Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Librarians Are Badass

Warhammer 40K has been how I blow off steam lately, both figuratively and literally.

It doesn't reinvent the genre, but it plays with the RTS formula in ways that please me.

I like being able to reinforce units in the field without having to send hastily-built troops across entire maps. I like how the main resource to manage, requisition points, ties into the war theme - it leads me to press the advantage more (and often forces me to pull back from a superior force).

I like terrain considerations and how their effects are relayed to the player in a clear manner. And how pulling back to a more defensible position can save your squad from utter annihilation.

The voice acting is powerful and appropriate. Sure, most of the male characters sound like The Kurgen while the females sound like the Southern Oracle, but that's totally cool with me.

I like the huge walking mechs.

My gripe with the game is that every scenario goes down the same way for me:

1. Barely get my base defense built, grab the closest req points, send my first troops for other nearby nodes.

2. Build turrets like fucking crazy. I put them everywhere, and I put a lot of them everywhere. I thought I was turret-happy in Starcraft, but this game is ridiculous. I actually contemplate assaulting a req point in the heart of the enemy's base, somehow getting my builders in to fortify it and laughing as my turrets tear apart their structures.

3. Wait on requisition points for every little thing. At this point I'm well-defended, but I build troops slow as molasses. If your army isn't fully-upgraded, it's pretty much worthless, so I'm down to building my squads one plasma weapon at a time and watching enemy attacks on my defenses wither under hails of turret fire.

4. Finally get enough fortified requisition points to build my army to full strength. Which means a fairly minor unit cap. Which makes sense, because you are supposed to care about those units as more than mere fodder. Of course, it also means that once I hit my limits on both troops and vehicles (meaning I'm probably fully-upgraded as well) then all my req points and power just build and build.

5. Use my army to stomp my foes into paste. They are cut down by the thunder of my guns. Even if I didn't have uber-powerful weapons to throw against them I'd probably overwhelm them with sheer numbers. Which is cool. By this point, however, I also have at least 20000 of both req points and power and that number keeps climbing to the very end, and nothing at all to do with it but build more turrets. Turrets that I don't need.

This has been the pattern for the seven chapters I've played so far and I expect it to continue.

Four suggested alterations/fixes:

1. Let me use a percentage of my leftover requisition to alter the makeup of my starting army on the next level. Why is it I have to research sergeants each map? Or flamethrowers? These guys are elite? I know this is a genre convention, and I could accept it if they added a least a little continuity.

So let me only upgrade the starting army. If I can afford to fully outfit them, so be it. But then I still have to earn the upgrades for armies I build in the next map. I could deal with that.

2. Make single-player pausable (for all I know it is, but I haven't discovered how) and allow me to mark out routes for troops. This will let me plan out my assaults (and fully use the potential of the Jump ability) instead of simply marching everything I've got in one direction - which works, but makes me feel like I'm an infection vector rather than a field commander.

3. Fix vehicle routes for god's sakes. They are awful. And make sure that if you group vehicles they stay together. I'm tired of watching just one fucking walker rush ahead of all the others and get significantly weakened just because they couldn't hang together. Cohesion, people, cohesion. This is more minor for infantry, but there will still be times when I order a major group to attack a target and only one engages, the other just sticks around in the back staring at their feet. So I'm stuck trying to maneuver them manually (which, with a pausable option, I would enjoy, instead of rushing to twitch-coordinate).

4. Let me sell buildings. Or at least dismantle them. See, sometimes my own turrets will interfere with the movement of my vehicles. The only way I can find to get rid of those structures is attacking and destroying them. This works, yes, but it's also stupid. If I can call huge buildings from orbit I'm pretty sure I can take apart a turret. Or have them fold up into the ground, inactive, so I can get units by, and make a time delay to reactivate them. It's minor, yes, but I had taken half a map and wasted lots of trying to get my vehicles to the front, watching helplessly as the enemy fielded vehicles of their own, before I figured out that the trick was to just blow up my own shit. I don't like making decisions based on the bounding boxes that constrain me at certain points of the battlefield. Just make it so my own vehicles can clip a certain percentage of structures I own. Problem solved.

The other thing that bothers me is not knowing the backstory. It's clear that some parts of this game were made to be accessible to those without the background and other parts were made with fans in mind. So while familiar genre conventions allow me to wreak destruction, I'm often left wondering just what the hell is going on.

Story-wise it's fine, with several different enemies all trying to screw each other over and a relic and big avatars and a clear betrayer in your midst.

But I can't help the feeling that I'm missing a lot. I don't know the Imperium. I pick up a lot from the characters, but in-game there's little to really immerse me in the lore. Maybe some references throughout the levels to famous battles or people. Maybe a knowledgebase that can give me just the skinny or the whole fat enchilada.

Most of the time this wouldn't bother me in an RTS. Knowing that there is a whole lot of extraneous information out there, though, is what unsettles me in this case. Put it simply, I don't like being out of the loop.

When the loop is small, like with new IP, there's a minor amount to learn and I'm more at ease. When I'm in the loop (as with the Jak series), knowing where the characters came from and their adventures as a continuum, the whole thing becomes more enjoyable. When I'm out of the loop, well, I can still enjoy myself, I just want to know more.

And I'll probably delve into some of the reference stuff on WH40K. It seems an interesting place, though its straight-up wargaming roots are, well, on the surface.

Basically, I give the game a split thumb. The levels are good for getting rid of some stress through the effective therapeutic technique of watching cute little Hello Kitty-esque ultraviolent minions slog it out with terrible implements of war. On the other hand, the levels can take a long time to clear and there are a lot of things they should've altered from the RTS formula that they left intact.

Recommended as a brightly-colored, animated, gory stress ball.

Click click click.

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