Like beat-'em-ups, strategy games have a hard time looking glamorous - but not just because they have a hard time looking glamorous. They're often about fascinating but unfriendly subjects, they take ages to figure out, and most damagingly they're very difficult to market: the one-line summary is almost impossible. So while Valve is often heralded as a futuristic cabal of geniuses, companies like Relic and Creative Assembly are ignored, even though their achievements, and the near-faultless ascendance of their talent, are often just as risky and thoughtful. Like beat-'em-ups, this won't change in 2009, but like beat-'em-ups again, it's getting closer.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II
On: PC / Developer: Relic / Publisher: THQ / Release: 20th February
It may be the least fashionable of this year's potential blockbusters, but Dawn of War II may end up being the very best, whether you worship the absurd, excellent Warhammer fiction or not. And, more crucially, whether you worship the usually cruel and intimidating RTS genre or not. Base- and unit-building are banished and reinforcement scaled back in the squad-based single-player, which borrows thoughtfully from the RPG genre: most notably in persistent, upgradeable units, and a reward structure that showers you in War Gear, which you keep throughout to customise your four squads.
It's a change of pace, which will be a struggle for some, but then PC strategy fans are used to the struggle, and therein lies the point: Relic's mastery of the RTS genre will be a deep and compelling new playground for them, but Dawn of War II should be a more approachable, friendlier proposition for everyone else. At least, as friendly as you'd expect for a game primarily about crusading, genetically modified Space Lancelots fighting for a permanent, soul-harvesting God-Emperor.
And for those who were here to begin with, adjusting to the new world order has its own thrills. The single-player may be knotted around less traditional foundations, but so too is the multiplayer, and in ways more obviously suited to the ravenous tactical brains of Dawn of War lovers: three-on-three co-operative battles with base-building, annihilation and control-point based combat, and four playable races, including the frothing Tyranids, who never made it into Dawn of War despite a host of expansions. Like a lot of big games in unfashionable genres, Dawn of War II is trying to be several things to several groups at once; it may or may not mean bigger sales for Relic, and we doubt it will be the first mainstream RTS, but it makes for a fascinating game.
Supporting Cast (in alphabetical order)
On: PC / Developer: Gas Powered Games / Publisher: Stardock / Release: March
Alright, Space Siege was pants, but this hybridised action-RTS-RPG, inspired by the tournament-dominating Defence of the Ancients Warcraft III mod, seems to be more of a labour of love for Chris Taylor and chums.
Empire: Total War
On: PC / Developer: Creative Assembly / Publisher: SEGA / Release: March
They live a few miles up the road, they make games about manly war, and they have a witty name. Creative Assembly are clearly our heroes, and unlike Relic their games remain shamelessly daunting and mysterious, and always better than the last.
On: Xbox 360 / Developer: Ensemble Studios / Publisher: Microsoft / Release: 27th February
The last new thing you'll ever be able to buy with Ensemble Studios' name on it may also be the first good RTS you'll ever be able to buy and stick in a console. It's been said before, of course, but the scale here is more sensible and the controls considered. The IP's not bad either.
On: PC / Developer: Blizzard / Publisher: Blizzard / Release: TBC (hopefully 2009)
Does anyone doubt that this really will be three full, amazing games? Or that it will be the ultimate competitive RTS? One of the reasons we admire Blizzard is that if it isn't, it simply won't come out.
Creative Assembly takes to the post-apocalypse in Stormrise on PC, PS3 and 360; Codename Panzers delves into the Cold War in February; and EA continues to fondle the mad-dolphin/Z-list-upskirt sub-genre with download-only Red Alert 3 Uprising this March.
Coming Attractions returns tomorrow at the usual time!