Designing Dawn of War III (DoW3) was always going to be a divisive challenge as the previous Dawn of War games were very different to each other. Rather than incorporating the best elements from both or providing a true sequel to one of them, DoW3 went off in its own direction to draw inspiration and incorporate mechanics from MOBAs. Relic has caught a lot of flak for this decision as MOBA is a “dirty word” for a lot of RTS fans, but I have written before about how I think RTS could learn from their success. The question is, how successfully do the MOBA elements blend into the RTS core?
It’s clear that DoW1 was used as the foundation for DoW3. Despite my preference for DoW2, I’m glad they went for the DoW1 style as the latter is very similar to Company of Heroes 2, which is still doing pretty well. It could even be said DoW2 was more a Company of Heroes spin-off than a DoW sequel, so there’s been a rabid fanbase waiting over ten years for a faithful sequel. In certain ways, DoW3 feels a lot like DoW1, and there have been some fixes to the flaws which held back the original game. Squads can no longer reinforce anywhere on the map, as reinforcing is limited to near buildings or specific vehicles. I’m happy about this because continuously reinforcing on the field during an engagement is anti-climactic and made engagements in DoW1 feel a bit janky. Melee and ranged units also interact better than they previously did, as melee squads apply a slow when collapsing upon an enemy squad so ranged units can’t easily disengage and keep kiting without suffering losses. These two seemingly small changes make the core gameplay with line units fun in a way familiar to DoW1. Unfortunately, a lot of the gameplay is a downgrade compared to DoW2.
In DoW2, melee and ranged units had a much better interaction due to the fluidity the retreat button provided, while melee in DoW3 has a huge power curve and is high risk/reward. The retreat button is just one example of a wonderful feature which was cut in DoW3. Also missing is directional cover, hard counters, facing of heavy weapon teams, suppression, morale, energy management, veterancy, squad leaders, sync kills, Victory Points and customisation of units and heroes. It was to be expected that some of these features would be removed given the DoW1 style of the game but to have all of these features axed makes the gameplay feel shallow and a lot less interesting than it should have been. The only influence I can feel from DoW2 is the prevalence of crowd control effects such as the knockback from an Assault Marine jump, or Devastators slowing their targets. The elite units in DoW3 do not at all resemble the hero units from DoW2.
RTS games such as Dawn of War II and WarCraft III did a great job at implementing hero units… Dawn of War III did not. There is no in-game customisation via different weapons and wargear, there’s no unlocking or levelling up new abilities, and there’s no management of mana or energy. The lack of scaling creates huge power curves where early Elites initially murder everything on the field but then scale out into obscurity when army sizes become huge and units are upgraded. Meanwhile, the late game Elites only arrive in the end game but then become one man army killing machines. Heroes and super units are not new concepts, they are usually balanced through suitable pricing or specific counters. DoW3 has neither. The icing on the cake for the disaster that is Elite units is how they are free; instead of costing Requisition and Power to create opportunity cost of choosing Elites at the expense of units, upgrades or teching, Elites have their own separate resource called Elite Points.
Elite units are horribly balanced and dictate far too much of the game, there’s almost no focus on how Elites synergise and interact with your line units through the unique utility based abilities found in DoW2. Instead, Elite units slaughter huge chunks of units with powerful auto attacks or “click here to wipe stuff” abilities. The Elite abilities were obviously inspired by MOBAs, but the conversion doesn’t work. In a MOBA, players control a single character that is constantly moving back and forwards, so dodging abilities is viable and fun. In DoW3, armies consist of many squads which remain stationary to fire or charge forward in predictable paths to melee, so dodging abilities is rarely an option. Offensive hero abilities worked well in WarCraft III because the overall lethality was low, but in DoW3, combat is so fast paced that Elite units are overly punishing and obnoxious to play against. As fun as it may be to wipe three of your opponent’s squads in the blink of an eye, fun at the expense of your opponent is bad design. Elite units are one of the fundamental components of DoW3, yet their implementation is dreadful.
Aside from Elites, DoW3 has some extremely questionable design decisions. Rather than the traditional Annihilation game mode, or the tried-and-true Victory Points, DoW3’s only game mode is Power Core. Power Core attempts to emulate the lane pushing found in MOBAs; players must push down two sets of Shield Generators, Turrets and then finally the
Nexus Ancient Power Core. Like many of the radical features in DoW3, the intention behind the Power Core game mode sounds well and good, but it has no basis in reality for people who actually play RTS games. Power Core was intended to create dramatic points of contention, but DoW3, like all other RTS games, revolves around attacking and defending the player’s source of income. Resource generators are expensive to establish and provide large amounts of income, so harassment of economy is extremely punishing. Meanwhile, Shield Generators and Turrets are so durable and defensible that attacking into them when defended is suicidal. They are generally taken as an afterthought following a decisive battle when a player loses their army and is now unable to defend. The Power Core objectives do not create contention in the way that resources do. Instead, they take up places on the map where more resources points could have been to actually create more points of contention.
My average Power Core game went for about 10 minutes until one player loses their army, falls behind in economy and then decides to concede. Even lengthier matches that go into the late game are usually decided by economy and engagements out on the map well before the players have to think about attacking or defending turrets. Most of the time, Turrets and the Power Core only see use because your defeated opponent refuses to concede and instead forces you to sit back and slowly build until you have a big army to push through a well-defended, narrow choke point on the high ground. If your opponent is teched up to tier 3, they may obliterate your army with an Orbital Bombardment or with a late game Elite, forcing you to sit back and build up again. Trying to close out a game of Power Core is extremely tedious because of the enormous defender’s advantage, and yet it doesn’t create the potential for comebacks like it was intended to. If a player is contained in their base, their economy will be much weaker, so they are never going to be in a position to push out and take the win against an opponent who has a larger income and can rapidly replace his army.
The innovation that DoW3 tries to achieve falls flat on its face. On top of the obnoxious Power Core mode is the Phase Escalation system. Every 10 minutes up to Escalation Phase 4, resource income will increase by 50%, regardless of what tech level each player is on. On top of Escalation being completely contrived and arbitrary, it has the consequence of making pacing wildly inconsistent throughout the game. As players tech up, they unlock additional upgrades for their resource generators, this combined with the escalation resource bonus means income in the late game drastically increases compared to the early game. It’s normal for resource income to increase over time in RTS games, but Escalation is different because it’s not something players have any influence over. Building Probes or upgrading Listening Posts are deliberate investments with opportunity cost which players gradually make over time, and that economic infrastructure creates vulnerabilities which can be harassed and reset back to the early game. The Escalation system feels like the game gives you free money on a 10-minute timer. The early game is the strongest component of DoW3 as there’s a lot of options for unit compositions and income is low, so finding good engagements and preservation of forces is crucial. As the game progresses and you reach the late game, the Escalation system inflates resources so much that micromanagement and tactics are thrown out the window, resulting in a hyper fast-paced mess of spam as many units as you can and attack move them into the meat grinder.
The visuals have been controversial since gameplay footage was first revealed. The art style is a huge contradiction to the grimdark style of previous entries in the series; instead, DoW3 is vibrant, colourful and cartoony. More than anything else, the new art style resembles League of Legends, which for a lot of fans is an extremely negative association. The bright, colourful effects work in MOBAs because you only ever have 10 characters on the screen, but in DoW3 you have entire armies firing bright flashy weapons. In the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop and previous DoW games, Plasma Guns are a rare weapon which only a fraction of the squad can be equipped with. In DoW3, every model in a squad gets equipped with a Plasma gun when upgraded; likewise with Devastator Las Cannons and Assault Marines with Power Swords. The explanation for the different art style was to improve visual clarity, but this was never an issue in previous games. Instead, DoW3’s presentation achieves the opposite; the bright art style on a large scale combined with the over saturation of flashy weaponry and effects is distracting and overstimulating.
When a Tactical Marine Squad receives a weapon upgrade or an Ork Squad is upgraded with scrap, they receive an entirely new portrait, which is confusing to new players. Relic’s concern for visual clarity was either dishonest or incredibly incompetent; it feels more like an excuse for wanting to jump on the MOBA bandwagon. There are so many other parts of the game which reek of blatantly ripping off League of Legends, without having any consideration for how it meshes into the game or how it’ll be received by fans of previous DoW games. The intention to radically innovate with DoW3 was completely unnecessary when it’s a sequel to two fantastic games; each overwhelming with personality, a wide range of great mechanics and incredibly passionate fanbases.
So much of DoW3’s presentation is miles behind that of previous Relic games, which were known and praised for their stunning appearance. DoW3’s UI is a mess, the limited map pool sucks, the voice acting is mostly dull, the music is forgettable, and the sound effects are weak and unimpressive. Even the enormous Gatling Cannons on the Imperial Knight Solaria sound pitiful compared to a mere Assault Cannon from DoW2. The Bolters sound great because they reused the same SFX from DoW2, so I’m baffled why they didn’t reuse more of the fantastic sound library from previous games. There’s not much to elaborate about the crappy audio, but I need to emphasise how much of a disappointment it all is. The distinctive styles of the iconic Warhammer 40,000 weaponry brought to life in previous DoW games have been neglected. The Lascannons no longer charge up to fire a devastating blast; instead, they fire a continuous beam which charges up over time like the Void Ray in StarCraft 2, while the Lasguns now fire projectiles like the Blasters in Star Wars. So much of DoW3 is a blatant disregard for long-time fans who are so passionate about Warhammer 40,000 and previous DoW games.
The animations, in particular, are exceptionally bland. Units move and fight so robotically and stiff, every model in a squad loop the same walking animation in complete sync, with no individual variations. The infantry in Dawn of War and Company of Heroes felt so much more real because each model had their own timings of different actions and animations. The units in DoW3 don’t feel like Space Marines or Eldar, they feel like Pixels on a screen. Despite this, there is beauty to be found with the massive walkers and flying units; the Fire Prism collapsing mid-air and crashing into the ground is mesmerising, while the enormous Wraith Knight dashing on top of a line of Space Marines is terrifying. It’s bizarre how there can be such a disparity in quality; it feels like they sunk their art budget onto these flashy units for their marketing strategy, then dropped the ball with the infantry units which make up the majority of the game.
Aside from the visuals, much of the gameplay gives off a vibe of cartoony goofiness. I could have looked past the obnoxious “spin to win” ability of the Ork Warboss
Garen Gorgutz because Orks are meant to be wacky, but I can’t forgive Gabrielle Angelos who front flips in Terminator Armour and slam dunks his Thunder Hammer after throwing it into the air with one hand. Even the units are guilty offenders, such as the Howling Banshees with a ridiculous roll attack through enemies or the Assault Marine jump which blatantly defies physics. Likewise, there are stealth brushes which magically turn any units invisible, including the enormous Imperial Knights. These abilities and animations are not only jarring and immersion breaking, but they also completely defy the Warhammer 40,000 lore. If you manage to get through a match without being reminded about how much the presentation reeks of League of Legends, then you are reminded when you destroy the enemies Power Core, and it plays the same animation that plays when you destroy your enemies Nexus in League. It’s fine to draw inspiration from MOBAs, but it’s infuriated a lot of long-time fans to directly rip off mechanics that oppose the lore, tone and gameplay of its source material. DoW3 lacks the distinctive personality which made the first two games feel not only unique but both a part of the same franchise and universe, despite being so different in gameplay.
Overall, DoW3 has a weird identity crisis. It doesn’t appeal to any fanbase in particular, and its gameplay doesn’t hold itself up. It’s not a bad RTS game, and I’ve had some fun with it, but there’s nothing about it which grabs me enough to keep playing it over previous Dawn of War games or Company of Heroes 2. Relic has been the pioneers of RTS and my favourite studio for the past 15 years, so it’s sad to see DoW3 is so mediocre when the expectations of Relic RTS games are so high. If you want a big new RTS, that’s not a reason to play DoW3 either; if I look at the Steam charts a week and a half after launch, its player base has already dropped down to levels similar to Company of Heroes 2, Relic’s previous game which came out 4 years ago. DoW3 feels like it suffered from a small budget compared to previous games, and given that this is Relic’s first game fully published under Sega, this could be the beginning of a sad new era.
Dawn of War III isn’t a bad RTS game, and if you enjoyed DoW1 but didn’t like DoW2 maybe you’ll find some fun with it. Unfortunately, DoW3’s attempt to innovate ended up shooting itself in the foot. The lethality of Elites is frustrating while their lack of in-game customisation is boring. The Power Core game mode is an unnecessary drag which slows the game down and makes it more passive than it otherwise could be. With the lacklustre presentation and dwindling player base, DoW3 doesn’t have much to offer over Relic’s previous RTS games.
Disclosure: Callum is currently employed as a game designer on an RTS called Ashes of the Singularity which could be viewed as a competitor to Dawn of War III. Callum has also worked for Relic Entertainment in the past as a shoutcaster for Company of Heroes 2 and as part of its community balance team.