Dawn of War 3 is a pretty obvious callback to the original Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, the game that first interpreted the grim darkness of the far future through real-time strategy. It features the requisite base and unit building and resource collecting you’d expect from a real-time strategy game, but it’s still not quite the pure, old-school expression of that formula you might expect.
Dawn of War 2’s extremely ambitious (though somewhat flawed) campaign was sort of like a multi-character Diablo with loot and branching missions. That plan is gone altogether in the latest iteration. In its place is the linear story of Acheron, the Wandering Planet, and the three factions Warhammer 40K faithful should probably expect at this point.
The Space Marines—specifically the Blood Ravens sect from previous Dawn of War games—contend with the Eldar (space elves) and Orks (space orcs) across Acheron over access to a powerful artifact. If you’ve ever read, watched, or played a Warhammer story before, you can probably guess how that goes. We find out the godlike weapon is more than it seems, temporary alliances are formed, people get betrayed, and war… dawns.
What is slightly different about Dawn of War 3‘s plot is that you don’t just play the Space Marines. The campaign alternates, level to level, between the three central species. They’re even represented by returning faces from past games, like Farseer Macha and Gorgutz ‘Ead ‘Unter. If you’ve been dying to know what Macha has been up to in the 13 years since the first Dawn of War, this is your chance.
Ironing things out
Fan service aside, I was actually very disappointed to see that so many of Dawn of War 2‘s bold ideas have been flattened out for Dawn of War 3. You can no longer select from different missions that lead to their own unique story consequences down the line. There’s no Diablo-like loot system to drag me into optional objectives. You can still select from pools of “Elite” units—nigh invulnerable super-beings with unique abilities—but they’re just supplements to the kinds of hordes of units you’d train and construct in, say, StarCraft 2.
Having played the campaign, however, I can say some of my disappointment was assuaged by more-than-passable level design. The story is nothing to write home about. In fact, jumping frequently between three different races, whose stories only slightly interlock, makes it kind of hard to connect with the over-the-top cast as I did in the last two games.
But the missions themselves do a good job of giving me what I crave in bespoke RTS scenarios: enough plates to spin. That’s thanks in part to the way developer Relic likes to dole out the resources necessary to construct new units. In Dawn of War 3, as in past games and Relic’s Company of Heroes, resources accrue over time from capture points. You need to send your units to said points, take command of them, and build structures that generate “requisition” and power—the game’s two primary currencies.
Fighting over those usually keeps me on my toes, particularly in multiplayer. In single-player, though, babysitting generators is supplemental to missions that had me teleport bases from one floating, crumbling island to the next or dodging patrols in stealth sequences. It’s not the most original, compelling stuff I’ve ever done in an RTS, but it’s enough to keep my armies (and, more importantly, my brain) in gear.
I only wish there was something larger to care about. The moment-to-moment action of Dawn of War 3‘s campaign is pleasantly hectic without being overbearingly difficult. On the macro scale, however, it’s “just” a procession of levels. It doesn’t make me think about or care about units, buildings, resources, or upgrades carrying over from one mission to the next, as they do in more modern strategy games like StarCraft 2, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, or even Dawn of War 2.
Yes, Dawn of War 3 does have a limited, account-wide upgrade system based around a currency called “skulls.” You can use those skulls to buy bonuses that come at such a slow pace and have such esoteric effects that they’re very clearly meant for loadouts in the aforementioned multiplayer. The game doesn’t even draw particular attention to them (or how to buy them, for that matter).
In a way, that simplicity in and of itself is refreshing. It reminds me of the series’ 2004 debut and the bygone era of big-name RTS games it spawned from. On the other hand, the whole thing feels unambitious and unmemorable—especially when you factor in the drab story and the intense focus on the Big Three Warhammer 40,000 races yet again.
Mix and match and murder
Thankfully, the multiplayer diverges a bit from typical real-time strategy competition.
You see, Dawn of War 3 multiplayer borrows blatantly from MOBAs like League of Legends and Dota 2. You still build bases, gather resources, and blast battalions of wacky Warhammer warriors at your opponents as you’d expect. But you also have to destroy pre-constructed defense towers and “shield generators” (similar to the Barracks or Inhibitors in Dota and League) to do it. The ultimate goal of these skirmishes isn’t even to wipe out the enemy base, but to destroy a central bunker (a la an Ancient or a Nexus).
Despite being at odds with the back-to-basics approach of Dawn of War 3‘s campaign, I actually think this competitive structure is a good fit for the game. It creates points of contention the same way dueling over resource nodes does—only with much more permanent consequences. Any damage done to the key structures can’t be repaired, and once they’re gone, they’re gone. That revs the multiplayer up to a savage pace, too, since an undefended shield generator can be assaulted as soon as one team has units on the field. You need to take territory fast.
Strangely, this MOBA/RTS hybrid seems to have come at the cost of traditional, “kill the other base” multiplayer altogether. If you were coming to Dawn of War 3 expecting a completely stripped down, conventional RTS experience and hoping for a return to the four-unit RPG structure of Dawn of War 2 (as I was), you’re out of luck.
Which begs the question: who is the audience for Dawn of War 3? It splits the difference between the first and second games by including both hyper-powerful hero units and classical base building. Yet it’s missing most of what made the heroes vital in Dawn of War 2—the consistent, meaningful progression from one mission to the next—as well as comfortably familiar, replayable multiplayer.
My suggestion is to not worry about lumping it into either category. For all its individually familiar mechanics, the holistic experience of Dawn of War 3 is as different from its predecessors as the second game was from the first. It doesn’t feel like either older game as a whole. Instead, approach this as its own self-contained vessel: an RTS with a better-than-average campaign and an approach to multiplayer that has a lot of potential if it can find a community of players that hasn’t already dedicated itself to one of the two styles of play it emulates.
If, however, you’re a longtime fan simply looking for a second lap around for either of the first two games, you’ll be sadly disappointed.
- Fast-paced, objective-driven multiplayer.
- Enough unique tasks in the campaign missions to support healthy tension.
- Control points turn resource collecting into fun, contentious choke points.
- Splits at least some of the difference between Dawn of War 1 and 2.
- A flat story told out of sync.
- Limited multiplayer options.
- The user interface can be a bit slow in the menus.
- Doesn’t really scratch the Dawn of War itch all the way.
- The game requires a connection to Relic’s servers—even during single-player—which leads to needlessly lost progress if you disconnect…
Verdict: At its best, Dawn of War 3 is a fast-paced mutation of some of the series’ best ideas. At its worst, it can’t seem to decide what kind of game it wants you to be playing. Try it.