Are You Sitting Comfortably?
There he is. Craig Charles, "star of TV's Red Dwarf", looking all curmudgeonly on the back of the "Dogs of War" box. He's smiling .. no, he's grinning at me. Does he know something I don't?
Previously entitled Warmonkeys (which is by far a more impressive title), Dogs of War is a new contender in the 3D real time strategy battle. The genre is already starting to look rather cramped, and it would take something mighty special to stand out from the meandering crowd.
Set 160 years into the future, the game is set on the small Earth-colonised planet of Primus IV, where a colony of miners set up Earth's first outposts. After a successful landing, the colonists were attacked by the planet's indigenous life, the Mantai (a sort of cross between dinosaurs and "Starship Troopers" style bugs). But their requests for help were ignored by Earth's forces, who were instead concentrating on running the newer, more successful colonies elsewhere.
The miners learned to fend for themselves until they discovered a radioactive alloy called SL-18, which allowed them to build strong armoured weapons and vehicles, helping them to drive back the Mantai into the inhospitable areas of the planet. Of course, when the news got to Earth, interest in Primus IV, the colonists, and in particular SL-18, grew tremendously, and Earth became increasingly reliant in the exported alloy.
Eventually, the colonists grew tired of their treatment and managed to gain control of the planet's communication systems, and construct an exporting system for themselves. The new Earth Emperor retaliated by dispatching warships to the planet in order to regain control. With the money garnered from the export of SL-18, the miners managed to acquire the help of a sympathetic rebel mercenary force, called the Warmonkeys, in order to help them fight against the Earth's Imperial Order.
As you can tell, it's not exactly the best story in the world, and it doesn't bode well for what's to come...
On the surface of things, the game is beautifully rendered and fairly original. You can manually control and rotate the camera to any position you desire to get a handle on the action below, and the introductions to each mission swoop and rotate the camera over the impressively and beautifully textured landscapes.
The control system is pretty standard-fare for this kind of game (albeit with a slightly confusing interface, which appears to be particularly over-complex until you get used to it), but the inclusion of direct control offers a breath of fresh air.
What direct control enables you to do is select any member of your force, be it a soldier on foot or an air-based craft, and control them in any way you wish using the cursor keys for movement. You can also see from the unit's perspective in the control console, which facilitates sniping with the appropriate units.
With that kind of level of control, you could expect a heady mix of real time strategy and Quake-style action, Battlezone II style. But what is actually delivered is a paltry slop of uninspired point-and-clicking, and clumsy stumbling into enemies and dying.
Some missions require that you directly control one unit on foot in order to infiltrate a base, apparently in a stealthy fashion. This is clearly a mind-numbingly frustrating task to achieve, as you are forced to navigate from a third-person view, but you can only see what you are doing in the tiny window in the corner of your screen. And there's no strafe control. If you are going to include a feature like this, at least think about it properly...
Seeing Is Believing
The missions themselves can appear at first to be quite pleasantly varied, and they certainly allow for some visually pleasing battles, with ensuing explosions, fireworks and missile trails all looking rather pretty.
The engine also sports a line-of-sight feature, meaning that instead of blacking out parts of the map until your units discover them, instead you just can't see enemies until your units are within sight of them. This means that you can send out recon craft for discovering areas of enemy activity and patrol routes to plan your strategy.
This is a fairly nice touch, but it also has its faults - you can be trying to snipe in third person mode and be perfectly able to see your target, but for some unknown reason your man will refuse to take a shot at him unless you are standing on top of the hill in full-view of every other enemy within a square mile.
The targeting system is also suspect. When trying to follow a trooper across the horizon I took a shot which startled him. He began to run, but the target remained in place and wouldn't move until I deselected him as my target and then relocated him. The game is full of little "features" like this which make it something of a chore to play, especially if you are on a time limit to achieve a goal.
Not The Sharpest Knife
The AI leaves a fair bit to be desired as well. Often units don't respond to your commands at all, and if they do they frequently end up doing the wrong thing and die for it.
For example, I directed one of my snipers to simply travel down the side of the hill that he was picking off enemy units from the top of, but instead he decided to take a stroll directly into the middle of a cluster of enemy tanks.
Another mission involved following a convoy of enemy tanks to destroy them before they reached their base. I sent two appropriate units out to follow and destroy them, but once they were in range they stopped dead and started shunting against each other and jostling for position to fire at the tanks, whilst the convoy proceeded to ride home. This was indeed not a Good Thing.
What disappoints me so much about this game is the way in which it tries so hard to be an engaging, original and humorous, but ends up failing dismally on all counts by being frustrating, predictable and utterly unfunny.
Craig Charles only lends a certain feeling of amateurishness to the game, particularly so in the mediocre tutorial mission, which helps in no way to improve your skills for the full game, and only serves as a vehicle for Mr. Charles' pay cheque.
I feel sorry for Silicon Dreams, as this title obviously had a lot of potential. If they were to produce another game with the same level of graphical detail, but subtracted the pointless voice "acting" license, thought out a gritty atmospheric plot line, and followed it through with gripping, frenetic battle sequences without the artificial feeling of this game's highly linear missions, then I am sure they would have a winner on their hands.
Better luck next time.