Why Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II is secretly the best RTS ever made

DoW2 upgrade screen
A unit upgrade screen from Dawn of War 2’s campaign

I feel like Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 2 got really overshadowed on its initial release, probably because it came out about the same time that Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty was beginning to build up hype. While people were giving praise to the unique missions and mechanics of Wings of Liberty‘s campaign when it came out a year later, I felt like the only person quietly whimpering “But Dawn of War 2 did it so much better.”

I mean it, too. Dawn of War 2 probably has my favorite campaign of any RTS, maybe any strategy game at all, I’ve ever played, for the simple reason that Dawn of War 2‘s campaign isn’t an RTS, it’s a strategy RPG.

Allow me to explain. Dawn of War 2 involves very little base-building as a whole, and the single player campaign actually removes the idea of a “base” completely. Where do you produce units, then? Trick question: You don’t. Instead, you play the entire campaign with 6 squads, each composed of between 1 and 4 individual soldiers. Field as much manpower as you can, and you’ll find yourself with a whopping nine soldiers on the battlefield.

The tradeoff, then, is that you get extremely invested in each of these units, specifically with the commander that leads them. Each unit has a unique combat role and personality (other than the Force Commander, your “avatar” in the game who’s a silent jack-of-all-trades). Avitus, leader of your heavy weapons-wielding Devastator Marines, is a furious, ruthless soldier, while Cyrus, the leader of your stealthy Scout Marines, is reserved and calculating.

These characters are also extremely mechanically distinct. Each can equip distinct types of weapons (only Cyrus’s squad can equip sniper rifles, only Avitus’s can equip chaingun-like Storm Bolters).

Oh, did I not mention that this is a loot game? Because this is totally a loot game.

Weapon, armor, and equipment drops are common in each mission, allowing you to load out each of your squads to fit one of several combat roles. Avitus’s Devastators can become anti-infantry bullet hoses, or lean more towards anti-armor. Your own Force Commander can assume a more traditional “point guns at stuff and shoot” role, or can become a tanky melee warrior. This ability to custom-build every squad is further emphasized by the upgrade trees…

Oh yeah, this game totally has upgrade trees too. And not those namby pamby Starcraft 2, “Well, you can pick this one upgrade, or this one upgrade”. Nah. There are 4 different specializations you can dump skill points into to increase various stats, and each also yields distinct permanent perks at each tier. Do you want your Tactical Marines to throw infinite grenades, or be invincible? Do you want your Force Commander to use missile launchers, or regain health by punching people?

With all of this, the squads of Dawn of War 2‘s campaign feel less like generic grunts pumped out of a factory to die, and closer to a party in an RPG, each growing and evolving as soldiers as they slowly become more and more badass.

By the way, for those not familiar with the Warhammer 40,000 universe, know that it’s basically if Dungeons and Dragons was based entirely on 80s metal album covers and also in space. Everything’s covered in spikes and skulls, wars are waged with billions of soldiers, and everything just reeks of “power fantasy”.

Take, for example, the character of Davian Thule in Dawn of War 2. He’s your super cool commander guy for the earlier missions of the game, before he’s forced planetside to face a horde of Tyranids (a race that served as heavy inspiration for Starcraft‘s Zerg) with a chainsword. That is, a chainsaw sword. That’s standard issue in 40K. Thule gets taken down, as Tyranid toxins slowly poison him. You go on some quests to develop an antidote, but alas, it’s not enough, and Davian Thule has to be put in an intensive care unit.

Oh, yeah, forgot to mention, ICUs in Warhammer 40K are called Dreadnoughts, and they are mechs piloted by near-death Space Marines, hooked up to life support machines inside. If you’re a Space Marine, your hospital room is a tank.

Davian Thule
No, really. That’s what happens

I’ve always had a thing for Warhammer 40,000‘s crazy setting, and part of the reason I can’t get into Starcraft‘s lore is that it feels like if Warhammer 40K‘s lore became a dad, and had to tone everything down. Starcraft‘s space marines lack the religious zeal and chainsaws of Warhammer‘s. The Protoss don’t seem so arrogant, when Warhammer‘s Eldar were so excessive they literally spawned a god of excess. The Zerg lack the cold alien-ness and massive scale of the Tyranids. And then, Warhammer has like seven other factions on top of that!

Not featured in DoW2: Space skeletons who fly pyramids
Not featured in DoW2: Space skeletons who fly pyramids. Also real.

Narrative aside, I also love the Dawn of War 2 campaign for its mission variety and similarity, paradoxically. There’s only a handful of maps that these campaign missions are played on, but they’re persistent, meaning that taking a strategic point on the way to kill a boss on your first pass through an area, may give you some extra firepower when you have to defend yourself on that same map later.

On top of this, there’s a global state of panic as well. The game takes place over the invasion of a Tyranid swarm, and you have to juggle the infestation levels of each of the three planets the game takes place over. Moreover, you need to keep the infestation from taking back some of your strategic acquisitions on those planets. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself able to deploy fewer turrets, resupplies, and brief moments of invincibility on that planet as a result.

Basically, I love Dawn of War 2 as a game because it uses the RTS as a gameplay template, while giving me a degree of character customization usually limited to an RPG, and a sense of juggling global problems usually reserved for larger scale turn-based games like Civ or XCOM. Instead of missions feeling like multiplayer bot matches with some mutators turned on, it feels like a campaign, where your units are growing, your accomplishments snowballing, and your hospitals are lighting space orcs on fire.

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2 thoughts on “Why Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II is secretly the best RTS ever made”

  1. I must admit that I really liked DoW II as well. I think for me it felt very fluffy, i.e. a few elite Space Marines against the odds. The first DoW was great for massive battles though and 40k is all about epic scale. I’d be interested in what they did if anyone made a third instalment

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