Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War

The Marines move off down the street, leaving a red-splashed pile of green corpses behind them. A mound of rubble smothers the crossroads ahead, and as the Marines draw closer, movement appears... the area is swarming with Ork reinforcements. They're dug in; hunkered down to take advantage of the protection that the debris offers. As the Marines move into range and open fire, the mob unleashes a fusillade of rounds back in their plasteel-clad faces. Despite the Orks' lower proficiency with guns, the Marines find themselves fighting a losing battle, as their own weapons are far less effective against their dug-in opponents. After a couple of Marines fall, the squad pulls back out of weapons range to consider its options.

Time to bring in the big guns. With a couple of clicks on tactical display icons, four new troops arrive to bolster the squad. Two Marine scouts, lightly armoured but sporting elegant, long-barrelled sniper rifles, and two Marines toting heavy bolters - massive troop-chewing automatics.

The scouts take up positions outside the Orks' visual range, and open fire. As the rounds slam home, the bar representing the Orks' morale drops to nothing, representing the raw fear that unseen sniper-fire incites. The Marines move to exploit the confusion: legging it into weapons range once more, they open fire, the squad's rifle rounds bolstered by the braying chatter of heavy bolter fire.

The Orks' reduced morale appears to cancel out much of the bonus provided by their cover, and with the added punch of heavy weapons, the Marines begin to pick off more and more, eventually swinging the balance of the firefight in their favour.

But just as it looks as if the Marines have the greenskins licked, a swarming mass appears over the horizon... it's a huge Ork mob, rushing to support their embattled brethren. As the unit under fire is incorporated into the greater mass of its allies, its morale suddenly leaps in response. With a mighty roar they charge as one, pistols waving, axes swinging. Now vastly outnumbered, this is one fight the Marines surely cannot win.

Terror weapons can play a key part in your tactical approach. Among other things, sniper rifles, flamethrowers, monstrous creatures, and especially ordnance, will cause units to lose confidence. This makes certain unit combinations, such as Scouts working ahead of artillery vehicles, particularly useful in breaking the back of an enemy battle group.

But as we've seen with the Orks, each army has its own way of dealing with the consequences. Orks can 'mob up' to boost the morale of battered squads, whereas Space Marines simply regain confidence much quicker than any other army. It's still uncertain how the other two playable races in the game - Chaos and an as yet unrevealed faction - will deal with such situations.

But it's not all about killing the enemy outright, which is what most RTS games are reduced to. It's about weakening enemy forces and pushing them back so that you can achieve your objectives. Relic are remaining cagey about what the four single-player campaigns will involve, but are keen to impress that multi-player games will be remarkably different to any other RTS.

"What we're aiming for is like a Battlefield 1942 experience for RTS players," explains Jay. "We don't see why great ideas and great experiences shouldn't cross the genre boundaries." To help eliminate the rush mentality, the action is kept fluid with 'shifting' objectives, and until the later stages of a battle, the focus tends to rest on these rather than your opponent's base. And as Relic rightly believe, resources are the key to pacing. Not unlike Total Annihilation's resource model, in which numerous resource patches offered drip-feed cashflow, Dawn of War's maps have a series of strategic points. Once captured, these offer small resource boosts, and can be upgraded to house fog-of-war-busting radar outposts. They also mark your army's developing battle-line, as you begin to reinforce them with fresh troops. Capture enough strategic points to fulfil the victory conditions, and the game is yours. Makes a nice change from simply finding your enemy's base and blowing up all his buildings, doesn't it? To keep things interesting, larger maps also boast 'relic sites'. Capturing one of these marks a major strategic coup, and you'll be rewarded with access to super-elite units, as the unseen Generals deem your actions suitably important.

And what do you do with resources? You requisition units. But to requisition units, you need a base...

A huge marine drop-pod plummets through the clouds at terminal velocity. It's aimed squarely at a plate-metal landing pad on the ground. Brakes, it seems, are for girls. KER-RANG! 100-odd tonnes of metal slams to the ground, stopping instantly. The landing pad slides back, and the pod is drawn underground. Seconds later, a squad of Marines trot out of the blockhouse door next to the pad. The reinforcements have arrived. And not before time... our view pans around and we see our original Marine squad, running for its life from the Ork horde, towards the Marine base we're now hovering above.

The base entrance looks intimidatingly well-guarded. At the back, two squat turrets are poised to fire. These are supported by several squads sporting missile launchers and heavy bolters. At the front line, we see assault troops armed with pistols, hand weapons and flamethrowers. And finally, guarding the entrance like giant steel sentinels, a pair of Marine Dreadnoughts, scanning the terrain ahead for incoming enemies.

Our heroic squad makes the entrance and passes between the safety of the big guns. Hot on their heels, the Orks continue the chase... then all hell breaks loose.

Like starting pistols, the turrets' thunderous reports signal the opening of a devastating barrage. Support Marines rock on their heels as missiles howl from their shoulder-mounted launchers. Thirty bolters bark and chatter, sending countless white-hot bullets into the thick of the mob. The assault Marines open up with their flamers, roasting the first wave of Orks. But the most awesome sight is that of the Dreadnoughts joining the fray.

These giant steel war machines, each containing the withered body of a veteran Space Marine warrior, lurch heavily into the conflict, rotary assault cannons hosing down the mob as they go. They lumber right into the thick of the action, swinging their steam-hammer arms, knocking half a dozen Orks into the air at a swipe. We focus in on one of the Dreadnoughts as it grasps a flailing Ork with its vicious power claw. It holds its prey aloft and crushes it repeatedly, puffing clouds of blood-mist into the air, before cricket-bowling the shattered body over the heads of its brethren.

This game is insane. Now here is exactly what you want from an RTS: an unbelievable tableau comprising hundreds of units that don't simply stand there and fire at each other like every other RTS in existence. These guys recoil, shake their fists, scream and die with utter conviction. They barrel through the air when hit by a large round; they bleed and shatter; they take vicious swipes and relish putting the boot in when they get close enough to their hated enemies. The Dreadnought alone has an array of different combat routines, so while you know what his attacks will do, he'll execute them in several unique ways. In short, Dawn of War not only takes the minutiae of combat to a level beyond that of any other RTS, it also threatens to bring Warhammer 40,000 to life like no Warhammer game we've ever seen before. Final Liberation, Rites of War, Chaos Gate... even Fire Warrior failed to move us like this, and as 40K games go, that one was much the best of the bunch.

Moreover, the level of creative freedom Relic enjoy means they can adapt the 40K mythos to make a game that reflects the universe the tabletop game is set in, but one that still works in a PC RTS environment. Wads of character, a fantastical level of carnage, tactical mechanics that encourage the player to innovate according to the situation rather than falling back on rote strategies... It all sounds like a rather potent combination.

The Orks know their strength lies in weight of numbers, and they throw everything they have at the Marine base. The Marines stand fast, relying on their massed firepower.

An Ork Killer Kan lumbers into the carnage. This walking dustbin is the Ork answer to the Dreadnought - lighter, clunkier, but still deadly. An Imperial tank, liberated by the Orks and festooned with their tribal symbols, begins lobbing huge, high-explosive shells at the Marine base.

Right in the thick of it stands the Marine Commander, swinging his warhammer in a berserker frenzy. Just as he raises his weapon for another blow, a Killer Kan waddles into view, its monstrous hydraulic pincers poised to strike.

Here, the battle will be decided.

Warhammer 4,000: Dawn of War is sheduled for PC release in September