Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War 3 takes the series in a new direction without completely abandoning its roots. Or at least it tries too. How successful it has been in achieving that is subjective and really comes down to whether the player just wanted more of the same or if they wanted to see something new from the thirteen year old series.
• Developer: Relic Entertainment
• Publisher: SEGA
• Reviewed on: PC
• Release Date: Available Now
Do I give this game a 3 out of 5 or a 4 out of 5? It really could have gone either way and I’m still debating with myself over the score. Ultimately I went with 4 out of 5 because of the sheer amount of enjoyable hours I have pulled from the game. You don’t play a bad game for that long. Even so, it was close. Hopefully, this review explains why that decision was so hard to make.
It has been 8 years since Dawn of War 2 was released and 6 years since the last expansion. Despite that the Dawn of War series has maintained a devoted fan base helped in no small part by its place within the sprawling Warhammer sci-fi/fantasy setting(s) that encompasses dozens of video games, tabletop games and works of fiction. The Dawn of War series was at the forefront of ushering in the age of point control, squad-oriented and hero based combat. A noticeable shift away from the more traditional resource collection, base building, large army RTS games that once dominated the genre.
Dawn of War 3 is a game very much in the middle of those two sets of genre ideals.
The single player campaign for Dawn of War 3 is a lengthy 17 mission affair that has the player alternate between playing as the Space Marines, Orks and Eldar. Fans of the series will be instantly familiar with the cast of characters and be treated to numerous callbacks to events from previous games and expansions. Newcomers however, will likely find themselves at a disadvantage as the campaign does little to explain the universe or the significance of many story elements or characters.
Gabriel Angelos returns as the leader of the Blood Ravens Space Marine Chapter. He still wields Godsplitter and bares the scars left by previous campaigns. Warboss Gorgutz is back as the leader of the Ork forces and he is just as hungry for WAAAGH! as ever. Farseer Macha leads the main Eldar forces in the campaign and pushes most of the big story points along. All three are supported by subordinate cast members that have appeared in previous games, many of whom make an appearance as playable Elites (heroes) during the campaign and multiplayer.
The story of Dawn of War 3‘s campaign revolves around the reemergence of the lost world Acheron and the powerful weapon known as the Spear of Khaine hidden upon it. The campaign is an engaging, lengthy tale full of mayhem, intrigue, betrayal and heroism. I personally think it is the strongest story the series has told to date. In between missions players can talk to a few characters and are treated to stop motion and in-game cutscenes as well as voice over narration. Whereas previous games usually focused more on the Space Marine perspective Dawn of War 3 does a good job of showing you the big picture for all parties involved.
I’m not sure if having the campaign alternate between playing as each race instead of cutting the game into 3 separate campaigns was the right or wrong choice. On the one hand it spins a more unified story but on the other hand, it can be jarring switching between races every mission and kills some of the impact of major story elements as you’ll be asked to set aside a big revelation so that you can go play as another party.
The missions themselves are pretty hit or miss in terms of quality. Of the 17 missions only a handful feature any sort of unique objective or interesting mechanic to deal with. Most boil down to capture points and kill bad guys. A few missions have you racing against a countdown clock or holding your own against waves of enemies but even these missions are so predictable and lack any interesting quirks that it is hard to be thrilled by them. The maps are almost all bland and boring in terms of design/layout.
The gameplay itself is solid though and each race plays differently. The Space Marines are the best all around force. The Eldar are a bit weaker but have shields and teleportation. The Orks dominate melee combat and rely on using scrap from the battlefield to upgrade their units and build new ones on the fly. The campaign is fun to play despite any criticism I will level against it. Combat is engaging and frantic even if some of the missions gives you a bit too much time to simply build a giant force and barrel through rather than demand you play tactically. Every unit has some sort of secondary ability and the Elite units themselves can be immensely powerful if used well.
Because Dawn of War 3 has significantly larger armies than in previous games it can be difficult to really use all those abilities to their maximum potential while leading a large force. There’s nothing special about base building and resource gathering simply requires controlling points and building add-ons on top of them. The game wants to be a large army, resource collection, base building game AND a squad based, ability and hero focused game at the same time and does not always succeed. Players have to make concessions on what they want to focus on and that means no one element shines the way it should. At times I really enjoyed the new scale of Dawn of War 3‘s combat but other times I found myself wishing the game focused more on squad-based play and gave the Elite units the direct attention they spend all of the single player and multiplayer screaming for.
The campaign does have some interesting boss fights and towards the end of the game, each race gets a chance to really cut loose with their biggest Elite units. I really enjoyed the final mission and it proved to be a real challenge on the Hard difficulty setting. A big change is the lack of persistence from mission to mission in terms of loot/equipment and there is no over-world/galaxy map. Players can no longer customize characters/squads between missions or choose which mission to tackle next. Which does cut down a bit on the attachment players will have with their forces.
Some will say the single player was simply a glorified tutorial for multiplayer but that is not really true. While players will learn how to use Elite characters, units and tactics unique to each race the broader nuances of the game are never explained. Dawn of War 3 does have 3 separate tutorial missions but they teach players only the most basic elements of the game such as how to select units or use abilities. The game never really takes the time to teach you about the nuances of Elite units or the Doctrines an army can select before battle. Which is a huge oversight since those two elements have a massive impact on how you play the game.
Aside from the boring layout of the maps the game itself looks beautiful and sounds great. The units are detailed and distinct enough to pick them out of a crowd (most of the time anyway). Explosions and weapons are gorgeous and the bodies and debris left behind after a battle quickly turn once pristine lands into blasted battlefields. Each sound effect finds its place within the cacophony of war. The colour pallet is a bit lighter than I’m sure some fans would have wanted but it is nowhere near the cartoony, rainbow wonderland some fans have complained about. This is not a Diablo 3 vs Diablo 2 type situation. If you don’t like the colour scheme of your army the game has a pretty deep Army Painter utility for multiplayer.
Now we come to the real crux of what has made Dawn of War 3 so contentious among the fandom; multiplayer. The game has ditched the old multiplayer system entirely for a MOBA ruleset. The handful of 1v1, 2v2 and 3v3 multiplayer maps now have lanes, towers and power cores. Which makes sense since traditional AAA RTS combat pretty much ended with Starcraft 2 and MOBA’s are all the rage now. However the previous Dawn of War titles and the Company of Heroes games had carved themselves a nice middle ground between the two with their focus on point control, mobility and mid-sized armies. It’s one of the reasons fans loved Dawn of War because it meant players who did not want to play a traditional multiplayer RTS or a MOBA had some place to go. Dawn of War 2‘s multiplayer is what kept the series alive and made a sequel worth making. It’s understandable that some fans would feel betrayed.
What is truly strange is that Dawn of War 2‘s setup would have fit a MOBA far, far better than Dawn of War 3 does. If the game was about squad and hero play alone it would make more sense as a MOBA. But Dawn of War 3 is also about large armies and base building, putting it at odds with how one normally thinks of MOBA play. Other than placing large armies into a MOBA setup the game brings nothing new to the MOBA genre. The multiplayer maps are just as uninspired as the single player ones are with no unique mechanics or interesting quirks to be found. Luckily the game does support the Steam Workshop so players have already begun creating their own multiplayer maps and they have proven to be far superior to the default ones.
I know a lot of fans were hoping for more playable races right from the start so having only three is bound to disappoint. However, just like the multiplayer being changed to a MOBA, we all knew this before we picked the game up so its not like we were hoodwinked. Dawn of War 1 and 2 only had 4 playable races at launch. The series has always grown via expansion content and there is every reason to believe Dawn of War 3 will do the same.
Like a lot of long term fans, I was not happy with multiplayer at first. It was such a drastic shift away from what previous games had offered. I am an old RTS warhorse who still raises his fists and swears at MOBA scrubs to get off my lawn. If I wanted to play a MOBA I’d go play a MOBA I thought to myself. But…after giving Dawn of War 3‘s multiplayer a chance, I found I don’t actually hate it. In fact, I find it fun and engaging. I won’t go so far as to say I’m glad they ditched the old multiplayer setup, but after a dozen or so hours of multiplayer, I have found enough to like that I am no longer angry. Hell, there is even a possibility a competitive scene could develop around the game which would be nice since Dawn of War 2 never managed to develop one that could compare to its genre peers.
I really enjoy the 3v3 maps and the combination of large armies, point control and MOBA gameplay has led to some unique RTS combat I was not expecting. I do miss the old cover system and I wish there was the ability to turtle your forces more effectively but the push/pull of a MOBA mixed with large armies and powerful Elite units often leads to some tense and rewarding combat. The game definitely needs some balance tweaks to the races and units to make multiplayer a more even experience but that can be said about any games multiplayer. Right now 80% of the players are playing as the Space Marines. The Eldar are the second most played race with the Orks rarely showing their faces outside of AI matches or players looking to earn an Achievement.
After more than 50 hours with Dawn of War 3 I can say I had fun playing and will likely continue to play for the foreseeable future. But I have lots of complaints too and still find myself thinking “this is not what I wanted.” Had the game tried something new and given players “something they did not even know they wanted” I’d probably feel differently.
I wish the single player mission design was as great as the story it tells. I wish the Elite units and engaging squad combat did not clash so much with the base building and large army setup. I wish I liked MOBA games more. Maybe I am just pining for the good old days. Ultimately Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War 3, to me, is a fun game with flaws. Not so many flaws that I’d advise avoiding it but enough that I would temper the expectations of long-term fans of the series. I’m dying to know what kind of expansion content the game is going to get because if it is good enough, and the base game is tweaked and supported enough, there is a chance the total Dawn of War 3 package could still ultimately be a great one.