This game has some mighty big shoes to fill. Developer Relic revolutionised the RTS genre with their innovations in the first Dawn of War and in Company of Heroes. After playing a pre-release version at E3, we can tell you Dawn of War II looks to be every bit as bloody good as its predecessor.

Dawn of War II takes everything great from the original - brutal melee combat, great unit animations, over the top abilities, destructible environments, fast-paced action, a grim and gritty feel, over the top abilities - and expands on them. Powered by an updated Essence Engine which also drove Company of Heroes, Dawn of War II now has a cover mechanic. In a fight, your troopers don’t just stand out in the open, blasting it out with the enemy. They can take cover behind buildings and vegetation. They can even take cover inside the craters that Assault Marines make when you send them jumping into the middle of a pack of Orks. You can also send your men into a building to garrison it, giving your men heavy cover at the expense of mobility.

But Relic wasn’t just going to add more finishing moves and upgrade the explosions (that’s there too); they wanted to push the genre forward.

Relic wanted an evolution to the single player RTS experience. Dawn of War II promises long term goals that “suck you in” -- gone is the familiar RTS practice of “build base, stack troops, pile on enemy, recycle, repeat”. Like a familiar movie filled with 300 greased up half-naked men, you are given the task of defending a large sector from an overwhelming enemy with just a small cadre of good troops. The campaign is built around player choices. Which planets do you want to try to save? You lead a small strike force on a mission to save an entire system against a massive invasion... and you get to choose how you do it.

Some of the choices you have to make revolve around your precious units. Chocolates and therapy will not help you feel closer to your Space Marines. However, Relic has found that players feel more attached to their units if there are less of them and if they control them more closely. You are prompted to keep them alive as well since your units get better with every single shot they fire. Gameplay revolves around controlling a small number of squads that are headed by Sergeants. These Sergeants are your primary hero units. They are genetically enhanced supermen that are so bad-ass they don’t die easily. If one falls in battle, you can bring him back to life by getting to his position (not so easy in a pitched battle) with another Sergeant or your Force Commander and healing them.

Extending the theme of player choice is the ability to choose your team’s load-out at the beginning of a level. You could equip your Sergeant with a Plasma Cannon for a primary weapon and a frag grenade as an accessory or any one of a great number of combinations once you start counting War Gear, which introduces an RPG-like ability to customize your characters to your style of play. Since the focus is on short, energising campaigns rather than long draining ones (how many more barracks do you need?) you also aren’t trapped if you decide that heavy bolters aren’t really quite your style.

Player choice also extends deeper than just weaponry. Experience points are gained by opening cases of whoopass on your enemy. And where there’s XP, there’s also Leveling Up. The player can choose to upgrade XP slots in attributes like health, range, or mana. Upgrading enough XP slots in a given attribute gives the player a special ability within that attribute. For instance, my Devastator Marines Sergeant leveled up and I’ve been emphasizing Range. This opened up a “Focused Fire” ability which effectively adds to the unit’s range and power. Different Sergeants have different upgrade tracks which can genuinely affect how you play. Different squads led by different Sergeants also have different abilities - most returning from the previous game with improvements. Scout Marines have been upgraded to a special-ops style play. Assault Marines can now perform their trademarked jump maneuver right on top of the enemy (sending them flying from the shockwave of two tons of beefcake landing on them).

Player rewards exist in the form of War Gear - which is just Space Marine talk for “loot”. You can find loot from killing enemies (secret hint: bosses tend to drop the best ones) or from choosing to perform optional sub-quests within your mission. Relic didn’t want the player messing around with a big complicated inventory screen in the middle of gameplay, so newly acquired gear can’t be used until the player returns to the base.

With troop stacking and base building gone, most of your time is spent maneuvering your space marines around beautiful levels. The destructible levels also offer the enterprising player shortcuts. A well lobbed grenade (if you equipped them in the beginning) can open up a shortcut. Taking strategic points (an innovation from the first game) doesn’t always mean standing around a flagpole as well. The capture point in the demo was a heavily guarded enemy temple. Is it worth taking? That’s for you to decide... but it might make traversing the level easier -- or let you score some nice War Gear.

Levels are detailed and beautiful, filled with vegetation and sweet, sweet cover. Which becomes necessary since cover is what will keep you alive when you stumble into combat. Standing in the open during a fight is a sure-fire way to lose. You must maneuver your units, use special abilities, and think strategically to win. The combat looks so good, you’re almost tempted to quit clicking, zoom in, and admire the unit details. Really, the screenshots don’t do it justice. Dawn of War II’s units have even more elaborate animations than the lauded work in the previous version. Chainsword kills are blood-filled affairs. Units move, fight, and die beautifully. Battles are a glorious mess of blood, particle effects and explosions.

Open a big enough can of whoop ass on an enemy squad and soldiers may break and run away at full speed. But a panicked enemy may be running to call for help, so it’s best to just kill them all.

To help you do the job, you get cool abilities. The Orbital Strike is back from the previous game, only about three times more brutal and about five times more deadly. Need reinforcements? You can summon them by calling for a Drop Pod (it’s got a slow reload time though, so use it wisely) which sends a rocket full of Space Marines crashing down on your intended position. Only the rocket is bigger than ever and the units it carries are more precious since reinforcing isn’t as simple as clicking on an icon on a barracks. Played correctly, it is a nice feeling when you watch your Force Commander bop the Ork Chieftan’s head in with an oversized warhammer while your Space Marines give their lives holding back a tide of Orks. Grim and gritty.

The build we saw was running well on an 8800GTX, though John and Mark want the game to run on much older systems. If you enjoyed either Dawn of War or Company of Heroes, Dawn of War II looks certain to keep up Relic's trend of innovative RTSes.

It looks like it’s got what it takes to satisfy even the fiercest of bloodlusts.

Download the trailer from GP Downloads