Relic's Warhammer: Dawn of War II Beta Opens to All

Relic's Dawn of War II multiplayer beta is now live, doors officially unlatched to anyone interested. You'll need Steam to grab the download, 5.5GB of hard drive space for the install, and a beastly system if you're running DX10 per Vista or the Windows 7 beta.

You know Warhammer 40,000, right? Far flung future with a dark fantasy tinge and limitless "make war, not love"? The Dawn of War II beta harnesses that vibe, then lets you test drive the game's four factions – Space Marines, Orks, Eldar, and Tyranids – and square off against opponents on five multiplayer maps. The beta supports two modes: 3-on-3 team battles, or 1-on-1 square-offs.

If you've played the original Dawn of War or Company of Heroes, you know Relic's MO. Resource gathering out, low-level unit interaction in, all for the capture of scattered map nodes to accrue points. Resource nodes let you build or upgrade structures and units, while victory nodes fortify your final score. All that stuff's sprinkled across each map, making matches tug-of-war gambits. Squads can be reinforced or topped off with leaders to increase their effectiveness, and rudimentary cover and conceal physics help mitigate the absurdity of squadrons standing only a couple inches apart while laying into each other.

What's different in Dawn of War II? Decentralization. In Dawn of War and Company of Heroes you had a traditional home base. Unit outflow was centralized and terminal base assaults were still plausible with conventional mob rushing.

In Dawn of War II, there is no base trunk, only branches. Simplified structures are fielded at capture points, revamping the precepts of effective map occupation (everything's implicitly hydra-headed now). You still have a central HQ building defended by turrets, but it's extremely tenacious and a long-shot for mob-style "annihilation" wins.

The message? Stay out in the battlefield, and win with effective small-unit tactics, not by amassing a graceless army and sending it trundling toward Armageddon.

Part of the game's overview may belie how it plays. Relic describes the battles as "intimate" and the combat as "visceral hand-to-hand." But the paradox with games like these is that they invest heavily in tactical detail you're never able to savor as you scroll around the map like a shuttlecock, batted from one scrum to the next. Dawn of War II attempts to mitigate this by confining the act of "building" stuff to a single structure, eliminating confusing sprawls of buildings harboring unique units.

"Build efficiently, fight more effectively," in other words.

Sounds elegantly utilitarian on paper. I just hope there's some grace behind the implied go-go-go. My enthusiasm for RTS games is inverse to their velocity. I'm a distance runner, less a sprinter. 'Strategy' implies at least thoughtful calculus, whereas rapid-fire RTS games too often hinge on fast-twitch reactive mental processes.

Will Dawn of War II's "streamlined" approach get the balance right?

Fingers crossed.

Matt Peckham wishes slow and steady still won the race. You can follow his poky dispatches at twitter.com/game_on.

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