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Warhammer 40,000: Eternal Crusade review

Bolter too soon.

An ambitious and promising multiplayer shooter take on 40K that's left Early Access a little prematurely.

QI-type question for you: What enduring PC game, first unleashed upon the world in 2002, links this here Eternal Crusade and the recently Death Star-augmented Star Wars Battlefront? Why yes, dear reader, your host does display a mischievous glint suggestive of a trap being laid, but too late - the quick-to-the-buzzer types among you have already blurted out an answer, which is of course wrong.

Well, not entirely. It would be foolish to deny how deeply DICE's Battlefield series has influenced the design of every combined arms shooter of the last 15 years, with the original entrenched into the genre's foundations and its successors' largely unchallenged occupation of the centre ground. However, akin to fractious allies encamped on either side, while Battlefront and Eternal Crusade have more in common than will ever divide them, in many ways the games are quite different.

How different you ask? Well, leaving aside the obvious contrast in their respective sci-fi IPs (which, incidentally, both games display great affection for), one is accessible, evocative and insubstantial, while the other is oblique, ungainly and compelling. If they were generals fighting on the same side, they would be forever bickering over the best way forward. You can probably work out which is which, but the point is that they both get the job done, by playing to the strengths of the source material. In this case by referencing codices rather than iconic movie scenes.

The War Map is where you'll be able to coordinate strikes to push your enemy back. Right now you can just zoom in and out and marvel at the jaggedy coloured shapes.

Although Eternal Crusade isn't the 40K spin on Planetside 2 some hoped, there are stated desires that it will become one and, over time, a full-fledged combat MMO with quests and dungeons and perhaps some Celestial Steeds. Right now, though, there are closer comparisons with Dust 514, the innovative but doomed PS3 shooter than was put out of its misery back in May. Instead of one vast map that hundreds of players are able to fight across simultaneously, here the host planet is divided into zones - effectively a series of Battlefield-sized maps fought between two Battlefield-sized factions. You can't yet choose a map to fight over, merely be assigned one, it seems, with the win/loss data feeding a rather unimpressive meter that you have to zoom in on to see. It's by far the most underdeveloped part of the game, so much so that it might have been better leaving it out entirely, at least until the resources were available to do it properly.

Another area in which the game does a poor job at explaining itself is on the Loadout screen, which you might be forgiven for thinking doesn't work, when in fact you have to "equip" your loadouts to your Battle Loadouts list, or something. Then there are numerous inventory items with missing stats, a Store in which available stock isn't listed and Supply Drop loot boxes that dump their contents to an inventory that is utterly inaccessible. Despite all these issues being eminently and likely imminently fixable, it doesn't do much to engender confidence in the game's quality

The Eldar are the most recently added faction and thus the least polished. Fast, well armed and good at close combat, they lack constitution.

Bravely - or perhaps foolishly given the noticeable imbalance that has persisted beyond the game's Early Access period - Eternal Crusade's developers have opted for four playable races, with the two flavours of Marine (Space and Chaos, of course), Orks and Eldar, each respectively stomping, lurching and mincing into battle as 41st Century combat demands. They're not the most convincing interpretation of 40k's roster ever to grace a computer screen, yet in spite of some placeholder-type movement from the Eldar and there being a lack of general combat animations throughout, the fun and fundamentals of what makes 40K such a guilty pleasure are not only present and correct, they've been squeezed quite neatly together in order to fit the Battlefield-inspired template. Sure, there's been some necessary tweakage that jars with expectation, such as Orks and Eldar being the more-or-less equal of their superhuman class-mates, but it would hardly do to recreate the kill ratio of Relic's Space Marine, wherein hundreds of greenskins fell to a single Astartes.

Speaking of which, much is familiar from Relic's 40K shooter. The off-centre third-person view, weapon zoom, jolting Mech-like running and many of the tumbling combat moves are near identical. Even the swooping melee Jump Pack attacks are straight out of Relic's design manual, if not quite as well-honed. There's no Fury meter to claw back health from stunned foes, but there is a rock-paper-scissors collection of melee attacks and blocks, as well as a Stamina system that fuels evasion and attack speed, all of which elevates the game's close combat above many of its contemporaries.

Firing over balconies into ranks of advancing enemy troops is a joy.

What helps to make the melee system stand out is the ranged combat, in that it's been designed to get people fighting in pitched close-quarter battles and, hopefully, supporting one another. Sniping is possible, increasingly so as you ascend the ranks, but with the vast majority of default weapons unscoped and inaccurate beyond medium range, the only way to rack up kills is to use suppression until such time as the two sides engage. Thankfully, with the ability for the rank-and-file to pop out of cover and heavy weapons troops to cradle weapons atop walls means that although the melee classes are a constant threat - those with rocket packs especially - the likely proximity of allies means that support is never too far away. Just to spice things up there's friendly fire to contend with too, pitched in such a way as to ensure players check their fire without needing to hold back when swinging a Chainsword around.

Although there are the expected differences between the four playable factions, the preset loadouts rather makes them feel a little too similar. Thankfully customisation allows for your chosen character to take advantage of a faction's strengths while augmenting weapons, armour and other equipment to suit personal taste - and having amassed a few thousand Requisition Points, earnt from each battle, you realise that there's an impressive amount of stuff to invest in, from weapon variants and upgrades to armour augmentations and various ammo packs and grenades. Sadly at launch there are huge gaps in the catalogue, especially so for Orks and Eldar, the latter having less than half the number of items as the Space Marines.

Eldar players are currently limited too in the number of items that can be acquired with Rogue Trader Credits, the game's paid-for currency. Thankfully most premium items are just for show, while the ones that aren't - primarily weapons - seem only to offer more in the way of convenience rather than any obvious advantage. There is a premium scoped Bolter, for example, but it's not nearly as effective as the one that can be bought with the game's universal currency. Hopefully as the number of different weapons and other items grows the developers will resist the temptation to offer premium weapons than threaten the integrity of the game.

There's not much room for armoured engagements, with vehicles more a means to get from A to B.

While the scope for player customisation is impressive, if initially lacking for one or two factions, the games vehicles aren't nearly so adaptable. Currently each race has access to just two vehicles, an APC and a light tank equivalent, neither of which can be deployed in significant numbers, not that there's much space on many of the maps for vehicles to do much other than ferry players from spawn point to capture areas anyway - with the vast majority of maps geared towards infantry battles. Only during the early stages of Fortress assault maps are vehicles and infantry compelled to work together, otherwise it's easy enough to avoid using them entirely, which is shame as the vehicles handle well and on the odd occasion when enemy armour collides, a merry old ding-dong will usually ensue. A selection of more open maps, the introduction of Land Raiders and and the option to refit vehicles should soon bring armour in line with infantry, so we're told.

And that's the thing with Eternal Crusade that is so infuriating - it's so very nearly where it needs to be to be deserving of an outright recommendation. The framework is promising and the firefights dramatic, but the quality control isn't quite there. UI changes, extra content, added development focus on vehicular combat and a reimplementation of the game's persistent warfare system are all needed before this is anything other than a competent and promising multiplayer shooter.

The good news is that there's every chance Eternal Crusade will fulfil its potential. That game I had in mind earlier, the one that links the Star Wars and 40K multiplayer shooters, is Eve Online, a title that continues to evolve almost 15 years since it first became playable. The senior producer of Eternal Crusade is the same fellow that headed up Eve's development during its most successful and expansive years, while, curiously, his one time apprentice currently holds the same position with regard to Star Wars Battlefront, which has also come good in recent months. We should be heartened that Eve's DNA is strong in both games, but especially so here given where we are in its life cycle. As grim as the 40K universe is, Eternal Crusade's future looks to be bright.