August 6, 2004 - Since 1998, Blizzard's StarCraft and its subsequent expansion Brood War has stood as one of the most beloved futuristic sci-fi real time strategy games in history. No sooner had we had our first taste of Terran vs Zerg vs Protoss action, than longtime fans of the Warhammer 40,000 series of tabletop games began to argue that the rich back story and universe of Blizzard's hit RTS lacked originality. Warhammer 40K was there first with a robust universe full of clans of sturdy human soldiers and mysterious aliens and all of their respective equipment battling for supremacy. The similarities between the StarCraft and Warhammer universes are uncanny even if one began as a tabletop war game in 1987.
Now in 2004, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War looks to seize the spotlight as the futuristic themed science fiction RTS of choice for PC fans. StarCraft is credited with doing a lot to propel the genre to its current level of success but in the years since its release, no sci-fi themed RTS has come close to approaching its popularity. The rich back story and universe of Warhammer 40,000 and the familiar feel of Dawn of War's stalwart Space Marines, psychic Eldar, dark Chaos army and humorous Ork races could make the Relic title the heir apparent. Or could it be a case of the originator reclaiming its throne as the preferred sci-fi universe for real-time strategy games? Whatever the case, Dawn of War looks as if it's prepared to take the RTS concepts popularized by StarCraft and advance them to the next level, bringing the whole genre into a new, more sophisticated era.
Getting down to the comparison, let's start with the fact that both games feature space marines as one of the most endearing and familiar races in their respective games. The feel of a marine with an automatic assault rifle slugging it out toe-to-toe with overwhelming numbers of enemies works in the movies and works just as well in computer games. In StarCraft, they're tough, fearless and inspired to kick-ass and in both games they'll remind you with harsh language and plenty of pop culture references. Marines in StarCraft can be upgraded with extra armor, weapon effectiveness and a quick "energy" boost but for the most part you'll only get the proof in the pudding when you deploy them in battle and see them operating more effectively. In Dawn of War, your squads of marines are easily managed as a group and you can upgrade them individually and at any time --even during a battle-- with rocket launchers, bolt guns and pumped up rifles in addition to grenades. You'll be able to actually see the new weapons they're carrying and zoom all the way in from a conventional top down view to an extreme close up where one marine takes up your entire screen to see them using that new weapon.
One way that Dawn of War is attempting to tempt gamers from StarCraft to the battlefields of the 41st Millenium is by addressing many common complaints players have of RTS games. Many players complain that RTS games are too fast, greatly favor rush tactics over strategy, and are more about killing harvesters and builders than fighting your enemy's military. Certainly no one can deny that rush tactics and harvester ambushes are some of the most effective ways to win at StarCraft. Dawn of War is attempting to change all this with a new point-based resource system that does not rely on harvesters, but instead uses your infantry to capture areas of strategic importance. Once captured these areas provide resources in the same way that mining did in StarCraft. Not only is this system less prone to easy ambushes and quick rushes due to the lack of harvesters and the fact that strategic resource areas are spread out across the map but it also better emulates the realities of war, where a small dispatch of troops do not mine minerals, but are more concerned with short-term military objectives. This system certainly is something new to RTS games, and could spell doom for the days of your giant unstoppable RTS army being completely crushed because a few mineral miners died. These kinds of solid evolution of the genre are the kinds of things that just might give DoW a leg up in this debate.
This close up view and camera work in Dawn of War shouldn't be taken lightly. Painting one's figurines was a crucial part of playing the tabletop version of Warhammer 40K, and in the upcoming PC game, you'll be able to customize the decals, paint jobs and colors of your army's units, right down to the color of their eyes. This level of detail wouldn't matter if you didn't have a camera system that allowed you to show it all off in stunning clarity during a fight. StarCraft lives on because of its tight strategic elements, but it feels damn cool to get up close and personal during a strategic battle in Dawn of War and see the muzzle flashes from weapons and bloodthirsty looks in the eyes of the soldiers.
In both StarCraft and Dawn of War the marines are enhanced "super soldiers"created specifically to kick ass all across the galaxy. The stories of individual commanders, soldiers and platoons of space marines are what help both games connect to gamers on a more personal level. A hero unit in StarCraft may look just like a standard unit with a unique color scheme and maybe even enhanced attributes but you're going to care because of the story that's been spun around them. In Dawn of War, you'll get the highly personal reminder of an army's uniqueness with their decals, special paint jobs and weaponry along with an equally compelling story of why every fight is important. You won't want to be throwing your units around the field willy nilly in Dawn of War because of the care you'll have taken to develop cohesive fighting units, upgraded just to your liking.
Managing the morale system of the Space Marines in Dawn of War is an especially appealing feature. We've seen it in many RTSs, including StarCraft, where units can receive temporary upgrades to make them more effective, but no RTS has a morale system like the one in DoW. In previous RTS's your only option for overcoming your enemy was wiping them out, which doesn't begin to cover all the psychological tactics that can come into play. In DoW units that are faced with certain challenges, like snipers, flamethrowers, artillery, or even shear volume of enemy fire will suffer from a drop in morale. If their morale drops too low they lose all will to fight, and must be pulled from the front lines until they can recover. This kind of tactical combat, while present in many turn-based strategy games, has never been explored in an RTS before now. Since this feature did not exist in StarCraft it's hard to compare the two. If it works as it seems to than it certainly gives players seeking more tactical gameplay in their RTS's a reason to check out DoW.
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ESRB Content Descriptors: Blood, Violence
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War: Winter Assault
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