Dogs of War is No Litter Runt

I can’t decide if this game is outstanding or infuriating. Perhaps it is both.

Dogs of War, published under the Talonsoft label but developed by Silicon Dreams, is a real-time strategy game in the mold of Microprose’s MechCommander. It features three different armies battling for control of Primus: The Mantai, an indigenous dinosaur-like race, the War Monkeys, a human mercenary group in the employ of the planetary government, and the Imperials, representing the military might of humanity as a whole.

The game has a number of things going for it. The most apparent is the versatility of the camera, which allows you to view the battle from any angle and any zoom level, in a manner similar to Force Commander. Unlike Force Commander, however, the camera controls are simple and intuitive, making following the battle from whatever your preferred angle a pleasure.

The terrain in the game might be some of the best out there. When combined with the camera quality, many of the battlefields are simply spectacular. The 3D terrain is the first that I have seen on a computer that genuinely gives you the feeling of playing a tabletop miniatures game. Silicon Dreams really didn’t skimp on the terrain – every board is replete with rolling hills, elevated roadways, rivers, gorges, canyons, cities, fortresses and some really outstanding bridges.

The variety of units is quite good – all three militaries have basically unique organizations that heavily influence how each handles different tactical situations. Unit types for the humans include your usual varieties of tanks, four types of infantry, indirect fire artillery, scout vehicles, anti-aircraft weapons, minelayers, helicopters, transport aircraft, strike fighters and fortifications. The indirect fire units of the two human militaries are particularly fun; incoming artillery is done extremely well both graphically and technically. The Mantai rely primarily on short-ranged attacks (with several exceptions) and have less variety than the two human militaries. Unfortunately, nowhere in the game is there a set of game stats for each unit, at least that I have been able to locate.

One advantage that Dogs of War has over many other RTS games is the ability to give orders and scroll the map while the game is paused. This really increases the game’s appeal to the traditional wargaming crowd who are more concerned with thinking their way through a problem than with developing hand-eye coordination. This feature also makes the learning curve far less steep for newcomers.

Also, on the plus side, the soundtrack rocks and the opening video kicks butt.

Unfortunately, despite the positives, the game is in many ways a let down. For starters, the storyline is pathetic. Given the number of talented sci-fi and fiction writers available, there is no excuse for the lame background and plotline for the game. The scenarios in the campaigns are discontinuous at best – there is basically no storyline to carry you from one scenario to another, particularly in the campaign. There is an opening briefing giving the general military situation at the beginning of each scenario, but not much thereafter. Additionally, the units available to the player in each scenario are mostly fixed – you rarely have the opportunity to build your own task forces using the units appropriate for the scenario. Sometimes the pre-selected units are ludicrously unsuited for the task at hand. For example, in one Imperial scenario, you have to escort a truck convoy through enemy territory with a mine-laying tank as your primary military unit.

The campaign quality would be less of an issue if there were more ways to play the game. Unfortunately, there are neither stand alone scenarios nor a scenario generator with the game. There are maps to play multi-player on (they appear to be taken from the campaigns) but no way to play them solo. Dogs of War does have a feature that will allow you to play scenarios that you download, but as of September, I have not been able to locate any either on the Talonsoft or the Silicon Dreams site.

Dogs of War has a feature which allows you to zoom in and take control of an individual unit, first-person (actually, more like third-person with a following camera) shooter style. While it is an interesting touch, it rarely is particularly useful – obviously, if you are focused on one unit, you lose track of all the others fairly rapidly. Additionally, despite the presence of a ‘sniper’ targeting reticle, units are not significantly more effective in this mode than in standard mode.

The AI is another weak point in the game. Not only are the computer-controlled units fairly dumb, units under human control often behave in unexpected and infuriating ways. It is also rather bizarre to watch one of your tanks under orders to engage an enemy around the corner of a building halt and repeatedly fire shots into the building itself rather than going around the corner for an unimpeded shot. This is not limited to urban scenarios, however; many units seem to have just as much difficulty tring to fire at enemy units on the far side of a small rise. This is particularly frustrating when you are zoomed in to control a single unit, have your sight (theoretically) locked on to an enemy, but repeatedly fire into an obstacle. Additionally, trying to get a unit to lay mines where you want them can be quite a challenge.

Units given movement orders also execute them inefficiently. Given the high level of battlefield detail in most scenarios, there are large numbers of obstacles that need to be navigated around. Unfortunately, units often do this by the ‘bump’ method – go straight towards the objective until it hits something, maneuver to clear the obstacle, then turn towards the objective until you bump into something else. The net effect is that a tank moving down a diagonal road often goes in a zigzag pattern. This can be corrected by the careful use of waypoints, but that can be rather time consuming.

Overall, Dogs of War is a game with great potential that is not lived up to in its current format. Some of the scenarios can be quite good, but the many negatives really limit replay ability. Given Talonsoft’s history of releasing numerous patches and upgrades however, there is hope for the future. An upgraded AI, a scenario designer and some well-written campaigns could make this game a real winner.

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