Warhammer 40,000: Rites of War PC Developed by DreamForge Released in 1999
We are arriving at a turning point of the Warhammer series when it comes to video games. Rites of War was the last game developed under the exclusivity deal with Strategic Simulations and one of the last few games they would produce before being swallowed up by Activision in 2001. It is therefore also the last of the really old Warhammer adaptations that people rarely remember, after which came Fire Warrior and the beloved Dawn of War series. I feel that we should move that turning point slightly back, since Rites of War is definitely a game that deserves to be remembered.
Space elves with silly hats
The past few 40K reviews have all been about various flavors of space marines. We have seen yellow marines raiding space hulks, we have had red and green marines end up as Tyranid food, and last week we played around with the blue marines. It was a surprise, and also a bit of a relief, when I found out that Rites of War is all about The Eldar, 40K‘s saddest faction ever.
Once a universal superpower, The Eldar fell into a spiral of decline when their race became obsessed with perversion and torture, which led to the birth of the Chaos God Slaaneesh and a psychic shockwave that wiped out billions, including the vast majority of The Eldar. In Rites of War you control an army of Eldar survivors who have identified the planet Lyanden as a “maiden world”, meaning their ancestors had long ago begun to terraform it with the intention of one day settling there.
Though you lead your forces there with the intention of retrieving Eldar relics, you soon find out that Humans have settled in and refuse to just let you take over the place. Thus a small war erupts that soon escalates into a much grander conflict when you realize Human and Eldar are not the only entities present on Lyanden. Truth be told it is a really strong story and basically served as my introduction to The Eldar, as nobody at my local club plays these poor sods. Missions, however, do a poor job of communicating the state of the conflict, with your superior only giving vague instructions that eventually translate to battles that all feel basically the same.
This is hard to describe, but imagine, if you will, World War 2. Missions in a World War 2 game might entail storming the beaches of Normandy, the siege on Berlin, Stalingrad, the desert campaigns, there are so many battles there that feel iconic and whose hardships and events can be translated excellently to a video game format. In Rites of War every mission just felt like the skirmish mode of any other game, a big field devoid of storytelling options where you just beat all the foes and leave again. There is no context for why any specific battle is more important than the other, no map of Lyanden to show how much of it is under your control, so as a campaign, despite of the intriguing setup, I found that the story needed a little more push to make it work.
Story score: 8/10
Baneblade General II
It won’t take an aficionado of strategy games long to notice that Rites of War is basically a reskin of Strategic Simulations’ Panzer General II. Not a bad choice considering that game was fantastic.
Each battlefield is separated into hexagons for your units to stand on. All your units have their own stats, such as melee power, range, and movement, as well as specific traits and possibly psychic powers. This makes some units ideal for some battles while others they will have to sit out in the barracks. The flow of play is turn-based, so during your turn you move your guys around and attack the enemy, inflicting wounds on them and potentially outright killing some. Depending on the kind of attack you may be counter-attacked and when you are done it’s the enemy’s turn.
Each unit has a health pool and it will weaken the lower it gets, but a nice bit a strategy I appreciated is that you can rest for a turn instead of moving and shooting, which restores your wounded to action. Even in the distant future of the 40K universe the dead do not rise from the beyond to join the cause once again, so you can’t just keep resting to make your units immortal. Units also all have their own strengths and weaknesses, but with no knowledge of how to play The Eldar I found it difficult to figure out, especially because the campaign escalates quickly and you’ll soon find yourself facing tank armies with only your basic infantry and some fast vehicles. Even on the easiest setting I found myself repeating missions 3-4 times just to get through them with acceptable losses.
The campaign is also lengthy and the supplies mechanic from Panzer General carries over in the form of glory points. You earn these by beating foes, winning missions, and sometimes by putting units on certain buildings. With glory points you purchase new units to fill up holes in your ranks, as well as some extra strategies to use during battle. Glory points accumulate slowly though, so I found myself being really conservative with what little army I had. Another reason to keep your units safe is the leveling mechanic where they gain experience points or find rare weapons that stay with them after the mission. With sufficient experience you can then evolve your units into improved versions via a neat technology tree, but I found that experience builds up a little too slow for my tastes and only seems to apply to units that completely wipe out an enemy, ignoring everybody that made wounds and kills on that enemy as well.
Rites of War feels sufficiently different from Panzer General, thanks to the psykers and other bizarre units you can field, and there is a good degree of strategic depth. You can make use of forests and water, exploit the specific qualities of your units to the fullest, but there is no reasonable way to know what you may need in the very next mission or if you can even afford it when you do, making the campaign feel too much trial & error. The lack of tough units in the early game that can somewhat take on a tank also make the difficulty curve steep and the leveling mechanic feels unrewarding due to how slow it is.
Once you get your head around all the different units it feels a lot better to just head into the war room and play the standalone scenarios where you can field everything from the get-go without worrying about building up glory points and experience.
Gameplay score: 7/10
Plenty of field to go around
The map design of Rites of War is perfectly serviceable, which is an advantage it has over Chaos Gate at least. Lyanden is full of fields that, while they all look the same, make for some nice terrain to fight in, with nice-looking textures and a few pieces of scenery to spice it up a bit. It would have been nice to have a few cities to fight in or some other variations, but as a backdrop for the tactical action this is perfectly okay.
Units also look really nice on both sides of the conflict. Eldar troops are a diverse and colorful lot with some really cool vehicles. The Empire prefers red colors in this game and have more traditional units like Imperial Guardsmen, Marines, and a variety of tanks. If I may nitpicks for a moment: the perspective is really wonky; the units are oversized and always stand taller than any of the buildings around them, making it seem like Lyanden was settled by midgets.
The music is a highlight for the game, especially after Chaos Gate‘s soundtrack was so annoyingly loud and bombastic. Rites of War has some good tracks that, while a bit more subdued, match well with the strategic warfare you partake in. It’s a lot calmer while still managing to sound exciting. The voice-over for your Eldar commander also sounds cool, if a little too cheesy. It was regrettable that the game suffered from some sound glitches that differ based on what compatability mode you go with. Using Windows 95 the game didn’t crash on me once, but sound would crack a lot and the game froze every time I double-clicked to skip a unit’s movement animation.
Presentation score: 8/10
Do it yourself
The campaign takes quite some time to complete, especially considering the difficulty may force you to retry stages numerous times. Regrettably there are no alternative campaigns for the other two armies, but you can play as them in the War Room where you can take on standalone missions. There are only a handful of these available, but there is a scenario editor where you can make your own, though this once again means you end up having to make your own extra content.
If you want to play a 40K game from the old days, then Rites of War is the game I would recommend. It didn’t take too much hassle to get this gem working after purchasing it on GOG and it offers satisfying, strategic gameplay, as well as a nice story and fun presentation. Beware though that it is really strategy for the strategy’s sake, as the missions all feel like interchangeable field battles, so those looking to be rewarded for their victories with fun cutscenes (like in Final Liberation) may be disappointed.