PAX West: Hands on with Dawn of War III

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I almost didn’t get to play Dawn of War III at PAX West this year. After a cancelled flight, a 14-hour drive from San Francisco to Seattle with four strangers, and a Google Calendar mix-up, I missed my Saturday morning appointment with Relic at Sega’s large booth on the expo floor.

Fortunately, I made it over Monday afternoon and thanks to the understanding folks at Relic, I was able to play a mission from the upcoming Warhammer 40K real-time strategy title, and talk with one of the game’s lead designers. Sega and Relic had about 20 stations for players to try out the game, and it looked as if they stayed busy all weekend.

The demo mission makes it clear that Dawn of War III is a return to classic base-building RTS style, but it incorporates hero units with devastating abilities mapped to the Q, W, and E keys – a familiar format for anyone who’s played a MOBA.

“We wanted it to be a crash-course in RTS mechanics,” said Carolina Mastretta, a Relic game designer. “It’s been a while since we shipped a Dawn of War title,” she said. “The strategy genre on PC has obviously evolved a lot, and so for us it’s very important to understand where the market is at.”

Mastretta explained that Relic wants Dawn of War III to both incorporate tried-and-true RTS mechanics, like economy management and base-building, while still remaining accessible to players unfamiliar with the form and the Warhammer 40K universe.

“That’s a challenge that we’re very much willing to accept,” she said. “Even people who have never played the genre or know nothing about Warhammer 40K, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is an amazing strategy game that is going to give you amazing tools and give you great armies to play with.”

Speaking of universe, the Dawn of War III campaign will feature Eldar and Orks as playable factions in addition to the Space Marines.

The return of base and economy management, after those aspects being largely absent from Dawn of War II, made for an entertaining challenge in the demo mission, which pit my Blood Ravens against an Eldar force encroaching from three directions on the map. As Mastretta told me, the focus is now more on large armies rather than the small, tactical teams of Dawn of War II. I pushed out with a couple predator tanks, several squads of vanilla marines, and two heroes – Chapter Master Gabriel Angelos, who has appeared in the previous games; and Solaria, an Imperial Knight in a towering set of Titan-class armor.

Similarly to Relic’s Company of Heroes, resources are collected at nodes around the map, which can be captured and improved. Knocking down Eldar barricades, my forces quickly made it to their warpgate on the east side of the map. However, increasingly tough groups of Eldar scouts prodded my defenses regularly, and I had to be sure to keep a rearguard force ready there at all times.

The super units each have abilities, and I had fun using Solaria’s gatling cannons on wide arcs of Eldar – the rounds chewed through just about anything within range, giving me the chance to send Angelos and the Blood Ravens forward to do damage up close to anything left standing.

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I was taking a lot of casualties though, so it was important to keep fresh recruits flowing to the front lines. A neat feature in Dawn of War III is the ability to build units to drop pods, which you can send to any uncovered point on the map, for a cost.

In addition to hero abilities, you’ve also got command powers that power up over time, including a devastating orbital laser and a squad of terminator marines. Hero units, when killed, can be redeployed in the same way after a lengthy cool-down.

After destroying the second Eldar warp gate in the west, I headed north to finish off the heretical space elves. I checked my base to see about recruiting some reinforcements, and heard a unit bark: “Our soldiers have encountered a strong enemy force.”

Uh oh.

Zipping back to the front lines, I was just in time to watch as a gigantic Eldar titan stepped out from the fog of war. Fortunately, I still had a squad of terminator marines on the ground and sent them up to lay down fire. And a glance at the left side of the screen told me I had an ace in the hole – my orbital laser was fully charged. As Eldar swept forward around the titan, I unleashed the destructive beam, pulling my Blood Ravens back to avoid being caught in its massive blast.

Eldar troops, vehicles, and even the titan were lifted into the air briefly, only to be satisfyingly vaporized in the huge beam. My marines charged forward again to retake the temple and victory was secured.

Relic hasn’t announced a release date for the game yet, other than to say that Dawn of War III will ship sometime in 2017. Based on the demo, I’ll definitely be in line when it does.