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Before there were Zerg in “Starcraft” and the SPARTANS in “Halo,” there was “Warhammer 40,000.” This series, which started as a tabletop miniatures game in 1987 by Games Workshop, has evolved over the years into a role-playing game as well as various computer games. The newest in this illustrious series is “Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II.” It was released on February 19th, 2009 by Relic Entertainment (makers of the wonderful “Homeworld” series and “Company of Heroes”) and has since occupied a spot on my hard drive.

Why do I have those examples from much more modern games? It is because they took those ideas from the iconic figures of the Warhammer 40k universe and tried to make them their own. The Zerg from “Starcraft” are the Tyranids, insectile hive-minds that feature a prominent role in “DoWII.” The SPARTANS from “Halo” are the Space Marines that are the feature of the single-player campaign in “DoWII.” Other races you will encounter are the Orks who are just as orcish as they sound, the Eldar who are your requisite Elves, and the Imperial Guard who are the massive armies fighting with you on the side of the Emperor, the immortal savior of humankind. The introduction to the game sums it up well, “It is the 41st Millennium, and there is only war.”

Unlike the previous title in this series, the original “Dawn of War” and its myriad expansions, this game focuses more on squad combat than cranking out units and trying to fight with massive armies. This fits the universe more as your Space Marines are designed to be small squads with no more than five to six members a piece. You also do not crank them out of a base structure in single-player, they are sent down from your orbiting battleship as reinforcements. You can only reinforce at certain points so it behooves you to maintain close control over your squads as you advance through the game. It is still very much a real-time strategy game in its control scheme and viewpoints though you can zoom all the way down to ground combat. I highly recommend this as there are some impressive finishing moves.

The tutorial to the campaign brings you into “DoWII” very smoothly and is a baptism by fire. You immediately begin by having to retake your home planet by reinforcing Captain Davian Thule of the Blood Ravens Space Marines and fighting to him. The game mechanics are introduced to you slowly but in a manner that makes sense. As you progress through missions for the first fifth of the game things such as “orbital strikes” and “automated factories” are shown and control is turned over to you of them. The story stays coherent throughout and there are several surprises in store for you as you play. There is intrigue aplenty and you never know who is up to what. If you are familiar with the “Warhammer 40k” lore through the novels of Dan Abnett, Ben Counter, and others then it will not be as surprising but still pleasant in how they are carried out.

The other races are designed well as they should be considering the amount of established lore that exists. Games Workshop has dozens of manuals that exist and the “Black Library” of fiction for the universe is huge. The Eldar “psykers” are as ethereal and elf-like as you would expect and the Orks are as brutish and bloodthirsty as their regular “Warhammer: Age of Reckoning” counterparts. Watching an Ork pick up one of your men and throw them across the screen does not get old. Having your Space Marine slice them nearly in half with a chainsword is better as it means one of your men is not dying. Multiplayer allows you access to the other races for play but it changes the mechanics of the game by requiring some base building and construction of units. It is here that “DoWII” feels like a regular real-time strategy game. I understand that it is necessary in order to provide a multiplayer experience but I prefer the squad-based format from single-player.

There are a few problems with the game that do need to be addressed and some of them have been already through patches. One issue is that in order to play you must have a “Steam” account through Valve. This is nice because it will automatically update the game for you but if you are not permanently connected to the internet it will mean you have to connect every time you want to play. “DoWII” also has the same achievement system as a normal Xbox 360 game because of its association with “Games for Windows Live.” I do not have an issue with this as they do give you goals to shoot for but they can be disruptive during gameplay as they issue a sound and appear in the upper-right corner of the screen. As long as you have a system that is no more than two years old you should be able to run “DoWII” with no problems but I do recommend having a decent graphics card if you want to see the bloodshed in all its glory.

Overall, I would highly recommend buying this game. If you like a dark, dystopic, gothic science-fiction game with extensive lore it is right up your alley. If you like a squad-based game with excellent tactical AI and beautiful graphics, this game is for you. If you prefer your elves with bows and arrows and your humans puny and week, this is not the game for you. Want to see the source of all of your current gaming heroes? Then “FOR THE EMPEROR, KILL THE MUTANT, BURN THE WITCH, PURGE THE HERETIC” and buy this game!

To paraphrase Francis Ford Coppella’s character Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore “I love the smell of METAL in the morning.” If you, like me, love the smell of heavy metal music or enjoy playing a fun hack and slash game with some real time strategy thrown in for fun then you will really enjoy Brutal Legend. This game has been many years in coming as it has been in development since early 2006 by Double Fine Productions and has had issues with publishers over the years. Double Fine currently has a contract with Electronic Arts to distribute Brutal Legend. It arrived on store shelves October 13th of this year, or “Rocktober 13th” as the Double Fine team, headed by Tim Schafer, put it.

Tim Schafer has been in the game creation business for over 20 years. He started at LucasArts during their golden years of game development and helped work on such series as “Secret of Monkey Island” and the much lauded “Grim Fandago” which was one of the first adventure games to use full 3-D graphics. Since that time Schafer and his team at Double Fine Productions have put out the highly rated Psychonauts and began work on what we now know as Brutal Legend. Schafer was not alone in this project though; he managed to recruit some very highly know talent across the heavy metal and film worlds.

Brutal Legend takes place in a universe where music has the power to alter the world. The main character Eddie Riggs, voiced by Tenacious D front man and Hollywood actor Jack Black, is a roadie here in our universe. During a show where a self-proclaimed “heavy metal” band called Kabbage Boy, who were in reality a band of tween pop stars, were playing one of the actors manages to bring the house down. Quite literally in this case as the stage itself collapsed. Riggs managed to save both the guitar and the band member playing it but is injured. After doing so he wakes up in this new world and quickly finds out he has the power to help save the small band of humans still alive.

This is where the player takes over. Using a third person perspective that remains constant throughout all of Brutal Legend’s modes, the player begins by hacking and slashing their way through the many denizens of S&M gear and poorly dressed hair metal minions. The first few missions help acquaint you with the characters and factions of the world and begin feeding you all of the weapons, vehicles, and powers you will gain over the course of the game. One of the first things you learn how to use is your axe that Riggs names “The Separator” and his beloved guitar “Clementine.” Rocking out powerful riffs causes massive damage to enemies and can unlock some very powerful moves. Some of the major powers such as the “Facemelter” and summoning your vehicle “The Deuce, aka ‘The Druid Plow’” require following a quick pattern of notes on your controller. If you have seen “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” you will be very familiar with this game mechanic.

Slowly you also get worked into the real time strategy parts of the game. Controlling your troops and building structures is quite easy though I did not find it quite as intuitive as the controls in Halo Wars; the only other real time strategy game I have played on a console. Directing your units uses the directional pad while creating new units uses the right button on the Xbox. New units get added to your army as you meet them throughout the campaign and each has their strengths and weaknesses. Your Headbangers, “What do you do with a group of kids who don’t know how to do anything but bang their heads all day long? ‘You start a revolution Lars,” are powerful infantry units but can be quite slow. Your Razor Girls are the ultimate long range troops but can be taken out by other infantry quickly. All of the units are balanced well, I have yet to come across something that cannot be beaten using the right strategy. You can still hack and slash through the real time strategy missions, Riggs is not delegated strictly to the General’s chair. He eventually grows demon wings and gains the ability to fly above the battlefield which makes giving orders a lot easier. You can still summon “The Deuce” during these battles to have its firepower added to your army. This helps to give the army and its units personality though they had quite a lot of it to spare already.

Besides Jack Black voicing characters, you have quite a few heavy metal greats voicing units as well. Ozzy Osborne voices the Guardian of Metal, a character who helps give you weapons and new moves throughout the game. Rob Halford voices General Lionwhyte while Tim Curry voices the evil Doviculus. The landscape also represents many of the greatest album covers in heavy metal history. I do not want to spoil the surprises so I will not be listing them here. To top it off, they have over 100 licensed heavy metal tracks in game that you can listen to while completing missions.

Overall this is a game I would recommend to almost anyone. If you have an anathema to heavy metal or hate real time strategy or hack-and-slash games then you will want to avoid Brutal Legend. If you love heavy metal, a great story, and interesting, well-voiced characters then Brutal Legend is for you. The controls will take some getting used to in the major strategy battles but they are quick to pick up. My only hope is that the campaign will be expanded by some downloadable content down the road. So pick up your axe and your guitar, get the Manowar or Black Sabbath going on the radio, and play this game. As Ozzy Osborne, the Guardian of Metal, put it “What *&^*$#@ took you so long?”

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