Dawn of War 3 Is a Bloody Mess

A bowl of broken glass makes a far finer facial

I’m perfectly willing to admit that I’m a bit of an RTS snob. It comes from decades of lurking around in the twilight firmament of the rarified and the profound — at least as profound as you can get while ordering little dudes around to murder and die at your command. I like what I like, and I like strategy games.

I also like Warhammer 40,000, because any good hardcore strategy geek had at least a brief flirtation with the ol’ girl, gave her a ride around the block a few times, and either was seduced by her endless procession of murderous pewter men and machines or escaped with the tatters of their wallet intact (typically only to be consumed whole by some other sly harlot).

For aeons, I played the various incarnations of the WH40k universe on digital platforms, and Hades knows there’s been some real stinkers.

Like Warhammer 40k Regicide, whose highest achievement is effectively making me miss playing Archon on the C64 in 1983 and Battle Chess on the PC in 1988, while providing actual gameplay that would have been mocked roundly on BBSs all over the country if it’d been released in that era.

Let’s just say the property’s been inconsistent.

On the RTS side of the world, though, there’s been a couple of really solid hits.

Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War came out in 2004, was followed up by several DLC and expandalones, added factions left and right, put in a pretty solid dynamic campaign system with 2006’s Dark Crusade. While managing some of the squad-based tinkering was fiddly, the game actually moved with enough deliberate pacing that the control of several squads didn’t feel like a click-fest. Like Company of Heroes, also from 2006, the squad was the element of control and the player could focus on strategy, like it says on the tin.

And that was good.

In 2009, we got Dawn of War II, which introduced some really significant changes to the architecture. Removing base building from the game was — controversial, to put it gently. Luckily, they also cranked up the intensity of managing the squads in the field, putting more emphasis on paying attention to front-line combat and managing squad upgrades and add-ons more than babysitting a base. 2010 brought the Chaos Rising expansion (with Chaos Marines) and 2011 dropped Retribution, adding Imperial Guard to the Eldar, the Space Marines, Chaos, the Orks and Tyranids. There was a lot of emphasis on managing and using cover, understanding the terrain, and pushing the battlefield as the place things happened.

And that was good, too! (Even if some of us old-school wanted the return of the Necrons from DoW; at least we got the Necron Lord in the Last Stand mode.)

Note some things about those games. Look at them. Notice how the interfaces are really all about keeping a lot of your attention on the field of battle. Figures move around at a pace that meant you could see the way things were developing and respond. Strategically, as it were. Upgrades on the squads generally changed the nature of what they did rather than adding manual micro to them. Hero units borrowed from a more action-RPG design but cool downs on the powers were long enough that the question was when you should strategically bring an effect into the fight.

Now, look at this hot mess.

That is Dawn of War III.

DoW3, thankfully, had an open beta, pretty much letting anyone interested in the franchise with a computer and a curiosity give it a run to see if it made them feel a little quivering excitement in the pants-region. There was no way that I wasn’t going to take advantage of that opportunity.

Have you ever really wanted a piece of chocolate cake that you saw in a display case at a really nice restaurant? The kind of chocolate cake that almost has beads of pure cocoa oozing out of the icing? Just by looking at it, you know in your heart of hearts that this will be one of the finest experiences that you will ever have in your life. And have you then put it in your mouth, only to realize that it is flavorless, ashen, and largely made of sawdust?

Then you’ve felt the way that I felt.

You don’t actually have to see video to understand why. This single screenshot that I just took off of a stream on Twitch says everything that you need to know about this game.

Grossly oversized indicator buttons that, despite the garish coloration, fail to be particularly distinctive. UI elements with vastly different scaling that feel like they are from different games entirely (the unit control in the bottom left versus the controls in the bottom right.) A ridiculously cluttered battlefield, again with indicators which seem like there from different games (the circular indicators below units, the floating health bars/status bars above units in combat, and the very square icons over the larger units and “cover.” Major interface indicators on both sides of the screen at the same level.

That’s before we even talk about the game in motion.

I’m no fan of IGN and their reviews, but when they’re right, they’re right. As they say, “when you’ve lost IGN, what have you got left?”

Yes, running the game at a higher screen resolution gives you a little more breathing space in the UI. Of course, that just means that the that you need to hit or want to hit are further apart — and you will be hitting those buttons with your mouse during quite a lot of your learning curve, because you only get a good description of what they do or what they are when you mouse over them. Honestly, it’s just badly designed.

Then there’s the pace. As IGN points out, and everyone who tried the beta can tell you for free, micromanagement is king in this game. Not just a little micro, it’s not a significant part of gameplay, it is the entirety of gameplay.


Terrain no longer matters; “cover” is provided by standing in a circle for long enough to activate the shield and “destroying cover” is done simply by shooting the shield enough or jumping into it. No more strategically using brush and barriers to break or diminish line of sight, no more sending assault marines with jump packs in to destroy a barrier after you’ve set up covering fire with heavy bolters in order to coordinate destruction it long and short range. None of that.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this isn’t an RTS. It’s a MOBA, more in common with League of Legends than anything else.

That’s a shame because the opportunity to do a properly strategic new Dawn of War game, returning base building in a meaningful way while still providing the tactical nuance of squad-based fighting in DoW2, all at the scale which is more akin to Warhammer 40k: Epic would have been an amazing thing to have.

That’s not what we got.

Is it an attractive game? If you turn off three quarters of the particle effects and ignore most of the UI, sure. (That also help you understand what’s going on in the battlefield itself.) With all the eye-searing busyness? It thinks it is.

Is it a good game? More importantly, is it a good Warhammer strategy game? Not really. It puts all the pieces on the board but it fails to follow through with actual play.

I have to wonder what happened to Relic here. They have a long history of doing excellent strategy games. Somehow they have lost their way on this.

I won’t be picking up Dawn of War III until it goes on a ridiculous sale or a couple of more expansions come out which add factions that I’m more interested in playing (Tyranids and Necrons, I’m looking at you; Imperial Guard, you too). My suspicion is that six months of polish, patching, and design consideration will do this title some good.

In the meantime, you can pick up the original Dawn of War and the Dawn of War II relatively cheaply — and you should. Despite its age, the first is a pivotal game in the development of real-time strategy on the PC, and the second is a master class in building a hybrid RTS/RPG which violates a goodly chunk of the assumptions on both sides and still delivers.

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read here today and want to support my continued efforts to bring engineering, art, and the occasional philosophical divergence to the masses, please feel free to send me a tip. Or thousands of dollars, I’m really not that picky. It’s through the efforts of you and others of like mind that content like this gets created.

Thank you for your time.

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