The multiplayer mode is an important part of Dawn of War 3, so we've chosen to test the game on live servers before delivering our final verdict. Meanwhile, here's our review in progress.
I like big hammers and I cannot lie. It's thus a good thing the title of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 3 suggests that's par for the course, even if this is the future version where most of the Orks and humans have put aside their swords for kickass gunnery. Not all, though. Take Gabriel Angelos. He's an elite space marine with a massive mallet who knocks aside enemy troops with ease and leaps and slams down his hammer with the force of an earthquake. When the man comes around, Orks fly away in chunks like salt scattered in the wind, creating a spectacle of gore that would make John Wick grin.
It's not uncommon for named heroes in games to enjoy greater effectiveness than their unnamed comrades, but in both the multiplayer mode and campaign they perform like a riding lawnmower surging through an overgrown yard. That can make the power fantasies of the campaign particularly tasty, but in the multiplayer mode, the strength of elites like Gabriel trivialize the careful queuing of units like snipers and infantry. Like so much about Dawn of War 3, elites champion spectacle, sometimes even to the detriment of the strategy. I found quite a bit of fun in that spectacle, but it wasn't always the kind I expected.
In fact, I expected more spectacle in the campaign, which kicks off on the besieged planet Cyprus and leads to a few surprising alliances and a hunt for the mysterious Spear of Khaine. The spectacle is there, in a way, especially in the flashy, crowded particle effects that accompany the colorful battlefields and units, but it takes a ridiculously long time for the plot to move into anything deeper than "the Orks are attacking and we need to do something about it." That's hardly surprising; the campaigns in the Dawn of War series were ever about preparing you for the multiplayer mode rather than delivering a rich story. It's a shame, as Dawn of War 3 has the ingredients on hand to deliver such a tale. With each new mission, you're put at the helm of either the space marine, Eldar, or Ork factions, thus giving you a chance to familiarize yourself with the special units of each and to grow invested in faction's story.
In theory, anyway. One of the design choices that makes the stories in the Warcraft and StarCraft series go great is the way they usually immerse you in each faction for several missions at a time, thus allowing you to keep each's faction's skills freshly in mind as you move from mission to mission. By the time you complete one's story, you're a master. That would be especially helpful here considering the many satisfying ways the factions differ from each other, whether it's the Orks' exclusive ability to hunt for scattered scrap for upgrades or the Eldar's ability to teleport almost all of their buildings and units to various points on the map.
In Dawn of War 3, though, I found myself jumping from faction to faction every single mission, and the experience always felt jarring. It's not without its bright points. The Orks, as always, brim with personality, and one of Dawn of War's strengths lies in the personality it gives to units and squads, such as when an Ork cries out "I didn't think this through!" when running blindly in front of a turret. One of my favorite missions popped up early on when the Orks had to move a giant cannon across the map by firing it periodically with the kickback, all while fighting off Eldar.
The multiplayer mode, which allows for 1v1, 2v2, or 3v3 battles, is the true star. It comes off as a flawed one, though, as the elites command the field as strongly there as they do in the campaign. In both settings, you need to build some elite points through general gameplay to summon elite units like Gabriel, but once units like him are in the field, their massive DPS tends to shatter any attempts at normal real-time strategy. Frankly, considering Gabriel's relatively small "hero point" cost to summon, he comes off as more than a little unbalanced. Elite are so ridiculously effective in general that more than once my matches devolved into just two elites duking it out on the field, and players would often simply turtle around their base until they had enough points to summon one of the elites they'd chosen in the loadout screen before the match.
The sole existing 'Power Core' mode resembles nothing so much as a MOBA with eight maps, with the main difference being that you're controlling every unit instead of one. Both here and in the main campaign, there are several welcome throwbacks to earlier real-time strategy elements such as base building, and the need to capture resource points and upgrade your units with those resources.
But otherwise, if you've played a MOBA, you know what to expect. There's a base—the power core—that you need to destroy and capture, but not before destroying the shield generator protecting the enemy's base and then blasting some giant turrets. One of the maps even has MOBA-like lanes. Elite units like Gabriel are effectively a MOBA's hero units (and some are better than others), and everything else amounts to mere fodder. You can use that fodder in smart ways, such as by using stealth units for reconnaissance or by using aerial units like the Eldar's Vyper to blast away at enemies safely from afar. But almost all of them, whether it's the melee focused Howling Banshees of the Eldar or the transport "Trukks" or the Orks, come off as puny mortals compared to the godliness that is elites. And Gabriel? I've focused on him because (as I said) I like big hammers, but he's nothing compared to Imperial Knight Solaria, who sometimes seems as though she and her giant chaingun-equipped mech could clear the entire map herself.
I expected matches would be quick because of the powers of the elite units, but in fact they're kind of slow. Each one tended to drag on for at least half an hour. I suspect that partly had to do with the ability of the elite units to turn the tide, as it's necessary to re-summon a ton of units from the barracks after they wipe the others out.
But I can't help but admit that I always had fun. A lot of that had to do with flashy animations such as Gabriel smashing his hammer down on unsuspecting Orks, and the careful characterization given to each type of unit. Based on sound alone, it's difficult to forget that you're in the Warhammer universe, and that's a good thing. Elites may be powerful on their own, but they work best when accompanied by a smart assortment of accompanying troops, such as snipers who can beat down any unwanted rabble that comes along. If you play your pieces right and focus, it's even possible for the little guys to take down an elite.
I've expressed a lot of worry about elites being too strong, but I also admire their surprising variety in both appearance and abilities. One the one hand you have Imperial Knight Solaria with her chaingun mech, but on the other you might have the Eldar's Farseer Macha, who can toss her spear across the map and wreak havoc on troublesome enemies or blow away enemies around her with a blast from her mind.
As a bonus, Dawn of War 3 ran smoothly, too, with no disconnects or annoying framerate problems dragging down the action as battles grew more intense. The MOBA similarities seem to suggest that Dawn of War 3 intends to draw in audiences that usually aren't all that big on real-time strategy games, and few things break the familiar patterns quite like two dudes with massive health pools pummeling each other on the field. Dawn of War 3 benefits from a number of tweaks to the familiar RTS formula as well. For one, there are the new "doctrines" you can equip before each match, such as one that heals all the troops around Gabriel when he falls in battle. Elsewhere, one of Dawn of War 3's chief pleasures is the new options for super weapons like the Space Marines' option to initiate an orbital bombardment that could easily turn the tide at the moment of seeming defeat.
If I were to pass judgement on it now, I'd call Dawn of War 3 flawed but fun. The flashy animations might chase away Warhammer fans who can't bear the thought of guy in terminator armour flipping into battle. There's certainly fun here, though, and I'll be back with a fuller review explaining whether that means it represents a new dawn for the real-time strategy genre as a whole.