2009 ought to be a good year for the mainstream RTS fan - especially those who prefer a more "sci-fi" flavor of things. The first installment of the long-awaited sequel to Blizzard's classic StarCraft will almost certainly be hitting shelves this year (though, it is Blizzard, so there's always the chance it might not). Beyond StarCraft II, though, Relic has served up quite a fine alternative with Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II.
If you go into Dawn of War II expecting a traditional RTS of the *Craft and Command & Conquer variety - build a base, harvest resources, train troops - you're going to be rather caught off guard. The first Dawn of War had less of an emphasis on base construction and management than most RTS games, and DoW2 eschews it almost completely.
In fact, you'll hardly ever see a base in the single-player campaign. In the campaign, you take command of a small force of Imperial Space Marines from the Blood Raven chapter as they fight off brutal Orks, defend the planets of the Imperium from the crafty Eldar, and try to halt the advance of the relentless Tyranid Swarm. You'll never bring any more than four squads - your Force Commander and three specialized groups of your choosing - to any one mission, so instead of just amassing the largest force you can and just zerging the hell out of the enemy to win, Dawn of War demands a bit more patience and forethought.
In the absence of quantity, Dawn of War II gives your Blood Ravens a fairly wide range of abilities at their disposal. Your heavy gunners can focus fire on a target for a short period of time, your Force Commander can charge into the foes, crushing anything in his path, and your assault troops can use their jump-jets to crash onto the enemies and quickly engage them in melee. Victory in Dawn of War relies just as much on careful usage of these abilities and various items like grenades and medical kits as it does strategic planning. The fact that you never have to worry about more than four units at a time means that it's easy to control your forces in the heat of combat - I never once felt overwhelmed by micromanagement even in the fiercest of firefights.
The individual squads - or rather, their squad leaders - all have personalities of their own, and while they're all admittedly variants of your standard "grizzled space marine," they're all somehow likeable variants on the trope. While the setting and story really don't dazzle and certainly don't pull anything new, they're certainly done competently enough and provide a decent backdrop that made me want to see what was coming next, if nothing else.
When taken in combination with the RPG-esque elements that let you customize your troops' stats, abilities, and equipment, the whole package feels a bit more intimate than your usual RTS. I found myself growing attached to the Blood Ravens over the course of the game, something that I'd never thought I'd ever say about my forces in an RTS title.
For all the single-player campaign's strengths, though, it's by no means perfect. DoW2 could have benefited immensely from more varied missions. Nearly every deployment boils down to "Go kill this one bad guy. Kill all the (Orks/Tyranids/Eldar) in your way, and fight the boss." It does get rather repetitive, and given that the few Defense missions in the game are actually really fun, it would have been nice to see some more of those, or other mission types.