Who would have thought that a desktop war game would have been as popular as Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000? Based on a futuristic scenario where several galactic races play out an unending war for domination, the game’s appeal was largely due to the strong sense of characterisation and the colourful war machines, allied to scenes of urban demolition.
It was therefore inevitable that sooner or later a computer game franchise would emerge to exploit the undoubted potential of that idea. Dawn of War isn’t the first attempt to make such use of the Warhammer universe (the reasonable Space Hulk was one, and there have been others) but it’s the finest so far.
Developers Relic wisely decided against the turn-based system of the original game in place of real-time strategy where resource building is kept to a minimum. Essentially all you have to do is occupy as many Strategic Points as possible, keep producing power units, then increase the number of fighting units and you’re ready for action.
There are four races involved in Campaign mode – the fighting obsessed Orks, the treacherous Chaos, the lofty Eldar and the good all-round Space Marines – but disappointingly you can only play as Space Marines. This is rectified in Skirmish and Multiplayer modes but even so, the number of missions in the campaign is also on the stingey side – a mere eleven.
Visually, though, you’re in for an eye-candy feast. You can almost see the sweat on those Ork bodies as the camera zooms in nearly to eyeball level. One of the main attractions of the desktop game was the flexibility to paint your troops in your own distinctive colours and here the Army Painter allows you to do just that, and you can see the results in detail.
Not only are the explosive and general combat effects powerfully rendered but the developers have gone further and even individualised some of the melée fights. So a Space Marine can be seen wielding his power sword with stylised menace towards one of the Ork Boyz. This add a greater degree of realism to the battle scenes than almost any other strategy game on the market. The soundtrack likewise has the kind of driving energy you’d expect from a diet of virtually non-stop combat, peppered with often witty commands, encouragements and cries of despair.
Morale also plays an important role in proceedings and units can be bolstered by having powerful sergeants and generals attached to them. Let the morale deteriorate and there’s a chance your troops will buckle and flee under intense pressure. While this obviously does have a major part to play, it’s still the case that most of the action (over relatively small maps) revolves around churning out your troops, armour and upgrades as fast as possible and sending them en masse to attack the nearest Strategic Point.