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Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War


Overview

Let me confess from the outset that I knew nothing about the Warhammer 40,000 (W40K) universe when I bought this game. Oh, sure, I had previously seen W40K stuff available for purchase in various hobby shops, but I was always too busy buying modules for Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, Starfleet Battles, etc. In short, though I was a hard-core, old-school, pen-and-paper gamer in my youth, I never got sucked into the whole W40K thing. I know, I know: that means I'm unworthy of dying for the emperor (or something like that). Despite my ignorance of the larger mythology, however, I still expect the game to stand on its own merits.

Analysis

Visuals

I came across Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War (DoW) for the first time at the E3 2004 exhibition, but I really didn't pay it much attention until I had seen some coverage of the game in PC Gamer magazine. There was just something about the freakish, green Orks that made me wince when I saw the game at the show. I don't know what it was. I just know that it put me off for whatever reason. The whole thing just looked too cartoonish at the show.

Fortunately I got over that impression, for even the green-skinned brutes look great in the final game. The unit models, textures, and animations are very nicely done, rivaling or besting every other real-time strategy (RTS) game I've played previously. I particularly like the special, killing moves that get performed during combat sequences. There's nothing quite like watching a dreadnaught pick up some hapless melee unit and break its back. It seems that many, if not all, units have at least one such special move, all of which speak to a common theme as well.

Even better than the units, though, are the environments. The maps in DoW feature the most battle-scarred terrain I've ever seen in an RTS game. It's obvious that the developers were trying to convince the player that unceasing all-out war has been battering, bruising, and breaking the worlds of men for years beyond count. Craters dot the landscape, hinting at the terrible orbital bombardments of old. Whatever "structures" that remain are largely twisted heaps of garbage. Such obvious devastation definitely helps put the player in the kill-or-be-killed frame of mind.

Which brings me to the singular theme that unifies all aspects of the visual design: brutality. Seriously, brutality oozes from every inch of the terrain, from every unit and weapon model, from every animation, from every special effect, and so forth. There is literally not one visual detail to which I can point that deviates from unremitting, merciless brutality. The way the Blood Ravens' equipment slams into the ground from space, the fearful animal growl of the dreadnaught's gun, the way the chainsword rips through enemies; everything about DoW is soaked in the purest brutality, through and through.

It should come as no big surprise, to anyone who knows me or reads my reviews, that I can't rave enough about the game's visual design. Sure, there are other games that have more detailed models, better shadowing, more impressive use of shader effects, etc. But I can't think of any other game that is as stylistically coherent in making combat seem truly hellish. DoW is in a league of its own in this respect, and I find it very refreshing. While too many other games show nary a drop of blood, DoW puts the player in the middle of the most visceral RTS combat ever realized in a video game.

As far as complaints go, I have only one: I want the next generation video hardware today! DoW does run reasonably smoothly on my system, even at 1600 x 1200 x 32 bpp, but everything looks so good I wish I could enable anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering without killing my frame rate! The battles in DoW involve too many polygons for me to enable the image-quality enhancing features of my video card, despite it being an ATI Radeon X800 XT. That's not much of a complaint, really, but it's the only thing I can even think to say about the visuals that isn't top-notch.

Audio

On the other hand, though, the audio is merely good. It would have been great save for one design decision. The sound effects are nicely conceived, the voice acting performances are good, and the music is very nice. But the subtleties of the vocals are simply lost in all the compression. Seriously, the vocal clips are so compressed that I can hear obvious "pumping" artifacts while the characters speak.

I'm sure the developers were trying to make sure that the main characters had preposterously deep, über-powerful voices, and they succeeded without question. But the vocals are so squashed that there's roughly zero deviation in volume. In short, the emotion of the cut scenes is ruined, for me at least, by the heinous over-equalization and compression. Take note, audio guys: less really can be more.

Were it not for that complaint, however, the audio would be as rave-worthy as the visuals. The music is comprised of beautiful, sweeping, orchestral themes, nicely composed and well recorded. It's a little disappointing that the different races don't have more radically different music, but it's a minor flaw. The sound effects are believable and immersive; everything from the awful white noise of a flamethrower to the bass-heavy stomping of the mechanized units is great. Even the bolter round ricochet sound seems to have enough variations that I don't get tired of it. The audio in DoW is well thought out and well implemented, save for the glaring over-compression of the vocals.

Interface

I normally don't get too geeked about a game's interface, but DoW brings some neat and unusual bits to the table. The menu system itself is nicely themed and functional, but it's the little things that make it special. The changing quotes in the lower left of the screen, the wealth of detail in the background graphics, and other such touches make the interface more than just usable; they make it a genuine pleasure to navigate.

The one major problem, to my mind at least, is that the important portion of the interface isn't configurable at all. What is it about developers who work on RTS games? Why is it that they seem to think the player won't want to re-map his keys? Granted, I used my Belkin Nostromo Speedpad n52 to map functions to my favorite buttons, but come on, folks: first-person-shooter games have been letting players customize virtually every aspect of their control setups for years. Would it really hurt modern RTS games to catch up? It's not like it hasn't been done before— Earth 2150 had the most customizable RTS interface ever built—so why don't the developers let us configure our own keys?

I should also point out that figuring out how to play back saved replays isn't at all obvious. For those who couldn't find it on their own, like me, the solution is pretty simple. Go to the skirmish game menu, select the option to load a game, and then choose to load a recording. I'm not sure why I couldn't find it, but I know from what I've read on-line that I'm not the only one to miss it.

Aside from these complaints, though, the interface is otherwise well designed. I do get a little dizzy when switching between DoW and The Battle for Middle Earth (TBFME), largely because of the different use of left and right mouse buttons for targeting/activating special abilities, but that kind of conceptual confusion abounds in RTS gaming generally. I do wish developers would standardize on one approach to mouse and keyboard usage if they're not going to let us configure them ourselves.

Game Mechanics

In terms of game mechanics, Relic (the game's developer) deserves credit for trying something new. Virtually every other RTS game plays it safe these days, TBFME being the only other exception to that rule which springs immediately to mind. Whereas almost every other RTS game takes the same approach, DoW brings a genuinely innovative, squad-based focus to the fore. True, other RTS games have had squads, platoons, or other organizational structures, but only DoW provides such flexible options for upgrading their capabilities.

Are you running into trouble against enemy vehicles? Perhaps you're in need of demolishing enemy buildings quickly? Either way, upgrade a squad of space marines with missile launchers and you'll be good to go. Alternately, one can equip a squad of assault marines with melta bombs and make amazing hit and run raids against vehicles and buildings. Heavy bolters, plasma guns, and flame throwers make up the other weapon options, while the ability to add a sergeant and/or a higher-level leader can make a noticeable difference in capability. Suffice it to say that I really like the focus on the squad level in DoW.

The morale mechanic is also an interesting idea in principle, but I must confess it didn't seem to matter that much in actual play. When a squad is getting beaten so badly that their morale is breaking, it would be stupid to leave them in combat anyway. Telling them to run is the smart thing in any such situation, if for no reason other than to heal up and reinforce, but even a few seconds of running in the right direction can restore morale. And for those times when the player doesn't feel like exerting even the minimal effort of running, there's always the sergeants' ability to rally the troops. In short, it's a nifty idea but it doesn't seem to have much of an effect on gameplay.

Worse, despite the seeming flexibility with squad configuration, the player's decisions don't seem to matter much, in the single-player campaign at least. Most of the missions don't require much thought at all; rather, the player can simply upgrade every squad in roughly the same way and achieve victory. I found the last few missions particularly formulaic in that I needed only to hold the enemy off until I could build a group of predator tanks. If things were really tough then I'd build some terminator squads as well, but normally a group of four predators with several fully-upgraded squads of space marines could kill anything.

Overall the game's mechanics are new and interesting, particularly when compared to most RTS games. But the innovations aren't earth shaking in themselves. They do transform RTS gameplay in interesting ways, focusing on taking and holding important points rather than just building expansion bases near clusters of resources, but they aren't going to revolutionize RTS gaming.

Story

On the one hand, the story is yet another close-friend-betrays-hero tale, but the developers managed to craft it without even the barest hint of surprise. It's so stupidly, mind-breakingly, blindingly obvious where the story is headed that it's almost painful to watch/listen. Yet on the other hand, there is one interesting plot twist at the very end, which presumably sets the stage for a future expansion or sequel. Suffice it to say that one doesn't end up caring about the story all that much. It serves its purpose as a flimsy pretext for magnificently over-the-top carnage, and that's all it needs to do (for this gamer at least).

Content

First, the obvious positives: DoW packs a nice number of buildings, units, upgrades, etc. into the mix. This isn't a shallow RTS game at all; it has quite a few different tactical possibilities. The environments are a bit too similar throughout the single-player campaign for my taste, but they do make sense in light of the entire story unfolding on a single planet. The number of missions is questionable, but a good selection of multi-player maps is included which offsets it somewhat in my mind.

Another obvious plus is the variety in the missions. Granted, all of them come down to killing the bad guys at some point, but the developers made an attempt to force the player to use stealth at times, cope with certain limitations of the terrain, and so forth. Although there isn't as much diversity in DoW as in some other RTS games, it is never so limited that it grows stale. I enjoyed all of the single-player missions, even if they were more of the same.

And why is that, dear reader? Because DoW rates pretty highly in the ol' fun-factor column despite its various shortcomings. The production values are so good, and the combat is so wonderfully brutal, that I never got tired of fighting as I have with other games. Whereas some RTS games grow stale pretty quickly, DoW kept me interested throughout the entire experience. And by the time I got to the really cool units, I was able to put them to all kinds of fun use. Seeing a predator tank blow the hell out of something with a single volley is really impressive.

Even the artificial intelligence (AI) deserves praise, I'm happy to say. Whereas it drove me nuts in Starcraft (SC), for example, that my units all had serious death-wishes (i.e., they'd march off to their doom at the barest hint of enemy provocation), the AI in DoW is more sophisticated. My squads genuinely seemed to pay attention to the orders I had given them. They sometimes abandoned ranged combat a bit soon for my liking, if I had them set to the versatile stance, but it wasn't anything obviously stupid—and that's saying a lot with the way most game AI sucks these days.

For the obvious negatives let's start with the fact that DoW is a bit short in the single-player aspect as RTS games go. Again as a comparison, SC gave the player three different campaigns, one for each of the three races, consisting of roughly thirty missions. In contrast, DoW gives the player a mere eleven missions and introduces the player only to the Space Marines faction. The game fortunately includes skirmish tutorials for the other three races (Forces of Chaos, Eldar, and Orks), but these are buggy—about which more in a moment—but they're so repetitious as to be boring. The game feels quite unfinished compared to the other RTS games I've played, even though I did get a solid sixteen hours out of the single-player campaign.

My most serious complaint, however, is that the game remains rather buggy, even after three separate patches from the developers. Of all the games I play, DoW is one of the buggiest, requiring me to tweak my BIOS settings and turn down the number of sounds in use just to get it to run without crashing frequently. And even after said tweaking, it still reboots the system, crashes back to the desktop, and gives me "SCARS AI error" messages (whatever that means) when trying to run the skirmish tutorials. Perhaps it's got something to do with my video card or other hardware; I don't know. What I do know is that I either had to be paranoid about saving or lose my progress, which definitely took away from the fun of the game.

Multi-Player

The game ships with one and only one game mode, which is something of a disappointment for those of us who fell in love with games like Myth II: Soulblighter (M2), but even still it's fun. The races seem reasonably well balanced, though this seems largely because they're quite similar in many respects, and I didn't find any obviously unstoppable tactics. It does seem a bit easier to avoid the "rush" when playing as Orks, largely because of all the armed waagh towers that must be built, but maybe that's not such a limitation for seasoned players.

I must confess that I haven't played the multi-player aspect all that much. For whatever it's worth, it just doesn't grab me like SC or M2. Whereas I played literally hundreds of multi-player games of SC and dozens of M2, DoW just doesn't have the same fun factor. Honestly, I think those two RTS games ruined me for games that fall short of their greatness. I really wanted DoW to be the next SC on my hard drive, sucking me back in for years to come, but I don't think it's going to do that.

Conclusion

In the final analysis, DoW has some clear strengths and weaknesses. It has some of the coolest combat animations ever seen in an RTS game. There is nothing like watching a dreadnaught go wading into the thick of the enemy, knocking back the entire line with one "hand" or squeezing some hapless unit to death in the other. The combat in DoW goes far beyond the regular RTS fare, positively dripping with brutal fighting moves that soak the ground with the enemy's blood. For that reason alone, I find it a lot of fun to play. The carnage is just so over-the-top that it's impossible for me not to like it.

Yet in all honesty the game comes up short in the single-player campaign and doesn't seem all that compelling, to me at least, in its multi-player aspect. I figure it was probably worth the money I spent on it because I'll likely play through it again. I do remain disappointed, though, because I was really hoping it would be the next great RTS game, the one that would finally make me stop pining for a Starcraft 2. Maybe an expansion pack or a sequel will do that for DoW, but I rather doubt it.

In closing , I'd have to say that die-hard RTS fans will be safe buying DoW. People new to the genre could do better, in my estimation, by picking up a copy of SC on the cheap, but DoW does provide a reasonably painless introduction to RTS games in general. The trick in making a purchase decision is to figure out whether the high-quality production values are going to entertain you enough to make up for the short single-player campaign and the fun-but-not-outstanding multi-player aspect. In my case it was worth it, but I can't heartily recommend DoW to everyone.

Reviewed by Phileosophos
http://www.geocities.com/phileosophos

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