Rites Of War is a combination of two of my favourite wargames, Warhammer 40k running on a modified Panzer General II engine.
For those of you not familiar with Warhammer 40k, it's a very popular table-top wargame from the Games Workshop, a weird mix of fantasy and science-fiction set in the distant future where magic and orcs exist alongside tanks and rocket launchers.
Rites Of War is centered on just one of the races from WH40k - the Eldar, an ancient elf-like race who wear ornate and gaudy armour, have names like "Dark Reaper" and "Harlequin", and generally come across as a bunch of ponces.
The two races you'll be fighting are the Tyrannid (Aliens and grotesque half-human hybrids) and the Imperium (human Space Marines led by a God-like immortal Emperor).
Here ends your history lesson.
In case you hadn't guessed by now, Rites Of War is a good old fashioned turn based strategy game. You remember those, right?
The rules are a bizarre mix of Warhammer 40k and the "Epic" version of the game, which uses smaller figures to represent huge battles. It might be a little disorientating at first for hardened Warhammer 40k fans, but it plays well and doesn't take long to adjust to.
For those of you who didn't waste your teenage years painting hundreds of little plastic figures, the game should be easily accessible anyway thanks to a short tutorial mission which takes you step by step through the way the game works.
Each mission begins with a briefing, which involves a static background with text scrolling over it while a voice reads it out to you in case you're illiterate. The voice "acting" is horribly cheesy, and the script is even worse. So it suits the Eldar perfectly.
Once you've been briefed you must pick your army. This force is carried over from one mission to the next, though you can always buy more troops and swap surplus units in and out of the "barracks".
The main limitation is not the glory points you need to pay for the units (you'll earn plenty of those), but the number of hexes available for deployment in each mission. You can only take a handful of units into each battle, and unlike in Panzer General you can't buy reinforcements during a mission.
And there lies the game's biggest problem. Warhammer 40k is a wargame of epic proportions, but in Rites Of War you'll never get to command more than a couple of dozen units, even at the very end of the game. Early on you'll be lucky to field ten men.
Because of this you are always heavily outnumbered, and although the missions are all offensive you'll still have to play defensively to preserve your units. Which you need to do, because units gain experience as they fight. Higher experience levels mean higher stats, and by the time a unit reaches the final level it is a one man slaughterhouse, worth two or three times their number of rookies.
What makes things worse is the "rest" rule, which the AI uses continuously. As soon as an enemy unit is hurt it will run away and hide behind its friends. All it has to do then is rest for a whole round and it recovers most of its strength.
This means that just two or three rounds after blasting an enemy unit to within inches of its life it will be back in the front line at almost full strength. It can be very hard to kill anything unless you're willing to risk your own units to chase down injured enemies, which leads to some frustrating hit and run gameplay.
The pace of the game can be very slow because of this, and some of the later battles can take two or three hours to finish if you're being careful to preserve your troops.
Time is no problem though - you have 40 rounds to complete most of the missions, leaving your troops enough time to have a quick cup of tea before finishing off the enemy.
Which is a bit of a disappointment, because in the original Panzer General half the fun was knowing that you were fighting against the clock, and that how quickly you could defeat your enemy and capture your objectives would effect the outcome of the war.
Rites Of War, on the other hand, has a single linear campaign of 24 missions. You either win or lose a mission, and if you lose you get kicked back to the main menu to watch the credits scroll past. Game over man, game over.
The battles themselves get a bit tedious and repetitive as well. The Eldar must be bloody careless, because every other mission involves finding a lost Eldar artifact, or recapturing an ancient religious site that's been overrun by the enemy...
The worst part though is that each Eldar can only carry one artifact, and you can't drop them during a battle. So if you don't have any units left without one at the end to pick up the item you've been sent to recover, you can't complete the mission. Congratulations - you've just wasted the last two hours.
This has happened to me a couple of times, and it's very annoying.
It's not all bad news though - like Panzer General the game is strangely addictive, and the main campaign should keep you busy for a week or two at least.
Once you've finished that there are several stand-alone scenarios, giving you the chance to play as the Imperium and Tyrannid. The game also supports multiplayer, with up to four players able to fight it out on any of the game's maps over a LAN or the internet.
I haven't been able to find anyone in the UK to play against yet, but I think it's safe to assume that as this is a turn based game and there's only ever one unit moving at a time, lag shouldn't be a major issue. It's just a shame that there's no play by e-mail option.
The game also includes a scenario editor, although this limits you to editing the starting points and objectives for the existing maps - you can't create your own landscapes.
There's also no way of changing your troops' appearance, which is a shame because half the fun of playing Warhammer 40k is customising and painting your own army.
Thanks to the enhanced Panzer General II engine throbbing beneath the bonnet, Rites Of War looks beautiful. The battlefields are nicely detailed, ranging from grassy plains and mountains to deserts and icy tundra.
The units are big and brash, just as you'd expect from a Warhammer 40k game, and the bright colours make a refreshing change from the drab camouflage colours of Panzer General.
Generally the units' animations are good as well, although the Wraithguard's lurching movement makes him look like he's wearing The Wrong Trousers. Which is rather unfortunate, as he's meant to be one of the biggest hardest units in the Eldar army.
The game is also let down a bit by the sound - the music is truly appalling, and the sound effects are hilarious. The screams as a unit dies sound like something out of an old horror B movie...
The special effects and graphics are about the best I've seen in a turn based wargame though - faint praise I know, but it really is a good looking game.
Rites Of War is a fun but flawed game. It looks beautiful and plays well, but it can be frustrating at times thanks to the "rest" rule, repetitive mission objectives, and the need to nurse your troops through the battle with as few losses as possible.
The best Warhammer 40k computer game ever? Maybe. Better than the real thing? I guess that depends how much you like painting... Release Date - available now
A Warning For Voodoo Owners
Rites Of War is one of the most bug-free games I've played recently, so I was a little surprised when I found that SSI's messageboards over in the US (where the game has been out for several weeks) were full of complaints about crashes and lock-ups.
A quick search through the forums soon revealed the problem though - faulty DirectX drivers from 3dfx. Because I have a RivaTNT I hadn't noticed any problems, but anyone using a 3dfx graphics card will need to use old drivers until 3dfx get around to fixing the new ones.
Which is a shame really, because of course SSI has taken all the flak for the problems...
Download The Demo
If you want to try before you buy, check out the Rites Of War demo which weighs in at 32Mb.