Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War
21st Sep 2004 | 14:53
As gamers we expect certain things from our game developers. Of id Software we ask only that it provides us with a new 3D engine every five years or so, one so advanced it will power another half-decade of first-person action. Of LucasArts we vainly hope that at least one of the trio of Star Wars games in a particular year will fulfil our Force-fed fantasies, while from the latest no-name Eastern European codeshop we expect not very much at all.
From Relic, creator of the wondrously epic Homeworld and the indulgent, whacked-out Impossible Creatures, we've come to expect games of distinction and individuality, and although Dawn Of War has a few problems, lack of identity isn't one of them. Against the morass of other RTS titles that demand your attention, Dawn Of War certainly stands out.
Partly, the game's unique appeal comes from the Warhammer 40,000 setting, which to the uninitiated could be likened to a kind of Lord Of The Rings in space, only darker and far more brutal. It's these qualities that Relic has endeavoured to capture, rather than the impassive atmosphere of the more static tabletop Warhammer 40K wargame. Warhammer fans will not be disappointed however, for in distilling the comprehensive 40K rule system, Dawn Of War achieves a potent and frantic level of gameplay.
Back To Basics
Aside from the graphics - more on which later - Dawn Of War doesn't stray too far from established RTS precepts. Each level invariably begins with a handful of units stationed around your stronghold and a clear aim to harvest enough resources to fund the future conflict. However, instead of wood, gold or oil, the currency of import is Requisition - capture certain Strategic Points or mission objectives and the Requisition rate goes up. If the enemy takes back these locations, it decreases and your ability to bring expensive units to the battlefield is somewhat diminished. Additionally you have limits on how many units you can field, either squads or support vehicles, which can be increased by upgrading certain buildings and conducting research. To all intents and purposes however, it's the same game mechanic that drove C&C over a decade ago: build a base, collect a mass of troops and dash them against the enemy until victorious. Load next level, repeat.
While there are four playable races for Skirmish and multiplayer games, only the Space Marines are available during the single-player campaign. Here, you play the commander of the renowned Blood Ravens, sent to the planet Tartarus to put a stop to an Ork invasion. As it turns out, the swarming Orks are just a diversion and over the course of the first few missions, it's revealed that the real enemy are the demonic forces of Chaos.
As a simple mechanic to dripfeed new units to you the storyline works well, even if it is a bit obvious and heavy-handed. The voices and dialogue are excellent however, with the Orks sporting the now-standard English thug accent, while the Marine vocals are of the booming 'thou art' variety - all in keeping with the fantasy setting. The cut-scenes, which show off the 3D engine's capacity to render impressive close-up detail (for an RTS at least) also help propel the game along at a healthy pace, but the problem with the single-player game is the gameplay itself. Here's the rub: aside from a couple of early missions where the enemy is on the offensive, each mission and the means to complete it are invariably the same as the last. While there is an impressive variety of units on offer and a great deal of tactical flexibility required to beat off human enemies, the AI-assisted foes are not so subtle - wall yourself in, build up insane levels of resources and then burst out and wipe away all before you in a staged advance. Works every time.
Ultimately, it's the visuals rather than the strategy that will endear Warhammer to the interactive generation, and it isn't stretching things to proclaim Dawn Of War one of the best-looking strategy games we've ever played. High detail models of Space Marines, Chaos Demons, Ork Killa Kans and Eldar Farseers stride around in all their high-polygon finery. Every unit looks spot-on, but it's the animation that really cherries the cake. Take the lumbering Dreadnoughts for example, which will pick up an enemy troop, impale and either slice the body in two, or whisk it until it's drained of blood and throw the corpse aside.
Many strategy games offer the option to zoom in on the action, with little or no benefit. Here the camera is an essential aid in appreciating the carnage Relic has choreographed. In one memorable encounter, a unit of Space Marines was being cut to pieces by Eldar Banshees (close-combat specialists) and as the last Marine fell to his knees, his victor lowered her sword, pulled out a Shuriken Pistol and submitted the last rites. It was a wonderfully dramatic moment and just one of many in a battle that can easily be missed as the camera zooms across the map.
Without wanting to appear shallow, Dawn Of War is initially a game that's far more impressive to look at than it is to play. The scripted AI in the single-player modes doesn't hold much of a challenge on the regular difficulty setting, while the unchanging mission objectives let down the variety of foes and units on offer. Perhaps if aspects like elevation, changing weather conditions or buildings you could occupy had been incorporated, it might have added another layer of strategy to the game.
That said, what Dawn Of War does it does very well: it's fast, simple and glorious to look at, with an aesthetic to the gameplay that follows in the grand tradition of C&C, Warcraft and StarCraft. Were you a fan of those games it's difficult to envisage you being disappointed, certainly if you intend to play the game online. If, however, you prefer a more considered approach to tactics and strategy and a single-player campaign that will take more than a couple of days to exhaust, then perhaps it would be best to try something else. Dawn Of War is distinct and individual, it looks amazing, but it's no Total War.