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Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II • Page 2

First impressions of the 41st millennium beta.

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.

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The Dreadnought cranks it up another notch.

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.

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