Thursday, November 4, 2010


I'm rooting for this guy.

I have no idea how this happened.

Seduced by the Steam sale last week, and despite its ridiculous name, I bought Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, the 2009 Relic hybrid RTS/RPG that, it turns out, is pretty great. It's like StarCraft with cover-based shooting and no building, or an isometric Gears of War with loot and leveling up. Both the game design and the fictional universe, or at least what little I've grasped of it, are curious blends of genre and style. And somehow, it all works. The single-player is damn fun, a well-balanced tactical RTS that's almost entirely combat-focused. I haven't jumped into multiplayer yet, but I've heard good things. Although my weak gaming setup - BootCamping into XP on a Mac Mini - necessitates turning down all the graphics settings, I'm assured the game looks great in higher resolutions.

But the game being good wasn't the revelation. It's that I've been inexplicably, and pretty embarrassingly, drawn into its fiction.

I knew nothing about the Warhammer 40K universe going into this game. I dabbled in some D&D-lite tabletop games like HeroQuest and DragonStrike as a kid, but that's about it. I've never been anywhere near hardcore enough to paint miniatures. So it was doubly surprising that this videogame got me curious about its Lord of the Rings In Space backstory.

Yep. Seriously.

Here's the premise of Dawn of War II: you command a squad of Space Marines (yes, they are actually called Space Marines) on a campaign to cleanse the galaxy of, no shit, Space Orcs, Space Elves, and the Xenomorphs from Alien. There's some kind of Fundamentalist Space Church that rules all of humanity, I guess, and your Space Marines - massive armored behemoths who look like the love child of Duke Nukem and The Hulk - have a sacred duty to whoop alien ass up and down the galaxy while dual-wielding flamthrowers and chainsaw swords. The voice acting brings a cheesetastic meatheadedness to the pitch-perfect melodramatic sci-fi dialogue. Your soldiers constantly refer to each other as "Brother," reinforcing the comforting thought that 38,000 years from now, just as today, society is dominated by bloodthirsty frat jocks.

I'd like to blame this week's particularly severe bout of insomnia for this, but it's true: I've been reading the Warhammer 40K Wiki. And it is endlessly entertaining.

Consider the following excerpt:
The torture cults eroded the future of the Eldar as a viable galactic empire. While this debauchery would have been destructive within any society, it was even more damaging for the Eldar because of their powerful psychic abilities. Within the parallel dimensional realm of the Warp, the psychic emanations of these perverse activities began to gather, strengthened by the souls of departed Eldar hedonists and cultists. As the Eldar's vices grew, this dark mass of negative psychic energy did as well, producing the terrible Warp storms that defined humanity's Age of Strife and made all interstellar travel and communication impossible for the human colonies of this period. Eventually, this growing mass of negative psychic energy came into a life of its own and came to consciousness over ten thousand years ago at the end of the Age of Strife as the newborn Chaos God Slaanesh, the Devourer of Souls and the doom of the Eldar. The psychic scream of Slaanesh's birth tore the souls from all the Eldar within a thousand light years of it, sparing only those sheltered in the wraithbone hulls of the Craftworlds. The Prince of Pleasure's awakening was so forceful that it tore a hole between the physical realm and the Immaterium, plunging the Eldar homeworlds into a nightmare existence, trapped within the realm of Chaos. This region is now known as the Eye of Terror, and is the home of the forces of Chaos in the 41st millennium.

Again: Yep. Seriously.
Look, I don't mean to shoot fish in a barrel here, honestly. There is something genuinely endearing about fantasy worlds that are detailed with such thoroughness, no matter how absurd. When sleep eludes me I find myself clicking through Wiki entires on the Imperium of Man, the Horus Heresy, Tech-Priests and Terminator Armor, the gene-seeds of the Primarchs. None of it makes much sense to me, nor do I expect it to, but it's fun feeling like a tourist in this intricate and throughly baffling place. And in turn, I'm going back to Dawn of War II with a renewed, if bemused, investment in my Force Commander.

I've always loved the idea that the silly sci-fi stories and games I was into had a history, an evolutionary path you could trace. The world didn't have to make sense or even be particularly internally consistent; someone just had to care enough to draw up the imaginary playground.

I miss that part of being a kid. I miss leaping headfirst into stories about Space Marines fighting the Orc Hordes across the galaxy in the 41st millennium, without the detachment of irony or the vague guilt of the responsible adult. I miss living in other worlds and not needing to think about why I wanted to in the first place.

Still, it's not all bad. At least I'm not playing WoW.

1 comment:

  1. Wikis are definitely the way to enjoy this stuff. It's almost always better than actually slogging through poorly-written novels and source books for games you'll never play.

    I had a friend try for years to get me into the 40K universe. While I loved the absurd martial-Gothic flavor of the universe, and its celebration of over-the-top weaponry, it never struck me as a brilliant place for stories. It's a playground, and a very flavorful one. But I'm mostly in it for the sweet quotes and the heavy bolters.