Friday, 27 February 2009

On Dawn of War (the PC games)

I've never owned painted or played with a Warhammer army, but I will admit to kind of liking the Aesthetic of the 'Space Marines': Fully armoured figures clomping along with their jet-packs and chainsaw swords, accompanied by those top heavy roboty things (“Dreadnoughts”) and brutally simple yet futuristicy tanks (“Land Cruisers”). I had heard DoW was a good game from a couple of people, so, with time to be killing, I just went and bought all 4 titles off the interwebs as a single package for under £15. And the DoW 2 demo came out on Steam while they were in the post.

Dawn of War (1): Before playing any real people I thought it best to learn the game mechanics and the faction specifics. The Campaign seems like a good place to do this, with more advanced units being unlocked with as missions advance, giving opportunity to learn to use everything. There's a helpful tutorial that'll try to force itself on you when one first plays the game too. Unfortunately you only ever command Space Marines (with a sprinkling of imperial guard units). For Orks, Eldar or Chaos you just has to jump straight into a skirmish.

The Campaign is a nice length though, and you come up against all the factions in turn, and at some point their super unit (e.g. Avatar of War, Dark Prince) with a cut scene forewarning you of impending doom, except for the “Squigilith” which just appears out the fog and takes a scary amount of killing. The cut scenes are animated with the game engine, thus the 'acting' is the opposite of smooth (and your can forget dubbing), but it somewhat endears you to the hero units who then toddle about on your field of play. The caricatured proportions of the hero unit's faces are a lot more interesting here than the bland looks they've acquired come the better graphics of the later installations.

A general (and sizeable) criticism of all the titles is the viewing angles (in play. The full 3D camera should be a boon, but one is forced to use it continuously, rotating your viewpoint to peer around enormously tall pieces of landscape that keep filling the screen. This precipitates the annoying side effect of total disorientation, particularly as you can never zoom out far enough to get your bearings. OK, so Supreme Commander has totally spoiled me with it's “Strategic Zoom” (allowing instantaneous scroll in/out to any magnification is sooo indispensable) but, while it seems like the DoW 3D engine could have handled it, one would then spend far too much time zoomed out, not looking at the very pretty units (and they are often pretty enough to demand being seen). So I play zoomed out as far as possible, and it still feels like watching a tennis match from the front row through a telescope when I'm hopelessly casting my view about the convoluted mission maps, trying to internalise the topologies that fail to show up on the wonky mini-map, so that I won't accidentally send my minions on a casual short-cut though the middle of an enemy base.

A minor, but nifty, redeeming feature of the camera mechanics is that colour coded silhouettes of units show through buildings and obstacles, making it easier to track down that nuisance construction unit that likes playing hide and seek. There's also the way water switches from transparent to reflective when viewed past a critical angle (total internal reflection IRL) and other little pieces of attention to detail. As with the Tabletop pieces, DoW is equal parts battle porn and strategy game.

Winter Assault comes across as having the most carefully crafted of the campaigns. In some of the earlier missions it seems a little too moulded with the player just jumping though hoops on demand. The switching of command between the alternative two factions, in each the “order” or “disorder” campaigns, redeems it, really helping the narrative to flow and avoid the stiltedness that often troubles single player RTS. In contrast to the earlier simplicity, the last mission (for all factions) is incredibly challenging, even on normal difficulty: on the second attempt, as Eldar, I had to continually pause play to check on all the various quarters of attack, just to have enough time to figure out what was happening and how to spread my limited resources even thinner. Quite rewarding though.

For Chaos Marines (and Imperial Gaurd), the penultimate mission is near immpossible, while the final mission is anticlimatically easy (contrasted against Eldar) as the Necron Temples are far weaker so can easily be destroyed with regular units or a Bloodthirster. I do like the way that uber demon is summoned (with a splat and lots of blood), but using the mission mechanism of harvesting Imperial Guard infantry to fill the blood pit twice seems a bit lazy, especiallygiven how frustratingly fiddly it can be.

Oh and for this game onwards the voice of the narrator has changed from one that was comically over dramatic, like the movies advert guy's bass tones, to someone's dad doing a bad impression of that guy; rubbish.

Dark Crusade introduces the two factions that I identify with most: the Tau, because they wear state of the art cyber suits with shed loads of guns and missiles to wage war in the year 40'000, which seems a lot more sensible than swords, axes. And the Necrons, who will have nothing to do with this infeasibly ubiquitous “requisition” resource, thankyouverymuch! (well, kind of) and have very artfully minimalist buildings too.

Having covered play using the first 5 factions in previous parts of campaigns in the first 2 titles, Relic apparently gave up trying to write an involving narrative featuring the 7 now available, instead sculpting a single mission in which each race is defeated (and presumable 7 factorial end blurbs) and padding it out with a Risk board game style, world domination set up. Apart from providing an epic volume of game play, even to complete the campaign as just one of the factions, it stumbles because the, supposedly, less fortified territories are initially nearly impossible to win compared to the scripted missions with their well balanced challenges. You are basically just landed in a skirmish with an AI that has a pre built base and a tendency to rush you with everything as soon as it's built a full army; the only way to prevail is by somehow taking out their HQ first, provided there's not another 3 hidden around the corner. Then defending your territories is a choice between loosing by default with “Auto Resolve” or loosing at some length in a very unfair fight, unless u managed to fortify the entire map before winning the map the last time around. Base structures are stored for later, which is kind of cool, but leads to an obsessive behaviour of camping on the enemy's last HQ while constructing listening posts on *every single last* requisition point. Once you reach the end of the 'campaign trail' your accumulated honour guard allows you circumvent all the earlier heart-ache by going directly for HQ destruction and forgetting what all the fuss was about.

From the couple of territories I've captured in Soul Storm, I get the feeling that Relic (having decided to stick with the massive Risk campaign format) made the much needed adjustments to the AI's tactics in the unscripted 'missions'; even when I was pratting about playing Dark Eldar for the first time ever, I didn't get inundated by a massive wave of every single unit the enemy could muster. In fact, even after I provoked a counter attack they stopped short of finishing me off after ploughing though one of my bases. Conversely, an opponent that is continuously balanced to play as hard as you makes things a bit dull; a control loop designed to keep play in a nice, safe stalemate. (though I've only the observations of one match for this theory).

Frankly, I don't like the new factions. I don't know anything about the 40K universe to know whether they were conjured specifically for this game or not, but: Dark Eldar seem pretty uninspired Chaos esq derivative with a dingy purple colour scheme, lots of blades and points, the flying wing boards from Spiderman's Green Goblin and some levitating barges, complete with shackled wenches, from Gabber the Hut (in Return of the Jedi). All that's left is a camp, evil, ugly supper villain up front, giving the whole faction a (David Bowie in) Labyrinth feel.

The Sisters of Mercy Battle have a more solid leitmotif, but it is totally LOLable when they are introduced (particularly unbelievable said in the crappy new narrator's voice) as the “most feared” faction (because they're crazy religious nuts; as if the rest aren't?!). And they totally fail to sex up the game either, with the Commander's bizarrely shaped armoured brazier, making Madona's oddest fashion accessories look like well fitted M&S lingerie. Even the semi-naked woman strapped to the front of a mecha fails to titillate. Am I'm missing the point and they're just trying to reach out to female gamers...... ROFLMAO!; as if there was ever any franchise that was less appealing to the female population?! Anyway, both factions seem underpowered, particularly the Dark Eldar who have a ludicrously low unit cap (unless I was doing something very wrong).

The false promise of increased choice: if you happen to own one of the factions in lead figure form, all painted up next to a pile of books that tell their back story, then you will probably be pretty keen to play as that faction, and there's little chance you'll be disappointed here, whichever faction you covet. However, the remaining, easy-going gamer folk have a monumental decision to make as to which faction's glib characteristics to be stuck with for the next million missions. It's an example of greater choice equating to greater regret that you still (might have) picked the wrong option. That's just way too stressful for a game IMHO.

The all new Aeroplane type units suck. They're not hovercraft nor popper planes, but something in between. There's plenty of terrain they can't fly over, so they fall foul of distributed defences like an uncloaked scout and can be shot at by nearly anything as they hang in the air near their target like great big turds, slowly killing. And for all their ineffectiveness, a single enemy plane appearing in the least protected part of your base is highly inconvenient tactically, and is unsightly to boot.

Manually entering the CD key from each previous title, in order to play as any of the factions, was starting to get a bit ridiculous by the time I got to Soul Storm, but that was a more fun that transformer-kittens compared to the debacle of registering to play the DoW2 demo!: When it turns out that you *have* to have an Micro$oft Live account for the privilege of playing is offputting enough, but after downloading over 2Gb of game through Steam I persevered... and kept persevering for another half hour or so after installation.

The process of signing up is more like a test of wits and determination to weed out the unworthy. U have to sign in with your “XBox” account at one point during account creation (ironic given this title's not being released on Xbox so i'm told). This was after finally figuring out how a “Gammer Tag” related to my Live account ID (despite the provided help documentation not mentioning anything about this entity) and before the Internet Explorer Window (that it insisted on opening up despite Opera being my default browser) was crashed the CAPTHA at the bottom of my personal details form. I was forced to search the web for the account management site in a proper browser.... grrr!

This game uses 3 of the original armies, and even preserves most of the units from the first DoW, but is a massive departure when it comes to game play. It is no longer an RTS in my opinion, because it is entirely about knowing each individual unit/squad inside-out so as to micro-manage them and their unique abilities in battle; there are no buildings to be built at all. What's left is (I imagine) more directly analogous to the original, table-top game, except way faster with much prettier and more voluminous scenery.

The Trailer(s) for the game is very cool, but I found the reality of the exclusively online multi-player demo utterly frustrating. If I hadn't have had a friend to play against I don't think I would ever have been given the chance to control any tier 3 units. The auto-match system seems to enjoy setting complete novices against level 14 players and such, giving little chance to figure out what the hell's going on.

Despite all my gripes I have bought the full game, but from Amazon for £20, as opposed to the full £35 on steam, which is still more than I paid for the complete collection of all 4 previous titles. There's a lot to be said for patience when it comes to the cost of computer gaming.

My sci/tech analysis of the Dawn of War universe:
There has presumably been interplanetary war for 40'000 years and the technology of the combatants is still pre-singularity, i.e. there are no superhuman intelligences knocking about and no use of self-replicating nanotechnology, etc. This is, of course, necessary to have the type of scenarios depicted, not representative of a philosophical standpoint on the advancement of technology. After all, clunky armour and chain-swords are visually appealing and fit in with gory visuals that should satisfy the like of morbid teenage gamers.

Towards integration with the real world: The whole universe could be a simulation, enabling arbitrary laws of physics, etc. Failing that, this part of the universe could be in a 'Slow Zone' (a la “A Fire on the Deep”), afterall they even have “Warp Storms” in both. But we'll leave those Deus ex machina aside for now.

There's anti-gravity, teleportation and cloaking, but these are perhaps throw-backs from a higher level of society in the hay day of the Eldar. Interplanetary travel is via something like wormholes, which have been totally acceptable as a staple of 'hard' sci-fi for some time. The Orks only steal technology, perhaps being biologically incapable of developing it themselves. The Eldar are noting but remnants of a civilisation, now too thinly spread to re-gain their previous lofty heights. The human factions are entirely caught up with religious fundamentalism, blocking scientific advance even more effectively than did Rome in the time of Galileo. The Tau are the most promising technologically, with they groovy cyber-suits the most realistically advanced fighting force. I think these guys were a jumble of species that were uplifted to consciousness relatively recently. Consider also their communist ethos and perhaps you could mumble together a partially convincing excuse for their steady state society.

Chaos heavily use magic, seemingly an insurmountable contradiction with reality. It is terribly reminiscent, to me, of Charles Stross's “The Atrocity Achieves”, the mix of contemporary war technology, sacrificially powered symbology, that can still almost fit with reality, though in a massive conspiracy theory kind of way. Anyway, this could just be a way to interface with the higher level of implementation (in an aforementioned simulation), or of communing with post-Singularity, god-like entities. Khorne (perhaps ensnared by fellow gods), is an evil genie in a bottle, somewhat like the intelligence in “Lascaille's Shroud” (of Reynold's “Revelation Space”), or the malevolence intelligence in a parallel universe revealed at the end of his “Absolution Gap”. In this analogy the Necrons would certainly fit the part of the “Wolves”: awoken by sentient life, they then seek only to purge the galaxy of it.

So in my opinion, much like the nonsensical state of interplanetary human colonisation in Stross's “Singularity Sky”, the DoW universe would be most sensibly set in a post-Singularity environment.

[All screen shots taken by me]


  1. For the 40K universe to make any sense you have to start by buying into the "psychic" element of their reality.

    Once you've accepted that "the warp" exists as a kind of mentally impressionable hyperspace, constantly being moulded and remade by the thoughts of sentient beings in our plane of reality, it all makes a little more sense.

    The chaos gods, and all the other creatures within the warp, are meant to be reflections of the collective minds of people in "normal" space, and as such basically exist because people believe in them.

    Granted, the idea might immediately seem a little silly, but it's not like it's without precident. Nightsdawn springs immdiately to mind as being at least importantly similar.

    The actual "history" of the 40k universe is quite interesting, but does suffer somewhat from having been written piecemeal over the course of 20 odd years by several different people, so there are some things that seem to rather contradict other things.

    The human "Dark Age Of Technology" where humanity first spread out amongst the stars and became a player on the galactic stage clearly took place before the fall of the eldar, becuase it was the psychic shockwaves caused by the death of their entire world that cleared the Warp Storms that had isolated earth from its empire and led to the Age of Strife. That's kind of hard to reconcile with the fact that until that point the Eldar were the dominant force in the galaxy, so what were they doing letting the humans have an empire in the first place?

    If you read the backstory the Orks are basically what's left of a biological weapon that was depolyed by some long dead race against the Necrons when they threatened the galaxy the first time around, and have developed on their own ever since the demise of their masters. Their grasp of how to use technology is instinctual, but they were not built to go around having too many ideas of their own.

    The steady state of the Tau is explained by the fact that it's not steady at all, it's just slow. The Tau don't hold with Warp travel or magic or psychics or anything that involves interacting with that realm of reality in any way. It seems to be against their fundamental belief structure. The etherial cast seem to be the only ones who are really consiously aware of the warp, and have decided that it's too dangerous a toy to play with. Their society is MUCH younger than all the other races, they've only really been going for a few thousand years and their refusal to use warp travel has meant that they're confined to a very small part of the galaxy and have to travel using something that's never been satisfactorily explained but seems to be "like warp travel but slower becuase you don't actually enter the warp".

  2. Thanks for clearing that up. I knew my take on the mechanics of the 40K universe wouldn't really tie in at all with the official story, but what the hey.

    So "the warp" is a kind of conciousness field then; i wonder what it's fundamental force carrying particles are called?...