Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II is a fun and fascinating game with a bit of an identity crisis. In one corner you have an explosively intense multiplayer real-time strategy experience, brimming with savagely satisfying competition. In the other, you have an odd and somewhat enjoyable single-player campaign that plays more like an action role-playing game than an RTS. The relationship between these two disparate entities is superficial; the structure and gameplay of the campaign has little in common with that of your skirmishes against other players or the computer. It's a bizarre dichotomy that doesn't always work, but online play is so deeply rewarding that the scattered campaign missteps are easily forgiven.
Slugga boyz are no match for the gigantic carnifex.
The first question that you might ask yourself as you play Dawn of War II's lengthy campaign may very well be: Where does the strategy come in? It's certainly not your typical RTS experience, putting you in control of up to four squads of Space Marines (and only Space Marines) and sending you off to exterminate your Ork, Eldar, and Tyranid foes. You won't be building a base or churning out units, but rather maneuvering your few commander-led squads around the map (likely as a single group) and beating up the beasties that stand between you and your mission objectives. Your goals may entail capturing a particular structure, recovering a stolen object, or even defeating an end-level boss(!). How's that for defying genre conventions?
This relatively simple gameplay is not what you'd expect from a strategy game, and strategy fans, including those who adored Dawn of War II's illustrious predecessor, will be disappointed that the "S" is missing from "RTS" in this instance. That's because the campaign is more akin to an action RPG, and if you look at it from this perspective, you're more likely to enjoy the journey. The game isn't going to dissuade you from that approach; the elements of a role-playing game are all accounted for. You will level up your squads and earn new abilities and bonuses, collect items and loot on the battlefield, and spend time between battles equipping your commanders with the various armor sets and weapons that you earn. With these RPG mechanics come the usual addictive loot-hoarding and unit personalization, what with various skill paths from which to choose and usable items that your commanders can equip.
Thus, Dawn of War II's single-player campaign isn't really strategic at all, but you will make tactical decisions that move beyond simple mouse clicking. In a mechanic pulled from the developer's own Company of Heroes, some squads can lay down suppressive fire, which slows your targets and hinders them from a quick escape. Units can be garrisoned or take cover behind certain objects, a mechanic easy to implement thanks to a slick interface and simple but effective visual feedback. However, the most important facet of a successful battle is your familiarity with each commander's unique abilities. Whether it is one's rally cry or another's jump-pack-powered stomp, effective use of skills (along with items such as grenades and satchel charges) is not only your key to victory, but also a visual and sonic delight. Seeing a dreadnought squash a ripper swarm, or a lictor alpha yank a powerless assault marine with its lethal flesh hooks, is enjoyably violent and makes battles fun to watch.
The campaign may be limited to one race, but it sends you to three different planets, including Typhon Primaris.
It takes a while for the campaign to rev up, but even once it is in full swing, some tedium will eventually set in. You'll visit the same maps many times and fight the same enemies, and though the prospect of loot and new abilities will keep you pushing forward and trying out new options, you'll long for some more traditional RTS gameplay to mix things up. You'll also wish for a stronger tale to glue it all together, but in a surprising move by a developer known for great storytelling, the yarn unravels one or two interesting threads (including the surprising origins of your dreadnought commander) but is little more than a reason to throw a bunch of Warhammer 40K units together and watch them tear each other to bits.
For a different approach, you can invite a friend to play campaign missions cooperatively, and though this option is welcome, its implementation could have used some tweaking. Dawn of War II provides no co-op matchmaking option, so you'll need to know the Windows Live ID of your prospective companion to explore that possibility. Also bear in mind that though the game's host will reap the persistent experience and loot rewards, the guest will leave everything behind when returning to his or her own campaign. It's fun to play with a friend, though. You split command duties with your partner, so the moment-to-moment gameplay requires less micromanagement but gives you more leeway to play around with tactical options.