The Warhammer Universe is so well crafted that it can lift an otherwise average game a few notches higher than it deserves. But what's so cool about Warhammer as a gaming universe? I suspect a lot of it has to do with how it uses names.
Other games are chock full of boring, bland, undifferentiated sci fi names. A hover tank is called, brilliantly enough, a hover tank; a laser is just a laser. Not in Warhammer 40,000: a heavy tank becomes an Imperial Dreadnaught, draped with the banners of the Emperor and drawn in a style that lets you know it is ready roll over the ranks of the enemy and crush their bones beneath its treads.
That's because the people who make the Warhammer games know how to make units, characters and equipment come to life. They realize that it is more fun to fight against someone called the Chaos Lords, to go toe-to-toe with metallic red warriors who scream, "Blood for the Blood God!", than to fight the faceless clones of other games. Games Workshop is simply better than anyone else at fleshing out a game world and peopling it with instantly recognizable, eminently endearing characters and trappings that are fun to play with, whether it's the dark and moody Warhammer Fantasy or the bleakly violent far future of Warhammer 40,000K.
Unfortunately, what Games Workshop is also good at is milking a franchise. On the tabletops, they've convinced thousands of otherwise rational human beings to spend hundreds of dollars for little lead figures and then paint them, assembly line style. And on the PC--and this what continues to annoy me about every single Warhammer PC game--each $50 game only deals with one tiny niche of this rich and varied world. The latest installment, Chaos Gate, continues this dubious tradition.
In this game you can only play as the Ultramarines. Not the Chaos Side, not the Space Orks, not any of half a dozen interesting races that exist in the Warhammer 40K universe. Only the Ultramarines. Apparently, Games Workshop just will not let anyone make a pure, open-ended strategy game where you can play any side at any time in their cool little worlds, but instead want to make you play just a few scenarios in a brief campaign.
Presumably this is so they can squeeze the license for all its worth, and considering how well they've stuck the Warhammer miniatures fanatics for cash, this philosophy is not surprising. But at this rate, how many computer games would they have to make to cover their entire franchise? A hundred titles? And how long would that take? A hundred years? And in the great realm of strategy gaming on the PC, where they are going up against Civilization and X-COM and Warlords and all that, that's a big black mark, a sort of deliberate cheapness that bars them from the Great Strategy Game Club in the Sky.
So all right, Chaos Gate is a little limited in scope and scale. So how is it as a game?
For starters, the story is enticing and pulls you in immediately. You find yourself in command of a small group of Ultramarines, led by one Captain Kruger. Your task is to recover some pieces of an artifact from the nefarious forces of Chaos, and of course to do so, you'll need to play through about fifteen or so missions of turn-based, squad-level infantry combat, more or less like Jagged Alliance or X-COM.
To anyone who played Random Games' earlier effort, Soldiers at War, Chaos Gate is obviously a tweaked version of the same technology, with its isometric perspective and the game world broken down by a grid. My biggest gripe about this engine is the way it blacks out terrain. Now in other games, blacked out terrain means unexplored areas. Here, it means anything that is on a higher elevation than you--even if you've already explored it--is black. You will be constantly clicking on the elevation toggle to get a proper overhead view, even if you've already walked over that bloody hill and down into the next one. If there were only a couple of terrain levels, this would be feasible. When there's eight, it becomes the dominant and defining action in the game. Click on the height indicator, click on the height indicator, click on the...
Line of sight is another problem. Sometimes you can see enemies, but you can't shoot at them, which is illogical in a world of ranged weapons. And then the bad guys pop out of view abruptly whenever they leave your line of sight, but some also have the power to turn invisible, creating unnecessary confusion.
So what about the combat? The AI here is nothing great. Yes, the cultists know enough to throw grenades, but that's about it. Nothing here looks to be improved over Soldiers at War. Your own troops are barely manageable, unable to wend their way through a 2D landscape full of potted plants in the most efficient manner. Things that were done easily in X-COM with a single mouse click here become tedious. The best strategy in most of the missions is to form a perimeter, sit there with reserved shots, and let the enemies make piecemeal attacks on you, bit by bit, until they're all dead.
The game is also pretty buggy, and that takes a lot of enjoyment away from the game. Out of the box, some of the missions are simply unplayable, and even after the patch, the CD music would skip randomly, the game wouldn't exit properly, etc., etc.
I think a lot of strategy games these days are getting away with murder, exactly like roleplaying games. Since so few roleplaying games are released anymore, pretty much anything, anything at all, gets hailed as great, even if it's buggier than a Georgia swamp. Look at Fallout 2. Fine game, in its design. Yet Fallout 2 is hailed as the Second Coming of the RPG, even though it's basically just Gamma World with fewer mutants and more bugs.
Unfortunately strategy games are slipping down the same easy street that RPGs are enjoying. Hardly anyone makes turn-based strategy games anymore, and that's a shame, but does that make it okay to release an unfinished game? It's okay to be broken? I could not make Chaos Gate's random scenario generator work until I applied the patch. It would always crash half way through a battle every single time.
Still, Chaos Gate does have its moments. One interesting touch is the fact that you can't replace your dead troopers. This makes getting through the missions with a minimum of casualties your top priority. Another bonus is the fact that your guys get experience points and their ratings improve after they successfully complete missions. I had one guy somehow kill sixteen Chaos enemies in one mission, a remarkable feat. Unfortunately, the Ultramarines are a pretty bland lot of helmeted heroes, lacking any of the personality or charm of, say, the Jagged Alliance mercenaries. So when the guy who killed sixteen enemies later died, I didn't even notice.
Extensibility is enhanced by the inclusion of net play, a random scenario generator, and a somewhat abtuse and cumbersome map editor, but all this is not enough to compensate for the fact that this game is only a tiny piece of the Warhammer universe.
So yeah, while there's plenty of interesting weapons to play with, neat little medals are handed out, the music, essentially one track looped over and over, is brilliant and seems to be hypnotizing reviewers, when you look at the guts of the machine, it's really nothing special. The core of the gameplay--turn-based squad combat--is solid, but X-COM and some others have done it better and before.
People who downloaded Warhammer 40000: Chaos Gate have also downloaded:
Warhammer Epic 40000: Final Liberation, Warhammer 40000: Rites of War, Warhammer: Dark Omen, Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, Warcraft 2, Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos, Warhammer: Mark of Chaos
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