It's verdict time again and we've all been playing Warhammer 40k: Dawn Of War – Soulstorm. It's Real Time Strategy in that distant universe where the warring space folks are all vaguely analogous to fantasy archetypes. Hmm. Let's see what we thought of it.
John : Jim. I've heard something about a game called Warhammer: 40,000,000,000 Mark of Chaos: Dawn of War: Soulstorm. Tell us about it.
Jim : Ok, Soulstorm is the ninety fifth expansion pack for Dawn of War, I think? And it's ONLY WAR in there. No making friends, no talking to the monsters. It's RTS explosions n stuff, with nine races from the Games Workshop codices of miniature armament. Imagine that!
Kieron : (Count 'em!)
Alec : But no freakin' Tyranids.
Jim : Shh. The new races are, as RTS expansions tend to be, the Big Deal, plus there's a rehashed expanded conquest map thing from Dark Crusade, which means you can play as any of the races to conquer a solar system.
Alec : I've spent quite some time with Soulstorm. But the vast bulk of that was not with the new races.
Kieron : I dived straight into the Sisters of Battle, who I actually quite like. About half way through the campaign. I have a weakness for flamers and purging.
John : I got halfway through the tutorial and wanted to not only kill myself, but every cute bunny in the world. I tried measuring my response on the RPS Care-o-Meter, but it fell through a hole in the ground.
Jim : I played a full Sisters campaign, and fiddled with the Dark Eldar. But then I found myself playing as undead robo-evils, the Necron, which was much more satisfying than either
Alec : I'd have enjoyed the Sisters much more if they weren't initially up against the Imperial Guard in the campaign, who prove to be a monstrously tough, and monstrously tedious opponent
Jim : I didn't think they were too tough though, the scripted mission i got round on my second attempt.
Jim : Which is something else we should talk about: those stronghold maps...
Kieron : I heard the Imperial Guard mission was so rubbish that I ended up just moving directly away from them, just leaving them alone.
John : We're getting a bit ahead of ourselves - let's talk a bit more about what the game actually is.
Alec : I suspect the people may already know that
Kieron : It's a real-time-strategicalism.
Alec : Did anyone actively enjoy the campaign? I waver on it
Kieron : We were arguing about this at length in the pub; I see the idea. The scripted stronghold missions are basically what would be the campaign. The skirmish stuff holds it together.
John : But this is a game based on skirmish maps, right? But with 72 endings.
Jim : Yeah, I got bored very quickly. And I think it's something I wanted to like - I *want* the 40k: Total War thing, but i just didn't feel any impetus to go onward into that campaign. It's an attempt to make skirmishes string together, really.
Kieron : IN THE GRIM FUTURE OF THE 41ST MILLENNIA THERE IS ONLY WAR
Jim : Anyway, we all feel that the unlinear campaign was a bit wishywashy? but why? It should be MAXIMAL.
Kieron : I think it's better than the old-school linear campaigns, for Dawn of War. The thing, John, is that rather than the traditional string of missions, this follows what they Relic did in Dark Crusade, and puts you on one corner of a big space map. And you move your army around, wherever you want. And fight whoever you find there - ultra simplified Total War, basically. The strongholds are scripted, like a trad mission, while the majority of the map are skirmish ones, against whatever side's holding it.
Jim : I still feel like it's over-simplified. I think the conquest thing needed more detail, like, say, Empire At War, that Star Wars RTS. it had a simple empire-level metagame, and that made me want to continue because I had built stuff. With Soulstorm I really might as well just play skirmishes (which I did, in the end), rather than give a damn about the map, or the loot my hero was getting.
John : What makes the skirmishes in SS different from the previous 230 expansions?
Kieron : Nothing.
Alec : Nothing. The skirmish missions are the real howlers. They're massively uninteresting, the AI's very stupid, and you're forced to come back to the same zones time and again to fend off attackers.
Kieron : Has anyone played it above Normal? I'm playing on Normal, and I agree with Alec, but there was talk about hard being more than a little punishing.
Jim : Arguably Soulstorm is only valuable because it's now the entire toolbox of skirmishes - you've got nine races. (NINE!) Also, I did play some hard missions, but I got AI spack out bugs where they didn't base build properly.
Kieron : This really can't be underestimated. In terms of a box, there's a lot of stuff inside it.
Alec : Yeah, a lot our ennui with the missions is based on three years of familiarity with Dawn of War. For someone totally new to it, Soulstorm's a fat pile of wonders.
Kieron : That spack-out is worth mentioning, I think. I mean, this was the last work of Iron Lore before they go under. It's just not as polished as - say - Dark Crusade.
Alec : I'm really surprised Relic didn't want to sort that out themselves.
John : I have a question about someone new approaching. I realise the engine is old, but I was astonished by how awful it is. You can't zoom out to fit more than two buildings on screen, the keyboard layout is horrendous, requiring a third hand - and I couldn't find a place to map keys - and the animations made me want to cry. Do you think a new player is going to put up with that?
Kieron : IT IS NOTHING COMPARED TO STARCRAFT 2
Alec : I think that may be your own RTS dislike projecting on to it, I still find it joyful to observe. Though the zoom is infuriating. That's kind of a Relic thing, unfortunately.
Kieron : Yeah, I think the battle animation is great, still. (As did Polish guy.)
Alec : Same problem with COH.
Jim : I don't agree about the animations, I think they still stand up, but it's always been too tight with the camera.
Kieron : But you mean the cut-scene stuff, yeah?
John : Actually it was the building that got to me. This big thing flies in, then some cranes get to work, and then - ping - it vanishes leaving a building about 1/16 the size. It looked so shoddy.
Kieron : I honestly don't think the construction looks that shoddy.
John : Seriously - the way the stuff doesn't fly away again, but just vanishes? It reminded me of Soldner.
Jim : Just out of interest, John, have you played World In Conflict yet?
John : You know - I haven't. And I really want to because Ground Control was so great.
Alec : One thing in terms of DOW's look that's always bothered me slightly is that it never really nails a 40K atmosphere. It's just a kind of greatest hits approach. I don't get a genuine sense of the universe.
Jim : Yeah, it's perhaps not quite dark enough as a game.
Kieron : I think that they tend to be a bit of a primary-colour take on 40K, but... well, the Dark Crusade stuff where they execute the Imperial guardsmen who surrendered to the Space marines was ace. Of course, this isn't in here, but there's a mass of text for each province. Which is very 40Kish...
Alec : The Sisters/Deldar are emblematic of that. There isn't a decent sense of where they fit in. They're just there, shouting catchphrases.
Kieron : What did people make of them?
Alec : I quite like the Sisters, but the Deldar really feel like a fairly generic RTS side. They lack a defined character of their own.
Jim : The Deldar are incredibly lightweight, really, even if their powers and such are more esoteric than usual.
Kieron : Yeah. I concur actually.
Kieron : Wow. WORRYING AGREEMENT.
Jim : The Sisters don't just fit the universe, the embody 40k's attitude - I think it's easy to lose sight of the fact that this is a game about ultra-zealot religious nutters.
Kieron : I wish they had lobbed an Inquisitor in with them. But yeah - the priests shouting "WE THANK THE EMPEROR FOR DELIVERING USTHIS POINT" make me smile.
Alec : We were talking about arranging some six-man multiplayer games last night and the idea of fielding Space Marines + Imperial Guard + Sisters versus Chaos, Orks and Necron is incredibly geek-exciting.
Kieron : [Geekmode] Necron would not fight with Chaos!
Alec : That idea really feels seems it could nail the 40K feel.
Kieron : /me cries softly to himself.
Alec : Yeah, but I didn't wanna make anyone play Deldar
Jim : To be honest I think this was a bit of an "easiest option" expansion pack.
Kieron : Yeah
Jim : They should have finished with an over-the-top Inquisitor/Grey Knights adventure or something.
John : What effect does it have that this was Iron Lore, and not Relic?
Jim : Well it's hard to know what was going on with Iron Lore, the noises were all bad from Titan Quest's failure to sell.
Kieron : If they'd released it for thirty dollars, we'd give it a lot more time.
Alec : Yeah, the full price is faintly obscene
Kieron : It was $40 on release.
Alec : There's a real sense of cheapness to the cutscenes and text screens, which is the only place where I really got a sense that a more inexperienced third party was involved.
Jim : You're going to be able to pick it up for £10 in no time though, and that's probably ok
Alec : The voiceover guy who's clearly been given his lines of space-jargon mere seconds before recording them is hilarious.
John : The tutorial voice was clearly a developer. That really surprised me.
Jim : I think Voiceover Guy did ok given the script
Alec : Anyway, criticising a game for price is increasingly becoming academic.
Kieron : Alec: I couldn't disagree more. You may as well say "It doesn't matter what games cost - people can always pirate it."
Jim : Which is true...
Alec : No I mightn't, I might as well say "every new game is heavily discounted within a month of release."
Alec : Look at your PJ transcript, and the Relic guy says that himself.
Kieron : Yes. But starting at 30 and going to 20... Starting at 40 and going to 30 and going to 20 is longer.
Alec : It isn't if Soulstorm doesn't sell well
Jim : But, expandalone!
Alec : Do people think it will sell well?
Jim : It is selling well.
John : I think it deserves to sell for the word "expandalone" alone.
Kieron : Yeah. Wasn't Dark Crusade the best selling or something>?
Jim : DoW has clearly been the giganto-game for Relic.
Kieron : I mean, I don't begrudge them releasing it - it's the sort of thing which makes you realise the new-spec chasing PC game, especially in RTS, tends to be a bit of a waste.
Alec : The low-end system requirements are quite a big deal, I believe.
Kieron : I bet when DOW2 is announced, it won't be pushing the graphics as hard as DoW or CoH did on release.
Jim : It's the Impossible Creatures engine, which is like two hundred years old now... Anyway, conclusions gentlemen?
John : Well, I want to ask a last question.
Kieron : My theory is that while the strategy map is actually abstractly better than Dark Crusade's, it's still not right. And even better skirmish AI wouldn't help. The problem with everyone trying these open world stuff is... well, RTS is a completely fake genre. So there's nothing you can do to make there appear to be any logical connection on the higher map to the lower map. Total War works because it separates it. It becomes natural. SWOS worked because a season of football makes sense.
Alec : I can't talk too much because I'm reviewing it elsewhere, but the C&C3 expansion genuinely does interesting stuff with the higher map. It makes it its own game.
Kieron : It's difficult to stick a higher level on because /there is no higher level/. It's a perfect structure. But I look forward to being proved wrong.
John : Well, that matches my question. What is the next step forward for the RTS? Because with my *extremely* limited experience, they're all the bloody same (I realise I'm wrong). What's the evolutionary step the genre needs to take?
Jim : Play World In Conflict, to be honest. The multiplayer anyway. The single player is a bit of an abortive attempt.
Alec : I suspect there'll be some Team Fortress 2 of RTS eventually. I'm increasingly worried when reviewing an RTS about the gulf between what we notice and talk about for a wide audience, and the sort of imbalances and tiny detail the devoted players get up in arms about. For instance, when we posted about Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts going gold back in the day, and someone turns up to start shouting about imbas and how it's killed the game. Whereas our take was "well, we enjoyed it"
Kieron : Absolutely, there's the sense that some people are into the explosions, and some people notice the exact number of damage points that explosion does.
Jim : That's kind of the same with all games though. Impressionism of general observation vs the acute hyper-attention of the fan. It's only going to get worse.
Alec : Some RTS will turn up where those voices become the most minor ones, because it's obvious to everyone what's going on and what's important, not just the to fiercest observers.
Kieron: I have no idea, basically. I suspect SC2 isn't it though.
Jim : SC2 IS NOTHING TO THE UNREALISED FUTURE POTENTIAL OF THE RTS!
Kieron : Truth!
John : I worry that like the adventure before and the FPS now, the genre has become about refining itself, rather than evolving.
Alec : I dunno. Just a little while back we've got Company of Heroes genuinely refreshing the form.
Kieron : Things have kind of moved past that a bit now - but, yeah, another time.
Jim : Conclude! Would you buy The Soulstorm game, yay or nay?
Alec : If I had no other DOW game, definitely. If I had Dark Crusade and the original, probably not.
Kieron : You know, if I hadn't actually played them all, I suspect I may vote a yes here. There's a fuck of a lot of content. But even then, I'd advise me to get Dark Crusade on the cheap rather than buy this now. So no.
John : I tried, I actually did, but lordy, no way.
Jim : Yep, I'd still say original game plus Dark Crusade. The two new races aren't enough
And so, our scores, with help from expert robothumb, Optimus Prime. Your votes, gentlemen please:
Our verdict: No sale.
John : And to conclude: If you had a warhammer, who would you hit?
Jim : Anyone who came within range. I'm quite lazy.
Kieron : Everyone, really. In the morning. In the evening. All over this land.
John : I'd hit anyone who failed to point out I should have said "whom".
Alec : I'd hit any of the readers who post grammatical corrections in our comments threads. Though I might say "thank you" first.
Kieron : WEAK