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Clash of Fans: Dawn of War and Darius

Fishy business.

Hello and welcome to the fourth of our Clash of Fans write-ups. This week we'll be getting together in pairs (virtually) and forcing each other to play a beloved game. Then we'll chat about what we made of it all.

Next up is Chris Tapsell's cherished Dawn of War and Martin Robinson's own beloved, the shmup series Darius.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War

Martin: OMG what is this nerd shit you've got me playing? OK, I admit I dabbled with Warhammer 40K when I was a teen, but I only got as far as painting a couple of figurines (Ultramarines ftw) and since then my interaction with the universe has been fleeting at best. I do have a soft spot for it, though - I played a game of Talisman a few years ago and was reminded how much I love the earnestness of it all, and how the lore seems to have secreted into this gloriously rich thing over time. Also, Space Marines are just cool, right?

Chris: Space Marines are cool! OK they're explicitly not cool, but that's like, the essence of 40K right there. I think a lot of people go through the 40K phase around the same time as the emo phase - or at least it sounds like we both did - and that's partly why Dawn of War was such a formative game for me. It's super committed, like you say, so once that layer of "what am I doing with my life" washes off it's just so easy to go completely all in on it. I don't know if you played any of the bits where this happened, but before online games and some skirmishes you'd get a little preamble voiceover from some Warhammer guy putting on a ridiculous voice. Fourteen-year-old me took to bellowing out my own versions of those little intros to my mates on Skype for a while...

Cover image for YouTube video39 minutes of Dawn of War 3 Campaign Gameplay - Is the singleplayer any good?

Martin: Oh god yeah, those voiceovers are what Warhammer's about for me. I spent an hour or so with Space Hulk on the Sega Saturn back in the day and some of those lines still linger with me all these years later. "This one's for Ezekiel!" It's so easy to get lost in this world, and there's something so brilliantly toyish about it too. I mean, Warhammer is just Tonka Toys for moody teens, right? Ultimately it's about getting the playmat out and smashing together some chunky boys while going 'pew pew pew'. What I loved about Dawn of War is how it makes that all explicit - I'm kind of new to real-time strategy games as well, but it seems like the perfect match for the toy-ish nature of Warhammer.

Chris: Yes! The chunkiness totally feeds into that - this game is amazing at playing with size, which is a weird thing that I don't think about very often when talking about RTS games but is actually super important? It gets more obvious in the expansions: the Imperial Guard are normal-sized humans and so in this world they're tiny, and go absolutely flying when you hit them with artillery. And then there are things like the Bloodthirster and the Avatar that tower above the Marines. I'm only realising this now but that's actually a recurring thing in a lot of my favourite RTS games come to think of it. Age of Mythology was all about it, and Company of Heroes has its whacking great King Tiger tanks. God I'm a nerd. Anyway I'm glad it works well for newcomers. RTS games have such a reputation for being impenetrable, they're actually just playsets for big babies.

Martin: Well, they're still kind of impenetrable. I'm pretty much an RTS virgin and my first hour with Dawn of War was spent with the tutorial, though I think it goes a bit overboard in introducing absolutely everything. Playing through the first few missions of the campaign, the systems come in a bit more organically - and then I realised they're systems I'm familiar with from countless other games that have taken tips from the genre. Capturing points and building up resources is pretty much Battlefield, right? I didn't really realise that I've been playing RTS games, in one way or another, for years now, so it's fascinating to go back to something like Dawn of War and see how these systems are supposed to operate, unadulterated, in a proper example of the genre.

Chris: That makes me a bit sad because it's spot on, and just reminds me of how big a shame it is that some felt the need to bring things from other genres into the RTS to save it, when it's the most RTS-like things that are often the reason why other genres work so well. Was there anything you properly didn't get? That just felt like complete nonsense?

Martin: It's more the stuff that made complete sense to me that I really liked! Like the morale system - is that a staple of RTS games? It was so well thought out - from my very limited experience with a couple of missions of Dawn of War - and everything seems to interplay so thoughtfully. It's all given me an appetite to play more, and explore some of the later Dawn of War games too, but I gather they're all quite different.

Chris: The morale stuff is amazing! You're putting me on the spot here but I think it was pretty unique to Dawn of War, at least it's not been in any RTS games I've personally played before or that came out around the same time. It's great because it's a mechanic that represents the world itself. 40K is campy but it's also famously grimdark, and having these units waver and eventually break at the sight of some horrible Chaos horde just feels so perfect. That, and dropping in some morale-immune late-game units to save the day. Chef kiss. It's so engrossing I'd say it's borderline role-play.

As for the sequels, you're right that they're really different, but I'd actually argue they all sort of work in their own way? I'm a heretical Dawn of War 3-liker, even though I'm also super disappointed it wasn't more of a traditional RTS. Dawn of War 2 feels almost like XCOM it's so tactics-heavy. The great thing about this first one is there are so many expansions that sort of feel like sequels in their own right. They all have new campaigns and really varied races - Dark Crusade was my favourite, because its campaign was this Total War-lite overworld where you captured territories on an alien planet. I'd love to see them do that again, if Dawn of War 3 hasn't completely killed the series dead.

Martin: Well, consider me hooked. I'm going to have to hassle you away from this to sort me out with some decent mods to make the original Dawn of War look acceptable on a modern monitor, because I'm super keen to play more...

Darius: The Cozmic Collection

Chris: Talk about nerd shit. I need to say for the record here that, as well as making me set up a Japanese Nintendo account, Martin you also sent over three separate articles (lengthy articles) about the history of Darius and its special cabinet. And a... music video? Anyway it means the thing I'm immediately struck with is a sense of how magic and arcane this is. Yes it's a serious push-glasses-up-your-nose deep cut but also, I actually did read those articles about it and I feel like the entirety of why video games are so incredible is sort of summed up in this one game? They made a three-monitor cabinet using mirrors?! And it had some kind of, like, prehistoric Dolby surround sound body rumble?!

Martin: It's mad, right? And I'm so glad you got that sense of arcane magic, because that, right there, is why I love these things. In truth there are plenty of better shmups to play than Darius - the early games are fairly stilted examples of the form, and I'd always take a playthrough of Gradius over them - but I don't think any series is so quick to get to the essence of the genre. Secondary to that, it's an example of the arcade in its pomp. Reading back through some of the wizardry required for the three-screen set-up of the first two Darius games, it reminded me of something Satoru Iwata said about the 80s being a time before the idea of having a game designer really came about - instead, games were made by engineers, and that's something so gloriously apparent with Darius.

Chris: Yes! They have boiler suits! Oh my god I want a Darius developer boiler suit so bad. The pictures of that team make it look like they were working on some kind of secret, prototype Thunderbirds project. Incredible. It's just a totally different way of thinking about games, it makes me appreciate the more tech-focused writers (and readers!) a bit more actually, because I understand where that appreciation comes from. Fundamentally games are still magic tricks, even now - or especially now - because there are just so many moving parts involved, and so many completely disparate specialisms within those parts, that it's a miracle anything's ever really coherent at all. The other thing it makes me understand a bit more is the obsession with being a "hardcore" gamer, because it's baked into a lot of people's first experience of games. It's in the history. A lot of that is macho nonsense obviously, especially today, but this game is nails, at least for a shmup newcomer like me.

Martin: Well, I guess I'm something of a veteran of the genre but *whispers* I'm absolutely bloody terrible at them. I've got an original print run board of Gradius 2 hooked up to the candy cabinet in my living room a lot of the time, and even though it cost me silly money I know I'm never, ever going to complete it (the first print run wouldn't even let you continue!). But I'm okay with that! I think the hardcore thing around shmups is a bit of a myth, for me at least - I have absolutely no shame in whacking them down to easy and pouring in infinite credits, or even save scumming my way to the end. I appreciate the challenge that's there, and sometimes I will engage with it and attempt a one credit run (by necessity when it comes to Gradius 2) but first and foremost these things are about atmosphere for me.

And for all I said about Darius being made by engineers first and foremost, I don't want to downplay the artistry of it. It's basically an excuse to dip straight into some playable Chris Foss-esque sci-fi cover art - and you don't even have to read the book that goes with it! There's also the matter of Zuntata and their music, which is so brilliantly strange (Zuntata being the band I sent you all those videos of - they are the absolute best).

Chris: You're right, because it's gorgeous (when I have a second to actually look at it) and Zuntata's music absolutely slaps. Also I noted the origin of their name, zun ta-ta being the Japanese count-in for when you're starting a performance, like one two-three, which I think is neat. On a personal level, a lot of what's so great about playing this game is the sense of discovery. I thought I knew my game history but it's easy to forget the scope of it and how deep you can dive on just a single game, or a single cabinet.

As for the difficulty, realising you could save scum was a game changer for me. I could reliably get past the first boss but was just losing it repeatedly on the second stage (another thing I love: choosing your path for the next stage. I can imagine the hardcore arcade nerds loving the excuse to replay it because of that). I couldn't even understand the proper save system let alone this little hack, but it makes such a difference. As much as the coin thing was obviously a necessity at the time, and works for adding tension to a run, I do think that's where modern games have made it so much nicer to be a player. This game is incredibly moreish, the second level is absolutely incredible when you get into the thick of it, there's a huge amount going on and you feel stupidly cool when you do manage to make it through the tougher bits. When I die I just want to instantly jump back in and give that same bit another go, without having to grind through a level and a half to get there. But maybe that's the spoilt, low attention span millennial in me! I feel like today's equivalent is something like Celeste or Super Meat Boy and I've a new found appreciation for those instant restarts, put it that way.

Martin: So I guess the final thing to ask is if you're interested in exploring the world of shmups a little more? Because I have plenty of recommendations!

Chris: I feel like I'm obliged to say this because you were so nice about Dawn of War, but I actually genuinely do. I get it, and I will gladly play more, because it feels like playing proper video game magic - although I'll probably have an easier time if I just read the nice articles.