Whilst world+dog has been playing Doom3 for the last two weeks, I’m going to steer clear of that topic, because I’ve found something that’s at least as good, and I’m going to tell you about it.
Ladies and Gents, it’s Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War
, and it's been available as a beta from FilePlanet
for a few weeks now.
"It all meant nought if you rolled the wrong numbers on the dice"
Now I know what a lot of you folks are thinking – “Oh God, geeky Warhammer – I hate that stuff”. Well, that may be the case, but you might well be in the minority. It seems a truism that at least 75% of all those who are hardcore computer gamers have found their way into the pastime via the wargames hobby – I know that out of the group of guys that I regularly LAN with, 9 of the 10 were Warhammer addicts during their teenage years.
With that said, the trouble with Warhammer, I always found, was that it could be so unrewarding. One could spend hours, hours and hours painting the miniatures in the most minute details; days were spent pouring over the source books and army books to create the most balanced, kick-ass army of soldiers in the galaxy; hundreds of pounds were spent to then realise that army in lead figures. But, at the end of the day, it all meant nought if you rolled the wrong numbers on the dice.
This is a lesson that games designers learnt fairly quickly – those who spend time on a hobby don’t want to feel like the success is down to chance. If you feel like your progression (or non-progression) through a level on a computer game is solely due to some random factors, your enjoyment of the game will undoubtedly be less. As a corollary, a game that involves you, invites you to think about the most effective way around a problem, and then rewards you for clever thinking and planning is a game that is far more likely to endear itself to users.
Eventually, then, I got fed up of my absurdly bad dice-rolling and moved from gaming with miniatures to gaming with a mouse and keyboard. But I’ve always missed Warhammer, partly because of the rich tapestry of background material that goes into it. There have been thousands upon thousands of pages written about it, fantastic pieces of artwork drawn, and it was a universe in which I immersed myself for 6 or 7 years, a universe which has a background mythology equal to just about any other franchise out there.
It’s always been so ludicrously frustrating that every Warhammer game that has come out for the PC has been terrible. There have been RTS games, first-person games, but none of them have conveyed either the feel of the universe or been any good as stand-alones. My initial reaction to Dawn of War, then, was one of healthy scepticism. But, the game delivers – on both the game and universe fronts.
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On the one hand, the units are all completely faithful recreations of the miniatures. Sculpted from polygons with as much apparent care as their physical counterparts, they look every inch the part. The animation is fantastic, with each unit displaying unique characteristics. Together with the graphics they convey perfectly the spirit, the look, and the feel of the universe – in fact, in a manner far better than the table-top game. Watching a Space Marine Dreadnought stomp it’s way through a ruined cathedral, assault cannon mowing down Orcs, then picking up stragglers and throwing them halfway across the screen (blood trailing along the ground as the Orc flies, accompanied by appropriate sound effects), the sense of immersion is incredible. Sound, a field that the table-top game has no purchase on, is spot on, with units behaving exactly as one would imagine they should.
"The squad-centric nature of the game enables you to easily co-ordinate complex tactical plays"
The game itself is a step away from traditional RTS titles. There is no constant mining of resources by pitiful units. Instead, resources are gained by keeping control of a number of strategic locations on the map. This creates an entirely new game dynamic: instead of having to heavily guard you workers within the 3-inch radius of your base, battles centre around keeping control of points that might be half-way across the map, with vicious firefights ensuing.
Terrain use is critical, and adds a whole new, fantastically fun dimension to strategy. Setting up fire squads on top of buildings, overlooking strategic points, means that rocket launchers and heavy machine guns can dominate an alleyway. Of course, jet pack close combat squads will make mincemeat of artillery on rooftops, and the cycle of tactics continues.
Squad-based combat is my favourite aspect of the game. It always seemed non-sensical to me that troops in RTS games were built individually, operating on their own. The basic unit in Dawn of War is a squad of 5 men, which can be expanded to include Sergeants and special weapons troops (plus special units, such as a Force Commander, can be attached to them). This makes the player really feel like they’re fighting a war, rather than a few small skirmishes. The squad-centric nature of the game enables you to easily co-ordinate complex tactical plays that would be nigh-on impossible in other RTS games.
Whether you’re a Warhammer fan, or are just looking for a spectacularly good RTS, you need to be keeping an eye on this one. It's interesting that taking a retrograde step, going back from computer games to simple miniatures, can show us the way forward for the evolution of the RTS. Maybe it's the rich wealth of background material that makes the game so compelling - few other RTS titles can claim a universe as develped as the Warhammer world - or maybe it's just the geek in me.