Jon Dowdeswell, Relic producer, is putting a brave face on the fact he flew in from Vancouver yesterday by enthusiastically building an Ork base at the Games Workshop HQ in Nottingham. He looks shagged. "Dawn of War is a battlefield RTS like you've never seen before," he rumbles. Ork stuff is deployed as if by magic and legions of green, warty men traipse over a hill, smack into a chapter of Space Marines. What happens next reminds you that Relic has a decent strategy reputation for a reason.
The orks are cut to pieces by the marines' bolters. Dowdeswell swings the camera around the scene, closing in on the imperial forces and the butchered Orks, scaled texture detail not out of place in close up with last-generation FPSs and the added bonuses of dynamic lighting, self-shadowing, and so on lifting Relic's tech neatly away from the competition. "It's a little difficult to get 100 units on screen at once with all these things happening," Dowdeswell barks over the boom of weapons. But 100 on screen is what Relic has achieved. The effect is mesmerising.
Probably the world's most famous tabletop game, Warhammer 40K, is about to get the computer attention it deserves thanks to Relic. Last year's Fire Warrior, an FPS developed by Advance Wars: Under Fire outfit Kuju, fell well short of the mark, considering that Warhammer's depth and legacy, in the words of Dowdeswell, is "probably second only to The Lord of the Rings". Dawn of War looks to be pitched exactly right: squad-based action strategy on PC with enough unit detail to keep the geeks happy, and access easy enough for those looking to watch loads of pretty things kill each other without having to groan under the strain of 300 pages of nonsense instructions.
Warhammer 40K is a fantasy sci-fi affair. Dawn of War includes four armies - Ork, Eldar, Space Marines and Chaos Marines - each of which, obviously, have their own strategies and "feel". Pick the Ork army and you get tons of them, but they're weak. You know the drill. It's not really important. What's really going to impress and dismay in equal measure about Dawn of War is the fact Relic has chosen to pull the complexity level of play to an absolute minimum.
When Relic says Dawn of War is "accessible", it means that there's no offensive advantage for terrain height, the damage on units is the same no matter which direction they're attacked from, units don't run away when their morale breaks, squads are picked automatically when you click on a single member, and so on. Relic doesn't believe it's about to alienate hardcore RTS fans.
"We're RTS gamers too," says Dowdeswell. "Obviously, as Dawn of War's been made, weve asked how can we take the things we love and make them accessible without losing those aspects. We're using elements that work."
And what works, apparently, is what Dowdeswell calls, "whizbang". He shows us dreadnoughts going toe-to-toe with Eldar tanks with all the graphical flourish of a New Year fireworks display. His demonstrations of huge, special units taking on reams of smaller soldiers are spectacular, a mammoth Chaos Bloodthirster being beaten to death by a Space Marine Force Commander, the latter leaping on top of the giant's head and hammering it into submission. Scripted or not, the interaction seen in these sequences is cinematic and seamless, a perfect realisation of the chunky, high-powered fantasy war offered by Warhammer 40K as a franchise. Blood flows free, Eldar dreadnoughts skewering Orks, special attacks blasting settings with lightning and dog-like Ork war machines careering through battle-locked units like toys. Which is rather apt, really.
So, in summary. Men from Relic take jetlag well, Dawn of War looks damn purdy and arrives with 3,000 polys per model, playing it won't need a degree and you'll be able to hark back to the days when little plastic figures were all that mattered with the world. While watching 100 units at any one time murder each other in eye-bleed detail. Works for us.
Click here to see more exclusive screenshots of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War in action. The game is due out on the PC this October.