Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dawn of War 2: Review

If you were expecting a traditional sequel to Dawn of War 1, think again. Dawn of War 2 changes so much it is some what surprising that Dawn of War 1, an immensely popular real time strategy (RTS) that didn't introduce a lot to the genre in terms of innovation, is it's prequel. In an industry that seems scared of changing anything out of fear that it might not work perfectly; this fact alone makes Dawn of War 2 stand out. However, on top of this, the changes work really, really, well. If you are looking for an RTS like no other, this game is worth every penny.

Like many RTS games, Dawn of War 2 features a campaign and a skirmish element. Normally, I prefer the skirmish element. I think this is probably down to the fact that the campaign normally shoe-horns you in to a fixed strategy and the story is not enough make me put up with that. However, in Dawn of War 2, I love the campaign. I have spent more time on it that in the skirmishes.

From a story perspective, it is weak. The story is predictable. The characters are shallow at best and it offers no depth. So no surprises there. To top it off, the main characters struggle to get across any emotions beyond the simple, I-like-to-kill-stuff. The story is presented well through a variety of mediums, however. The game uses painting-style cut-scenes interspersed seemingly randomly through the campaign. The odd style gives works very well, giving them a very gritty feel. The voice acting, apart from being devoid of emotion, presents the story clearly.

Fortunately, the rest of the campaign makes up for the story. The campaign takes the form of linear missions. You usually have a choice of missions. Variation is added through optional missions and missions that have to be completed within a certain number of "Campaign Days".

Campaign days are sort of a compromise towards the more modern approach of province capture. In normal circumstances you are only allowed to deploy once per day. For every day that passes, the Tyranid infestation spreads, weakening your hold on the planets. Missions lower the infestation. If you perform especially well in a mission, you are granted extra deployments. This really feels like you are pushing back the wave of Tyranids, giving your campaign momentum. Choosing which mission to undertake also adds to the immersion as you have to fight back the infestation on different planets.

That is just one of the many decisions the campaign will force you to make, however. The various different decisions you must take are really what set this campaign apart from the competition. From choosing how to level up your troops, what equipment to give them and even what troops to deploy, you will find yourself battling over the options.

All of these decisions have the same strengths and weaknesses. They all offer an interesting decision and add to the replayability of the campaign. The decisions have visible effects. The levelling system is an excellent example. As you might expect, levelling in each of the different areas provides a small benefit in that area, eg, upgrading in combat will allow the units to deal more damage when in close combat. However, in addition to this, there are perks that are unlocked every so often. These provide a very noticeable difference, often in the form of a special ability, eg you may unlock a power attack. This blend of micro and macro makes the levelling system very rewarding.

Sadly, the system is, in some respects, over balanced. Their need to not make one dominant strategy sometimes makes your decisions feel irrelevant. Every strategy is so equally viable, that you can choose your options at random.

Overall though, the decisions are largely interesting even if somewhat irrelevant.

The actual missions split in to two main types. The main style involves pushing from one end of the map to the other. While this is hardly anything new, it is quite satisfying and the maps are interesting and well designed. Most of these levels end in a boss battle, of all things. While they don't require any thinking or tactics, do offer a nice crescendo to the mission as you use everything you have got on them.

Also, on each map there are points that you can capture. On the first occasion, they provide you with a special bit of war gear, and each one of that type you capture increases the number of times you can use said war gear. However, they are heavily defended. This adds a nice decision in to the otherwise linear missions. Also, as you can only capture one of these per mission, and there are usually two per map, it means returning to the map the second time is not so tiresome.

The other type is defence. In these you are pitted against waves of enemies and you must protect a building. They are not nearly as fun or as satisfying as the other missions (not least as there is no reward, only a lack of loss) None the less, they add variety to the campaign and make it feel more like a real campaign.

I think the one weakness of the missions is scale. As you have so few units, the maps often feel empty. Obviously, you can't control any more, as this would upset the balance of the campaign. However, I think what they should have done (and, admittedly, did at stages) would be to put in computer controlled AI and have pitched battles going on around you. There would be too many people for you to get involved and they wouldn't be doing your objectives, but it would have made you feel like you were involved in something bigger.

Sadly, my positive thoughts of the campaign are somewhat overshadowed by the fact that I have been unable to pass one mission because of a technical flaw. I can't believe that it is my computer as it meets the specification and some. Nor can I believe that it will happen with every copy, as it happens at the same point in the same mission. Hopefully, they will fix this, as the campaign has been a lot of fun so far and I do want to see how it ends.

Unfortunately, this is not the only technical hitch I have come across. The game repeatedly crashes at seemingly random points. Aside from the bug I mentioned above, these occur outside the intense fire fights and simply after cut scenes or before loading screens! These are minor inconveniences as the game picks up precisely where you left off with no loss of data. None the less, it is quite frustrating.

It may then come as a surprise that technically this game is very impressive. The graphics are fantastic. Even when you zoom right in, the models looks good. Even the organic shapes of the Tyranids look pretty good. The frame rate is rock steady even in intense fire fights. The frame rate only dips when there are hundreds of Tyranids on screen and you are rapidly delivering orders to all your troops. Even then it is only by a couple of frames a second.

The audio, as you might expect from a Dawn of War game, is top notch. The Orks still make me laugh. The noises the Tyranids are genuinely disturbing. Overall, the excellent technical achievements outweigh the inconvenience of random crashes. Sadly, the broken mission is slightly more serious, I will check whether it is just more, or if everyone is having this problem.

Obviously, the other key element to this game is the skirmishes. Most of my online experience comes from the beta as the press online is deserted whenever I search for a game! The online is really good. The movement away from conquering towards the new, more mobile, style is really good. Having played the campaign I wish they had taken it a step further; select five units before the game starts and use them instead of building units during the game. As it is, you still have to have some focus on your base. Furthermore, because your units aren't levelled up (as they could have been with the selection method) they don't have any of the special abilities that they do in the campaign.

I have now had the chance to play some team battles, admittedly with AI, and they work much better than the 1v1s. As there are more units the scale feels much better. Also, the battles go on for longer, allowing more advanced units to be produced.

The integration with Games for Windows Live is a good thing. Stat tracking being tied to your Live profile, easy to use matchmaking, achievements and your friends list are all great. To top it off, they have kept the custom hosting option, so it is win win!

In conclusion, I have thoroughly enjoyed Dawn of War 2. It is refreshing that this game has done something different. Like most people, I was shocked at first. However, this change is good beyond the fact the genre needs change; it is good because it works. Yes, it is disappointing that the game has some technical issues. However, I have faith that Relic will get these issues resolved as soon as they become aware of them. The game is a really nice package, with good graphics, good frame rate and an excellent array of decisions that you must make.

It is also worth noting that this game features co-op campaign. I have not had a chance to try this out. I have my doubts about this, as four units is certainly not too many to handle for one player. None the less, it should be a joy to experience the campaign with another!

This review was based on a review copy of Dawn of War 2 supplied by the publisher.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Dawn of War 2 First Impressions

Well I have now spent 3 days playing Dawn of War 2 and, while I don't feel like I have fully experienced it, I certainly think I can do quite a detailed first impressions.

Firstly, I just want to say a huge thank you to Relic (the developers). For the first time in a long time, I won't have to say, it's just another sequel. This game is not "another RTS", it is not just some nice graphics stuck on to an age old model. This game is different and, err, fun.

Another thing I didn't think I would ever say; I think I prefer the campaign to the skirmishes. Me, as in the person who played all of one mission from the first two parts of Dawn of War 1 and never even finished the campaign in Dark Crusade. Me, who loved the Rome: Total War campaign and, despite spending hours in the game, never finished the campaign because I preferred skirmishes. Me, who never even touched the campaigns in Age of Empires 1, me who didn't notice there wasn't a campaign in Sins of a Solar empire and me, who doesn't even bother with scenarios in Civilization 4.

However, the campaign in this is loads of fun. You control a maximum of four units (choosing these four units quickly becomes one of the many interesting decisions that make up this game) The reduced numbers quickly makes the game incredibly focused. In any other game, the amount of handling you have to do for each unit would be unhandleable micromanagement. Admittedly, at times it does feel a little intricate. For example, you have to point you Heavy Bolter units in the right direction for them to shoot, you have to constantly be activating special abilities and moving all your units around to face the onslaught on enemies.

However, it is doable. The game manages to keep you under pressure whilst not overwhelming you. On the lower difficulties, it isn't actually very difficult, but it feels like it is and that you are only just making it through because of your command.

Part of this is down to the decisions. Sid Miers once famously said that "a game is a series of interesting decisions". In this game, every decision is non-trivial. What equipment do you give your units, which units do you take, do you push for the heavily defended fortification to provide you with bonus equipment or focus on the main objective.

Also, because of the intricate combat, your stratagies feel much more relevant. In traditional RTS's, the actual tactical element is largely just amassing troops. This is out of the question in this, not least because the enemy will always out number you. As a result, you must constantly be using the terrain around you to make best use of your units. The weaker units that in most RTS's are just throw away units are as vital as any other, no unit is dispensable.

The press release said that you would care for your units on a personal level. Sadly, this isn't true. The characters are clichéd at best and are simply to shallow to ever feel like you know them. They are not loveable enough and it is very difficult to empathize with them. Also, the game made it so that units do not die, they are simply knocked unconscious. This is an interesting decision, and was no doubt taken in part because each unit's leader plays a part in the story. None the less, this once again stops you caring about your units.

Levelling up your units also features in this game, and it works really well. At first glance, it seems fairly simple, upgrade your heavy bolters with ranged and your jump pack troops with close combat. However, as you earn enough points in a certain area you get a perk. These perks are tailored to the unit, so every path is viable. For example, upgrading your heavy bolters in close combat makes them able to carry on "focus firing" when they are in combat.

As far as I can work out, when your unit is knocked unconcious, they don't loose all their experience, they just earn less. This could have been a way of appeasing the story whilst making you care about the units. Or it might just have been annoying.

I could talk about the campaign till the cows come home, so I will move on. Rest assured, this is the first RTS campaign that I have enjoyed that isn't done in the Total War style, and in some ways, I might even prefer it to the Total War ones. Story wise, it is a bit "whatever" and the voice acting is pretty much mediocre, but aside from that, the campaign has a few neat mechanics, interesting missions and fairly varied objectives.

With all that good, what is there left for the skirmish side of things. I have talked before about it quite a bit with the beta. However, I didn't actually try a team battle. The team battles work better than the 1 v 1s. One thing they do wonderfully is recreate the wonderful feeling when playing the board game with many people. The 1v1s, the battles, whilst fun and frantic, always felt a little empty. A quite effective strategy was to run around securing the victory points after the enemy has left them (you don't have enough units to defend every point on the map).

In the team games however, you really feel like you are taking part in a big battle. Normally with team RTSs, you invest a lot of focus back at base, meaning you can't really co-ordinate with your team. However, now it is capture victory points, you are forced out of your turtle shell and stand next to your brothers.

And I was only playing with AI!

The game isn't perfect, the army painter is fairly basic with only a minimal selection of badges and only four customisable colour parts. Another slightly annoying thing is you can't even use your painted armies in the campaign. Another thing I encountered was during the campaign, the game crashes immediately after the cut-scenes. It didn't matter, once I loaded up the game again, it resumed right where it left off, and the cut scenes aren't very command but a bit annoying any way.

Overall, get this game, this is the change we need (in the RTS genre at least). Apologies about the length, the final review will be more orgaised.

Full, more formal, better structured, review on Sunday.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dawn of War 2 Interview

I read an interesting interview with the developer of Dawn of War 2 with Tom Chick. In it, they talk about how the genre has gone stale when compared with other, more successfully genres (such as first person shooters).

While I completely agree with what is being said, I think part of the shrinking sales is to do with the PC as a whole. Halo Wars has not saved the RTS genre (more information about this some time next week) but only showed that RTSs are almost always better on the PC, hence RTS survival is completely dependant upon the PC.

Sadly, however, the PC market is dying. It is, in part, to do with piracy. It was reported (I have sadly lost the link) that one game had a piracy rate of 85%! Compare this to the current generation of consoles, where it is virtually impossible to pirate games and even harder to distribute them, you can see where the money is going to go.

None the less, they raise a couple of interesting points about how console games are changing and why PC games need to do the same; and they are right. Console games are being simplified and shortened. Even Civilization on the console can be played through in a single play. Personally, I liked the depth that PC games offer. However, what might speak more is I love being able to dip in to console games for maybe 10 minutes - and I do probably spend more money on the console than I do on PC.

For those who are interested in Dawn of War 2 itself, I have a review copy of it which I am currently playing. I am not allowed to post anything before Friday though. My plan is to post my (detailed) first impressions on Friday and the full review on Sunday, allowing me to get a good feel for the game and what not. However, if I am allowed one sentence it would be this: Thankyou Relic for not making me repeat my sentiments that I have used so frequently in the past 12 months; "it's just another sequel". Stay tuned for more!

Monday, February 09, 2009

Free Radical bought by Crytec

Last year, Free Radical (Time Splitters) went in to administration. I, along with many others, was both shocked and upset, I was looking forward to Time Splitters 4, scheduled for this year. It was rumoured there were a number of third parties looking to buy in. However, it was not until earlier this month that it was revealed who was going to take them on.

And I must admit, I was surprised to find it was Crytec, most well known for Crysis. If I had to think of two first person shooters that were as different in style and execution as possible, it would probably be these two! Crysis is ultra-serious with incredibly realistic graphics and physics, a clichéd, with no tongue in cheek humour, action story. Time splitters has a weird, goofy, genuinely funny script, cartoony graphics, some of the worst physics you will ever come across and a monkey gun.

Can it work? I am not convinced. With the economic climate, and that FR was rescued from administration, Crytec may not be willing to fund a FPS that is less serious (as it may be considered more risky, just compare the sales of Time Spiltters with Halo or even Cyrsis itself). On the other hand, it could be absolutely awesome. It depends on whether the Cryengine can handle cartoony graphics as well as it can handle real graphics, and whether Crytec let FR run with their crazy monkey schemes!

I played the Halo Wars demo, so expect some first impressions coming soon. On top of which, some very exciting VG news:

While I am not getting my hopes up just yet, I think I may have secured a review copy of Dawn of War 2. As a result, I will be getting my act together and actually witting the review on time! The review cannot be posted before the 20th, but I aim to have it released exactly as the embargo is listed. Don't worry, I won't let it get to my journalistic integrity! But, however I score it, I want to say a big thank you to THQ, and if the beta is anything to go by, I am sure it will be awesome.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Resident Evil 5 Demo Impressions

Well, along with 1.8 million other people, I downloaded the Resi Evil demo for the Xbox 360. It comes with two playable levels. I played them both on my own and in co-op.

On your own is good but not great. The controls feel a little clunky. I know this is what they have always been, but that doesn't mean it isn't time for change. My main Resi Evil experience comes from RE4 on the Wii, which I thought had perfect controls, so maybe I will wait for a Wii port. My main gripe is that you have to press a button to draw your knife and then a second b to swing with it. What other possible reason could there be for drawing it, if not to swing with it. You can't move with it drawn, so when you draw it, you obviously want to swing with it.

The other main problem is your co-op partner is frustrating at times. You can't tell her to push furniture, or rather you can, but she only pushes it a little bit, you must go and push it all the way. There is no way of directing where she is shooting and she only ever uses her primary gun. There are bits which are obviously set up for co-operative fighting, like a room with two doors. She, however, refuses to settle on one.

Chuck in a second player and it gets a whole load better. There are some neat co-op features like ammo sharing, requesting different things and obviously being able to protect each other. The inventory is a bit clumsy - when you select an item, you have a drop down list to chose from (use, give etc.). I think it could have been more streamlined if A was use, B was give etc.

Yes, it has the painfully obvious scripted "co-op" bits that stick out like a sore thumb, but aside from that, it was fun to play through. Graphically, the game looks very impressive. This is certainly a title to watch.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Dawn of War 2 Online Beta Impressions

Well, despite THQ claiming this game has gone gold, Dawn of War 2 has gone into a last minute beta check and they need YOUR help, quick, download it off Steam. [If you didn't pick up on the sarcasm in that last sentence, I recommend you read the rant at the end of my last blog update]

Dawn of War 2 is very different to Dawn of War. If you are not aware, there is no base building. At all. Before you all leave to pre-order Starcraft, hear me out. This change is not a bad thing.

So, you strip out the base building, what do you have left? A surprisingly fluid RTS that could work on the console as well as the PC. How does it work, all your units are built at your headquaters. You can level your headquarters, but that is about it. Levelling up grants additional, more powerful, units.

The game flows a lot more than in Dawn of War. In the original, the best strategy tended to be: build some turrets, quickly level up, build as many units as your cap allows then attack. This was fun, but made games quite similar and also quite lengthy.

If you do that in Dawn of War 2, you will lose. Annihilation is not the aim of the game. On each map, there are 3 "Victory Points". Both players have a score, the opponents score decreases at a rate relative to the amount of victory points you hold. When one reaches zero, they lose. These work in a similar way to the requestion points in Dawn of War(which are still present).

Building units still requires energy and requestion. However, you cannot build power stations, they now must be captured like requestion points. All of this adds up to force you to mobilise your troops right from the start. If you sit in your base, the opponent will quickly be able to rack up more requestion and energy points than you (on top of the victory points, allowing him to win). When he does finally attack you, you won't stand a chance.

This means that you will constantly be sending out troops to capture points. Which in turn means you will always have less units alive at any given point(hence why it could, in theory, be adapted for the console). Less units means more control over them. Units can now get behind cover, for example. It plays more like Platoon (a demo came with a newspaper once!).

Also, because right from the start you will be battling, your commander unit (which you now start off with) plays a much more important role, helping to turn the tide of battle. Commanders now level up and, when they die, an option to revive them becomes available.

Another bonus is the game is actually balanced. Each side has a very different feel to it and yet, remarkably, the sides feel fair. Such a quick and competitive online will surely result in this game being played a lot - the true test of balance - but from where I am sat it looks balanced.

The game looks good, not quite as good as the screen shots, but the animations are really cool. The game sounds good, as you would expect from Dawn of War. Finally, the Games for Windows Live intergration is a mixed addition. On the one hand, it will mean achievements, plus neat stat tracking and a working friends list. However, no option to browse games (the custom game feature doesn't seem to work, either that or no one in the whole world was hosting a game) and having to matchmake (which is as slow as Gears at the moment) is a bit annoying.

Overall, I am pleasantly surprised. I have talked before about how I am looking forward to see what they are doing with the single player campaign. I am pleased to report the online, which was so key in the original, is shaping up to keep in sync with the fresh single player whilst offering fast, addictive online.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Blog Update - Walking in a winter wonder land

Sorry I haven't been posting much lately, despite having much to post about (Resident Evil 5 and Dawn of War 2 beta/demo's to come). The main reason is this weekend I took part in an event called the "Global Game Jam". You can read all about it on my other blog.

Another thing that may have got in the way of my posting is the incredible snow! Normally, when their is snow, us British tend to make quite a fuss over what would, in other countries, be described as "light". This time, it is different. We had about 9" of lush, thick, soft snow, and it is still hear some 3 days on! Yes, maybe we did overreact by having schools closed for the duration of those three days - but hey, this only happens every 20 years. To all the people who are complaining about people "skyving off" because of the snow (*cough* Borris Johnson *cough*) lighten up a little bit. This does not happen often enough to be a serious disruption to anything, so just go out and enjoy yourself!
Check out the bench! I spent Monday and Tuesday morning sledging and the afternoons warming up by the fire (my Xbox 360) I hope that if you did get snow, you were able to enjoy it also.

Also, for those who read my review of Braid early today, I have now completed two worlds (first world and the third world) and have discovered that more content becomes available once you do every world. I forgot to include scores and such that you normally find in my reviews as I only decided to make it a review when I finished it and came to tagging it up. On the other hand, how helpful are scores? The question you want answered is, should I buy it? Post a comment if you have oppinions on scoring games using arbiatary systems (oh yeah, make a simple concept sound a lot more in inteligent!)

I am going to write impressions on both the Dawn of War 2 beta and Resident Evil 5 demo tonight. As I don't want content released earlier today (Braid review) to get lost and then there to be a drought of content, I will have scheduled publications of them over the next 3 days at 7PM (Dawn of War 2 on Friday, Resi Evil on Saturday) so make sure to check back then.

But first, a quick rant. The "Multiplayer beta" of Dawn of War 2, as much as I am loving it, IS NOT A BETA. For one, the game went gold (ie. into production) before the beta was released. Unless they are trying to sell a half finished game that will require instant patching, the game is not in a beta stage. Beta stage means it is still being tested! I don't want to buy a half finished game and then have to patch it.

The truth, my cynical mind tells me, is a little different. Yes, the game probably will need to be patched (even the internet and widespread broadband comes with it's curses) the reason they call it a beta is to follow a new trend. CoD 5 also did this. Ever since Halo 3 did an actual online beta, games have been using it as the new buzz word for "early demo". It makes players feel like they are getting involved in the game developement and it means that people can say "oh, it's only the beta, the actual thing will be much better", providing a fallback for the developer. This is simply not the case, if you don't like the "beta", you won't like the game, the disks are already being burnt with that on. It isn't like in the beta they are supplying you with an old copy of the game to see if you can spot the improvements they have already made.

Ok rant over, check back on Friday for my opinon of the so called beta. If you liked Dawn of War, you will probably want to check this out first before commiting to the game. It is very different (read: barely 4X). Check back Friday to see why I think it is a good different.

"All your base are belong to us"