I figured the first mission of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III would be easy. But even on a normal setting, I had to play the mission three times before I beat it. It wasn’t particularly hard, but a mild difficulty level and my complete befuddlement about what to do contributed to the need to replay it.
The long-awaited real-time strategy game for the PC from Relic Entertainment and Sega Europe debuts when Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III hits April 27. And the companies are holding an open beta test from Friday, April 21 to 10 a.m. Pacific on Monday, April 24. (Here’s a video of how well I did).
But I’ve checked out the beginning of the game on my Nvidia-powered PC, and you can see it below. The Dawn of War series has sold more than 8 million units, and it’s been eight years Dawn of War II. If you’re looking for an introduction to the galactic warfare of the Games Workshop Warhammer 40,000 universe, you’re not going to find it.
You can try out a few useful tutorials, but Dawn of War III throws you into the thick of it in its first moments. The Orks have invaded the Planet Cyprus Ultima, and the Knights of House Varlock are barely holding out in their castle. The castle and its defenders take a pounding from the anachronistic combination of modern space weapons and sharp swords.
The Space Marines (genetically modified human super-soldiers) are circling the planet in high orbit, but their commander Inquisitor Holt has ordered them not to help. In defiance of the order, the hero Gabriel Angelos, master of the Blood Ravens chapter of the Space Marines, lands his forces and defends the castle.
Gabriel has a deep, booming voice. And when he yells, your blood rises. That calls attention to the great sound effects in the game that immerse you in a cacophonous battle. It doesn’t require you to play the tutorial, as its gameplay mirrors many other RTS games. You use your mouse to draw a square around the troops and then right-click on where you want them to attack. That’s all you need to know at first.
Your Space Marines use sci-fi guns against the melee-favoring Orks, but Gabriel adds an extra advantage as a larger-than-life hero. His special abilities make him very useful as a kind of tank. He uses his God-Splitter hammer to leap across the battlefield and jump to high ground. And he uses his hammer to sweep away all of the Orks gathered around him, as if they were just ants. While he is swinging his hammer in a circle, your soldiers get a temporary shield that blocks enemy projectiles.
It offers you advice every now and then, and a helpful golden arrow tells you where you have to go next. It’s quite easy to lose track of where you have to be, as the map is quite large.
Throughout the first battle, Lady Solaria of the Varlock gives Gabriel orders to patch up the keep’s defenses and crush the invading Orks. It’s easy to use a lot of your support soldiers if you don’t amass them properly against the Orks, who keep appearing out of nowhere.
One of the cool features is stealth, where you can move your troops into high grass or other stealth areas and sneak past enemies without them noticing you until you ambush them.
The first missions introduces you to stealthy scouts and sharpshooting snipers. You eventually take over resource points and a base, where you can start training new Space Marines to replace those that you’ve lost. The mission is quite long, clocking in at around 20 minutes. I fought a bunch of mini-battles, in intense firefights with the Orks, and I eventually was victorious in the keep’s defense.
Every now and then, you can call in reinforcements. They arrive in the form of drop pods that you can position over the heads of unsuspecting Orks. The pods crash into the ground and wipe out the Orks. Along the way, I also picked up a huge robot. I had to make sure I protected the robot and led it to health replenishment spots in order to keep it in the battle. A few times, I didn’t realize that my Space Marines were losing some firefights, and that quickly led to Gabriel’s death. And after that, I had to restart.
But as soon as I got used to playing with Gabriel, I had to switch sides. In the second mission, I played as the Orks. They were taking over another fortress in a different part of the planet. Once again, the sound was almost overwhelming. While Gabriel speaks like a majestic warrior, the Orks talk like stupid pirates with British accents.
But as Gabriel acknowledges, “For all their savagery, the Orks are resourceful.”
The Orks have their own heroes, who can stomp and hew the Space Marines. At the Ork base, I could make a couple of different varieties of warriors, the weak builders known as the Gretchen, and the melee-focused, larger Boyz. The Orks gain power by looting the battlefield.
The leader of the maniac horde is the greedy and brutal Gorgutz ‘Ead’unterhas, who has collected an array of skulls to adorn is armor. He’s a brawler with a massive “klaw” that he swings at enemies. He can use the klaw to grab something high and pull himself to the higher level. When attacking, he smashes the Klaw on the ground, taking out multiple enemies.
There’s a third race, the Eldar. I haven’t yet played these folks, who are the last survivors of an ancient civilization that once ruled the Galaxy. They have fearsome psychic powers and wield highly sophisticated weapons. They’re quite dismissive of lesser creatures like Orks and humans.
Overall, the combat is quite fun, and it morphs when various things happen to turn the tide. A wall may come tumbling down, opening a new avenue for reinforcements to reach you.
The use of motion comics, or still pictures where the camera zooms in or out to create the illusion of movement, is a very nice effect. But I didn’t really like it when the in-game engine was used for a cinematic scene. That’s part of a long tradition in RTS games, but I favored the motion comics instead, as it really gave you a close-up view of the faces of the characters that you only see from a distance in the in-engine cinematics.
Still, the storytelling is quite good, and dramatic. All told, there are 17 missions in the single-player game, and I’ve got a lot more fighting to do. But I think that players who like this franchise will enjoy the game, and those who are hankering for an RTS will gravitate to it as well.