10 Years of Dawn of War

warhammerdowI was surprised to learn today that it’s been 10 years since the release of the original Dawn of War game. This auspicious occasion couldn’t be marked without a few words about a game that I not only invested hours of my life in but helped redefine the RTS genre.

When I first heard about the game I don’t mind saying that I was not optimistic. Up to then all the Games Workshop video games had been pretty shit. With the possible exception of the Space Hulk game on the Amiga and Commodore 64. Yes, I’m that old. Sod off. However as details began to emerge about gameplay – such as making use of hard and soft cover, as well as some semblance of a force organisation chart – I started to grow more positive.

Then I saw the graphics. Whilst it looks a little dated now, at the time they looked pretty sweet. The environment felt like the 41st Millennium. The Space Marines were a loyal representation. The animation was believable. And the finishing moves for each of the commanders was awesome. And best of all you could zoom right down into the action. Granted you needed a pretty meaty machine (10 years ago) to do that and it not crash but that was and is the joy of PC gaming.

When my copy arrived and I went through the lengthy install process then hit play. And I’m so very glad I did. The opening cut scene even now looks awesome. It bugs the living hell out of me because those few Orks could never take down a squad of Space Marines. And no sane Space Marine squad sergeant would allow his unit to meet a mob of Orks in open combat, but as I say, it looks awesome.

Actually it was awe inspiring. Those kinds of animations were rarely seen let alone in a Games Workshop computer game. Moreover it declared to the world that an animated Space Marine movie was possible. We’ve had one stab at it already and the fan made Lord Inquisitor on its way. One day… But the point is that it set imaginations on fire.

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The campaign was a little ropey in terms of plot and voice acting. It was caught in that classic trap of a publisher wanting it to be accessible to non-fans and a team of writers who knew the lore but couldn’t write very well. But well enough that the campaign trundled along quite happily albeit laboriously at times. I do confess to being quite glad it was over when I finished the final mission.

What it did do very well was encourage different styles of play and tactical decisions rather than the classic ‘build a base, build loads of blokes’ approach. Which whilst fun is never gonna win you the big scores in the press.

The game also introduced us to the Blood Ravens. A most intriguing bunch who I guessed from the get-go their true origins. A chapter that likes psykers and wears red and bone armour. Remind you of anyone? That aside, they’ve become a part of the 40k lore and I’ve seen many an army take to the table. Which I think is a benchmark of the game’s success. That it’s influencing hobby as well as the hobby influencing it.

That said, it was never the plot that made Dawn of War the game we know and love today. It was how faithfully the models had been lifted from the table and put into a PC game. No one had tried to be clever with the styling or reinvent the wheel. They looked like rendered models kicking the living shit out of each other and that was and is awesome. It was incredibly satisfying watching a tactical squad take apart a unit of Ork Boyz. And the first time a Land Raider rolled off the production line and opened up with its lascannons was a very special moment.

However, where the game got really fun was the skirmish mode. 4 players, either online or AI or both, racing to build a base and kick the living daylights out of each other. My online experiences were tarnished by people running a force commander into my base, calling down a lance strike to cripple my capacity to do, well, anything and then suffer the indignity of sitting and watching a single tactical squad slowly shoot the few buildings that survived to pieces. However, if you went up against an opponent that wasn’t a total bell end it was the best fun. And you could spend hours with the delicate dance of war.

One of my favourite memories was a game against a vastly superior player to me. He was out foxing me at every turn and it was only through sheer tenacity I was able to hold him back long enough to force a withdrawal. Up to this point I’d been putting my efforts into building a strike force so instead I put everything I had into building an overlapping defence network with a few Dreadnoughts in amongst there as well. By the time the inevitable attack came there were so many heavy bolter turrets opening up that entire secitons of the map weren’t visible. And by this point I had a few squads in reserve so once committed what was a holding action became a route and I was able to roll up his force and destroy his base. It truly was a superb game.

And that’s really the point. Dawn of War is a superb game. The supplements kept the game fresh and kept fans of the armies happy. Although I never completed the Winter Assault campaign. I just found using the Imperial Guard tedious. Which is exactly how I feel about using them on the board so they clearly got the feel for the army dead on.

It’s times like this that you realise how much you enjoyed something and the only reason you stopped playing was because you forgot you had it. It’s easy to blame time but the reality is that we all filled our days with new games like Dawn of War II – which I just couldn’t get on with – and left it on a shelf to collect dust and ultimately get sold on.

But for those that did sell on your copies – you fools! – you’re in luck. The lovely people over at Relic are doing a competition to celebrate Dawn of War’s anniversary by giving away a big pile of cool shit including the games. Head over to their site to find out how you could win.

And remember, only in death does duty end… Ugh.

-Phil

Space Marine – The Full Review

Following my first look review a couple of weeks ago, I thought it best to write a follow-up now I finally have my grubby little mits on the full game. Now, I’m going to break from my usual ramblings and try to do this in a structured fashion to give you, my loyal readers, a balanced opinion. I’ll break it down in to 40kishness, Gameplay & Graphics.

40kishness
To explain; I’ve been doing the Games Workshop hobby for 22 years and for about 20 of them have been immersed in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. And 8 years of that I have been collecting Ultramarines. I have two full companies in fact. Not that I’m obsessive or anything.

So ’40kishness’ is a very important to me as there’s been a few Warhammer 40,000 titles over the years and although they’ve had various levels of success – the most successful up to this point being the Dawn of War series – and for me they’ve never quite got the 40kishness right. They’ve come pretty damn close, but it never felt right.

Space Marine had some pretty high expectations to meet. Not just for the look of the Space Marines, to how they moved, the weapons, the buildings. Pretty much everything. And, all things considered Relic did a pretty good job. The Space Marines especially look awesome. The world they created is very loyal to the Warhammer 40,000 universe. My problem with Dawn of War was that the environments always felt a little improvised. An after thought almost. But in Space Marine the environments are well thought out and massive. The sense of scale is there in spades. High vaulted ceilings, cathedral-like chambers and massive open spaces. The other thing that really impressed me was the little details. Elements of the plastic scenery kits popping up on walls and consoles. The door controls match those on the kits too. The aquila stamped on everything is a nice touch too.

The plot is suitably 40kish too. Forgeworld comes under Ork invasion, 3 Space Marines are dispatched. Between them much stuff is broken. I really liked the fact that only 3 marines were initially sent seeing as a battle company could reclaim a star system. It felt like the person holding the pen really understood the universe he or she was writing about. And I’m grateful for that fact. They also managed to capture the menace of both the Orks and the Chaos factions. And neither one felt comical, something Dawn of War can’t claim.

There’s a couple of conventions don’t quite work for me. How you get new weapons is daft as, as the game goes on, discarded weapons are scattered about to allow you to re-arm. One or the other if you please Mr Games Developer. Also the ability to carry 4 weapons s a perculiar departure from the current 2 weapon convention of just about every shooter around. It allows you to have a variety of weapons to choose from, but as weapons are scattered about the levels there’s really no point in forcing players to make a choice because there will never be a part of the game that a bolter won’t get you through it, let alone a plasma gun or lascannon.

Gameplay
As you’re hopefully aware Space Marine is a third person shooter, a first for a Games Workshop game. And it works rather well, allowing the player to view the entire landscape. I will say, though, that the camera isn’t always a team player and its angle will mean that sometimes you get stuck on the tiniest piece of rubble that you can’t quite see or, when the combat gets really nasty, the camera will focus on Captain Titus’ chest. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a terribly heroic and manly chest but I’d much rather see the thing trying to cave my skull in.

One of the biggest draws of this game was the boast that the flow between ranged and melee combat was seamless. And it is. Wonderfully, brutally, violently so. In fact, whether by design or by accident, the gameplay captures the nature of war in the Warhammer 40,000 universe perfectly. It’s an exhilarating thing; standing your ground whilst hordes of Orks rush you. If you’re lucky you’ll manage to empty 2 clips into those green-skinned bastards before they’re amongst you and then it’s down to your wits and how hard you can hammer the X button. Which is awesome.

Space Marine also features execution moves which are utterly spectacular and a key part of the way the game is played. As you take damage, and you will, you can perform executions, by stunning your opponent then kicking seven shades of shit out of him, to regain your health. The intention being to force you into brutal melee. The only other way is to unleash your ‘fury’ which is essentially like a combo-metre and filled by killing things. Once activated you become faster and more devastating than just about anything. It also regenerates your health. I did find, though, that it’s so rarely needed and I find myself reluctant to use it unless absolutely necessary just in case something bigger than me rocked up. But when it happens it is an insane amount of fun. I managed to take on 3 Nobz at once whilst under the influence of fury. I actually felt bad for them. The last one to fall I actually managed to stun then pin it to the flow with my power axe then twist its head off its neck. I shit you not, I’ve been playing video games for 27 years and that was the single greatest moment of gaming I’ve ever had.

The toys that Space Marine brings to the party gives you plenty to smile about, including a jump pack that allows you to deliver a ground shattering drop attack, and a thunder hammer. And yes it is as awesome as you imagine it is. The choice of ranged weapons will also get most 40k players hot and hard; from the trusty bolter to the meltagun, which literally evaporates things. The heavy bolter and autocannon are also a silly amount of fun. I now know what ‘drunk with power’ means. Plus there’s no shortage of enemies to point them at. But this actually brings me to my first irritation. The damage mechanic when it comes to ranged combat seems a little broken. Now this is either down to the developers trying to make the game challenging or having not read the Ork codex. Ranged fire does an alarming amount of damage to your plucky Space Marine which is strange for a game that encourages you to run head long into the fray because by the time you get there you’re often in no fit state to do anything. The reality is standing your ground, often times behind the huge amounts of cover (considering it isn’t a cover based shooter) trying to pick off the ranged fuckers leaving you clear to get stuck in. Which actually gets kinda dull, and if it weren’t for the plot moving things forward the game would get old very quickly.

Considering this is a game for fans the ranged combat lets it down a little bit. For example, you can take an Ork Boy down with two bolt rounds to the head. A Tank Busta, which is no different to a regular Ork other than its armament , can take half a magazine to drop. I could forgive the game if it applies to just ‘Ard Boyz but it doesn’t. And considering the frequency of the Tank Bustas and the number of rockets they fire, it’s a pain in the arse. I was also eagerly awaiting the use of the lascannon in the hope that I’d get the opportunity to blow up vehicles and the like but it’s used primarily as a sniper rifle which is as stupid as it is disappointing. That’s not to say I haven’t used it repeatedly during play but it’s an easy option and, because of its power, you find yourself taking it over the other weapons available.

To be fair the weapons, generally are really satisfying to use. The tremendous amounts of blood produced by a bolt shell going through someones head is quite rewarding in a depraved sort of way but you can’t help but thrive on it. The sheer amount of destruction you can unleash on your foes is intoxicating. And because of the execution moves you can perform giving you those often game saving health boosts you feel as invincible as you should as a Space Marine and something so important to capture to make this game a success. A Space Marine can sustain huge amounts of damage to their bodies before they die. Add a fucking massive suit of power armour over the top of that and you have a post human that can put their fist through tank armour. If you’re going to go striding through a war-torn world with a fire arm that fires mass reactive ammunition you need to feel like a double hard bastard. And Space Marine really delivers on that expectation.

Where it does fall a bit flat is the aforementioned glitchy engine so you will get stuck on the seemingly harmless bits of detritus or the area of effect for the cover you’re standing behind will extend past it so your precious lascannon shot hits a solid wall of nothing instead of the target the scope is telling you is under the cross hairs. I discarded a spent heavy bolter and it became an immovable, impassable object but a fellow Space Marine was able to walk right through a solid metal container. And that’s the real disappointment of the game. You have two Space Marines follow you around for the duration of the game. In theory they are just as fast, just as skilled and just as deadly as you. But they’re not. They’re rubbish. I could live with the fact that they kill nothing, ever, if only they’d use themselves as human shields because they’re immune to every single form of damage. And you can’t help but be resentful of that. Every time a grenade gets tossed at your feet you have to run in the opposite direction like a little bitch (and it will happen a lot) but your sub-ordinates stand there and take it like men, staring gormlessly at you. Presumably wondering how the hell you made it to captain.

Graphics
In a word? Beautiful. Pretty much everything that moves and shoots has been so loving created. The Space Marines themselves look incredible. If I’m honest, Space Marine is how the Ultramarines movie should have looked. The attention to detail on the armour, the faces, how they move, how they hold their gun when they sprint has all been so carefully considered and translates through to the gameplay. You feel as massive and as powerful as you should.

Similarly, the Orks are loping, brutal beasts and they, in fairness steal the show. Orks in previous Games Workshop games looked rubbish. Exaggerated jaws, spikey teeth that looked like they’d been drawn by children. In Space Marine the Orks look real. Relic has really thought about how these creatures, based on the Games Workshop’s realisation of them, would move and fight. But their features are amazingly animated.

Nothing that moves in this game will disappoint you. Even the wisps of sand caught in the wind look lovely. To be fair, the buildings, rubble, debris, sand, pipes, Roks, etc are all beautifully realised, it’s an incredible environment to behold and encourages you to explore, which is just as well as you’ll never find all the Servo Skulls if you don’t.

In the interests of balance, there’s a couple of little bits that disappoint, like the Adeptus Mechanicus seal on the walls just being a graphic rather than a 3-dimensional polygon structure. It’s a small niggle but it’s just a shame when things look better from a distance. Generally though, the world looks as it should. Knackered. Everything is broken, torn down, burnt, crumbling or in a state of decay and it looks brilliant. Especially when it constrasts to clear skies and the sun shining in the sky. It’s a slightly twisted contrast but it works and works really really well.

In Conclusion
Space Marine really is an excellent game. Yes it has a few niggles and you can often find your arrogant sense of immortality challenged by a shoota boy but not, strangely, by a Chaos Havoc with a plasma cannon, but what Space Marine is an enormous amount of fun and the first game that has successfully captured the incredible universe that the Games Workshop has created around the Warhmmer 40,000 game.

The combat is fast, visceral and enough of a challenge that you’ll thrive on your successes. Especially when you take on two dozen Orks at once and come out the other side drenched in blood and a little battered but utterly unbowed. I’d actually go so far as to say that Space Marine is quite a special game because it represents a massive leap forward not just for gaming by for Games Workshop’s evolution and its video game projects in the future. This will be the benchmark.

It’s not perfect. The little glitches can irritate and I’m not yet convinced of the replay value as finding all the servo skulls isn’t enough to make you slug your way through that war-torn world all over again. However, the totally bonkers level of action and combat will.

Were I the kind of person to give a game a score I’d give it a solid 8 out of 10 and I’ll end to say this; if you love 40k buy this game. If you don’t love 40k buy this game anyway because you won’t find a more action packed gaming experience anywhere else.