The Rise and Fall of Dawn of War

Dawn of War III
Dawn of War III

After years of keeping the series in limbo, Relic released Dawn of War III in April 2017. That’s eight years after the previous game from the series, and six years after the last Dawn of War II expansion. The game garnered relatively positive critics scores, but fans are the ones who buy the game, and they weren’t happy with DoW III.

Sales numbers were much lower than expected, making Relic abandon the work on all future content for the game, leaving Dawn of War III as the only game from the series without any expansion or mission pack. The first one had three and the second had two, all of them being more or less excellent and all of them coming with lots of additional missions along with new races to play with.

The move isn’t very surprising. Video game industry became a multibillion-dollar business years ago and when sales aren’t high as expected games, and the whole series, are put on ice. The same thing happened with Deus Ex (although recent info coming from Square Enix points out that we might see another game in the future) and Mass Effect.

But the sad thing is that Relic, and no one else, is responsible for the series downfall. If they decided to keep all the good elements from past games, like the dark and mature depiction of Warhammer 40K universe where every alien must die, and where all races are vicious as possible, if they kept strategic elements like morale, constant use of cover, flanking and battles where every single unit is important, maybe Dawn of War III would end up being as successful as previous games. Games that managed to offer superb RTS (real-time strategy) and strategic RPG experiences along with stellar stories told across different titles and top of the line graphic presentation.

Dawn of War series saw it all. Back in 2004, when the first game came out, gaming world exploded in joy because DoW brought lots of tasty bits to the RTS table, starting the DoW story that lasted for almost 15 years. It now seems that it had ended, but maybe we end up getting another game in the future, who knows. But, let’s now talk about all three games from the series, along with some expansions, that shaped up DoW franchise and that gifted gamers some of the best RTS titles ever to appear. Let’s see how the series flew, and how it, in its pride, came to close to the Sun and had its wings burned.

Back when it all started

It was 2004 and RTS genre was one of the most popular genres on PC. We had cult titles in the form of Starcraft, which still was a huge hit back then, Warcraft III, Age of Empires, Rise of Nations, Command and Conquer series, Rome: Total War, Stronghold and Stronghold Crusader, and many more games. Back then, RTS genre was in its prime, and one team was making themselves famous by creating another cult RTS title. Relic Entertainment rose to fame back in 1999 with their very first game, Homeworld, which is still considered as one of the best RTS games of all times.

The small team managed to put the real-time battles in space, which is extremely tough to achieve, especially in case you want to include the third plane in the formula. Yes, Homeworld’s battlefields where spheres bisected by a central circular plane, and all units would move anywhere inside the said sphere. That was a huge task to accomplish; you had to make a game where all units can move freely in a 3D plane while keeping it enjoyable and interesting to play. And Relic did it, with Homeworld and its sequel becoming one of the best RTS titles ever.

The Dawn of War

Dawn of War
Dawn of War

Relic decided to reach to Games Workshop and create an RTS game based on the dystopian world of Warhammer 40K. The universe of the 41st millennium is dark and gritty, filled with various races that are in constant war with each other. The whole universe is one huge slaughterhouse, and the feeling of despair and eternal warfare was presented without a single flaw in Dawn of War.

The game came out in 2004 and immediately grabbed the attention of gaming media and gamers alike. Its depiction of the 40K universe was spot on, with all races being shown as ruthless and with the sole purpose of exterminating all other life in the universe.

Dawn of War
Dawn of War

The eternal war was the main focus of the game, with Orks, Space Marines, Chaos, and Eldar battling on the surface of Tartarus, an imperial planet swarmed by Orks. Dawn of War showed that RTS games could have an intriguing story filled with plot twists, quality written characters and many interesting scenes between and during missions. But the main quality of Dawn of War was, aside from its story and excellent showing of just how dark and unmerciful 41st millennium really is, the gameplay.

Each game revolves around control of strategic points that create resources for new buildings and forces. This creates a fast tempo game in which you must keep the map under your control while at the same time managing your base and trying to repel enemy forces away from points you control. DoW gameplay was intense, fast-paced, and highly catchy.

It was especially good in multiplayer against live opponents. Battles never stopped, not for a second, and you and your opponent tried to outsmart each other by performing ruses, launching blitz strikes, trying to outflank the enemy, while developing your infantry units in a way that would prove better than those your enemy has. The focus on infantry units, which could be upgraded and assigned with heroes that made them even better made multiplayer battles intense and extremely fun. Add to that the Morale feature and usage of cover and terrain to your advantage, and you got one of the best RTS games ever.

And graphics were miles ahead when compared to other games from the time. Incredibly detailed units, perfect animation and the sheer number of details made Dawn of War one of the best looking games, even years after its release. Combine impressive graphics with the abundance of violent scenes such as usage of chainsaw swords on enemies, Dreadnoughts crushing Orks in their giant metal hands, and many other depictions of scenes of absolute slaughter guaranteed that the fans of the genre and the Warhammer 40K world in general, would love the game.

Dawn of War
Dawn of War

DoW had three expansions, with the first one called Winter Assault launched a year after the original. The campaign was way better than that of the original, with longer and tougher missions along with a story of the same, stellar, quality. While four races of the original game focused on fast-paced combat and advancement, Imperial Guard was more defensive oriented, making the gameplay even more diversified.

And then in 2006 came Dawn of War: Dark Crusade, probably the best piece of content in the whole series. Dark Crusade was the second expansion for Dawn of War, but it had tons of content with more play hours than the original and Winter Assault combined. You could pick between seven races, each one with its own campaign. And the single-player campaign had the ultimate goal of claiming the planet of Kronus, with all seven races having their own agenda.

Kronus was divided into sectors, with the player choosing which mission to play next, making Dark Crusade’s campaign completely non-linear. The title introduced Tau Empire and Necrons, with almost every race featuring unique gameplay mechanics. This gave the single-player campaign a massive replay value, and players just adored Dark Crusade.

Finally, Dawn of War ended its story in 2008, with the release of the third and final expansion called Soulstorm. The expansion introduced two new playable factions called Sisters of Battle, an order of female religious fanatics who cleansed heretics and xenos even more efficiently than space marines. Dark Eldar are corrupted by chaos. The campaign was very long but not very interesting, probably because Relic prepared a new major entry of the series – Dawn of War II.

The transformation to an action RPG

Dawn of War II
Dawn of War II

Dawn of War II came in 2009 and massively changed the gameplay, at least in single player game modes. Instead of a classic RTS mechanics, with building your base, recruiting new units, and battling for control points, DoW II single-player campaign is built around missions that you must beat only by using your hero (Force Commander) along with three unit squads. The game was basically an action RPG, but it still was extremely good.

The campaign took place on Aurelia; a small sector made out of three planets that were very important for Blood Ravens. You lead Blood Ravens against Orks and Tyranid over the course of many missions out of which some were optional, giving you new gear to use. You could upgrade your units, get new armor and weapons, and learn new skills. Morale and cover systems were there once again, making for an incredibly demanding and exciting strategic gameplay with lots of flanking, suppression fire, usage of cover to your advantage and trying to keep the morale of your troops high.

And while the single-player campaign wasn’t an RTS game, it had that gritty, extremely aggressive, and ruthless depiction of Space Marines and Tyranids that is the soul of Dawn of War games.

On the other side, the multiplayer component of DoW was completely different. A classic RTS experience with fast-paced battles, without the option to construct new buildings, with the focus on control and domination on every map, was even better than single player, making DoW II a very popular multiplayer title. All playable races feature different mechanics making each battle unique and full of tremendously intense action.

The game had two expansions. The first one is called Chaos Rising and brings a new campaign along with massive amounts of Warhammer 40K lore. This time you fight against forces of Chaos and the good old super aggressive vibe of the 40K universe is still there. Everyone wants to kill everyone else; there’s plenty of violence and gore scenes along with superb voice acting and interesting story.

The second and final expansion for Dawn of War II was called Retribution, and it starts when Imperial Inquisition decides to conduct Exterminatus, which is a fancy name for a planet-wide genocide. This is just what the corrupted Blood Ravens Chapter-Master needs to become a Chaos Demon. And this is where the campaign starts. You can play with six factions and, as with Dark Crusade, Retribution offers plenty of replay value.

The Fall, and reasons for it

Dawn of War III
Dawn of War III

Fans were hyped when Relic announced Dawn of War III in 2016. We all waited for a whole year before the game came out, and then in April 2017 we finally have the chance to play the third main entry in one of the best RTS series ever to appear. And then disappointment hit.

While Dawn of War III features classic base building and solid gameplay it was flawed by some mechanics taken from MOBA games, the underwhelming campaign, and simplified gameplay. Instead of choosing which faction you would lead, you had to play every mission from the perspective of all three playable factions – Space Marines, Eldar, and Orks.

This definitely was a wrong move by Relic, especially because they always gave players choices. Choices to play only with factions they wanted, and in DoW III they couldn’t do that. They had to play with every faction, making the story confusing, making missions too detached one from another, and making single player mode subpar at best.

Yes, gameplay was solid, and some said the game was better than DoW II because it offers RTS experience instead of an action RPG, but DoW II was just much more fun to play. And here we come to the main reason for the fall of Dawn of War. Every game in the series featured a perfect depiction of the dark and ruthless Warhammer 40K world. Extreme prejudice towards all alien lifeforms with the ultimate goal of exterminating all other life expect their race, and an ultra-aggressive attitude of all factions is one of the main ingredients of the 40K universe where war is eternal.

All games were filled with scenes of explicit gore and gratuitous violence, but with Dawn of War, III Relic decided to push the handbrake. There were no more violent scenes with blood everywhere and gory fatality animations. Next, cartoony art style stands opposed to the ones we saw in previous titles, which featured grimy and realistic depictions of units. Instead, this one that looks like a kid-friendly MOBA graphical presentation.

Dawn of War III
Dawn of War III

Space Marines don’t want to exterminate everyone else; the story became boring and uninteresting. Also, in previous games, every unit mattered but here they are just cannon fodder waiting to be slaughtered with the player building new units all the time. In previous titles, you had to outmaneuver enemies and to constantly fight for control of the map, and here you have a feeling of playing just another stale RTS game with some MOBA mechanics that make heroes too powerful.

The cover mechanics are completely changed, and with the combination of large armies taking cover just became too simplified and not a deciding factor when you battle in the game’s huge maps filled with lanes and other elements found in, you guessed it, MOBA games. And let’s not talk the absence of Morale system that was one of the cornerstones of every DoW game. No Morale means no suppression, which further means simplified battle encounters, which ultimately means a tedious experience with no depth.

Dawn of War III left behind most of the defining elements that made Dawn of War titles exemplary strategic games. It tried to be too much, tried to mix many aspects without strategic depth, which led to the game becoming just another RTS title. Add the lack of the Warhammer 40K heart and soul, the lack of that dark feeling and scenery every game prior to Dawn of War III had, and you have a game that achieved nothing, and that made no steps forward. All it did was ruining one of the best game franchises ever.

A psychologist turned freelance writer and reviewer, Goran is a hardcore gamer with more than twenty years of experience, and interested in all kinds of technology. He also likes Sci Fi novels and basketball.