Now, coming as it does on the heels of Rome: Total War in my review pile, you might be tempted to feel bad for Dawn of War. Fortunately, the Warhammer game is completely different from Rome, and thus isnít subject to direct comparison.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War is, quite obviously, set in the highly detailed Warhammer 40k universe. This isnít Warhammerís first entry on the PC, but itís certainly the first real-time version. Unlike real-time RPG conversions such as Baldurís Gate, Dawn of War doesnít try to directly transfer the combat system from the tabletop wargame. Instead, the developers Ė Relic Entertainment of Homeworld fame Ė have put in a more standard system with hitpoints and damage ratings, and abstracted hits and misses.
The four most popular races from the Warhammer 40k universe have made it here into the game: the Space Marines, the Eldar, the Orks and the Chaos Space Marines. Unfortunately, only the Space Marines have a single player campaign, and itís a brief one at that. The player guides his immortal Emperor-worshipping forces through a mere eleven missions before the campaign gives up the ghost and shoos you onto multiplayer or skirmish mode.
The campaign itself is decent and has a good plot at the core which appears to stick with Warhammer universe convention quite well, but unfortunately it also sticks to RTS storytelling conventions as well. The plot is not so much bad, as badly conveyed. In fact the story has the bare bones ingredients of quality, but the fleshing out wasnít done very well. Whether you choose to blame poor writing (the dialogue isnít great), bad exposition (a lot of information has to be crammed into the cut-scene at every mission) or the unsuitability of the engine for close-up work (what is this lip-synching you speak of?), the end result remains the same: standard RTS fare.
The missions arenít even particularly interesting or challenging. With one lone exception, itís perfectly possible Ė and indeed encouraged Ė to simply build up a massive horde of units and steamroll the enemy. The AI might make half-hearted attacks during or after the build-up period, but these arenít about to be a challenge for even a moderately prepared player. Anyone who wasnít creating the biggest armies he could, quickly will after the Squiggoth mission.
One thing that really works in favor of the game is its speed and frantic combat. Whether youíre playing single player or multiplayer, the action comes fast enough to not notice any drawbacks to the combat system. Plus, over all, itís pretty damn cool to send your puny squads to kill an Eldar godís Avatar. The super units, like the Avatar of Khaine or Bloodthirster, are also available in skirmish and multiplayer.