It’s war!

October 18, 2008

The past few weeks have seen me playing far more multiplayer than single player.  In the gaming vacuum that followed the end of my Vampire Bloodlines playthrough, I landed myself in the harsh but welcoming bosom of Dawn of War (with the Winter Assault and Dark Crusade expansions installed).  I played with buddy MozzerV12, skirmishing with AI opponents, honing our collective skill in preparation for a step up to the online scene.

When we eventually plucked up the courage to play matches against human opponents, we had surprisingly mixed success.  I say surprisingly in that I think we both expected repeated and uninterrupted dismal failures.  What actually came to pass was that we managed to pull off several victories, some won through daring blitz attacks I previously thought were beyond our combined strategic ability to orchestrate.  Often we risked the security of our bases or sacrificed outposts, throwing our Space Marine and Imperial Guard armies at the enemy in the hope that we would permanently break them while maintaining enough of our infastructure to survive.

Dark Crusade Screenshot

Prior to having just consulted my profile statistics, I would have estimated that my losses outnumbered my wins; as it turns out my win/loss ratio has levelled out at a perfect 50%—nothing to write home about (if I were away from home) but good enough to satisfy my meager pride.  Something tells me that if we played more games though, that ratio might slowly start to sink.  We suffered some horrific defeats it has to be said, mainly at the hands of the nigh-unstoppable Necrons, their most devastating tactic being to deep-strike (teleport) in squad after squad of Flayed Ones, terrifying cyborgs with the skins of their kills stitched to their exoskeletons—a real bummer for morale.  DoW can be a tough bitch.

After a week or so of hardcore strategy I was very much in the mood for a meat and potatoes first person shooter.  Bioshock and Call of Duty 4 were the only two contenders for my spare time, and given that I see Bioshock as more of a light, delicate cheesecake than a fine steak, I opted for a spot of modern warfare.  I’d not been enjoying COD 4 for more than a couple of days when Crysis Warhead—a title that up until that point had not been on my wish list—was released on Steam.

My interest in buying Warhead was piqued not just by its being on Steam, which by itself is reason enough to consider a game in a more favourable light, but because MozzerV12 (who had bought the game himself a day or so beforehand) was warbling on about a fresh, fast paced and generally spiffy multiplayer component, dubbed Crysis Wars and bundled with any purchase of Warhead.  I advanced swiftly to the checkout process.

What ensued the following evening, with Warhead successfully downloaded and installed, was one hell of thrill ride of a multiplayer experience.  I gave the Power Struggle game mode, which I had a bad time with in Crysis’ multiplayer, another go, but was once again disappointed.  It was only when I dived into Team Instant Action (a fairly naff label for Crysis Wars’ team deathmatch) that I got the real buzz.

I hadn’t had as much intoxicating fun in a multiplayer game since the Team Fortress 2 beta.  With one or two exceptions the maps are compact treasures, designed with frantic close-to-medium range gunfights in mind.  There’s almost no room at all for complex thought; tactical instinct is the name of the game, with moments of teamwork arising spontaneously, at intervals, and lasting for a few minutes at most.  It won’t be for everyone, but for me it hits the spot, much like spaghetti bolognese hits the spot when I’m famished.  Kudos also to Crytek for the work they’ve done on optimisation: on low ‘mainstream’ settings, it looks as good as Crysis if not better, and runs quite significantly more smoothly on my now-ageing GeForce 8800 machine.

Just as I was getting comfortable with DoW and Crysis Wars, fellow gamer Pigmental—resident scumbag and Gladiator/Russell Crowe hater (if those traits aren’t one and the same)—persuaded me to return to World War II RTS Company of Heroes—DoW’s successor in all but name.  Having bought a copy of the expansion Opposing Fronts many months ago, and not having had anyone to play it with, the transition was a welcome one.  Though I’m a big fan of DoW’s classic Warhammer 40k setting, CoH exists on a higher level in terms of the gameplay mechanics it has on offer.  The importance of cover and flanking maneuvers, the bread and butter of modern warfare, is incredibly well realised, and the authentic WWII environments are brought vividly to life by the stunning physics engine.  Where DoW can tend to feel a bit toyish, CoH feels like a real war, and that’s why it excels above the rest of the competition as well.

Company of Heroes screenshot

With a week or so of matches against AI under our belt—some of which having been more difficult to win than others, some of which we tragically lost—we’re now on the verge of another ascent to human vs human play.  Besides my flagrant cowardice and lingering pessimism, our main concern is how much lag we’re going to get in a 3v3 game.  I’ll report on my experience at a later date.

In other news, I’m beginning to get in the right mood to write a review, and I’ve little doubt now that it will be of Warhead.  The review of Sins of a Solar Empire, which I promised long ago, is henceforth postponed until the release of the third and final expansion, on track for a release sometime next year.  I’m looking forward to the first, Entrenchment, due before Christmas.

For now, bon chance!