'Dawn of War 3' Straddles the RTS and MOBA and Nearly Succeeds

'Dawn of War 3' Straddles the RTS and MOBA and Nearly Succeeds

'Dawn of War 3' is testament to the difficulty of fusing two genres – in its case, the MOBA and RTS Sega

By splitting the difference, Relic Entertainment’s latest somehow ends up neither

By splitting the difference, Relic Entertainment’s latest somehow ends up neither

Whatever happened to the real-time strategy? During the genre’s golden age – 1997 to 2007, a period that encompasses (roughly) the debut of Age of Empires to the series’ final entry – around two new RTS games debuted every month. Now, the once-proud genre languishes in near irrelevance.Excepting StarCraft II, the few recent attempts to resurrect the RTS have been met with failure; the long-awaited Command & Conquer Generals sequel was quietly canceled in 2013, the indie RTS Artillery never made it out of alpha testing, and Petroglyph’s Grey Goo was met with a tepid reception and soon disappeared entirely.

It’s out of – and maybe in spite of – this wreckage that Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War 3 emerges. Sequel to Relic Entertainment’s respectable Dawn of War 2, Dawn of War 3 faces the unenviable task of both kickstarting an aging franchise and redeeming an entire genre at its historical nadir. In the end, Dawn of War 3 succeeds at neither, but the ways in which it tries to are not without merit. And even if the game falls short of being revolutionary, Dawn of War 3 still an object lesson in all that ails the real time strategy in 2017, and the difficulty of finding a suitable antidote to its long decline.

There’s no one explanation for why the RTS fell from favor, but almost everyone agrees that the market for them is now too niché for AAA studios. Joe Bostic, one of the genre’s most renowned architects, suggests that the RTS was a casualty of a move toward less-demanding strategy titles across the games industry. As he explains, “RTS games require more mental investment and long-term planning than MOBAs, [and] the games industry is moving toward shorter play sessions and faster decision-to-result cycles.” By design, RTS games demand extensive multitasking, forcing the player to allocate her attention between exploration, production, and combat. Over time, the number of players who prefer this kind of gameplay has dwindled, and players have moved on to other genres with faster cycles of cause and effect.

The elephant in the room is the massive popularity of MOBAs. In the eyes of many players and designers, the MOBA is the Oedipal successor to the RTS, taking the game industry by storm in the early 2010s and ingeniously killing off its progenitor in the process. In general, MOBAs lower the barrier of entry to playing strategy games, while retaining the immense depth and complexity that gives the genre its staying power. For better or worse, the MOBA focuses the player's attention away from stress-inducing multitasking and onto a single, powerful hero.

But if you can’t beat em, well, make Dawn of War 3. Still, it’s not strictly true to say that the apparent MOBA-fication of Warhammer begins with Relic’s latest game – Dawn of War 2 gestured in the direction of the MOBA by deemphasizing base-building and economy in favor of continuous micromanagement. For its part, Dawn of War 3 selectively extends and pulls back on its MOBA-philia. It’s not so much that the game slips into the space between the two genres, but that it entangles them more than ever before. To my mind, Dawn of War 3 is best categorized as a single-player MOBA, which all the promise and paradox that implies.

But only the dead have seen the end of Warhammer, and Dawn of War 3 retains the classic features of Games Workshop’s beloved setting. Once again, you can play as the Space Marines, brutish Orks, or mystical Eldar, one of science fiction’s archetypical mind-body-spirit triumvirates. The asymmetric design and playstyle of each race creates plentiful emergent tactics, and, at its best, comes close to matching the intricate system of checks and balances that characterizes StarCraft II, (still) the pinnacle of the genre. The art direction is commendable, effortlessly blending fantasy, steampunk, and sci-fi, and the cheeky script and excellent voice acting lend line units a surprising amount of personality. “I didn’t think this through!” exclaims one Ork as an invulnerable turret slices through his squad. When you play poorly, Dawn of War 3 does not hesitate to mock your incompetency – “Our best warriors go to waste under your command,” the game scolds if inattention leads to the death of one of your elite units.

Many conventions of the RTS persist throughout Dawn of War 3. Base-building, which was almost entirely eliminated from Dawn of War 2, has returned in limited form. Your economy centers on two primary resources – Requisition and Power – each of which is passively generated by a limited number of control points. In practice, this means that most matches devolve into a multi-point "king of the hill," a sprawling series of skirmishes splayed across the map. The most reliable way to win a 1v1 match in Dawn of War 3 is to eke out an economic advantage that forces your opponent to take cost-inefficient fights and overwhelm them with a larger, better army. It’s about as minimal as an economy can be while still being called an economy, but it’s enough to set up the balancing act of micro- and macromanagement that has defined the RTS since its origins.

But Dawn of War 3 is less interesting for what it retains from the RTS than what it introduces to the genre. The two biggest departures Dawn of War 3 makes from its predecessors – both in its own franchise and the RTS as a whole – are the consolidation of all multiplayer game types into a single mode, Power Core, and the introduction of “escalation phases,” which function as a pacing mechanic.

Like ultra-popular MOBAs League of Legends and Dota 2, Power Core centers on destroying a single building at the heart of the enemy base (the titular Power Core), which is protected by a series of secondary objectives (turrets, shield generators, etc.) that must be destroyed before the Power Core can be damaged. This basic framework, which structures the flow of play in every competitive match, is the most obvious sign of the MOBA’s influence on Dawn of War 3. But its effects are, at different moments, both heightened and deadened by the game’s other distinctive mechanic, escalation phases.

Working as intended, each of Dawn of War 3’s four escalation phases (helpfully named one, two, three, and four) up the stakes and scale of battle over time, a heavy-handed but not entirely unwelcome way of controlling the rhythm and contours of conflict. Early escalation phases offer significant refunds for every unit lost in combat, while later ones offer increased passive income. Practically speaking, this encourages you to deploy a slow stream of small, cheap units early on, but shift to producing monstrous titans later in the game. It’s not subtle, but it does a fine job of conveying the sense of a series of loosely-connected dustups that spirals into a cataclysmic final clash.

Dawn of War 3’s escalation mechanic have two main effects: one, it all but guarantees that most games enter the fourth escalation phase, because the refund offered on every unit lost functions as a comeback mechanic for players who fall behind early. Two, it ensures that there’s always a constant flow of units being produced and directed toward the front(s), especially in the early game when units are cheap and expendable. If that sounds familiar, it’s because this more or less turns Dawn of War 3’s first 10 to fifteen minutes into a MOBA-esque laning game. The conspicuously symmetrical maps promote this kind of play, bottling units into particular channels that act, if not exactly like lanes, then at least something like linear theaters of war.

The sense that you’re playing a particularly demanding MOBA disguised as an RTS only increases with the introduction of Elites, which are so much more powerful than the rest of your line units that they might as well be lane creeps or minions. In the games I’ve played, the arrival of Elites signal a massive shift in strategy. Rather than micromanaging your line units in small-scale squabbles, your attention shifts almost entirely to controlling your Elite.

It’s only late in the game, when your Elites are buttressed by gigantic machines of war that the game starts to feel like a bonafide RTS again. At this point, the fluid spread of skirmishes in the early game congeals into a massive war of position. It is not entirely dissimilar to managing a late game army in StarCraft II, striding across the map in a constant quest to set up a better concave or set up a well-placed, tide turning ability.

Strange as it sounds, the average match of competitive Dawn of War 3 begins like a MOBA and ends like an RTS. 

Admittedly, I’m not playing in high-skill matches of Dawn of War III, so take these observations with a grain of salt. Strange as it sounds, though, the average match of competitive Dawn of War 3 begins like a MOBA and ends like an RTS. It’s a novel way of rethinking the real time strategy for a new generation of player. On paper, Relic’s philosophy of design is sensible. It’s not hard to imagine Relic looking at two genres and trying to mine the best of each and fuse them into something new. Yet they don’t add up to the sum of their parts. In an effort to splice the MOBA into the real time strategy (and vice versa), Dawn of War 3 somehow ends up being neither.

One example: part of the MOBA’s appeal is that it lowers the skill floor (i.e. the base level of skill needed to play competently) without sacrificing the skill ceiling, the point at which increased competency at a game no longer produces better results. This makes for a game that is more accessible, while still challenging and complex enough to engage players long term, bringing the MOBA ever closer to Ralph Baer’s truism that games should be “easy to learn and hard to master.”

But Dawn of War 3 is an extremely challenging game, and its learning curve can be brutal. Early to mid game fights spread across multifront a war tax the player’s micromanagement as much as any RTS I’ve ever played. Your line units may indeed be minions by another name, but they’re still under your command. This makes the early-to-mid game skill ceiling in Dawn of War 3 impossibly high. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but erects a significant barrier to entry for less experienced players, especially when compared to any MOBA. It’s hard to escape the sense that Dawn of War 3 is undone, in part, by two conflicting design ethoses that work against each other at least as much as they work together.

Still, this does not prevent Dawn of War 3 from being a fun game, or even a worthy one. Longtime Dawn of War fans will find much to their liking, and, with a little bit of patience, MOBA fans and RTS fans probably can, too. But the game also speaks to the difficulty of splicing two genres, hitching the living to the dead. With Dawn of War 3, Relic was hoping for a virile chimera, but it ended up with something more like Frankenstein: innovative, untamable, and unknowable – but not quite alive.