I suspect that there is no genre more rigidly formulaic than Real Time Strategy (RTS) games. Now, this can be said of almost any genre, but the interesting thing about RTS games is how similar the specific actions that the game is made up of are. Start a level with no troops. Build a base. Gather resources. Build a bigger base. Build an army. Crush your enemy with an overwhelming attack. Repeat for the next fifteen years. As I played Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, I began to have flashbacks to my first time playing Dune 2. Of course, the graphics are exponentially better, and there is one more race, but the experience of playing the game was almost exactly the same. I'm sure anyone who's ever played a Warcraft or Command and Conquer game will know exactly what I'm talking about. So, if all RTS games are essentially the same, the only question becomes, how's the setting?
In this case, it's actually quite good. It's based on the extremely popular Warhammer 40K roleplaying and wargaming universe. For those unfamiliar with the game, it revolves around the fairly inspired question, "What would a fantasy world full of Orks and Elves and Dragons get up to in the distant future?" Well, apparently forty millennia of progress has changed their weapons from longswords and crossbows to assault cannons and orbital defense lasers. Other than that, basically it's the status quo.
The game's plot concerns the attempts of the Imperium (basically the Spanish Inquisition in space) to hold back the onslaught of the Orks (green monsters that talk like caricatures of '80s British Punks), while the forces of Chaos scheme behind the scenes. Also, the Eldar are on hand. The Eldar are basically Space Elves, and their motives and methods are just as nebulous and unclear as one would expect from Space Elves.
Actually, Dawn of War represents one of the best uses of a license I've ever encountered. The history of Warhammer 40K is so rich, detailed, and videogame-ready that I'm sure the developers loved the wealth of resources available; it'salmost as if the majority of the game's preproduction work had just been handed to them. Each of the game's four races has a full complement of beautifully animated troops and vehicles, and miraculously, they all look and sound exactly like they should. Even better, they have enough differing strengths and weaknesses that playing multiplayer skirmishes as or against the various races requires entirely different strategies.
Following the rules of RTS design as slavishly as the game does, the multiplayer is just as fantastic here as it is in every other Real Time Strategy game. Sadly, the single player game isn't as well-represented. Only the humans have a campaign, and it's only 11 missions long. Worse still, none of the missions are particularly cleverly designed. There aren't any limited resource or troop missions, or hold-the-line missions, or search-and-rescue missions, or any of the other objective-based variations that developers generally throw in to break up the drudgery of resource gathering. Once the lengthy story sections end, all of the game's missions quickly boil down to building the largest army possible as fast as possible so the enemy can be obliterated with a minimum of fuss.
Luckily, the game's controls are tight and manageable enough that building and commanding that army never gets too daunting, even during the epic battles that tend to break out towards the end of every mission. The game features all of the bells and whistles that RTS gamers have come to expect in this day and age, including hero units and semi-automated construction that takes much of the repetitious drudgery out of the base-building process. This attention to quality and detail isn't surprising though, given the game's pedigree. In addition to their own experience with the genre boundary-pushing Homeworld and Impossible Creatures, the developer, Relic Entertainment, has clearly taken cues from the most successful games in the genre. In fact, the lack of a robust single-player experience coupled with the similar subject matter conspire to make Dawn of War feel, at times, like little more than the best Warcraft III add-on ever devised.
Everything that Dawn of War does it does exceptionally well. The only real problem is that everything it does has already been done a hundred times before. Each time I watched a team of Terminators tear apart a Chaos base I got the exact same feeling of accomplishment I'd experienced watching a team of Siege tanks decimate a Zerg hatchery, or a group of missile launchers destroy a Harkonnen stronghold. The fact that I keep playing the exact same game—the exact same level—over and over again is a testament to the power of the gameplay dynamics that Westwood popularized so many years ago. For all of its incredibly high production values, Dawn of War never trancends the genre, but, knowing that going in, I wasn't disappointed by what I found, and I doubt that any fan of the genre or franchise will be, either.