A departure from the first Dawn of War, Dawn of War II establishes itself as more of a tactical strategy/role-playing game in contrast to the original's more conventional gameplay. However, it retains the thematic elements of the Warhammer 40,000 series, and adds a lot of good things.
In Dawn of War II's campaign mode, the player takes on the role of a space marine leader, commanding several squads of marines in an ongoing effort to protect a sector of space from the various incoming aliens that seek to destroy it. The campaign mode is spread out across 3 planets, each with 4 or 5 territories. These territories can fall under the dominion of enemy forces, and it is up to the space marines to reclaim them. Some of these battles are static and exist to further the plot; others are based more on randomized factors, and serve as "random battles" for the player's units to gain experience and gear. Some missions are timed, and if not dealt with in a number of turns will result in the loss of some bonus that the planet grants you. Essentially, it seems early on that this will result in the player having to choose between which planet to save, or something along those lines, but for the most part the only things endangered by such missions are things that are easily re-captured later. However, as a whole, the campaign mode is at least fairly interesting and offers a change of pace from the usual linear mode.
The main attraction of the campaign mode is the RPG elements that it provides. Besides the force commander, each of the other characters leads a squad of units appropriate to his type - one leads a squad of regular marines, one leads a squad of jetpack-equipped marines, one leads a squad of scout marines, and one leads a squad of heavy weapons marines. As the squads defeat enemies and complete objectives, they gain levels. These levels give you points to put into four attributes: health, melee, ranged, and will. While the units' type generally seems to pigeonhole them into one side or another (the heavy weapons marines, for example, have little use for melee skills), the degree of customization in terms of what weapons and armor they can have is at least a little refreshing. Units can also be equipped with wargear, which ranges from fragmentation grenades to artillery beacons, to further customize their combat potential.
The campaign mode requires that the player know how to use the squads he chooses to bring into battle. Tactical marines (the standard soldiers) take cover behind rocks and barricades and fire at the enemy from a distance. They are the most adaptable, though, as they can fire and move fairly easily. Assault marines (with jetpacks) are capable of charging into enemy lines and sending them into disarray; however, they're easily picked off from a distance. Devastators (heavy weapons) can bring about incredible firepower on enemies, especially from cover, but their weapons require time to set up and thus they require more protection than regular Tactical marines. Scout marines can sneak ahead undetected and bring back information about the enemy, but are generally the weakest in a fight. Balancing out these abilities is necessary to defeat the enemy, who almost always outmatch you in terms of firepower and numbers.
The game's multiplayer takes many of the elements from the campaign mode, but due to its short-term nature has to change them somewhat. There are four races to play as in campaign mode - the Space Marines, the Eldar, the Orks, and the Tyranids. Each race has three heroes - a combat hero, a support hero, and a special-use hero. Each supplements their team in a different way. Gameplay is similar to original Dawn of War - capture control points and power nodes to gain resources, then spend those resources on more troops and upgrades. Base-building has been eliminated, though, so the focus of the game is much more about combat. The abilities possessed by the different sides allow for reasonably different play styles, especially when mixing in the heroes. However, they all fall under the same basic strategies of "get behind cover" and "shoot the enemy when they're not covered", which isn't necessarily a bad thing. While maps are demolished frequently in campaign mode, it's a lot more noticeable with multiplayer, where explosions or rampaging vehicles can take away almost all cover in a given area. A wall is a setback when you only have infantry, but with a tank you can just roll through it and take the enemy by surprise. The rampant demolition of walls and obstacles is similar to DOW2's spiritual predecessor, Company of Heroes, but is much simpler compared to COH's more realistic system.
As a whole, DOW2 is a great game both for small-tactics RPG fans (the campaign) and large-tactics RTS fans (the multiplayer). The graphics look incredible, with especially good effects for gunfire, and the music in the background is evocative of Warhammer 40k's dark, gothic setting. Its main flaw lies in not taking enough advantage of the missions in campaign mode, though to be fair it does limit the resources the player can get and force them to make several hard decisions about who should receive what items. As a whole, a must-have for any fan of the series and for any tactical games enthusiast.
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