While I did have a bad time at EGX, I still held out a bit of hope it’d be a bundle of fun. Playing the final form, I’m not particularly sure it was worth resurrecting the Dawn of War brand.
Dawn of War 3 is a Warhammer 40k RTS by series veterans Relic Entertainment. It’s been many a year since the prior game, whose last expansion was followed two years later by the bankruptcy of the publisher THQ who owned the license. After a bit of a tussle, Relic Entertainment and the Dawn of War IP fell into the laps of Sega. Considering it has been 6 years since Dawn of War 2: Retribution, this release was a big thing for Warhammer 40k fans like myself.
One of the burning questions people had up to the release was “what kind of gameplay will it have?”. After all, Dawn of War was base-building centered and Dawn of War 2 was hero-focused. It seems Relic was worried about backlash from either crowd and said “BOTH!”. “…Both?” the more cynical members of the crowd muttered, bamboozled. “YEAH!” Relic then exclaimed, “AND IT’LL BE ACCESSIBLE TOO!”. To give credit, they did give it a solid try, but I’m not sure they fully thought it through.
Basically, base-building tactics tend to roll with “more is better”. You build some marines, then you build some more marines, then you build even more marines, and then lob them at the enemy like a jar of spiders at an ex-partner. Hero-focused gameplay tends to focus more on positioning your limited heroes, and utilizing and synergising their abilities together. Together leads to you flinging all the marines at your enemies and your heroes tagging along, like concerned parents watching their children charge shop attendants on Black Friday. This often leaves hero abilities mostly unused, as you’re constantly too busy maneuvering your mass of troops.
Although I guess this is where the “accessibility” part comes in because it seems Relic Entertainment thought the tactics of Dawn of War 2 was just simply impenetrable. So out goes most the cover mechanics which encouraged a lovely dose of grenades with a side-portion of flanking. Instead, defenders can capture a bullet-proof bubble (who can only take so many shells to the face before collapsing) after a period of time long enough to make it pointless mid-combat. They are also sparsely dotted around enough to dictate battlefield locations. This further breaks down as melee troops can, and definitely will, just walk on in the bubble to showcase what happens when axe meets rifle.
To say the gameplay has been absolutely defanged is to ignore how it has been declawed as well. All the swarm tactics are tripped by awkward hero tactics. Heroes require ability activation to be gameplay defining to stick out amongst the blend of battle, leaving them either passively attacking or your mass twiddling their thumbs as you’re not controlling them enough. This is as well as accessibility stomping tactical play into the floor. I’m not sure Dawn of War 3 has any definition to its gameplay besides inducing a chorus of sighs.
Which speaking of, let’s get into the campaign. Narrative wise it clicks soundly without satisfaction. You play as the Elder, Orks and Space Marines as a prophecy has come to be that a weapon is going to be unleashed who will greatly empower its wielder. Every level you’ll be picking a new side, and it intermingles incredibly well and meaningfully.
The only downside is just how predictable it is, especially for Dawn of War veterans. Elder trick Orks, Gabriel Angelos will be dragged along as everyone’s favorite hunky calendar boy and some powerful artifact will actually be corrupted by Chaos influence. We’ve done this mambo before. There is an enjoyable intra-Elder squabble that is fun to watch, as two senior Elder begin kicking each other’s shins until one gives up and begins crying while the other is crowded “King of the Treehouse”. Outside this slap-fight, it may as well be white noise for all the effort given as there isn’t even the cheesiness I’ve come to love from the grimdark setting. Just straight-faced tedium as the same story path is walked over yet again.
Gameplay wise, again, it mostly works. One mission you’ll be asked to hack in-camp computers, preferably without the alarms going off and bringing in reinforcements, another you just have to hold off. There is even a stealth mission involving making sure they don’t see you slap the keyboard, as that is the breaking point between “friendly in-corridor banter” and “nail this heretic to a burning cross right away”.
Yet, with the diversity around, I kept trying to work out why I was so bored. After a mission or two, I’d need an hour break to remind myself what joy feels like. I think it was mission 6 or 8 that it hit me: The tactics roll the same. Without the vulnerability of smaller populations and the enemy prodding your base like a US drone prods Syria, you can take your time amassing a gigantic army before flinging it at the enemy. The fact they don’t even try to recover lost numbers turns it into a tedious time, where your skill only dictates WHEN you’ll win rather than IF you’ll win.
This only changed Mission 13 (out of 17) where the mission was specifically defense and my head was swiftly caved in (leading to reading the rest of the plot online because I suck). Up to that point, well, that’s an easy 15+ hours (my Steam playtime being 25 hours telling me a lot) doing the same tactics over and over with the very rare breather when bases aren’t involved. It does wear, hard.
So maybe you’ll want to traverse into multiplayer mode. Remember how Dawn of War 2 had both competitive AND Last Stand mode? Yeah, gut that. You get competitive and that’s your lot. A single competitive mode in fact where both sides have to destroy a power generator on a lane, then that lane’s turret, and then gets to blow up the core base. I can’t help but think this is where all the MOBA comparisons come from.
While I’m awful at RTS multiplayer, and therefore not exactly a good voice on what makes a great competitive RTS mode, I do have to give some credit on a progression system going on. Rather than from the moment go being at full strength, you slowly build up over time to it at the same pace as everyone else. It really helps discourage zerg-rush style victories and instead inspires more thoughtful pokes.
That said, then all my respect for the mode gets shot in the face when I spy the hero/doctrine system for the multiplayer. You can equip three heroes when going into battle who each have two special passive effects. You also get to equip three passive effects called “doctrines”. In theory, a lovely way to add some passive tactics into the mix. In practice, putting the unlocking of each hero’s second equipable passive effect and of all the doctrines behind leveling is such a diabolical idea to balance I’m astonished it got cleared. Rather than having level 1 heroes folks on the same footing as level 8 heroes, those who are fresh-faced will be mechanically weaker than those more grizzled. So it is best to go into campaign/skirmish before hitting online, so you have some doctrines you can equip.
Before we launch into the conclusion, let’s get our knives out as we poke holes in the aesthetic choice. In the sense that it is rather pretty in a “looks good on screenshots” sort of way. The background environments are colorful and interesting to stare at and the cutscenes atmospheric. Where it steps in the Ork rear-depository is the aesthetic choice is like pressing your face against a window in an orphanage to watch the colorful parade. What looks nice you can’t touch and what you can touch I’m sure Dawn of War 2 looked better and more detailed 8 years ago. When your graphical prowess, even at maximum, can be out-matched by a browns-n-greys title from 8 years back then I believe something has gone awry.
The final score for Dawn of War 3 is a 5.5 out of 10. It’s enjoyable mission design with some mission-specific mechanics and the curious idea of having a progression system in multiplayer save the title from being branded as full on mediocre or even bad. On the other hand, it is dragged down by its many many flaws. the narrative has small spurts of imagination within its dross retreading as Gabriel Angelos is dragged out of bed yet again. The mechanics from Dawn of War 1 and 2 blend together like ball-bearings and bleach. The attempts to render it accessible instead render it declawed and awkward. The biggest sin though is its decision to lock off all the doctrines, not even a basic 3 to get you going, until “thou prove thine worth!” by leveling heroes.
I’m not even angry at this turn of events, as Dawn of War 3 is less “the glorious resurrection of the god-emperor of Warhammer 40k games” and feels more like unearthing a putrefying corpse and catapulting it at your window. I think the EGX trial warned me things weren’t going to go well, and now playing it I feel more hollow, upset and disappointed by Dawn of War 3‘s blandness. I’m not sure who I could recommend it to. Dawn of War 1 and 2 are still a lot of fun and Sega’s other venture into Warhammer RTS games, Total War: Warhammer, is a good deal better looking and enjoyable. I think I’m going to go play Dawn of War 2‘s Last Stand mode again to rinse off this apathy via the blood of the heretical Xenos.
A PC Review copy of Dawn of War 3 was provided by Sega for the purpose of this Review.