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Impressions - Warhammer 40,000: Storm of Vengeance

The Emperor would not approve

Warhammer 40,000: Storm of Vengeance is a forthcoming 'lane strategy game' based on Games Workshop's foremost sci-fi setting. It's due out on March 27th, and I've been playing some preview code ahead of that. What follows are initial thoughts on that time, as I have not yet played all of the game, or its finished form.

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only watching timers run down. I am faintly and, I suppose, pleasantly surprised to discover that there isn't an option to pay to speed them up.

Storm of Vengeance, a finished-feeling beta version which I've spent the last couple of days with, is to Warhammer 40,000 what the Brighton & Hove Naked Bike Ride is to the Tour de France. It sounds so... exciting in concept, but the reality is neither sexy or especially devoted to the activity of choice. Right from the start, you have to depart with any sense that Space Marines and Orks are organised armies backed up by a raft of devastating technology, and accept that all you're getting is idiots auto-marching in a straight line. Your job, then, is Idiot Herder.

Rest assured there is tactical complexity based around playing the right 'cards' and choosing which costly upgrades to attach to which guys - indeed, it's fairly swiftly necessary, otherwise your idiots will perish all too soon. Whatever might be beneath the hood though, the surface is a huge stumbling block - the absurdity of the queues, the squandering of most vehicles as fixed turrets/infantry spawners, the relentless sameiness, the flaccid, endless text dialogue. It used to be I prayed for more 40k games, left frustrated that (the largely excellent) Dawn of War series was all we really got from such a rich/ridiculous sci-fi universe.

Now I'm wishing that Games Workshop would become a little more protective, even paranoid, about its IP again. I don't want to find myself reviewing Eldar Golf or Chaos Cart this time next year. (OK, maybe I do. Maybe I really do. Much more than I want to play more of Storm of Vengeance, certainly.)

Billed as a 'lane strategy game', it involves two opposing forces auto-marching (think Swords & Soldiers) at each other along five fixed paths, trying to destroy the buildings at the opposite end and claim the lane. If either side loses three lanes, their opponent wins that match. To stop this happening, you need to choose which units to deploy when and where, with which upgrades, and to constantly seek a balance between two different types of resource generation. Only busywork, basically.

So, for example, you've got two Comms stations generating the main, unit-building resource. Then you've got one Drop Pod making standard Space Marines (slowly), one fixed-position Stormraven making the jump pack-sporting Assault Marines (more slowly) and one fixed-position Rhino making Devestator Marines (even more slowly). Meanwhile, Orks of assorted flavour are marching at you from the other end of the - hell, let's just call it a pitch, and being Orks are cranked out rather more quickly than the individually beefier Marines. Which Marines do you put where? Do you slow down build times and increase cost by adding weapon upgrades or special abilities such as Grenades? Do you sell a building in a desperate need for instance cashback resources? And do you pause unit spawning in order to have buildings generate the second resource, which enables assorted special troops and abilities?

While the soldiers essentially manage themselves once spawned, there's no laurel-resting - it's micro-management all the way. You need to get yourself into a situation where you're more focused on what units are coming up and what you're going to be doing in a couple of minutes' time than on the health and safety of those in play, although you will need to be manually triggering a grenade lob or activating a healing field when your deployed Marines are in a tight spot. For all the automation, it's a game to keep one busy, and it's certainly not casual-inclined despite a tablet-focused UI and some commonality with Plants vs Zombies.

The micromanagement drew me in and kept me focused, kept me trying out new combinations and exploring what would counter what, but it did it because that's what micromanagement does, rather than because I felt like I was doing anything 40k-related. I'm playing timers against each other while a half-dozen automatons robotically chip away at each others' health meters, not SOWING THE SEEDS OF A GREAT AND TERRIBLE WAR. It felt instead like grinding repetition.

I haven't looked at the Orks yet, though I've slain a few dozen of the green buggers. It's possible I'll have a better time there, as they get cranked out faster and they get an actual, moving vehicle rather than a turret in disguise. Perhaps too their dialogue won't be as dry as the Marines. Perhaps too later stages of the campaign will be more lively - though the structuring of it as an Angry Birds-style win every medal from every level affair suggests otherwise. There's multiplayer to look at too, where perhaps the joyful cruelty of capturing one of your opponent's lanes or promptly plasma-slagging their most expensive unit will instate the sense of thrill and vengeance that singleplayer so far has not given me.

I can imagine too that, further down the line, after tons of DLC packs, Storm of Vengeance could find more vibrancy, but in its current form it's the same small handful of units going up against each other again and again. As a result, it lacks colour, though first encounters with a unit's animations provide a brief thrill. Sure, sure, the Assault Marine is chopping an orc with his chainsword again. The standard Marine is doing that thing where he unleashes a full clip as finishing move again. Clap clap, carry on. While unit models and animations look eerily as though they've been plucked straight from a Dawn of War game, the perspective, the flat, empty maps and the cloying repetition rob Storm of Vengeance of any sense of battle.

I'm aware I may be objecting to what the game is rather than making specific criticisms about how it's done that. I should try to pull back, stop griping 'why is this and not this?' - but when I'm not having a good time I'm not sure I should lie about it. Similarly, 'it doesn't feel like 40k waaaah' probably sounds supremely childish - but this is a game aimed at people who like 40k. As such, it doesn't make a lot of sense for it to be this strange, small, clockwork soldiers affair. 40k names and iconography abounds, but beyond that it doesn't evoke anything the nasty, nihilistic, ultimate-grimdark universe whose name it bears. More to the point, take away the 40k trappings and what's left to talk about here? That's a thought experiment for another day.

While generally it's not been particularly challenging, a sudden difficulty spike halfway through the Marine campaign means I've not been all the way up the Marine tech tree (I couldn't face repeating a certain level yet again, given I was already keen to be shot of this thing), but looking at the available unlocks it leans more towards statistical adjustment than dropping exciting new things onto the field. This is also a mobile game, and frankly it shows - from the lack of any keyboard controls up to the fact that all the game involves in any practical sense is tapping clicking on a handful of big chunky buttons over and over again. There's no option to zoom or rotate the map either, so you're just staring at the same view all the while. But hey, sometimes the ground changes colour.

You know, I wouldn't be anywhere near so deflated by my experiences with Storm of Vegeance so far if there were a range of splendid 40k things to choose from, but when the last year has given us only this and the well-intentioned but not-quite-there Space Hulk, I'm left in a state of frustration about why this maximalist sci-fi universe isn't bearing the fruit it so clearly could.

I'll look at Storm of Vengeance again once it's on general release, to see if DLC and multiplayer imbue it with more life, but my suspicion is that it'll remain a tappy-tappy mobile game that, while it might provide diversion enough for train or toilet play, just doesn't translate well to PC.

No microtransactions, at least. Well done on that.

Warhammer 40,000: Storm of Vengeance is out on March 27, costing £7 on PC and £3 on mobile.

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