The Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II beta test is happening now, but only for Soulstorm owners until 28th January. See elsewhere on Eurogamer to find out how you can get your hands on it this weekend regardless.
It's been argued that videogames are about escapism. As I'm writing this, Barack Obama is being inaugurated as President of the USA. The change in attitude in the western democracies is much discussed, with words like "hope" and "change" being uttered by those who a year or so back would have cynically snorted at the concept. In such a climate, what could be more escapist than being forced into a realm of conflict in the far future where billions of men die in futile battles as part of a gleeful fascist empire? Nothing comes to mind. No hope. No change. Only war. Dawn of War II's chosen its moment.
Much like kicking around the bisected corpse of a Space Ork who looked at you funny, it's a game of two halves. The single-player is about a continuing campaign, managing a small team who gather snazzy War Gear and whatnot. Apparently, anyway. I haven't played it, because this is the multiplayer beta, and as the name may suggest, it contains multiplayer-specific content. And the actual multiplayer is much more a traditional RTS experience than the single-player.
Relic seemed to get a little annoyed at people assuming the multiplayer would be based on the radically different approaches adopted by the single-player game when they'd never actually said any such thing, which was a problem of their own making. When you only reveal a game that's not much like the original and refuse to elaborate on multiplayer - for the self-serving reason of trying to have a slow-release of new features in the hype - you can expect people to reasonably assume the game they've been shown is what the game's going to be like. A simple "The multiplayer will be a much more traditional experience" would have sidestepped it, for the record.
As such, Dawn of War II multiplayer initially feels a lot like you would have expected Dawn of War II to feel before we knew better. That is, the best bits of the original, plus extra gubbins from the definitive RTS of the last five years, Company of Heroes. Plus new stuff. And Tyranids, which will make your average Dawn of War fanatic about as happy as adding Skaven as a playable race would do to your average Warhammer Online fanatic.
The beta includes all four races in the whole game, with each of their three hero types. There are both head-to-head and three-versus-three conflicts available - two of the former, three of the latter - which utilise an expand-to-gain resource format similar to the first game's. In other words, there are only certain points on the map that can be used to generate resources. Control of them will help you win indirectly. There are also the victory control points, command of which will lead to a victory. However, rather than being based on a timer - as in, owning most of the points for a period leading to your triumph - it's based on points. If you hold more of the victory areas than the opposition, their points start to drain away. Whoever gets to zero first, loses.
And if that sounds too complicated, you can always stomp on their heads with your big mechanical feet.
You can also play ranked multiplayer (which works in the automatch or invite-a-friend way you'd expect from a Games for Windows release) or custom matches (which work in a more traditional browser-esque fashion). The latter also makes that whole "no single-player content" stuff a total lie. You're able to select enemy bots to compete against, which is an ideal way to learn the foibles of each race and/or be gleefully antisocial.
Also, it makes you suspect that if you're turned off the smaller-scale, RPG-esque approach of the campaign, you could make a perfect Dark Crusade clone by making your own paper board to move a little lead man around and then just playing a skirmish game with random settings whenever you enter a new hex. (That's a little Blue Peter game design for you, at no extra charge.)
And unless you're enormously unafraid of social embarrassment, you will want to play the four races against the bots to learn them. You'll want a chance to absorb it all at your own speed. Even familiarity can lose you. It took me a couple of games before I realised that, like Company of Heroes, you're able to man squads inside buildings. While I'd noted the importance of cover and placing your troops there, I'd overlooked hiding out in structures. There are also elements like setting up firing cones for your stationary weapons to try and pin the opposition.
But the biggest changes are the ones that really are influenced by the approach of the main game. That is, experience and equipment. All your units level up, meaning there's much more reason to keep them alive with a swift retreat. Each side also has a choice of three hero units, each of whom customises your side's available special abilities. For example, if you play the Marine Captain option you'll have more offensive abilities, like being able to call down a really old living-relic-esque Dreadnought robot killing machine. Choose the Medic, and you're going to be more about healing. Your choice of leader dictates fundamental changes in tactics. For example, only the Techmarine leader seems able to built extra turrets.
Equally, each of the heroes have their own equipment you can choose to upgrade - at a cost - on the battlefield. Once you've bought them for your heroes, you're able to swap between them (slowly) as the tactical situation changes. Normal troop-types have similar upgrades, but tend to be one-way recruitment to a specialist barrack. Which seems to be a lot of added complication, but equally it seems that in other areas the game's pared back a little of its ornate complexity. Tech-trees obviously vary from race to race, but the method of advancing doesn't - it's simply "have the resources, click the button". Your unit-cap is also standardised from the off, meaning you don't need to worry about what to build to get more troops. Even the heroes' special powers are standardised - perform heroic bloodshed and fill up the gauge, then let it rip. In other words, working out which of your powers to use is where Relic's concentrated the depth, rather than the simple matter of accessing the powers. I suspect that's a wise decision.
Otherwise, it's early days yet and many elements need real exploration in the coming weeks to understand their depths. For instance, in another example of the experience-addition-addiction, you rank up in multiplayer games, so improving your heroes. And while that initially fills me with the fear - RTS games are like chess - the lack of a true level playing field hasn't harmed games like Call of Duty 4. Initially, things are about as optimistic as they can be in the grim-future of the 41st millennium. A solid adamantine classic? Well, too early. But it's certainly one I'm looking forward to playing more.
The Tyranids also really are nifty.
The Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II beta is available now through Steam to owners of Dawn of War's Soulstorm expansion, and will be available to all on 28th January. However, you can start playing this weekend by grabbing one of our 3,000 beta keys, available from Saturday at 3pm GMT.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II is due out in Europe on 20th February.