Though it has recently delved into other genres, TalonSoft's bread and butter has always been historical, turn-based war games. In spite of excellent reviews for games such as The Operational Art of War and East Front, none of the company's games have been particularly successful commercially. That might explain why TalonSoft decided to publish Dogs of War, an action-oriented futuristic real-time strategy game first released in Britain. Originally scheduled to be titled in the States as "WarMonkeys," TalonSoft wisely changed the name to something a little grittier. Unfortunately, an even better decision probably would have been to pass altogether on publishing this underachieving and frustrating game.
The story in Dogs of War is no more humdrum than what you'll find in any number of real-time strategy games, but what it lacks in originality it makes up for in brevity. Roughly two centuries in the future, Earth has begun colonizing planets to replace its dwindling resources, and things go so smoothly at the very first outpost on Primus IV that it's quickly recognized as the model on which all future colonies should be built. But that was before the appearance of the Mantai, a buglike species that systematically attacked both the colonists and their machinery. Although the Mantai were driven back, Earth pretty much gave up on Primus IV and its inhabitants until a scientist discovered SL-18, one of those all-purpose metals so common in real-time strategy games. The colonists get rich selling the stuff, but they haven't forgotten how the Imperial government back on Earth abandoned them. And when a new Emperor imposes a draconian tax on all off-world colonies, the Primus IV colonists decide they've had enough. They hire a mercenary group called the WarMonkeys to seize control of their planet.
As the game begins, Imperial forces have landed an invasion force to subdue the uprising. In the single-player mode, you can embark on two eight-mission campaigns controlling either the Imperial Alliance or the WarMonkeys, and later on you can play a five-mission Mantai campaign. Like the recent fully 3D real-time strategy game Ground Control, Dogs of War eschews base production and resource management and instead gives you a supply of credits with which to purchase vehicles and troops. Furthermore, your units that survive become more effective as they gain experience. Unit- and 3D-camera control in Dogs of War is also similar to Ground Control, except that you can command individual units, as opposed to squads in Ground Control, and also command units from a behind-the back, third-person perspective.
Dogs of War is supposed to let you buy your units before a given mission. This is a decent idea that the game doesn't use to its advantage very often. Only two of eight Imperial missions let you pick your units, while the WarMonkeys campaign lets you do so three of eight times. The Mantai campaign also provides just two scenarios featuring this option. Eventually, being able to buy units at all just seems like a waste because the feature is used so inconsistently.
Dogs of War is fairly impressive visually, as it has lots of good special effects like smoke trails and brilliant explosions that bring the action to life, while the units themselves look good, if not great. On the other hand, the game's voice acting is grating, boorish, and at times, unnecessarily offensive. You might also be stunned to hear a British accent shouting, "Let's get those f***ers!" in the middle of a tutorial.
Then again, you might not even notice the dialogue since you'll probably be too busy wrestling with the game's interface. You can easily pan the camera forward, backward, to the left, and to the right using the keyboard, but camera rotation and pitch using the mouse are both far too erratic. Then there is the sniper mode, which forces you to aim at targets only by using the display in the minimap. Directly controlling your units is not quite as cumbersome, but the mouse/keyboard combination used for aiming and movement is not particularly responsive. In addition, although identifying and selecting your units is fairly easy in open terrain, quickly finding and selecting them during battles fought amidst towering skyscrapers or other dense scenery results in so much awkward camera manipulation that your attention strays from the most important issue: tactical control.
Setting waypoints is a vital aspect of real-time strategy games, but Dogs of War botches it by assigning the shift key both for setting waypoints and for allowing camera rotation and tilting. Whether you use the mouse or keyboard for camera control, the net effect is that you can't scroll the main display and set waypoints at the same time. A workaround is to assign waypoints on the minimap, but it doesn't provide the level of detail you might prefer.
Many conventional real-time strategy games let you quickly switch your main display to any point on the map by left-clicking on the corresponding point in the minimap, and then let you order your selected units to the new location by right-clicking. But in Dogs of War, you have to double-click the right mouse button to switch the screen using the minimap. This creates a special problem: You can't select a new area on the minimap while a unit is selected, or it will start heading to this new area, because movement is also controlled with right mouseclicks. Just how cumbersome is the interface? In the climactic battle as either the Imperial Alliance or the WarMonkeys, you're allowed to control only a single unit. Apparently even the developers knew something wasn't quite right.
It's also worth mentioning that the missions in Dogs of War are mostly scripted, as the absence of a quick skirmish option proves there really isn't any enemy artificial intelligence to speak of. There's nothing particularly wrong with scripted missions - provided that the enemy units do not get stuck at the edge of the map or that your own units do not get jammed into narrow passages in a headlong rush to reach an objective. For example, in one mission an enemy unit was basically hidden from fire because my forces couldn't target it at the side of the map. On a separate occasion I spent nearly 30 minutes trying to lob an artillery shell onto a lone enemy vehicle in order to end the mission. I finally did it - only to realize there was apparently one other enemy somewhere on the map, and without a chopper there was no way to track it down. An option to save progress mid mission would have alleviated part of the problem, but unfortunately the developers didn't include it - perhaps to offset the campaigns' short lengths.
You can't blame TalonSoft for trying to grab a piece of the real-time strategy pie, but unfortunately the publisher settled for an uninspired and generally unsatisfying game. Dogs of War seems not only unpolished, but also unfinished - and the problems are so inherent in the design that a patch wouldn't likely salvage it.