Warhammer: Dark Omen

14_1Warhammer: Dark Omen is Shadow of the Horned Rat done right. Don’t remember Horned Rat? It was a fantasy-themed real-time tactical game that eschewed the trendy resource-gathering and base-building of most real-time strategy games for the combat-heavy Warhammer miniature wargames system. It was a deep, ambitious game — it was also a mess. Dark Omen is the second attempt to bring this kind of gaming to the computer screen, and this time it’s more successful. It is also largely faithful to the tabletop games except that it is real-time.

Campaign-wise, it’s strictly linear, with an occasional mission giving you an option to pursue what in effect are bonus maps. The campaign play was the biggest disappointment; even though I’m a mercenary commander with a budget and set amount of troops, the battles I fight and the route I take are dictated by a linear storyline.

But this is a minor point. The true meat of the game is the variety and challenge of the individual missions. You command a mixed bag of forces — infantry, missile troops, cavalry, and the odd mage. Along the way, you’ll pick up a sampling of Warhammer units — Ogres, Treants, Elves, a few cannons and mortars, even a steam-powered battle tank. The enemies you grapple with are Orcs and the Undead, in an almost rhythmic alternation.

You never build your troops in bases; instead, you go into each mission with a pre-determined force. Prior to combat, you place your forces in a pre-designated area. Formations, line-of-sight, and terrain elevation all play very significant roles in a battle. Each unit can adopt at least two formations, trading off movement rating for attack power. Once troops are placed and combat begins, all hell breaks loose. This is a real-time game, but unlike most of its kin, losing an entire unit really does affect gameplay, because you cannot replace it between missions. And you certainly can’t build new units on the battlefield during a fight.

9_1Fortunately, you can let your units get beat up in a mission; each unit’s strength is tracked by “figures” — for example the Grudgebringer cavalry has 16 troopers in its ranks. If they get chopped down to one or two riders, then you must spend gold between missions to hire recruits to get them back to full strength. You get more gold by winning missions. However, if an entire unit is wiped out in melee, you’re out of luck, and will likely be forced to replay the battle once again.

This leads to Dark Omen’s largest problem — you are managing about six to ten different units at once, some of which can cast spells, some of which are missile troops, and some of which are equipped with magic items. Ideally, you would intelligently target every unit, maximize its magical talents, and face it off against the proper unit. However, without a pause feature for tactical planning, the real-time pacing makes that a challenge, to say the least. Still, it does model to an extent the hectic frenzy a field commander faces.

System Requirements: Pentium 90 MHz, 16 MB RAM, 30 MB HDD, Win95

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