Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War
For all the experience and clout Warhammer 40K brings to the table(top), its appearance on the PC as a strategy game this year strikes me as unspectacular. It’s solid, sure, but does the PC really need more real-time strategy games that are simply ‘solid’? I suppose it’s important to keep franchises and stuff from fading away and all, but one would hope to see more ambition out of a game belonging to such a stagnated genre. Dawn of War‘s greatest triumph may just be that you can change your unit’s weapons on the fly. Other than that, it tries to snake by with flashy special effects and little else.
For some, this might be all it needs to do, but once you’ve mucked through Command & Conquer, Age of Empires, Age of Mythology, Warcraft, and countless others, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War has limited propaganda to toss your way. It’s like George W. Bush attempting to explain environmental policy — it just can’t make a case. What it might need is some innovation, but, to THQ’s credit, this is easier said than done. Warcraft 3 managed to make the grade with the idea of ‘creeping’ and improvable heroes; Age of Mythology with god-powers; but these are the exceptions to the rule. Real-time strategy has been thoroughly explored to the extent that there’s very little potential left to unearth.
So what games are doing now, apparently, is making their explosions the biggest, their buildings the flashiest and their combat the bloodiest. And this does have appeal to an extent. It’s certainly better than the days of the original Warcraft‘s single-frame deaths and three stages of building. Dawn of War has a lot of neat things to look at, and one of the neatest may just be watching a campaign boss glancingly drive his ten foot sword through a unit’s head to an applause of bloody mist. Physics can be stunning as well. Tanks’ ground shots can make deep craters and put the nearest ten units on their backs some one hundred yards away. Even buildings arrive in a grandiose fashion, being delivered from planetary orbit to the designated spot, and kicking up a cloud of dust and amazement in the process.
But this stuff tapers off after a while. You start to grow accustomed to it. Then it’s time to find something else to do, and in that respect W40K: Dawn of War offers up the industry standard of RTS elements, which resembles an ant colony if you think about it (warriors, workers and queens). There are four races available, and each has the same means to their end: acquire resources, build buildings, research technologies, train troops, conquer. There’s little deviation aside from that. The Space Marines represent justice and purity, the Eldars silence and mystery, the Orks battle and pride, and the forces of Chaos, well, general evil-type stuff (in the campaign, they try to resurrect an ancient demon and it turns on them — surprise, surprise) But they’re all on equal ground when it comes to standard one-player games or multiplayer games.
Outside of that, there’s a campaign to explore, but only one. It’s the standard good vs. evil spiel with eleven missions to trudge through, and even a grating tutorial which can, thankfully, be bypassed in favor of the missions themselves. The big problem is that it’ll only take you a day or two of steady playing to beat. This might be Dawn of War‘s highlight, sadly. Multiplayer types will of course go straight to the Gamespy servers, but if you’re not sporting a fast connection your options can be depressing. There’s a neat program that allows you to customize your army’s banner color, but who’s going to see it? Even the map choices for custom games are lacking.
The AI is no Albert I-nestein either. Many RTS games have well-programmed computer AI, and while it’s not always the most rewarding investment, a lack of it is eventually going to attract the player’s attention and encourage exploits. This is especially true in Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War. Some of the biggest campaign bosses can be ran in circles indefinitely by one unit while the rest of the units hammer away at it, amounting to a spotless victory for the player. There also isn’t a great priority system. Enemies simply seem to attack what’s nearest to them, with no regard for the potential threat of it. Loftily-set reaction times are also an issue. I’ve seen enemies hammer away at a building for 20 seconds — while under fire — before turning to attack your troop. It’s troublesome to say the least.
A typical game will proceed as follows: you start out with a base building, from which most of your core research is done (like AoE’s ages or Warcraft‘s town hall upgrades). You also have the typical working-class unit (workers). The working-class unit goes around and builds stuff to advance your civilization. One of the things they can build is outposts, on top of Strategic Points, which are scattered about the map. Strategic points, when captured, provide one of the game’s two resources, called Requisition. The other is called Power. The former fuels mostly unit production, and the latter is a big component in constructing buildings. Power, however, is earned from a standalone building that doesn’t rely on specific map points, although high-end power generators can be placed on rare areas called Slag Points.
There are also the fighting-class units(warriors), and the leaders (queens) who can preside over them. Vehicles also figure into the equation. These are all made from separate structures. They have caps, too, which reside on the low end as far as RTS population limits go. There are two levels to the units. The lowest level can be made as soon as a barracks or vehicle yard is dropped down, but the highest level requires maximum technological achievements along with a captured relic, which, like Slag Points, are rare entities on a map. Also, when units are trained, they don’t simply come out one by one; they’re arranged into inseparable squadrons. Unique leaders can spearhead these squadrons, and sergeants can later be added to provide occasional morale boosts.
If a squad’s morale gets low, they fight worse. This goes hand-in-hand with losing members. For every loss, morale lowers. Squads themselves can be reinforced with new units, but in the heat of a battle, it often takes a sergeant to reinforce the overall morale. There’s also the issue of upgrades. Neatly, Dawn of War allows the player to ugprade squad weapons on the fly, without the liability of having to visit the base every time. Cool abilities can be added to squads’ arsenals, too, like Frag Grenades and bombs. But this is done from the base, and can be done alongside other technologies like Bionics (increased squad hitpoints), Plasma Swords (increased damage) and Target Finding (increased accuracy).
In fact, many such technologies can be researched. Not all are limited to squadrons either. Unique leaders, like commanders and mage-warlords, have an impressive array of potential modifications available. There are also general improvements, such as increased requisition and power gathering, along with greater unit and vehicle caps, which can all be made from a base. And bases can be built anywhere, assuming there’s a strategic point fitted with an outpost nearby. This allows for a fair amount of strategy, although there comes a point when further expansion is counter-intuitive.
Not only will you reach your vehicle and squad caps, but you won’t be able to keep up with all of the buildings if you construct too many. It’s difficult to keep up with one base, let alone two. But this isn’t necessarily a problem of real-time strategy in general. Most games have some sort of hotkey interface that allows you to go from building to building, and Dawn of War might be the first I’ve seen in a while which doesn’t. Hell, most games at least let you customize your hotkeys. There’s nothing of the sort here, although you can number buildings (and units) from 1-10 and cycle between them that way. It’s just that you run out of room eventually. It’s also not convenient to have your left hand flying from one side of the keyboard to the other trying to alternate between so many different things at once. Maybe a better alternative would have been to put all the preset hotkeys on one side of the keyboard?
Aside from that, W40K: Dawn of War doesn’t really mess up on anything, so much as it does exclude stuff. It’s got some talented artists plus a great composer (Jeremy Soule) on its side. It’s also likely one of the most graphically impressive (and intensive) RTS games to be released this quarter. The developers even promise an expansion in the future, although whether it’ll be necessary to purchase it or not isn’t quite clear. Really, what it boils down to is that this isn’t anything new for players to experience. It’s the same old formula in a new package, with a new name and new ways to animate the whole process.