Written by: Stoo

Date posted: November 30, 2002

 

Good guys in blue.

Good guys in blue.

Once, I was a big fan of Games Workhop’s tabletop wargame, Warhammer 40000. Not only does it boast extensive rules and intricate miniatures, including the famous Space Marines, there’s also the extensive background material, full of gothic imagery and accounts of a war-torn universe in the far future. Over the years, though, I kind of lost interest. I could never find anyone to play, the miniatures got rather expensive, and finally my attempts at painting them were shameful. Nowadays I sometimes have an urge to return the hobby, although the same problems still apply. Namely, I still can’t paint. Also, GW has put more emphasis on appealing to younger fans, and I don’t much fancy idea of hanging around a shop full of 13-year-olds. (apologies to any 13-year-olds reading).

Fortunately for those of us who still long for mighty battles in the 41st millennium, licensed games off an alternative. Ok, you don’t have the fun of collecting and assembling an army. But you don’t have the expense and hard work of collecting and assembling an army, either. Orcs and Marines can clash on your screen in a tide of bloodshed, without the shame of bad paint jobs, and if a small child is thrashing you he’s probably hundreds of miles away so you can’t see his grinning face. Nowadays the main 40k game is of course Relic’s Dawn of War, a highly successful real-time strategy title that despite being over three years old now is soon to produce a third expansion. Back in the 90s, though, there were a number of quieter and less flashy 40k games using turn-based rules. Today we’re looking at probably the best of them, Chaos Gate.

First, let’s cover the “Games Workshop claptrap” as Rik would probably call it. Any 40k nerd (former or current) will tell you there’s lots of reading material out there to fill you in on the utterly bleak 40k universe. It’s a place where the mighty empire mankind is besieged on just about every side, under attack from aliens, demons to robots and traitors. This particular game is just about some battles with one particular foe. On the one side you have the mighty space marines, the elite defenders of humanity. They’re genetically-engineered super-soldiers, but also religious zealots and utterly dedicated to serving their emperor. Opposing them are the traitorous Chaos marines, who many centuries ago fell into worshipping dark gods and almost destroyed the empire in the process.

Really, that’s as much as you need to know, so onto the game itself. It offers multiplayer and a campaign mode, based on one Marine commanders quest to track down some Chaos traitors. The latter isn’t especially story-driven, it just features some rendered cutscenes of the bearded Commander slamming his fist on the desk going “I WILL crush those chaos scum!!”, to help set the scene. It’s maybe a minor missed opportunity, given the wealth of material here on which to base a plot. However, it’s not like any other 40k-based games have done better in this regard.

This is 40k so you're not just arming your soldiers, you're equipping them with holy artifacts with which to bring forth the emperor's fury. Fight on, brothers!

This is 40k so you’re not just arming your soldiers, you’re equipping them with holy artifacts with which to unleash the emperor’s fury. Fight on, brothers!

Visually speaking the game isn’t exactly stunning, but it is quite adequate. The engine uses an isometric view of the battlefield, and the sprites and scenery are all well-drawn and detailed. Animation is decent enough, with little features like a rocket-launcher jostling on a marines shoulder as he dashes around, although given the turn-based nature its not something you notice often. It’s not a proper 3D engine with spinny-rotating vision, so your view is fixed, although you do at least get a handy zoom feature. Meanwhile the soundtrack goes for the Medieval Latin choir style, with a martial vibe to it. too You might get bored and turn it off eventually, but it is at least quite appropriate in theme for Space Marines.

Although Chaos Gate is turn-based, it doesn’t attempt to directly reproduce the tabletop rules. Instead, it uses a system based on “action-points”. It’s very similar to the system in the old UFO: Enemy Unknown; indeed “Warhammer X-Com” is sometimes used as a quick way of summing up the game. Over the course of a turn, each unit has a certain number of action points to spend. Taking a step costs a couple of points, firing a weapon rather more. Throwing a grenade, or reloading an ammo clip, are other actions that cost points. It’s an effective way of rationing out how much you do in a turn; if you blow all a soldier’s points on shooting, he might be stuck standing out in the open when the enemy turn comes round. It’s more elaborate than the tabletop rules but then the computer can do all the counting for you.

Your first few battles in campaign mode will probably involve basic marines, and you’ll probably notice early on how rubbish their weapons are. A marine can happily take 5 direct hits from a boltgun (as its called) and keep going. Enemy chaos marines have the same problem too, so it’s not a balancing problem, but you can expect the two sides to hammer at each other for a while before someone consents to falling down dead.

Fortunately though, as the game progresses new kinds of much more effective squad become available. Each presents a different tactical strength, for a cunning player to use effectively. Devastator squads lug a couple of big heavy guns around the field, and can dominate open space. Assault squads on the other hand are equipped with melee weapons like swords and axes, along with rocket packs. In close quarters they can be devastating – and thus they’re highly effective on maps with a lot of cover for them to hide behind whilst closing on the enemy. Then you have the might Terminators, who would be ridiculously unbalancing if the bad guys didn’t get them too. They’re virtually immune to small-arms fire, and can serve as a walking battering ram to smash into fortified positions. The only downside to these choices is, those starting riflemen become utterly irrelevant by the end; that certainly isn’t in the spirit of the tabletop game where they form the essential core of an army.

On top of that there are a number of special officer characters, like the chaplain or techmarine. In practise, although sometimes required for mission objectives, they don’t actually bring much to the battlefield except for an edge in hand-to-hand skills. The one really useful sort, tho, is the Librarian. Who, er, doesn’t catalogue books but rather has access to awesome psionic powers. Okay that basically translates to “magic spells” but then 40k has always had a hefty dose of fantasy to it. With spells to enhance the strength and speed of friends, break weapons or call forth blasts of lightning, careful use of Librarians can have a bit impact on the course of a battle.

As far as tabletop-to-videogame transfers go, the only real disappointments are the vehicles on offer. They’re too small, lack animation, can’t even go up slopes. In fact they’re just plain badly implemented. Given the small scale of most battles here – you never have more than twenty soliders in action in a single battle – I think no vehicles at all would be just as viable an option as unconvincing ones.

As for chaos, well, they don’t get a campaign anyway, which is disappointing. So you’ll only get a chance to try them out yourself if you get a chance at some multiplayer. Some of their units are more or less equivalent to the Space Marines own’, with a few additions. They get wimpy lightly equipped cultists to serve as cannon fodder, and can also call forth terrible demons to aid them. Well, kind of terrible. The smaller demons make for good hand-to-hand fighters. The big scary-looking ones are probably devastating in a fight, but the couple I encountered in the campaign tended to inspire a storm of fire from every big gun I had, and didn’t last long.

Also, don’t expect really cunning AI. Most enemies will just find a good firing spot and hang around there. Enemies geared for hand-to-hand lack the jumping capability of your own close-combat guys, so tend to just charge you headlong. That said, some campaign missions will at least pull some scripted tricks to catch you off guard – like a bunch of enemy reinforcements teleporting in behind your lines.

gsdgs

I’m going to have to apologise for the crappy blurry little screencaps.

There are a few more advanced features to add depth. One is morale – as troops take fire and their comrades get gunned down, theoretically they can get scared and do a runner. In practise this seems to only rarely happen – I think the problem here is that according to 40k lore, marines (good or evil) are utterly courageous and dedicated, and that theme probably got carried over. So the only guys I saw regularly running away are the weed cultists. More significant though is the concept of “overwatch” – if a soldier has action points left over at the end of his turn, he will automatically use them up in the enemy’s next turn if he sees an opportunity to shoot at something. You can take advantage of this to set up ambushes, but also need to account for enemies using it in your own turn. So it’s often best not to go barging around in the open.

The campaign is based around a linear series of key missions, based around objectives like capturing strongholds or rescuing friends taken captive. In between those are a number of optional missions. These tend to be a bit more generic in nature – just a case of crushing all opposition on a map. They’re still worth playing through, just to gain experience for your marines. As they see more battles, marines amass experience points, with more when they perform such deeds as personally stike down foes. Gain enough points and they can be promoted up to three times, each time gaining boosts to stats like strength and weapon skill. It does lend an extra sense of satisfaction to a game like this, to see your troops rise from bog-standard soldiers to elite killing machines. Also you only have sixty of them to last you for the entire campaign, fielding up to twenty in any one battle. Having limited troops forces a note of caution on your tactics, especially as you’ll feel quite protective about skilled veterans.

Overall, Chaos Gate is an unglamorous affair, and it’s not surprising that it never reached the heights of popularity that Dawn of War has today. You might also wish for some kind of “bigger picture” strategy map like the X-Com games used. However, it is highly competent on most fronts. There’s scope for varied tactics, and a decent level of challenge posed. Also, it does feel like an authentic part of the 40k universe. That said, whilst being a 40 fan certainly gives you some extra incentive, I think the wider body of turn-based strategy gamers should enjoy this.