It’s the second half of the 1990s. Everybody wants to jump on the RTS train, put in motion by the success of Command & Conquer and Warcraft. While the talks about genre oversaturation begin to surface, there’s still a chance: unusual setting, innovative mechanic, or exceptionally wholesome implementation of existing ideas—and you win the ticket for a ride. The stakes are getting high, though. Stumble while jumping, or forget to consider a shift in economic winds, and you miss disastrously. It wasn’t SouthPeak Interactive fault that their game wasn’t released as planned in 1998. It was the fault of the publisher, Virgin Interactive, that found itself caught by the financial storm. The game’s pre-release version, almost finished, resurfaced in the year 2000. But it was already too late. It became forgotten. Then, a more successful game was released, using the looser’s name, deepening the depths of the poor soul’s oblivion.
But then a little miracle happened. It is always miraculous when an old piece of software that was considered lost resurfaces and preserves itself with the help of enthusiasts. Several years ago, the pre-release version of the game was uploaded for the whole world to see. May we now judge whether the game had any chance for success if it was released in time? In 1998—perhaps; in 2000—absolutely not. But who cares? It’s an artifact. Let’s dissect it!
Along with «not that one,» another phrase should accompany every time Dawn of War is mentioned—«it’s unfinished.» Yes, the game is almost ready. Almost. You may feel the lack of the last polish since the first second of the intro and throughout the playthrough. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but you feel the rawness of the game’s every aspect. That’s why I won’t judge Dawn of War with too much cruelty. Let’s say that this game is not a tragically lost masterpiece, far from it. Still, it’s interesting to see what it has to offer. For the science!
Setting-wise, Dawn of War is what we may call a pre-historic RTS. It takes place in the alternative version of the Stone Age—humanity is immature, and dinosaurs roam the land. Three factions compete for the right to dominate the young Earth: Cro-Magnons, Neanderthals, and Saurians. While the former two are pretty known for everyone slightly interested in the history of our species, the latter—Saurians—are mainly known to the fans of the History channel and bonkers conspiracy theories, for the Saurians are reptiloids.
There are three resources—stone, wood, and food. While stone and wood may be accumulated as in any RTS, food is a means of population control. Each tribesman (or tribeswoman) consumes one unit of food. To breed more tribespeople, you need to build more structures that generate food—meat farms, wheat farms, or beehives. While wheat farms may be upgraded later to increase food production and beehives can be used to protect your settlement in the early game (bees attack enemies on sight), meat farms are mostly useless.
To manage your settlement, you appoint tribespeople to different professions—resource gatherer, builder, warrior, mage, thinker, parent. Yes, you can’t purchase units; you breed them. Like in Cultures, you build a hut, appoint a man and a woman for parenthood, and they immediately get busy spawning more tribespeople if you have excess food. Saurians are the exception—they are hermaphrodites. They can get by with a sole parent laying eggs in the nest. Each tribesperson has stats—strength, intelligence, speed, and spirit. They are generated randomly, and you may consider them while appointing professions.
Each faction has unique units or structures. Cro-Magnons have siege weapons like ballistae and catapults, Neanderthals can build bulky golems and flamethrowing statues, and Saurians may steal the eggs of wild dinosaurs to raise them as their own units later. Additionally, each faction has unique spells. But first, you’ll have to research the suitable technology. To do so, you appoint thinkers. All they do is sit by the bonfire reading books, pushing the progress bar of the preferred technology further.
Apart from unique racial techs, ordinary ones are available for every faction—roads, rafts, walls, farm bonus, magic, etc. Researching armory allows you to arm your tribespeople with better weapons. Some techs increase resource collection—you can research +5 modifiers for wood and stone collection minutes in the game and never appoint more than one tribesman for each resource to gather.
Practically, mechanics are pretty simple and shallow. There are no choices to make—everything is pretty straightforward. Breed people, arm them, and send them to kill. Magic spices up the battles a bit but eventually makes them more chaotic and hard to control. Forget about micromanaging your warriors. It’s futile—the pathfinding is atrocious, and there is a slight lag between issuing the order and unit reaction, which is very annoying.
The other annoying thing is that the fog of war renews itself. Not greys out the revealed areas, obscuring the enemy movement while leaving the landscape visible, but completely obscures the vision, as if you’ve never scouted the area. It happens pretty fast, so if your first attack group gets destroyed, you’ll have to explore the map anew by the point you breed new units.
Dawn of War is tedious to play because of this. As an oversimplified RTS, it has to shine in battles and offer fast-paced gameplay. But the battles are utterly chaotic, and tribe management is slow and boring—breeding takes time.
The game looks OK, though outdated even for the time of its initial release. The only supported screen resolution is 640*480, but the map landscape is fully 3D and dynamic—builders flatten the surface before erecting buildings, stone gatherers dig into mountains, etc. Sounds are bare, and the lack of music is unfortunate.
There’s one gameplay aspect that remained a mystery for me. Jars. Some maps have cauldrons with various fluids—water, oil, poison, health elixir. You can send your tribespeople to fill jars with those fluids. Alas, I’ve never figured out how to use them. It can result from the game’s unfinished state or my stupidity—both options are on the table.
So that’s Dawn of War. «Not that one» and «unfinished.» Nothing in the genre landscape would have changed if this game had been released on time. Although with some thorough mechanical polishing, it could have been a fun little game. Like most RTS games at the end of the 1990s were. But unlike most RTS games of the end of the 1990s, Dawn of War launches without issues on the modern Win10 machine. It’s just another little miracle.