To put it in the crudest possible terms, when I hopped back online to try out Dawn of War 3's big update last week there was, for a period, just one public game in the multiplayer lobby. One. In a major, multiplayer-focused PC game, available on Steam, and less than a month after launch. Checking in for games throughout the day - and to be sure this wasn't just a mid-morning lull - I saw at most half a dozen live at a time. It's no anomaly. Perhaps even worse, last time I checked there were as many active games in the server browser of Soulstorm, an expansion to the original Dawn of War, that was released back in 2008.
Big franchises don't get many second chances these days - just ask Mass Effect - and while Dawn of War is certainly an established name in its class I'd be surprised if it showed more resilience than EA's multi-platform blockbuster. As well as it may have done critically, the brutal fan reaction means this is a game that is sliding at an alarming rate towards irrelevance. The latest update is designed to turn things around. It might sound like hyperbole, but this is probably the most important patch to go live in the series' history.
There are a handful of reasons why Dawn of War 3 is struggling, and to the invested community they're likely both obvious and, at this point, painfully well-trodden: the art style, whilst undeniably grimdark, emphasises clarity over gritty photorealism; the campaign, whilst entertaining, is linear and without much in the way of longevity; and above all, until now Dawn of War 3's headline multiplayer mode was its only multiplayer mode. Oh, and it's a MOBA.
It's not a MOBA, though. Not even close. But to those who have labelled it as such the nuance is irrelevant, and developer Relic's dogged - some would say dogmatic, but I will say dogged - will to make their controversial vision of the RTS's future a reality has now left them in an awkward position. Stick to the course, and they risk alienating the already inflamed fanbase of strategy purists. Change direction and they're left committing resources to the long, long, demonetised path of correction. More importantly still, I believe, they risk diluting the vision that makes Dawn of War 3 what it is.
Admirably, Relic has opted for the latter, at least in the short-term. The first update is here and the big addition is Annihilation, a multiplayer mode that simply tasks you with wiping out all of your opponent's structures - and more importantly brings Dawn of War 3 right the way back to its traditional, real-time strategy roots. (There are, in fact, two versions of it: Annihilation Classic, and Annihilation with Defenses, but the effective difference there is marginal - what matters is it's old-school RTS mode, with constructible turrets, bases, warts and all.) It's actually a fairly simple change, at least on paper.
It's also incredibly fun. I'll openly admit to scepticism; this was a game built around the objective-laiden battlefields of Power Core. Pseudo-lanes funnelled the action towards Shield Generators and Turrets (the big, built-in kind, not the fun, I'm-going-to-put-them-everywhere kind that come with Annihilation mode), and resource points, areas of cover, and I'm sure the myriad tweaks around build speed, damage scaling, resource-gathering and countless other issues are all tailored to that mode. I'm a faithful believer in the art of balancing and the complexity of the decisions that affect it, and so simply plucking these objectives from the map, throwing in constructible turrets and letting you build extra HQs, to me, sounded like trouble. But it works, in fact it works almost faultlessly. The games take a little longer - but strategy nerds do love to take their time - and you'll need to build said strategy a little differently in the pre-game menus, but it all functions. It's real RTS; classic Dawn of War, pumped up with enormous armies and hulking mega-units, and now it's here I'm amazed it wasn't in the first place.
Some maps, it should be said, do complement the turtling and teching of classic RTS play better than others, of course. The new map, Mortis Vale, that's playable in both 2v2 and 3v3 games, is a highlight though, and a willful nod to just that - its defining feature is a sealed dividing wall in its centre, that can be permanently opened at any time by either player. Cover-laiden routes push the conflict to either side, with wide, half-hidden pathways further outside that again for flanks. It all leads to a brilliant game of prisoner's dilemma around that central gate - do you stockpile an army either side of the wall, waiting for an enemy to spring through and counter, or gamble on doubling up with a teammate for the flank?
The early sproutings of a dedicated community are also, tentatively, beginning to show. It may just be creativity borne of necessity, but fans have already used workshop mods and creator tools to bring back highlights from the series' golden age - Into the Breach, Biffy's Peril, Kasyr Lutein - vintage Dawn of War maps, divine in their simplicity. They'll now be even better.
Still, one new map, some turrets, and one and a half modes. It seems like nothing. Indeed in the longer term much more is needed: more maps and races are the most essential, and in urgent demand. Some extra Doctrines, Elite units, faction abilities and even just cosmetic skins will help to keep Dawn of War 3 feeling fresh, and alive, over time.
Indeed it's strange, using the gift of hindsight for just a moment, that such a seemingly small change as this update could at once be so vehemently demanded from a community, and so bluntly overlooked by a developer at launch. I fail to fully see the logic of either, but perhaps this small-but-mighty update is the perfect way to keep the game's identity: flawed and odd, but also audacious, risky and at times extraordinary.
Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment, the old Librarian's quote goes. But as for the fate of Dawn of War 3, what a first step this is.