The strategy genre has an interesting new entry coming into its fold.
Dawn of War II isn't like most RTS games, and that's on purpose. The developers look at it more like an RTT (Real Time Tactical) game instead. The single player is a unique blend of RTS/RTT/RPG (try saying that three times fast!).
You play as a group of Space Marines (tough guys in battle armour) who fly around a solar system with various planets to fight upon. The RPG elements come in the form of character levelling and war gear. Instead of traditional RTS's where you have to build a base in each mission and build new units, here your army continues on from mission to mission. This is so - hopefully - you will care about them a bit more. Dawn of War II (both single player and multiplayer) is not about sending a huge army into battle to die and then be rebuilt. No, the point here is to control a slightly smaller than usual group of forces and try keep them alive for as long as possible.
The single player has a day counter and each mission takes about a day. This is used as part of a story telling technique, as on certain days different random events might happen that will force you to make a decision about what to do. Do you go help this planet that just became under attack, or do you finish wiping out the enemy forces on the planet you are currently on? These decisions will allow for a bit of replayability in the single player game as obviously the story will play out differently based on the choices you make.
These choices go beyond where to fight though. You will also have to decide which squads you want to take with you from mission to mission and what war gear to equip them with. War gear can make a huge difference in combat, as not only can it boost your unit's strength but some war gear can also give special abilities you wouldn't normally have. Enemy units will randomly drop war gear when killed and some will be rarer than others, which is signified by a colour code (think Diablo). Your main characters will also gain experience from combat which levels up your characters and lets you choose new abilities for them to use.
This concept of levelling up continues into the multiplayer game, as all units will level up as they fight the good fight. It is because of this that the Company of Heroes (another great game by Relic, the developers of Dawn of War II) retreat button shows itself in the Dawn of War series at last. This is essential to survival, as it's a lot cheaper to retreat and reinforce a levelled up squad back at your base than it is to buy a whole new one.
So how does it play in combat you ask? Similar and yet different to what you may be used to. Dawn of War II is more like Company of Heroes than the first Dawn of War. This mostly comes through the use of cover. You usually cannot simply send units out to fight in the open, as in order to survive you must use cover effectively. However, it's still not exactly like Company of Heroes because this time the battlefield is far more dynamic, and melee combat is an important tactic for many units. Cover can and will be destroyed (either with vehicles, grenades or other weapons). Also, there are a lot of units with the ability to bypass cover either by teleportation or the use of jump-jets. It all makes for an exciting game constantly moving your units around to different cover and trying to out-flank your enemy. Dawn of War II is a fast game. Really fast!
Your average game will last fifteen to twenty minutes. I've found this out first hand in the multiplayer beta, which you yourself can currently play through Steam (it's open for everyone). There are a few reasons the games move quickly; firstly you have no base. Instead you have one building (which is very tough and guarded by two turrets) for unit construction and a bit of research. The reason exists because the developers found in other RTS's people spent too much time fussing with their bases and not worrying about making tactical decisions out on the battlefield. Because of this they've moved everything out onto the warzone.
Upgrades have to be purchased on each individual squad out on the field and resources are gained by capture points around the map. This forces you to move out and engage the enemy in order to fight for resource points, exactly the same as Company of Heroes and the first Dawn of War. There are basically three different types of resources in the game; requisition, power, and what I call combat resource, which has a different name for each race but is essentially gained by killing the enemies units and can activate global powers you get.
While in the single player you may only play as Space Marines. In multiplayer you choose between Space Marines, Eldar, Orks and Tyranids. While all four armies seem similar at first, they are actually very different and each requires a different strategy. Once you've chosen your army, you then choose which commander unit you want to use. Each race has three commanders to choose from, all bringing different strategies and abilities to the game. Also your choice of commander dictates which global abilities you will get.
Commanders can also be upgraded with different war gear to boost their stats and grant him/her with special abilities. There are two win conditions to choose from in the beta; Annihilation, which means destroy the enemies "base", and Victory Point Control. This involves capturing and controlling special beacons around the map which will cause the other team to lose their victory points. Each team starts with 500 victory points, so the matches become a tug of war fighting for control over these points and trying to get your opponent to zero points first.
So far, I think Dawn of War II's multiplayer is a lot of fun, however I do know it will turn off a lot of RTS purists. A lot of them may think it has been too simplified. However, there is a lot more depth to it than what appears on the surface. This is a game that is heavy on micromanagement, so you really must understand the function of each unit and how/when to use them or their abilities. My one major concern is that each game will start to play out exactly the same. Because everything works on control points, you know exactly where you and your opponent are going at the start of every game. Also, early game battles seem to have far too much sway over how the rest of the game will turn out. It's far more difficult to make a comeback here than it is in some other RTS games.
But those are tiny concerns that hopefully will be fixed by having a lot of good maps. The five maps in the beta are well designed and the whole game looks absolutely gorgeous (and runs smoothly, even on older machines). The characters all have great detail and are varied enough to be told apart (except for a few Orks who all look a bit too similar). The animations are all fantastic. Watching these units get up close and kill each other with fun and gruesome animations is really something special.
Apart from just playing Dawn of War II, it is possibly one of the most exciting RTS games to simply watch, especially the destructible environments. The battles are quick, exciting, and not as predictable as they may first appear. Some quick thinking and clever moves can really turn a battle around.
The gameplay is fun and simple enough for people new to the RTS genre to get in to it and not feel too overwhelmed, however veteran players will also find quite a bit of depth to explore. Relic just needs to find a way of lengthening some of the games, as sometimes they end so quickly you never get to see or use the higher level units. I'm really looking forward to playing the final game and seeing how the single player turns out.
Relic has succeeded in doing what they wanted to do, which was revolutionise the RTS genre. They definitely aren't making them like they used to, but in this case, that is not a bad thing.