Thursday, 16 July 2009

War - the second morning

It has been a couple of months since my last post and as usual when there is a lengthy gap it is because I am stuck in a boring game. This time it is Fallout 3 - latest in the list of games everybody seems to like but leaves me cold. Since I do not like writing about a game before I have completed, I though I'd go back to something I played through a while ago - Dawn of War 2.

You may remember my comments on Dragonshard, the first D&D RTS. In it I criticised the way real time strategy games forced you to control the low level tactics of the battlefield along with the higher level resource management and then gave you totally inadequate camera options to do that effectively. Well, it seems I am not the only one who thinks this - Relic have been hard at work trying to do something different. How did they do? Well, let us take each aspect in turn.

Resource Management

There isn't any. Nor is there any tedious base construction relying on you knowing your tech tree inside out nor any need to make sure you save your spice / gold / tiberium / random other thing you have harvested so you can build a vehicle depot instead of churning out more troops. Instead, you have a team of four space marine squads - chosen and equipped pre-mission - who are chucked into the action in a drop pod. They surge forth guns firing from moment one and don't stop shooting until every last enemy (or rather, Xeno) is riddled with bolt gun rounds.

In order to get any reinforcements, the squad leader needs to make his way back to a resource point. At that point new space marines are teleported in free of charge to make up the numbers. This may cheapen the game for those who like to run out of resources and have no way of defeating the enemy but on the upside it does change the emphasis of the game. Rather than stepping out, capturing resources, then retreating and turtling down in your base until you have enough troops to be worth sending out to fight your missions are all about pushing forwards and engaging the enemy. Kill them, capture their turf and get some reinforcements. Job done. How do you do that? Well, now we are on to...

Battle Control

When you engage the enemy in most RTS games the usual routine is:

1. select units
2. click on enemy
3. sit back and watch your troops swarm over the enemy troops until one side is dead

If they game designers want to mix it up a bit, they give the units special powers you have to manually activate which increases the frustrating micro-management tenfold as you struggle to get the best out of your troops. In DoW2 you have four units. This means that the special abilities are much easier to find and use. And because you never have more than thirteen troops on the battlefield the fights rarely turn into the kind of horrendous cluster fuck that makes it impossible to target enemies effectively. Overall it gives you a much greater sense of control over what is going on which makes the carnage far more satisfying.

And carnage it is, too. This is the Warhammer 40000 setting after all - troops on both sides of the battlefield die in droves as machine guns chatter away, flamers burn enemies from cover and rocket launchers blow huge holes in enemy formations. In keeping with the Dawn of War series, everything is beautifully detailed and - more importantly - the sound is superb. Once again battlefields reverberate to the sound of gravelly-voice space marines shouting "PURGE THE XENOS" and the thundering of the heavy bolters as they chew the onrushing xenos to pieces. The sense of immersion it lends to the atmosphere is incredible and makes the extreme violence of the missions all the more enjoyable.

New for DoW2 are buildings you can enter and garrison (although be warned that getting your space-blokes back out again can be a challenge) and buildings you can blast to pieces when they are full of enemies. Sure, there are other ways of clearing them out but there is nothing like some serious property destruction to spice up clearing out a town of the invading alien.

The AI

Although battlefield control is much improved it is not perfect. The AI of the enemies is sometimes lacking - they often display the stupidity of badguys from yesteryear - very obviously standing around waiting for your HardBlokes to show up then rushing you in waves, very kindly making themselves fodder for your rapid-firing heavy weapons. Your own troops don't always do much better. Aside from sometimes displaying extreme reluctance to leave a building, there are problems with the route-finding algorithms which seem choose the best route from one place to another based on the entire map rather than the discovered area. On occasion the result is the squad you have withdrawn from combat to get reinforcements attempting to catch up your main force by walking through a previously-undiscovered enemy base and consequently getting slaughtered. Also it is all too easy to target an enemy strongpoint with grenades then, whilst those troops move (slowly) into a position to throw them, have a melee unit auto-target the same unit and charge into the blast zone before getting blown to pieces. The clots.

None of these problems seriously threaten the game though and if you find yourself overwhelmed with the task of babysitting your triggerhappy psychos you can find escape in what is the best (and arguably the worst) part of the game:

The Multiplayer

Competitive multiplayer is one of the two biggest criticisms of DoW2 and you can see why. It is back to basics - choose your force, build your base, rush the enemy - but because the main game is based around small unit combat with no bases it all feels very tacked on the side. I can't really comment on the quality of the maps having not spent much time playing this game mode, but they all seemed very symmetrical and not very interesting. Since I dislike the build / rush gameplay of multiplayer RTS games I mostly avoided this mode but be warned that if you are into lots of head to head violence you are probably better off with the original DoW.

To counter the bad multiplayer there is the sublime co-operative mode. Now I have to admit I have a soft spot for co-op games but even so I think DoW2 is something special. Slaughtering your way through hundreds of Xenos is enough fun when you are by yourself but when you have a friend to chat to whilst you are doing it the fun increases dramatically. It also opens up a whole host of tactical options - making pincer attacks something that can actually be co-ordinated properly. Or, if your troops are hard enough, you simply take one side of the battlefield each and go for a time bonus.

The Missions

The other big criticism of DoW2 is in the variety of the missions. This totally unfair as, whilst most missions boil down to "advance through territory X and kill BigBeast Y along with all his mates" you sometimes are given a "advance through territory X and kill BigBeast Y along with all his mates AND blow up some buildings". Ok, so the missions (with the exception of the odd plot-important mission) are all exactly the same but the sound and visuals are so good you can get lost in the experience and it is always fun trying out the new toys of your units.

The Units

Your assault force consists of your commander and three other squads chosen from a pool of five. These troops all gain XP through wanton slaughter and consequently pick up new and interesting abilities. You can also give them different weapon / armour / special combinations to vary how they play. It doesn't sound like much but the different loadouts really do change how the troops perform in battle and the small number of squads mean each one can be led by a named character, each with their own distinct personalities. This in turn means you can get attached to them and they become more than cannon fodder being thrown forward at the enemy for your amusement.

A special mention has to go to the Commander who, with a certain combination of advances and equipment, becomes a close combat monster who is actually impossible to hurt. By himself he can chop his way through entire armies which means you can experiment with the other troops and leave the serious killing to him.

Other notable units include the dreadnaught who, armed with an assault cannon and with his ranged combat score pushed nice and high, could cut down entire waves of attacking enemies with a single use of his Hellfire stand-and-hose special ability and the cyclone missile launcher you can stick on your terminators which never once failed to cause more damage to my own team than to the enemy. Good times.

It has to be said that as your troops hit maximum level it all gets a bit silly and you rarely lose any troops despite facing waves a hundred strong at times. But still, with the splendid visuals and the deep thundering bass it never stops being tremendously exciting.

Campaign Structure

I haven't mentioned the story which, whilst basic, is a lovely introduction to the 40k universe and explains rather nicely why there are only ever a handful of troops charging from one side of the sector to the other doing every last little task to defend the place. The small number of main character space marines are suitably overly dramatic and all come across well as characters. A couple even develop somewhat as the story progresses. It is a nice distraction from the killing and strings everything together rather nicely.

The narrative gives some structure to the campaign and allows it to progress from a "do these missions in some order" to a section where you have many missions to do and have to think very carefully which ones you undertake to hold off the invasion for as long as possible. The campaign planning element is simplistic but is a fun addition and the interface for doing it is lovely - it captures the essence of being a future-general sitting in front of your control panels very well.

I assume the story ends well - one of the reasons I have taken so long to write about DoW2 is that I haven't finished it. I am just before the final mission with my team of HardBlokes all ready to go but my partner in co-op is finding himself without an internet connection to play to the end. Which is quite annoying.

Summing Up

Dawn of War 2 is excellent. Enormous fun in the campaign mode and even better in (co-op) multiplayer. More than that though, it represents a significant change in formula to the RTS genre. Whilst it remains to be seen whether this different approach will catch on, it is a very important game none the less. Relic took steps forward in the original DoW by basing resource collection on capturing areas of the map instead of harvesting something from the ground, and doing without resources entirely seems to be a sensible (if very bold) next step. Congratulations to them for trying something new and congratulations on making it work so brilliantly.