I admit it – I’m a miniatures geek. I love building and meticulously painting my tiny squads of super-human, fanatical Space Marines or psychic, graceful Eldar. I adore building models of grav tanks, or spiked, skull-festooned troop carriers. I’m a sucker for placing my troops on the battlefield, maneuvering them for position, and then unleashing fiery death upon my enemies, it always brings a smile to my face.
I’m referring, of course, to Games Workshop’s perennially engrossing Warhammer 40,000, a tabletop miniatures war game that, despite its obvious potential and several past franchise titles, has yet to make a real impact on the world of PC gaming. Part of this challenge is, let’s face it, the game’s back-story overload; it’s a real challenge for any designer to do justice to such a dark, brooding game universe – especially one that tells the story of the far-flung armies of Humanity and their unceasing battle against the forces of Chaos.
So you can imagine my excitement when I learned several months ago that Relic (famed for their outstanding work on the award-winning Homeworld series) was spearheading the effort to turn Warhammer 40,000 into a Real-Time Strategy title.
However, I was prepared to be extremely hard-to-please where this game was concerned. Other titles (most recently Warhammer 40,000: Fire Warrior, which could be described as ?lukewarm at best’) had always left me with the feeling that Games Workshop had taken a second-best approach to licensing for PC games. I had been disappointed too many times to become overly excited, Relic’s sterling reputation notwithstanding.
I’m both pleased and relieved to announce that, finally, Relic have got Warhammer 40,000 right, and on a truly epic scale.
The game begins with a beautifully rendered movie introducing the brutal and close-up carnage you will soon be experiencing. The heavily armored Space Marines face off against hulking, green-skinned Orks, fighting over possession of some bone strewn hill with bolters, chain swords, flamers and missile launchers. This sets the perfect tone for the game, showing a player who might not be familiar with the Warhammer universe just how desperate and savage such battles will be.
Launching into the application proper, the player is then given the option to jump right into a tutorial, as well as to enter the virtual army painter area, where any of the game’s four playable races (Space Marines, Eldar, Ork and Chaos) can be customized with unique colors, banners and shoulder insignia. The interface for the army painter is clear-cut and will be familiar to anyone that’s played the Homeworld titles. What is not made clear, however, is that armies painted here are only usable in Skirmish mode, and not in the single-player game – which is what I really wanted. Checking online, I was pleased to see that, despite the fact that the game has only been out for a few weeks, there is already a notably active Mod community, and a wealth of customized graphics, banners and insignia have already been created, too. Once the SDK is released, giving the community the ability to export custom-made models, there’s nothing to stop Modders from adding new races, vehicles, structures and terrain elements. My mouth is already watering.
Launching into the tutorial, I was extremely pleased to note that all the structures and player models were rendered in loving detail. I was thrilled to see that I could zoom the camera all the way from an eagle’s-eye overview perspective right down to a close-up of a single unit. The level of detail in this game is positively amazing. When viewed close up, units shift stances and scan the battlefield; alert for any oncoming enemy or imminent threat. Energy auras play about hero units’ weaponry, combat armor is festooned with purity symbols, rivets, spikes, skull-shaped belt buckles, even chipped paint surrounds their armored joints. Knowing that Relic was making this game, and remembering the high level of detail evident in Homeworld and Homeworld 2 I was expecting something really spectacular?and they didn’t let me down.
But, the visual feast gets even better when units finally come into conflict. Battles are satisfying from the zoomed-back perspective but are positively spine-tingling when the camera is zoomed in close. Hearing the crunch and crackle of my Force Commander’s weapons and the screams of my enemies as they were duly dispatched was a real treat. Some of the weapon sounds did seem somewhat generic (energy-based weapons seemed tinny and did not feel as menacing as the visceral thud of the Marine bolters), but you quickly forget about this while watching your loyal hero units laying waste to entire squads of enemy models. Enormous Chaos demons fling your Marines in all directions as Eldar Avatars impale troops on their glowing runeblades, all of which is accompanied by fittingly accurate blood-curdling shrieks. This is not a game for the squeamish.
Like all RTS titles, constantly researching upgrades to your units is the game’s heart-and-soul. The designers chose to implement this not through a standard resource-gathering model (all your peons exist for building construction and repair exclusively), but rather through a strategic point system that rewards aggressive gameplay. Resource points, used to purchase squads, vehicles and upgrades, are awarded for taking and holding these strategic points, not by farming wood, minerals or some other generic substance. Relic also chose to use a secondary energy resource, obtained by building power stations, thereby adding strategic depth without forcing additional micro-management.
This economic system took a while for me to get used to, though. In games like Warcraft III, I tend to favor ?turtle’ type tactics, gathering resources and steadily building and reinforcing my base until it’s an impregnable fortress before I send out my attack troops. This kind of strategy is almost unworkable in Dawn of War, since the key requirement for building your army is venturing out and capturing strategic points. Cautious players will find themselves quickly overwhelmed by enemies that send out territory-capturing patrols. It’s a great gameplay design feature and one that uniquely captures the aggressive and highly mobile style of play that defines the tabletop Warhammer 40,000.
The game’s learning curve is a little steep, and is more challenging for some of the races (the Eldar, for example, have a wealth of different upgrades, some of which are not immediately understandable, even to someone like me who’s well versed in the world’s mythology). But, I was having too much fun watching the battles unfold in front of me to get frustrated during the dozen or so games where I was learning each race’s unique abilities and getting my clock thoroughly cleaned.
Despite the game’s wealth of RTS goodness there are some flaws. The lack of a custom key bind ability is particularly baffling, as this makes assigning hot-keys impossible. Given that there are so many commands, this would have been a really nice thing to have. Also, unit upgrades that have not yet been earned do not always show as ?grayed out’ in the HUD (as they do in other RTS games), making planning out your build strategy challenging, particularly when learning a new race’s tech tree. Lastly, the single-player campaign is written for the Space Marines only, and consists of a spare handful of missions (about a dozen). Beyond that, you have to satisfy yourself with Skirmish mode against the CPU or against other players in a multiplayer arena. I know that multiplayer is ?where it’s at’ for many RTS gamers, but I really would have liked to see single-player missions for all four races. Given the incredibly good single-player experience that Homeworld delivered, I expected something more from Warhammer 40,000 and Relic.
All-in-all, however, and these small complaints aside, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War is an instant classic and will, I desperately hope, spawn a new series of RTS titles set in this wonderfully dark and desperate universe.
Gameplay: 8 Battles are graphic and visceral. Controls will be familiar to any RTS veteran and are always well implemented. The ability to assign custom key binds and to see all upcoming unit upgrades on the HUD would have upped the score though.
Graphics: 9 Even on my not-so-killer rig (an aging AMD 2100+ with an ATI 9800 video card) battles were smooth and looked fantastic no matter how much camera zoom I applied. The dark, brooding gothic accents found in abundance all over the game world perfectly capture the feeling of this war-torn universe.
Sound: 7 Combat sound effects are great. The game’s voice acting is definitely better than any previous Warhammer title I’ve played, but the bad guy contingent still persist in flamboyant melodrama, hissing out their lines in overly-menacing tones. Audio cues are sometimes far too long. A simple “Acknowledged” often would’ve sufficed; issuing orders and hearing my peons respond with things like “Entire worlds are built on my song!” (for the thousandth time), had me hunting through the Options screen for a way to disable unit voices!
Value: 8 If there had been worthy single-player campaigns for all four races then Dawn of War would have merited an easy 10 for value. I hope the rumors of mission builder and map editor components in the soon-to-be-released SDK prove to be true. There are a satisfying number of Skirmish maps for player loads from 2-8.
Curve: 7 As an avowed Warhammer 40,000 tabletop fan I admit I was predisposed to like this game. However, I think its tight controls, unique economic system, and challenging enemy AI make Dawn of War an RTS experience that will redefine the genre. Plus, there is still so much additional 40,000 back-story that this game didn’t even touch on that the potential for unique and interesting add-ons is simply mind-boggling.