For the Emperor! Dawn of War 3 on Linux

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Wow, when was the last time I did toy with a RTS? Must have been forever. I guess such genres fall in the “they don’t make this kind of games anymore” bucket, along with classic adventure games (to an exception) shooters, platformers… This is probably one of the genres I am missing the most, since Dune2, Warcraft, C&C, Total Annihilation were such memorable games, pushing forward the limits of what computers could do when they were released. Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War was a late comer to the party (2004!), but Relic has been showing again and again great expertise in making real time strategy games (except CoH2?). The first Dawn of War was absolutely awesome, a kind of Warcraft on steroids with all the violence and religious fanaticism you expect from the Warhammer 40k world.

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This is something I have always admired in Warhammer 40k actually: the ability to picture a very high tech civilization that would be still very much tied in mysticism, fanaticism and martyrdom. It seems improbable at first – we usually tend to think as ourselves being more and more rational as time goes – but the creators and the whole fan work around it has shown how appealing this kind of concept is, and what kind of shape it could take to remain believable. A lot of what makes it unique is of course in large part a consequence of the original board game design work, but what fascinates me the most is the language it uses: soldiers, generals, referred to as Chapters, Primarchs, Librarians… and Inquisitors as guardians of the Faith… It makes Warhammer 40k stand out so much among the universe of clones that have little to no backstory. The other trademark of Warhammer 40k is the quality of the voice acting in the different games in the series: there is a clear distinction on how every single race expresses themselves and the tone they use. And Space Marines are always as awesome as ever.

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Down to Dawn of War 3. You may remember that the first episode was built upon the classic standards of the venerable older RTS: you build a base, you construct units and train soldiers, you secure resources, upgrade your weapons, build more troops, and conquer, and so on. Dawn of War 2 broke from that long lived tradition by removing altogether the building system, leaving you with a limited amount of troops to worth with from the get go. Actually, my description is not entirely accurate, since you were able, during the course of a mission, to call for reinforcements in order to resupply yourself with fresh troops when you lost too many of your own. But the building part was gone.

I must admit I was never too convinced by that take of the genre in Dawn of War 2. Interesting, logical, but just like many other gamers I do get satisfaction out of building stuff and seeing my base expand progressively – maybe a Sim City syndrome? Maybe it has to do with the feeling of possession, of having something on your own. But the fact remains, I was not enchanted by that change in mechanics. Dawn of War 3 backtracks in the direction of the first episode, letting you build stuff again. That is great news in itself and it will be immediately familiar to whoever loved the old school RTS genre.

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Another important aspect of Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War, was the presence of heroes – similar to what you had in Warcraft 3. Think of heroes as almost invincible infantry units, that you can use to lead your troops in battle and usually confront opponents in direct melee, causing them a world of pain. On top of having XXL-size lifebars, heroes have a bunch of specific abilities that you can use to either boost your troops, or further damage your enemies, while you can only use them once in a while (countdown type). Heroes are not exactly invincible, and can be killed. Kind of. But just like in great myths, heroes never really die, and provided you do not end up in game over for another few minutes, you can bring them back on the battlefield as if nothing happened. It feels a little artificial, but it’s a necessary element to ensure you can keep on advancing. Without such heroes, piercing the enemy defenses is a lot more challenging, because you regular units get decimated pretty fast under fire.

In Dawn of War 3, one of the major changes is that you can have several heroes at once on the map. Up to 3, and referred to as Elite Troops. You only start with one hero but as the campaign progresses, more heroes slots get unlocked and you can purchase the heroes that fit with your style (based on a currency of skulls in-game). Moreover, there is some RPG element in Dawn of War 3: heroes gain experience, level up, and unlock specific abilities you can pick up for your next mission. One of the problems with this richness of options for Elites and RPG style upgrades is that the UI completely sucks. No, really, it’s so bad that they have probably had Focus groups to make it that fucked up. It’s unintuitive, messy, disorganized, and poorly explained to begin with. It really feels like it was added on top of the base game and they did not know how to integrate it. Really, really shocking to see such bad UI in a game of that standard and reputation.

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It’s great to add a lot of layers in the game, but there’s a little issue linked to the campaign structure. You’d imagine that you would lead, just like in Dawn of War 1, a Space Marines campaign from A to Z, and then an Ork campaign, and so on… actually in this third opus, the campaign constantly alternates between Space Marines, Orks and Eldars. It’s not a bad idea in itself, since you see the ins and the ends of the conflict from different point of views, but it has a major flow: you don’t really build familiarity with any of them as fast as you used to. When you thought you were started to get used to Space Marines, you have to learn from scratch how things work with the Orks. Just for one mission, since the following one will have you learn the Eldar’s way. The campaign structure therefore goes at odds with the experience system they have tried to integrate.

This being said, the 3 different factions feel really different in terms of mechanics. Space Marines are like your usual human troops, but Orks have the ability of upgrade themselves by scavaging scrap on the terrain. Eldars have the ability to teleport their structures around anywhere on the map. This makes for interesting possibilities when you switch from one faction to another.

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As you start on campaign maps your first objective is usually to get access to resource points, so that you can start collecting Requisition points and Power. Requisition points are mainly used for infantry based units production, and Power is usually used for vehicles and structures. One thing is kind of frustrating: there are very few resource points on every map, and even when you manage to capture everything and upgrade them to the max, it still feels that you don’t get points fast enough. Basically, you need to wait a lot to be able to produce new units or new vehicles. It’s understandable when you only have a single resource point, but not when you own every of them. If I were to compare with games like Dune2 or Total Annihilation, there is usually a tipping point in such titles when you are able to produce way more resources than you can consume, making it easier to build large armies quickly. In Dawn of War 3, you feel always constrained by resources, and this just slows down the action a lot. The game has a serious pace problem. It could be fixed easily (earn resources faster, or make units cheaper to produce) but I am not sure why they decided to make things so slow in a game that is mostly all about violent conflict.

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The pace is not the only issue. It may also be very well that I was playing in “normal” mode and not the hardest difficulty level, but I was not struck by the enemy displaying any kind of strategy or intelligence. It’s fair to say that most RTS fall in that trap, but I do seem to remember that Warcraft 3 was at least better in that regard, keeping you constantly on your guard and leaving you no respite until you can counter attack with strength. In Dawn of War 3, it’s like 1939, when the allies have declared war on Germany but nobody is daring to attack and cross borders. I think there was only one case in the 6 campaign missions that I played where I felt genuinely threatened, for about 30 seconds, by the AI. That’s it. Yeah, that’s pretty poor. It’s unfortunately for the best until they fix the pacing issue – since you can’t build units fast enough, you don’t want to be attacked all the time either – you wouldn’t be able to defend yourself.

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There are other significant changes versus the older titles. Gone is the terrain based cover system from the Dawn of War 1 – in Dawn of War 3 the only cover system is basically when you grab a kind of specific cover point, providing you with a protective shield in that particular location. Typical bullets cannot penetrate the shield easily, so you get a lot of benefits of placing defenses in such cover points. However, I found it was not as necessary as initially thought, since you tend to move forward and not stay stationary anyway. There are too few of them on the map to make a real difference, too, and you need to always keep troops stationed there to have the shield activated. At best you can use it to prevent enemies from accessing places leading to your base, weakening them before they reach their goal.

Your base does not really have defenses, so if you are worried about a surprise attack, you need to let some troops behind just in case. Unless I missed something, only resource points can have turrets – which are quite ineffective anyway (a few enemy units will get rid of your turret in no time). Again all these design decisions tell me that the game was thought as an offensive-first game, not the other way around, so it’s severely unbalanced if you want to play it defensive.

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The worst part of all this is that the tutorial is utter rubbish. It only covers the most basic features of the game, and then throws you in the campaign. There is massive amount of features, possibilities, not covered AT ALL in the proposed tutorial. Guys, if you don’t even care, don’t include a tutorial in the first place, and tell us to RTFM instead. I could learn a lot more from the differents wiki on the net in 10 minutes than with 30 minutes doing tutorials.

Since your troops are kind of weak (even after upgrading them to the max), it’s a pretty bad strategy to attack with small forces. So the typical winning strategy is the good old “build as many units as you can” technique and attack in full force. So far, roughly 40% in the campaign, this has proven very effective for about every mission. While it does take a long time to build a large amount of troops, it feels good when you are able to gather them and move towards your objective, and it can be visually impressive when everyone starts firing at once. All good, but when there are just too many units on screen, firing on each other, along with the UI cues and the special lighting effects, it’s hard to see what’s really happening anymore. It does not happen too often, but usually around the end of every mission you get in this kind of mess and it’s so difficult to understand what’s going on that you are basically hands off. What this means, however, is that you don’t need to have a real strategy to attack. Brute force trumps all. I would have liked to see much stronger defenses in enemy bases, forcing you to rethink how to approach the problem after getting hammered several times. The game tends to hold your hand a lot too, throughout every mission.

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Everything is scripted so that you are not free to do what you want from end to end, you need to unlock events in the right order to be able to progress in each mission. I guess there are both good and bad aspects to it – on one hand, there is clear intent of having a story within each mission map, with specific events changing the course of the action. On the other hand, it feels like your hand is guided and that nothing is really dynamic. If the in-mission events were really interesting, I could forget that, but it’s not like they are very original or surprising, so the benefit is not really obvious.

So… let’s summarize a little :

  • The campaign lets you experience each faction one after the other, but switching constantly makes it a little harder to get used to any of them
  • Buildings are back, but the pace of units production is slow and tedious
  • The game clearly favors offensive over defensive tactics
  • Each mission is heavily scripted with a bunch of objectives unlocked one after the other, leading you through a predetermined path
  • Brute force works in any case (at least in the normal difficulty mode)
  • Apart from heroes all other infantry units are kind of weak – vehicles like Dreadnoughts or larger mechanical units are thanksfully not
  • The addition of RPG elements is a good idea but hardly explained and badly executed

But is it all that bad? I guess it depends on your expectations.

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Overall as a RTS it feels like the strategy part is lacking. But it is still quite fun to play, and fun to watch as well when you manage to pierce through defenses. I must admit things get quite frantic when about 20 troops fight against each other on the same spot. It’s pretty to look at, the art direction is decent, even if it’s not amazing. When you zoom in on units you can see that there are not so many details. But there is something I really liked in the first few missions: they showed in the background other parts of the conflict occurring at a distance, making you feel like a part something way, way bigger. That was really cool (see the screenshot below). Among the other great aspects of the game, is the scale of landscape elements – in the first few missions you get to see huge defense turrets (you cannot use them) meant for attacking battleships, and their size is just HUUUUUUGE. Really gives you a sense of grandeur. Reminds me of the mobile artillery Schwerer Gustav used in WW2.

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Otherwise, design wise, it’s pretty standard. I can’t say the maps are very original – they do feel generic, which is a bit of a shame. There are some really good ideas, though: the Orks’s buildings and units, especially, feel like a pile of junk sticking together with a bit of glue – they keep shaking every moment, it’s really fun to look at, and it makes the Orks really stand out from the rest, in a visual way. Very well done.

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If you are an amateur of board games figurines, Dawn of War 3 has you covered, with a painting function in the menu to ensure you get to select exactly what your units look like in-game. It’s a nice touch, mostly aimed at online gamers who want to differentiate their troops on the field.

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Port-wise, there are two things you need to know:

  • This is the first game from Feral with a proper Vulkan renderer (experimental) at launch. This is huge! This means they have been developing their own tech to have ports use Vulkan and this is good news as we look forward to more ports in the future. OpenGL is supported on nVidia but not on AMD or Intel yet (some missing function in Mesa for now). Note that for nVidia you need to update to the last 381.xx driver. Now we know why SteamOS Brewmaster (stable branch) was suddenly updated to 381.xx as well just before a few days back…
  • You need to change your CPU governor mode to performance before starting the game. It really makes a difference. Without doing that, the game was running kind of fine but with a very unstable framerate when scrolling around. In performance mode the framerate is a lot more consistent. Feral’s launcher will give you a warning if you start the game without it.

By the way this is the command you can run to change to the CPU performance mode:

echo performance | sudo tee /sys/devices/system/cpu/cpu*/cpufreq/scaling_governor

In performance mode I tried both Vulkan vs openGL and I could not see huge differences in performance – in high settings, full HD, with a i5 3.4 Ghz, nVIdia GTX970, 8GB RAM. The game ran at 60 fps most of the time, or close to it, and while you could see the framerate drop a little when combats with many units occur on the same spot, it stays very much in the higher tier of FPS (no major drop that would cause you to worry about losing the edge in the battle). So, I am pretty satisfied with the performance – while I did not compare with Windows, it feels fair versus the hardware I tested it on. If you have a weaker CPU, you may be able to notice more the benefits of Vulkan.

The port itself is very stable, like most of Feral’s other ports. No crashes, no glitches, no weird issues (even though I am not on the recommended Ubuntu distro). Very good job in the QA department as usual, I wish all ports could be as bug-free as that. It’s also a port which is quite timely, not long after the Windows release. At least you did not have to wait forever if you wanted to play this game on Linux, not like… Street Fighter 5, or Witcher 3. Just saying, CDPR…

I used a Steam Controller to play, and while it’s certainly not as fast as using a mouse and keyboard shortcuts, it’s actually feasible to do about everything with it. I have created a Steam Controller profile (look for Ekianjo’s profile if you use the Steam Controller) that you can find in Steam Big Picture mode if you intend to try it out this way. It’s actually great fun to play this kind of game on the couch, too.

Of course, in the beta because of the lack of gamers on Linux/Mac, it was not feasible to test the multiplayer mode. We already know that this mode will only work for now between the Linux/Mac clients which restricts a lot what you can expect to do online. The FAQ on the official page from Relic mentions, however, that a future update COULD enable multiplayer between all platforms, but that’s not a guarantee. There is certainly a lot of focus on the multiplayer experience, with a MOBA-like mode included in Dawn of War 3, so if this is really something stopping you, you have three courses of action:

  • Wait for a potential patch.
  • Convert your friends to Linux
  • Ensure all the Linux/Mac users you know buy (and play) the game so that the chances to find someone online are beefed up.

So here’s to hope that Feral and Relic can work together to bring the multiplayer mode to everyone in the same fashion. In the meantime, it’s a decent RTS, with modern graphics, that’s readily available. It may not be the best in the series at this point, but Warhammer 40k games tend to get DLCs in the form of new campaigns, so it can certainly improve from now onwards. And don’t forget you can always get Warhammer 40k Dawn of War II, as well, if you want to experience something quite different.

If I (and you guys!) find it worth it, I may come back in another article to talk a little about the multiplayer mode. We will see. In the meantime, you can purchase the game on Steam, or better, on the Feral Store, if you want ensure they get a larger share of your hard earned cash. And if you like Warhammer 40k fiction, I recommend you read the Horus Rising book series, it’s pretty, pretty good, and very well written.


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Ekianjo

2 Comments

  1. Nice review. A shame that the game is both light on singleplayer campaign and Linux users are cut off from the majority of the multiplayer community.

    About your first paragraph remark: If you missed playing RTS and especially Total Annihilation, why not give the games based on the Spring RTS engine a go? There are a couple of nice Total Annihilation remakes.

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