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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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cup.gif (5516 bytes)Ups: Addictive turn based gameplay, compelling campaign game, elegant interface.
Downs: Occasional crashes; can only play Space Marines in campaign.
System Reqs:
Pentium-133, 32 MB RAM, 8 X CD-ROM, 2 MB SVGA card
Though Games Workshop has been stunningly successful at producing and marketing tabletop miniatures games, especially the fantasy-based Warhammer and SF-based Warhammer 40K games, they’ve not had great luck translating these games to the PC. Shadow of the Horned Rat, the first Warhammer game, was buggy and had a byzantine interface. Dark Omen was a fine game, but its real-time engine put off  the turn-based Warhammer crowd. Like Dark Omen, the two PC games based upon the Warhammer 40K universe, Space Hulk and Final Liberation, were strong games that fell just short of excellence, in their cases due to substandard graphics and a lack of support. So with the release of Chaos Gate, the guys at GW and SSI are still looking for an unqualified PC hit, and you know, I think they’ve got it.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Warhammer 40K universe, here’s a little primer—Warhammer 40K is a tactical-level miniatures game set in the 41st millenium. It’s a dark and gothic time, when humanity is ruled by the shadowy figure of the all-powerful but mortally wounded Emperor. Scary as he is, he’s better than the alternatives that besiege mankind—such as the enigmatic Eldar (Space Elves), the powerful-but-dense Orks (Orcs), and the all-consuming Tyranids (think Aliens movies). But worst of all are the forces of Chaos, an army of demons and corrupted humans who have turned to the dark side and raise hell throughout the universe for no good reason. Between them and the destruction of humanity stands the forces of the Imperium, and of those forces the most imposing are the Space Marines, bio-engineered and power-suited warriors fanatically dedicated to the Emperor. In Chaos Gate, you take the role of Space Marine Captain Kruger, leader of a group of Ultramarines; your job is to destroy the forces of the evil Chaos Lord Zymran.

Chaos Gate is a turn-based tactical level game; most of the time you’ll be commanding three five-man squads of Ultramarines, with perhaps a vehicle or two thrown in, and a few characters as well. The game uses a much-improved version of Random Games’ Soldiers at War engine. Each marine has a limited number of action points, and every action you take—such as walking, running, throwing grenades, going on overwatch, or firing—costs a certain number of points.  Performing these tasks is a snap, because the interface is very elegant and unobtrusive, vastly better than the SaW interface.  Believe me, I wasn’t sure how this engine would work with 40K, which has its own arcane mechanics, but it performs surprisingly well. The tactics that are effective in 40K are generally effective here, so veteran players will feel right at home.

The same goes for the weapons in the game. The whole range of weapons available to marines in the miniatures game—from hand flamers to the powerful multi-melta—is also available in this one, and during the course of the campaign, you’ll pick up special weapons as well. Most of the weapon effects are true to the original, too; the laspistols carried by Chaos Cultists are almost laughably weak, but a terminator armed with an assault cannon can smash a serious enemy threat all by himself. The only real difference that 40K players might see is that it usually takes several hits to kill a character wearing armor—this represents its gradual wearing away under fire. This nifty innovation makes frag grenades much more useful than they are in the tabletop game, and is frankly an improvement on the original.

This combination of winning game engine and true-to-the-game weapons makes Chaos Gate an intriguing tactical exercise. In fact, even though it’s a fantasy/SF game, and even though an element of "magic" enters in the form of psyker characters, it’s one of the best primers on squad-level tactics I’ve ever seen. You’ll have to attend carefully to the strengths and weaknesses of your various squads, which consist of tactical squads, the most common and vanilla of your troops; assault squads, jump-packed hand-to-hand specialists; devastator squads, your heavy weapons boys; and terminators, who are slow, heavily armored human tanks. Using fire and movement tactics is essential, as is taking advantage of cover, using smoke grenades, conserving ammunition, reconnoitering, and watching your flanks. I’ve played many a "historical" game that was neither half as tactically savvy as this game, nor half as fun, either.

Speaking of fun, the best part of the game is the campaign. Though you can play the fifteen scenarios of the campaign as stand-alone scenarios, and you can also generate random ones, the heart of this game is its absolutely addictive campaign. You’ll start off with 40 callow space marines organized into five tactical squads and one devastator, assault, and terminator squad. As you progress through the campaign, your marines will gain experience, awards, and special weapons. This role-playing element adds an awful lot to the game—for those of you familiar with GW products, Chaos Gate is a lot like a combination of Necromunda and 40K. And as in Necromunda, losing a carefully-nurtured character is a truly heartbreaking moment, especially since they’re not replaced, and you’ll need every bit of experience you can get to win the game. While the campaign is pretty linear, a few twists do get thrown in; for example, you can, if you choose, fight "optional" randomly generated missions in between the fifteen main scenarios. This allows your men to gain much-needed experience, though these missions can be risky propositions. During the campaign, your marines will be joined by characters with special skills, like psykers and techmarines and apothecaries, and by the occasional vehicle, like Predator tanks or Dreadnoughts. And while the campaign only contains 15 missons, they are 15 tough and lengthy missions; throw in the optional scenarios, and you’ve got lots of quality gaming time. And when you do finish the game, the randomly-generated scenarios are good fun, and a scenario builder program is included, as well as the usual multiplayer options.

Oh, and a few notes for hardcore 40K gamers out there who might be considering buying this game. It’s based upon 3rd edition 40K, not the just-released 4th edition. This is I think fortunate and makes good sense, since the newer game seems geared towards larger, less detailed battles, and the stress here is on squad tactics. So you can still load up on plasma pistols for your assault squads here, and power fists are abundant. As for psykers, your Librarians can choose from the entire Imperial gamut—the 3rd edition Librarian, Imperial, and Inquistor spells are all included.

The game’s isometric-view graphics are pretty good; they’re not state of the art, but I’d give ‘em a strong B, especially when zoomed up close.  As for sound, the music’s quite good; very atmospheric and powerful, and the occasional comments of your marines and the Chaos troops are a riot.

The game does have a few problems; it sometimes crashes--the program seems to hate to have anything running in the background, especially modem connections, and sometimes quitting the game won’t dump you back on the desktop. You also can’t initially deploy your own units; the computer sets ‘em up for you, and especially during randomly generated games you’ll often begin out of cover and within range of Chaos troops, which is no fun. Finally, except in multiplay, you can only play Space Marines. As a Blood Angel player, this doesn’t bother me so much. But you foul Chaos guys out there may be disappointed. And while the game does a great job of covering the units and weapons available to Chaos—including blue and pink horrors!—and the Ultramarines, it would’ve been nice to have seen the occasional Orc or Eldar or ‘Nid in there.

Even though the game has a few bugs, and it’s graphics are good, but not great, in the end its compelling gameplay, great atmosphere, and riveting campaign won me over completely. Chaos Gate is simply one of the finest turn-based tactical games I’ve seen in a long time, and the best Warhammer-based game yet. I only hope that SSI supports it with expansion packs, something they chose not to do with Final Liberation. The tabletop 40K universe deserves more exposure in the PC world, and this is the game system that does it best.

cheat.gif (1707 bytes)-Rick Fehrenbacher