“Death to the false Emperor!” exclaim my armored Chaos Space Marines as they charge forward into battle, backed up by my Possessed Marine Squads and Defilers. Several groups of Chaos Horrors suddenly appear in a flash of sickly pink light. My enemy backs into a river, and by now I’m positively cackling with glee: this couldn’t be going better. I catch a glimpse of an Imperial Guardsman go flying off into the air, tossed away like so much rubbish by my Chaos Lord. Back in my base, one of my Heretics begins nears the conclusion of a structure summon. The nearly completed building hovers in midair, tilting madly as the ritual reaches its climax. What I’m trying to say is, Warhammer: Dawn of War set the bar awfully high for real-time strategy games when it came out, and remains a good bar for any RTS to be measured against today, despite graphics which today look a little clunky. Read on to relive the golden days of Dawn of War and maybe learn a thing or two along the way.
Setting the Record Straight
Before we get into the glory of Dawn of War, we’re going to take a look way back in the history of RTS gaming for some perspective. Also, I want to clear up a common misconception about Warhammer’s relationship with another popular franchise.
Hopefully, you saw this coming: it’s one of those commonly bandied “facts” that WarCraft: Orcs and Humans was originally intended to be a Warhammer title. This “fact” is (among people who claim to be in the know) widely reported around the internet, without much hard evidence to be found. Fortunately, Kotaku has an article written by Patrick Wyatt, a former Blizzard developer, which lays everything on the table: according to this piece “Allen Adham hoped to obtain a license to the Warhammer universe to try to increase sales by brand recognition. Warhammer was a huge inspiration for the art-style of Warcraft, but a combination of factors, including a lack of traction on business terms and a fervent desire on the part of virtually everyone else on the development team (myself included) to control our own universe nixed any potential for a deal.”
That same writeup also mentions that the artwork for WarCraft was also heavily inspired by Games Workshop’s tabletop game. It goes on to note that Dune 2 had at least as much to do with WarCraft as did Warhammer. Somewhat less reliable a source is this comment by Blizzard employee Ron Millar on another Kotaku article with the somewhat dramatic (and inaccurate) title “How WarCraft Was Almost a Warhammer Game (and How that Saved WoW” that informs us that D&D and Magic the Gathering were also major influences.
Carrying that on to the topic of StarCraft and Warhammer 40K, which is more germane since we're talking about Dawn of War and not Warhammer Fantasy Battle, we see even less hard evidence that there's been any direct ripping off of Games Workshop's intellectual property, though there are, of course, rumors aplenty including the unverified speculation that thanks to StarCraft, Blizzard has had to pay royalties to Games Workshop. While many take it to be fairly obvious that StarCraft is highly derivative of Warhammer 40K, it should be remembered that WH40K itself bases many of its unit and faction designs on popular media: as the author of one article on Gamereplays points out: both the Tyranids from Warhammer 40K and the Zerg from StarCraft themselves seem to borrow heavily from Aliens and Starship Troopers, and both go in fairly different directions as regards plot and gameplay mechanics. The best argument I saw for copying was one made about StarCraft's Protoss and the Eldar from Warhammer - mostly centered around their psionic propensities and a shaky comparison between the Eldar Wraithguard and the Protoss Dragoon (which is actually much more similar to the Space Marines' Dreadnought).
I’m not saying that the Warhammer Franchise didn’t play a huge role in the development of Blizzard’s games. It’s obvious that both StarCraft and WarCraft are somewhat derivative of Warhammer and Warhammer 40K in their turn. But I thought it’d be good to set the record straight for all you informed readers out there: both games are drawing from many of the same sources and that can explain many of their similarities.
But, enough of all that. Let's get to talking about what's really important: all of the things that make Warhammer Dawn of War so amazing.
Mechanics – the Shining Star of Dawn of War
I was originally going to title this section of the article “The Best Part” but it’s hard to be sure. One of my favorite things about Dawn of War is that its set in the rich and grim Warhammer 40,000 universe, which isn’t strictly a mechanical consideration. Sure, the mechanics of tabletop helped determine the game’s mechanics, but swap out the in-game artwork and you could get away with making Dawn of War a non-Warhammer themed title.
I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that it’s not just the mechanics that make this a true Warhammer title, it’s the gestalt of artwork and mechanics. But the mechanics are what’s truly outstanding here, to be sure.
Many of you out there consider the Warhammer games to be mechanically superior to StarCraft, and it’s obvious why. Relic Entertainment are masters of real-time strategy game design, and it shows in Dawn of War. Instead of mining or another resource generation mechanic that would have felt tacked-on in a Warhammer title, Relic elegantly weaved the Control Point mechanic from Warhammer 40K matches into the game. Basebuilding, a mechanical requirement for many RTS gamers, is worked in fairly painlessly as well, with structures and upgrades thematically appropriate for each race (such as the Ork’s Waagh! Banners and population-based unlocks).
Whether it’s sync kills on larger units, Morale, vehicle pathing, unit upgrades, reinforcing or even damage profiles, everything in Dawn of War fits very seamlessly into the game, allowing the player to focus on both strategic and tactical considerations without excessive macro-management (as you see in mining-driven games like StarCraft or WarCraft) or interface hurdles.
There are (many) real time strategy games released today that don’t match up to this game mechanically (though in many ways it was surpassed by its sequel). And I’m not just talking about the number of features such games possess: it’s also the effortless and intelligent way in which all of these features are implemented and work together to dictate the pacing of the game. Actually, if I have one complaint to leverage about the initial Dawn of War games mechanically, it’s the very slow pacing of the early stages of the game, as control points can take quite a while to capture.
Dawn of War also proves very convincingly that games with large faction counts can work – it’s a large knowledge burden on the competitive player, but the fact that the game still sports an active community 8 years after launch is telling. The rules which underlay combat are understandable enough to allow a player to succeed without knowing all of the intricacies of their opponents’ faction – though, obviously, it’s simpler to understand faction dynamics in games with fewer factions, such as StarCraft. That’s one of the catch 22s of Warhammer games, though: if you leave out someone’s favorite army, they’re bound to be disappointed, but adding all of the armies into a single game can get chaotic for the more casual gamer, to say nothing of pros.
It's actually very satisfying to me that, as derivative of Warhammer as the StarCraft games are, that Relic was able to make an excellent title and 3 well crafted expansions that was in no way derivative of the gameplay of StarCraft. We saw how embarrassing that can be with Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, which did not (in my humble opinion) do enough to distance itself from World of WarCraft, and thus copied the franchise that partially copied from it: that's not a dignified way for a venerable universe like Warhammer to behave. Warhammer's universe and distinct ruleset deserve better than being an also-ran, and boy did Relic give us that with Warhammer Dawn of War.
As an aside, it may have been that Dawn of War 2 was overly derivative in its turn of Company of Heroes: the gameplay is very similar, though in some ways Dawn of War 2 is less deep. It could be that, had Relic taken more time to alter the ruleset more for the needs of the title, that Dawn of War 2 would have done better. Of course, Dawn of War 2 is its own discussion, best left for another day.
The game looks a little chunky and drab in this modern era of full screen glows and intense particle effects, but it’s held up very well since 2004, especially for a real-time strategy game (though games like Company of Heroes 2 and the new Command and conquer really make it look dated) but overall its held up very well. Individual models are very well rendered, especially for the time, and are very dynamic: many models, such as hero units and the larger vehicles or Monstrous Creatures, have unique attacks when they kill enemies: the throwing of units across the battlefield which I mention at the beginning of this post is one such example, though more exist.
It’s this attention to detail that really stands out to me: Space Marine structures plummet from orbit with a satisfying speed and impact. Chaos structures twitch and pulse. Necrons move with a stolid menace: everything feels very right for a Warhammer game. My main complaint about the graphics (and 2 fixes this issue handily) is that the artworks feel more like a blocky model than the miniatures do. Just look at this Chaos Marine from DOW2 as compared to the same unit from 1 and from the tabletop game:
But still, as compared to units from other games, it compares favorably. From model design to all of the animation, DoW was art directed very well.
What Can We Learn From Dawn of War?
The Dawn of War games are a shining example of a truly modern real-time strategy experience. They seamlessly weave advanced mechanics like cover (though there are many games which did this better than DOW), attack preference (melee on targets against whom you have a melee advantage) dynamic and exclusive unit upgrades (attaching flamers or grenade launchers to a squad) while grouping infantry units into squads (as in the tabletop game) allows for more streamlined management of large numbers of moving pieces at once. From pacing to art direction to fidelity with their franchise, Relic created a memorable and effective combination that should be lauded for its execution (across all 4 DOW titles). This is a great example of a series that just hit all the right notes, and even almost 10 years after its launch, remains a bar that developers need to carefully consider.