my thoughts on whatever I may be thinking about and choosing to share
Two games with "war" in the titles
Published on January 26, 2008 By warreni In Real-Time

That's a weird subtitle, I know, but I was pondering what connections exist between these two games beyond the fact that I recently completed the single-player campaigns in both. Both are real-time strategy games that attempt to bring some innovations to the genre. Land-based combat in both is heavily invested in the concept of holding strategic points. However, each disappoints to a greater or lesser degree in its own ways.

Many reviewers have stated that SW:EaW represents the first good Star Wars-themed strategy game. Well, I haven't played Rebellion or Force Commander, but Galactic Battlegrounds was pretty entertaining. The only bad thing about it is the graphics. Don't get me wrong: I love Age of Empires 2. I still play it every now and again, because I've never beat all of the campaigns that come with it and The Conquerors; in addition, sometimes it's fun to jump into a skirmish game and the system requirements are so low that even today's puniest PC can run it with ease, usually while doing your taxes and your laundry simultaneously. But the laser effects and explosions the SW:GB team created using the AoE2 engine just look awful. If you can look past that, and for the most part I can, the game has interesting mechanics and fun campaigns.

So how does EaW stack up? The game introduces an interesting mix of land- and space-based combat dynamics laid out against a backdrop of a Risk-style galactic conquest scheme. The galactic map looks like a turn-based overview map of the sort one finds in Battle for Middle-Earth, but time is not paused in this view (the rate of time's passage can actually be altered in the Options menu, but it cannot be "stopped"), and a small bar counter shows the passage of each galactic day. When the bar renews, you receive additional credits to purchase new buildings, ground troops, space structures, and spaceships. You can attack any planet on a hyperspace lane that is connected to the planet where your troops are currently stationed during this phase and so can the computer. Whenever this happens, the action zooms into that planet for a space battle and/or a land battle, depending upon what kind of defenses exist at that location. For example, as the rebels, you can send a fleet consisting of two Corellian corvettes and two troops of rebel infantry to a planet; if the planet is currently being held by pirates or imperial forces, your corvettes may have to destroy a space station and/or enemy fleets orbiting the planet before your infantry can invade the surface and begin a land battle. (Land units are automatically transported in defenseless cargo ships when they are moved from a planet's surface to orbit and from the orbit of one planet to another, so your land forces are very vulnerable to destruction by enemy space forces during these battles.)

The basic premise (and one of the multiplayer/skirmish modes) is to conquer every planet in the galaxy or as many as you can--at least that's what the game wants you to think. Early on, I discovered the flaw in this approach to the game. When playing through the campaign as either the Rebellion or the Empire, attempting to conquer the entire galaxy between scripted missions will result in a lot of frustration. Why? Well, although I realize this sounds like a copout, I truly believe the AI cheats, because your computer opponent is able to amass large fleets suspiciously rapidly after you two just duked it out in an epic battle that left you limping back to your nearest friendly planet. If you persist in trying to carve out an empire (pun intended) on the galactic map, you'll find yourself running out of resources and unable to defend the territory you do control.

Each of the campaigns has its own frustrations too. I played first as the Rebellion and the game rules dictate that the Rebellion has considerably fewer resources than the Empire, because this is true to the Star Wars lore. The game really does encourage you at several points to conquer planets between the scripted assignments, and this becomes a real problem after the fifth rebel mission, where you find yourself vastly outgunned by the Empire. You simply can't win space battles against fleets that include more than one or two Victory-class or Acclamator-class destroyers. The only ships that are a match for these and the Imperial-class destroyers are the Mon Calamari Cruisers, which are not available to you until you have nearly completed the campaign. The problem is that in a number of the scripted missions you are required to assemble large fleets to go to certain specific planets, and in order to get to those planets, you have to move your fleet through the above-mentioned "hyperspace lanes." In practical terms this means that the game restricts you to moving on certain linear paths to get from one planet to another; this seems to be strictly a game mechanic, because it makes no sense that you have to travel through three-dimensional space as though you are walking a winding road along a cliff. So, for example, to get to the Atzeri system in mission 6, you must cross several enemy-held planets, possibly losing a huge chunk of your fleet in the process. I won through the campaign ultimately by not worrying about conquering a lot of extra planets but focussing instead on my mission objectives and massing just those forces needed to achieve them. I doubt it's giving anything away to say that the Rebellion campaign culminates in a recreation of the Battle of Yavin 4 from Episode IV. If you succeed in eliminating the Imperial forces in orbit above Yavin (except the Death Star), Red Squadron automatically destroys the Death Star.

The imperial campaign is much easier, largely because you have a much greater quantity of resources under your control. Also, you have Darth Vader. His special TIE fighter is not all that useful in space combat, but as a land unit, he is unparalleled in his destructive capabilities. Although the Emperor himself is no slouch, Vader is your best imperial hero unit in the campaign. The rebels still come up with curiously strong fleets really quickly (*cough* cheat), but once you get to the tech level where you can build the Victory-class ships, you pretty much have the game in the bag. The final Empire mission is basically an exercise in using the Death Star to destroy planets - you must control or annihilate five specific planets to achieve total victory.

Several reviewers have stated that land battles are relatively bland compared to the space combat. I think each has its own issues. While playing as the rebels, RAID fleets are definitely your friend. A RAID fleet is a small fleet (generally composed of three or fewer units) that can bypass a system's space defenses for a direct assault on the surface. The manual and game tutorials both recommend using RAID fleets for "hit-and-run" tactics; however, I found that once I reached the tech level where I could build the T4-B tank units, I could use the combination of an infantry unit, a T2-B unit, and a T4-B unit to conquer the surface of almost any Empire- or pirate-controlled planet. The trick tends to be utilizing the planet's build pads. Build pads are points on the surface that infantry units can capture and, once they are aligned with your faction, you can build one of six structures on them, ranging from anti-vehicle turrets to bacta healing stations for healing your infantry. The other strategic points of interest on a land map are the reinforcement points. If you're in a position to send a full-scale fleet to a planet, knock out its space defenses, and conduct a planetary invasion, reinforcement points become your friend. By capturing these, you can send more units down to the surface. Also, if your orbiting fleet contains Y-wings or TIE bombers, you can conduct bombing runs on the surface from space. The land battles can be compelling, but they can also be tremendously time-consuming.

On the other hand, if you're defending a planet, the key to victory is usually a combination of judicious use of build pads and having a shield generator. Shields cover your most vital structures and may have two or more points of potential entry by enemy forces. These points almost invariably have at least two build pads nearby, so a small garrison can hold off a considerably larger invading force simply by building anti-infantry and -vehicle turrets on these pads and firing at the incoming units from the safety of the shield. Shields can be hit-or-miss affairs, however, because if your power generator is located outside the perimeter of the shield, the invader can and frequently will go after it before assaulting your shielded units and structures. The shields also have the added bonus of protecting against enemy bombing runs.

Space combat follows a sort of rock-paper-scissors model, like a typical RTS. Bomber units are effective against unescorted capital ships, fighters are good against fighters, corvette- and frigate-class vessels are good against fighters and each other, and (because in the Star Wars universe, energy shields do not protect against physical projectiles) missile cruisers are good against everything (but very fragile). Because planets can be guarded by space stations whose defensive capabilities range from pathetic to overwhelming, a mixed fleet is invariably the key to success. However, there are some silly built-in limitations that make the combat less exciting than advertised. First and foremost is the openly two-dimensional nature of the combat; while I don't expect my infantry and tank units to be able to fly or burrow under the ground on a planet's surface (not that that wouldn't have some intriguing tactical implications), I do expect my spacecraft to be able to move in three dimensions. Didn't Homeworld come out in 1999?! What's wrong with this picture? Because of this limitation, you can find yourself moving ships through asteroid fields that presumably they should be able to fly above or below (you know, that crazy Z-axis the kids are always talking about). The other caveat is that ships have a point value and you cannot "field" more than 20 points' worth of ships at a time in a single battle. I can only assume that this is a concession to the game engine, but don't expect to see space battles like climax of Episode VI or the beginning of Episode III.

Overall, I found it very difficult to adjust to the "real-time" nature of the galactic map. I would be working on building up fleets and planetary defenses and suddenly the computer would send a large fleet to attack another planet, and my attention would be drawn to another area of the map and away from the strategy I'd been developing. Incidentally, the game does allow you to "auto-resolve" land and space battles that are not part of mission assignments during the campaign, but doing so almost inevitably leads to defeat, sometimes even when you have an overwhelmingly larger force. On a few occasions, I simply auto-resolved battles and accepted the consequences so that I wouldn't be drawn away from my present activities. During my play-through as the Empire, I learned from my mistakes as a Rebellion player and tended to conquer only areas I knew I would really need to achieve my next mission objectives. As frustrating as the galactic map can be, I saw no compelling reason to play the galactic conquest mode, and the other skirmish options were engaging in specific land or space battles, which I'd had my fair share of in working through both campaigns. The game certainly has its moments and it can be fun to watch battles (in which you are certain of victory) in the cinematic camera mode, but it wasn't great and I wouldn't bother picking up the expansion pack unless I stumbled across it somewhere really cheap.

I acquired Dawn of War in a lot purchase of several games in an eBay auction some time ago. I played through its single-player campaign recently and a few skirmishes. Unlike EaW, Dawn of War is all about the land battles. There aren't even any flying units in the game. However, what's here is pretty solid. There are four different races culled from the Warhammer 40K universe, a game system I have only a passing familiarity with. As nerdy as it was when I was a kid to play AD&D with rolled-up characters and hand-drawn maps, it struck me as somehow nerdier to move meticulously hand-painted figurines around a large map. On the other hand, will I spend fifteen minutes in the game's Army Painter mode, tweaking the colors on my skirmish armies to just the right shades? You betcha. So, to each his own, I suppose.

The single-player campaign follows a group of the Space Marines Blood Ravens forces as they attempt to cleanse the planet of Tartarus of the enemy presence there. Although the campaign encourages you to identify with the group's commander, a man named Gabriel Angelos, none of the game's factions are particularly likeable. That's not the game's fault, really; this is just the nature of these races, according to the Warhammer 40K lore. The Space Marines are a bunch of religious fanatics, worshipping a god-king and killing anyone who isn't like them. The Orks are, well, they're sort of like orcs, only they're bigger, dumber(?), and, well, those are probably the only real distinctions between these green war-loving monstrosities and their fantasy counterparts. The Chaos Space Marines are a bit like anti-Space Marines; they are former SM units that have turned away from the Emperor, learned heretical teachings and mastered the art of summoning demons. The Eldar are a mysterious race of aliens whose motives are not clearly explained in the game, but they are ridiculed and scorned as being arrogant and untrustworthy by the Space Marine faction during cutscenes.

Like EaW, this game has strategic points. The concept of strategic points is hardly new, stretching back at least to the Ground Control and Battlefield series of games. As in those games, actually holding these points is critical to your mission success, because the game's resource (requisition) is accumulated by capturing strategic and critical points. Requisition allows you to build more units, upgrade existing units with special weapons, construct new buildings, and do virtually everything else that RTS games require. A power resource, gained by building generators, is needed by vehicles and turrets. This type of game mechanic really encourages the player to go out and explore the map, even with a small force, in order to capture more points and bring in more resources. It can make for some frantic action even right from the start of a mission. Toward the middle, once you've captured some points and built some generators, the game tends to slow down a bit as you reach an upgrade-and-expand phase. Then, it's back into the action as you send your forces out to conquer the enemy.

The biggest downside I found playing the campaign is that it was really easy. The 11-mission campaign will take you some time to complete, because each mission map is large, although if you don't try to capture and hold every single strategic point on the map, this shortens the playtime a bit. However, once I got past the first few missions, I basically never had to restart a mission because I'd totally blown it. Mind you, this is playing on the "Normal" difficulty level. While I enjoy a campaign that isn't punishingly difficult as much as (or more than) the next guy, it seems like this was just a bit too easy. Also, I found a tactic that seemed to enable me to win every single mission: build Dreadnoughts. Dreadnoughts are the game's 'mech units, and a group of five or six of these runs up against your vehicle cap, but it also can take out pretty much any enemy unit or structure that the campaign throws at you.

Overall, I did find the gameplay and the story compelling, even though the difficulty didn't seem to be optimized completely. I just got in the Winter Assault expansion from Amazon and I've been holding a copy of Dark Crusade that I picked up on clearance at Target until it came in, so I'm hoping that these will prove equally as fun as the first game.

on Jan 27, 2008
Dark Crusade is a fantastic game. The campaign is way more in depth with a riskesque style world map where the 7 races have their own starting locations and try and conquer eachother. You move your army around the world map and when you move into enemy territory it turns into the standard rts battle that you played in the original. You can build bases that persist throughout the game so when you conquer some territory and the enemy tries to get it back, any buildings you built before remain to defend your turf. The main game plays like a sandbox game with whichever race you choose (I recommend the Necrons...they're unstoppable). It's incredibly fun and far more enjoyable then a linear story mode like the original.
on Jan 27, 2008
EaW held my attention for a few days, then I sold it on eBay. I've been playing Dark Crusade since it came out and am unlikely to stop. In addition to the marvelous, replayable, non-linear strategic campaign (turn based, incidentally, not real time like EaW's) even the skirmish has an enormous amount of depth. If difficulty is a concern, I strongly recommend the Dawn of Skirmish AI mod. The AI opponent is optimized by high end multiplayer gamers to emulate and respond to human strategies. It's a blast, and quite a challenge. It works WITH the DC campaign as well, which is an added bonus.

Oh, and Soulstorm will be along in March. Another excellent looking expansion, 2 more races, and another non-linear strategic campaign. Great stuff, I'm sure the Dawn of Skirmish team will continue to develop for it as well so the AI can kick our asses with the new races.