It’s Always Darkest Before The Dawn of War II – Breaking Old Habits

itsalwaysdarkest1At some point in my life I started playing real-time strategy games. Red Alert, Total Annihilation, and KKND were all games that I played plenty of while growing up, and all influenced my style of play for this genre. Simply put, I have always adopted the stance of the humble turtle: dig-in deep, defend hard, starve out your enemy and then attack. It is a stance that has served me well for most of my early years seated in front of a mouse and keyboard.

Some many, many years later, as a fully developed ‘turtle’ player of sorts, a game called Company of Heroes was released to worldwide acclaim. It was a breath of fresh air in a genre that had gone stale, following the loss of developers Westwood. At least that’s the way I saw it – I missed the bus for things like StarCraft, Ground Control and Total War. These were all awesome games in their own right, not to mention the other dozen games I’ve not even mentioned. They weren’t my thing though – I wanted resource-based, long-haul games, that were familiar to me. Tanks, world war, all that lark. Besides, I’d got distracted by the emergence of the first-person shooter market.


Of course, Company of Heroes, threw a spanner in the works. Sure, it was real-time but the idea of collecting three different resources (from different areas of the map, no less), channelling these into different technology trees, considering supply lines, and having to grind out victories through a war of attrition, rather than relying on some over-powered super-weapon was just so foreign… and so bloody brilliant.

itsalwaysdarkest3I played the hell out of the demo and then ordered the game as soon as I saved up enough pennies to do so. I didn’t really look at what I was ordering – it said Company of Heroes, and it was only the PC, so it wasn’t something I could have screwed up. Days later and through the post came my copy of the game boxed with… Relic Entertainment’s 2004 hit Dawn of War. What is Dawn of War?

And that’s the last thing I remember for around three years as far as real-time strategy games are concerned. No, seriously, that was it – I’d reached some sort of nirvana. I had spent some of my younger years painting Warhammer 40K models but, ultimately, never got into the game. I became obessed with the lore though, the different races, ideologies and themes. I never once ventured to a tabletop game but I would sit and read hours of material about the history and various incidents that took place inside this universe. The fact that someone had made a fucking videogame about it made me the cat that got the cream or, perhaps more accurately, the Ork that got the shiny shoota.

Dawn of War, however, totally eschewed how I had to play real-time strategy games. I would later learn that the model present in Dawn of War would heavily influence Company of Heroes (which did get played and gets replayed every year for its incredible campaign) in terms of strategic capture points, but Company of Heroes did take it a step further with linking these areas and requiring teams to hang onto them to establish lines of trade. While this was good fun it (and CoH’s general theme and style of game) pulled you away from the ability to turtle and wait out your enemy. Dawn of War didn’t as much and it blended two styles of play I didn’t even know I could love.

Although you need to capture points in order to grow, you still have to protect a sprawling base, you still have to raise an army numbering into the hundreds and you can still build smaller bases along the way. Dawn of War blends classic tropes of Red Alert and Total Annihilation with a more arcade, faster-paced feel. Strategic Points decayed after fifteen minutes meaning you couldn’t just sit back and fully turtle, there had to be some expansion – I was in heaven. The years rolled on and, because I was late to the part, the expansion Dark Crusade landed in my lap less than a year after I got my hands on Dawn of War: Winter Assault. Everything about every expansion just added more of what I loved. The campaign in Dark Crusade was several shades of insane. AI armies would team up, throwing double if not triple the amount of bodies at you – it was like overdosing on ecstasy at a Tiesto gig – it was all just a mix of flashing lights, lasers and thumping music. It was perfect (except it wasn’t Tiesto playing, thank Christ).


After three or so years though, I finally lifted my head above the parapet and found that Dawn of War II had been released. I was overjoyed, mainly because I wasn’t really getting on with the last expansion, Soulstorm (the formula was a little tired by then and although the Sisters of Battle were awesome, the Dark Eldar felt very weak by comparison). I was also excited for the graphical upgrade, more units, different stakes, a breath of fresh air!

Except it wasn’t any of that – it was a totally different beast and I hated it.

itsalwaysdarkest5Let’s get this right out of the way first – given the relative success of Dawn of War and the fact that, really, people would have been happy with a fresh coat of paint and something new to play with, everyone was pretty surprised by the direction in which the series was taken. Yes, Space Marines are supposed to be ten foot tall dump trucks that can take a pounding before they go down, much the opposite of the Dawn of War cannon-fodder bunch. However, despite being truer, perhaps, to the best known race of the Warhammer 40K universe, it took so much away from what Dawn of War was as a game. No base building for Christ sake – how could they even call this a real-time strategy? Well they weren’t, to a degree – real-time strategy and tactical role-playing pretty much fit the bill nicely.

This was as much Red Alert as it was Diablo and I massively disliked it. I couldn’t even play as the Ultramarines, my lovely blue army of death. I had to be the sodding Blood Ravens. I remember being fairly hacked off – I really like the colour blue. I didn’t enjoy the loot system, I didn’t enjoy the characters and I was just so bad at it. Years of traditional RTS games hadn’t prepared me for this and I just couldn’t hack it. So many missions lost, so many deaths. By the time the Tyranids showed up, something I’d been looking forward to for years, I was done for. Planets fell, missions failed, the game disappeared into my library.


In 2015, some five years since I had purchased it, I looked upon Dawn of War II with an envious eye. Although it hadn’t been my cup of tea, others had warmed to it and it had spawned two apparently excellent expansions. I had gone back to Dark Crusade but it just wasn’t the same now. It’s still a fantastic game but I had walked its paths so many times and it risked becoming stale. In the years since purchase, I had also changed – I’d started writing for this website, which meant I was reviewing all sorts of games (and believe me, I’ve reviewed some proper random stuff over the last few years). This opened me up to new experiences, new genres and I wasn’t so set in my ways. I’d adapted, changed, honed my skills as a gamer – I was older and wiser and it was time to clear some of that mother-fucking backlog.

itsalwaysdarkest7I went for it hammer and tongs – fuck what the guides and everyone says – Space Marines don’t do sneaking around and I don’t care if Cyrus is an overpowered invisible sniper who can basically obliterate an entire level in under five minutes. We’re Space Marines, god dammit, we’re about the Machine Spirit and big fucking guns. I want heavy bolters and Dreadnoughts, chainswords and Terminator armour. Greenskins get squished and those fucking Tyranid pricks can eat Melta Cannon. Where once my brothers had fallen, I stood tall. Where the blood of the innocent was spilt, I didn’t weep - I just killed a Warp Spider with my bare hands and used the cunt’s face as a mop.

As a gamer I had failed in the past – years of real-time strategy in the 40K universe had made me weak and sloppy. It’s love had made me soft. I knew all the tricks, understood the trade and, in a matter of weeks, Dawn of War II had cast it all aside and told me it wasn’t worth the power armour on my back. Slowly, I learned – I took it slow, steady, methodically. I didn’t have an army – I had a crack team of specialists. I didn’t have a fallback position. Want to know where my base is? It’s where that prick shooting at me is standing. I was a surgical blade at the heart of the enemy. I gained the best loot, turned my comrades into an effective killing machine, but I did it the Space Marine way – with guts and glory.

I finished Dawn of War with no losses on any mission and never did the Tyranids gain a foothold, and I did the same in Chaos Rising. Did my group of Space Marines fall victim to the powers of Chaos? Did they fuck. We’re Space Marines. We don’t fall victim to anything.

Last five articles by Chris


One Comment

  1. Zero says:

    Agree with all that. I think I did an “I Heart” on Dawn of War or Relic. Some of the best strategy games ever produced. What got me were the tactics and the blood! In 2004 it was in heard of to be so gory in an RTS, still kinda is, but this was Warhammer, this was power swords and giant mechs with crushing claws and squirting blood.

    Amazing series of games. The expansions were a little iffy but yeah, brilliant.

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