Version tested: PC
What do Space Marines talk about? Dawn of War II's campaign answers that pressing question in its excellent tale of a handful of 41st-century hyper-squaddies. Between missions the muscular mega-men chat amongst themselves, explaining the story and making decisions about how to proceed. They even share some personal gossip. At one point, the long-haired scout character says something like: "Tarkus, Avitus, there's something I've wanted to ask you for so long, but I've been reluctant..." I couldn't wait to find out what he was going to ask, but I'll leave you to discover what he's talking about for yourself.
So, spoilers aside, why are space marines chatting at all? Shouldn't they just be stepping on the face of an ork, forever? Nope. No longer are these tower-shouldered killers mere drones, because in Dawn of War II a number of key marines have distinct personalities, and they take them onto the battlefield. Your squads are no longer cloned rent-a-soldiers from the space factory, they're characters engaged with the story, with their own opinions, secrets, and personal stats and inventory screens. Dawn of War II is, somehow, also an RPG.
In the campaign - which can be played solo or co-op - your armies are not simply disposable, and the squad leaders survive each mission to go on to the next one. If all squad leaders are incapacitated, then you have to do the mission again. As the game unfolds you come to be able to choose between a number of these squad leaders, including the astonishing dreadnought. (EVEN IN DEATH I STILL SERVE, etc.) Of course you've got plenty of doomed lackeys coming along for the ride too, but the hero characters persist, and you buff them up from one mission to the next, dispensing statistic points and loot as they progress.
Loot. Another thing that seems incongruous on the RTS screen: a set of green armour, a blue hammer! What? Isn't this straight from World of Warcraft? It sure is, and Relic's developers are keen to show you exactly what they've learned from too many hours in Azeroth. They've figured out that we love tinkering with our characters, and they've made it down to you to decide who gets which sword, and just how to buff up that talent tree. Indeed, this is the first time I can remember an RTS asking me to make decisions about how to min/max my particular characters in this most traditionally RPG way. Should I really go all-out for melee on my commander? (Yes!) And does Tarkus need to be well tanked, given the ranged role I want to give him? (Probably.)
What has happened to our Dawn of War?
Someone called this fresh take in the series "Diablo With Squads" and that's pretty accurate. Most of the levels of the single-player campaign are indeed close enough to dungeons. They're even filled up with "mobs" that you can set up to "aggro" once your men are positioned. A weird change of pace, indeed. Once you've figured out some of the basics - like sticking ranged chaps behind a piece of cover, and charging buffed melee dudes into the fray to finish the engagement - it really starts to gel. That fiddling on the squad loadout screen does pay off, in just the way that having your characters well-tweaked in an RPG does. My assault marines get in close and do some serious damage, leaving the support squads safe from harm behind a fallen tree, or a shattered bunker.
Fights don't always go well, but if you can keep squad-leaders on their feet, you can always pull things back from the brink. Capture points - similar to those of the original game - allow you beam in more squad members, while fallen squad-leaders can be revived by another leader. Your commander is the most essential of the lot - he operates alone, is super tough, and can be kitted out with some serious buff powers.
And gone are the days when building a base was integral to success. While point-capture unlocks some useful stuff - and capturing a shrine to the Emperor can be essential on really tough missions - you're not going to be doing any turtling, at least not in single-player. In this you're going to be capturing points, defending points, and killing boss characters in great big end-of-level battles. Some of these are pretty challenging, and they make the best use of Dawn of War II's splendidly destructible environments. Seeing a space marine blasted back through a stone pillar, and have it tumble down around him, makes for brilliantly bombastic battle fun.