People always ask me, “Dave, what is the main problem with NerdWorld?” Well, friends, I’ll tell you. It’s references! For example, ever seen Aliens? Remember Gorman, the indecisive, underexperienced lieutenant who represents the dangers of overreliance on the military-industrial complex and who, in his last moments, redeems himself with a selfless gesture that earns him the respect of the Marines he commands? Depending on your level of dorkiness—or its locus—Gorman may suggest to you the author of all those crime novels on your bookshelf, a googlewhack adventurer or something I simply can’t predict. So for the purposes of this column, when I write “Gorman,” I mean the paragon of military incompetence from Aliens. Let’s try it out:
pull a Gorman
1. v. trans. To crumple psychologically in the face of crisis, and find oneself unable to take action.
2. v. trans. To explode yourself and Private Vasquez with a grenade.
And so it was many nights this week, as I stared into The Dawn of War. “Squad broken!” came the familiar refrain, once, twice, three times. An entire battalion gone! My boys were in the shit, and the enemy was eating them alive. Gorman had days like this. What would Lieutenant Gorman do? Hmm, get paralyzed with combat anxiety, get hit on the head by a box and then blow himself up with Vasquez. “Perhaps I can do better,” I thought. “Cavalry to flank? No, they’ve already been chewed up by those turrets. Artillery? No, I can’t hit those enemy beasts with artillery if I don’t have any scouts. Think, Dave!” My face warmed up, my armpits dampened—all I could do was sit there at my computer, watch adversaries storm my stronghold and burn it to the ground, stress the fuck out and wonder why I consider this a leisure activity.
Gorman would have cut his losses and exited to Windows hours ago. But he’s not like us, is he? You know what I’m talking about: you look up from your monitor to find your home dark, your legs cramped, your partner/roommate/leather-slave sawing logs in the other room, long since done with the evening. And you feel no shame.
Sometimes I do, friends! I have to admit it. As I cobble these words together, minutes shy of deadline, it occurs to me that I might have spent a portion of those four in-game hours composing a startling column for you. A shining, polished example of the New Games Journalism instead of yet another game review, this time for Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. Yes, that is the name of the game. The name I curse. It has chewed through enough of my time that it couldn’t possibly escape mention. And yes, I shall tell you about it.
Some of you will already have a reference point for Warhammer 40,000. Some will not. As with all references, it’s a gamble: do I plough forward, assuming that you already know what I’m talking about or that you’ll click the links to find out? Or do I embarrass myself by trying to exposit on Warhammer’s tabletop origins? I suppose the safe bet is to embarrass myself (it’s usually inevitable anyway), so let’s begin by noting that WH40K began under the auspices of Games Workshop—yes, the Games Workshop of the Greenwich Games-Workshoppingtons—is now one of its flagship products. The company specializes in creating “tabletop” games in which players manoeuvre figurines on their card tables, thereby enacting the travails and battles of several distinct races of sci-fi weirdos. Tabletop games are how dorks of old entertained themselves before computers became commonplace (and how many a dork of new still whiles away the time). These games move at a rather leisurely pace, making them, it could be said, ideal candidates for a leisure activity.
The Dawn of War to which I’m addicted is not a tabletop diversion, though. It’s the latest in real-time strategy (RTS) computer games. It’s like Risk on crystal meth, only there are no tiny pieces for the dogs to eat. And the maps are smaller (a city rather than the entire globe). And there are giant robo-mechs harassing infantry with their sharply tooled manipulator arms. And there’s bad music.
In this specific RTS, players control one of four races from the original game: Space Marines—sort of like Gorman’s underlings, but with poorer fashion sense; Orks—I think we all know what Orks are about; Eldars—like elves, but with dirt bikes; and finally the Chaos Marines—like Cenobites, also with dirt bikes. Players click their troops around the map and strenuously request that these troops annihilate their enemies. In a recent game, for example, those nasty Cenobites were my enemies. So I annihilated them, and their dirt bikes. You should have seen the looks on their faces. Certain units are well suited to specific modes of combat. Infantry, for example, are great against other ground troops, but not so great against Dreadnoughts, anthropomorphic robots with whirring, crushing arms who kill without remorse. And while Dreadnoughts are great for razing a foe’s base from the face of the earth, they’re not so great for fighting tanks. Also, they never learned to read. Match the wrong unit to a foe, and you’ll end up pulling a Gorman.
Playing the single-player campaign is okay [Spouse’s note: if several hours per night of game play is the technical qualifier for “okay”], but the real fun starts when you play with human beings, exacting bloody vengeance for that time your opponent’s Dreadnought crushed your troops in its ruinous embrace. Remaining busy with things I hate usually prevents me from co-ordinating with others for this kind of play, but once in a blue moon I’m lucky enough to be invited to Guys’ Night In. Guys’ Night In is a wondrous event where people wear headsets like Julie the Time-Life operator and chat while conducting a multiplayer game online. It’s a palpably spatial experience: even though we’re in different locales, we all inhabit the same online maps and fight alongside one another to achieve the same goals. I was initially invited into this fold by a co-worker and joined in for a few games of StarCraft, an older RTS that is similar to Dawn of War in that I’m not particularly adept at it and my colleagues are. Dawn of War has only recently been released, so when it was adopted as the official game of Guys’ Night In, I thought, “Beautiful! Finally some respite from the unstoppable onslaught of ass-beatings!!” Er, except not.
Another difference between an RTS and Risk is that you don’t get to look at the entire map all at once. The real trick of the game isn’t experience, it’s dividing your attention between all the different adventures in which your troops have involved themselves. How much information does your brain’s buffer hold, and how quickly can you act upon that information? My style is “too much at once” and “not quickly enough.” After five minutes of multiplayer action, I corporeally answered the question, “What would Lieutenant Gorman do?” Meltdown, paralysis, fuXX0red, the rain of screamed obscenities beginning anew as each time, again and again, came the bitter refrain: “Squad broken!” Stronghold taken, barracks overrun, what to do?
And then sweet relief as one of the guys of the Guys’ Night In (the event I mentioned earlier, not the hunky boy band) chimed in over the headset, “Hold on, I’m coming.” Waves of friendly infantry stormed in and drove the invaders back, and I caught my breath. This, I suppose, is where Dawn of War holds its salt as a worthwhile leisure activity: the sweet relief of victory, even if it was all Jeremy’s doing and most of my troops were already dead. Looks like I’ll be cancelling that date with Vasquez!
David and Vanessa currently live and toil in Toronto--for a large technology corporation and a non-profit, respectively. They met via their blogs, and were married in the winter of 2002. They have a hamster and a dog, but no yacht. Nerdworld appears every second Sunday.