Of all the computer games inspired by Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 tabletop science-fiction wargame, Rites of War is the first to place the fanatical Imperium of Man in a peripheral role. Suddenly the space marines are the enemy, and the game centers on the proud and mighty Eldar, a fallen race still clinging to life thanks to remarkable technology and limitless courage. Fans of the source material will no doubt appreciate the opportunity posed by Rites of War to take on the Imperium with the Eldar's alien weapons and will be further pleased to learn that they'll face the Tyranid as well, who haven't shown their ugly faces on the computer screen since Space Hulk. Together, these three races are a fascinating bunch, so much so that they clearly influenced their counterparts in Blizzard's wildly popular real-time strategy game Starcraft. Even so, they still can't save Rites of War from feeling like the typical and underwhelming turn-based strategy game that it is.
The Eldar may be a mysterious race indeed, but what's especially mysterious about Rites of War is why its system requirements are so steep. The fact is, Rites of War looks like a very old game, largely because it runs on the two-year-old Panzer General II graphics engine, which arguably didn't even look that great for its time. Yet while mediocre graphics are acceptable in the turn-based strategy genre, poor performance is not. You'd think smooth, fast gameplay would be the least a developer could offer, when having to work with an old graphics engine. But you can expect sluggish performance from Rites of War even if you exceed its preposterously high minimum requirements.
If you can get it running, you'll find that Rites of War plays more like a wargame and not so much like its source material. Most missions have you moving around 15 units one by one over a hex-based map in an effort to defeat your enemies or claim their territory. The majority of these units can only attack adjacent hexes, at which point the game compares unit stats for initiative, strength, toughness, and so forth to resolve the combat. You'll need a variety of units to succeed; tactical units are useful in any situation but are vulnerable to artillery. Artillery can soften up most any target from long range, although assault units can easily destroy them or most anything else if they can get close enough. Devastator units are especially important, and while slow, their powerful attacks can provide cover fire for their allies. Scouts can see far ahead and attack without fear of retaliation, catching their foes by surprise. You'll also deploy aerial units, war machines, and psykers with their devastating psychic powers. True to its source, Rites of War feels well balanced, and all three of its sides play differently yet are similarly powerful. It's an interesting and effective variation on the Warhammer 40,000 rules, although its combat is regrettably far less visceral than the preceding Warhammer 40,000 strategy games Chaos Gate and Final Liberation.
Part of the reason is Rites of War just doesn't look or sound very good. Though the game is colorful, and its maps are fairly detailed and cleanly rendered, the unit graphics themselves look sloppy and animate so poorly that you'll wonder whether it's your computer rather than the game that's at fault. If you're very familiar with the pewter Warhammer 40,000 miniatures that the six-dozen-odd units in Rites of War are taken from, then you'll be able to distinguish the game's renderings of a Howling Banshee Exarch from a Dire Avenger without too much trouble. But if you aren't so experienced with the source material, the game's units will utterly fail to convey the detail and charisma that helped make the tabletop wargame so popular. The units aren't shown to scale, either - a fact that will put your ability to suspend disbelief to a serious test. Even behemoths such as the Tyranid Carnifex are reduced to the size of everything else. Consequently, the battles in Rites of War are abstracted so much that you'll need to work hard to convince yourself that some important battle is raging, even more so than you would playing the original game on a table with metal figurines.
Rites of War includes a linear campaign of two dozen missions, each of whose scenarios are introduced through a rather strikingly well-acted speech from your commanding officer, the Farseer. Unfortunately, aside from the Farseer's impassioned diatribes against the Eldar's enemies, the campaign is otherwise fairly straightforward, with few twists within the missions themselves and little cohesion between missions. The real incentive to keep playing is that your units gain experience as they fight, becoming noticeably more powerful as they do so. Most Eldar units are promoted to Exarch status once they become sufficiently experienced, turning the once-vulnerable warriors into seemingly invincible warlords.
While the experience system is mostly well implemented, it does have certain problems. For one thing, Exarch units are so astonishingly powerful that a lot of the game's strategy is lost once you've amassed a few of them. All but the deadliest artillery fire and most vicious melee attacks are completely shrugged aside, and an Exarch's wounds can be instantly healed by resting for a turn. You'll quickly realize how overpowered these units are and thus why many of the later missions in the game enforce a turn limit, demanding that you accomplish your goal hastily. Furthermore, once your units have attained maximum experience, all of a sudden you've lost that incentive to keep on going with them. And, provided you can keep them alive, your units will max out about two-thirds of the way through the game, making the last portion seem stale. Meanwhile, purchasing new units at this late stage in the campaign is pointless since they'll be nothing more than fodder to the experienced enemy, and will perish long before they gain any experience of their own.
Even in spite of these concerns, the Rites of War campaign is fairly enjoyable, with enough variety between missions and enough challenge within them to keep you interested. Since you're limited by the number of units you can deploy in each mission, and invariably not all of your units will survive the course of the campaign, there's even some incentive to play the campaign a second time to try things differently and maybe at a higher difficulty setting. Otherwise, you can play around a dozen stand-alone scenarios against the computer or against up to three other people, and Rites of War also includes an editor that lets you modify starting and victory conditions and such, without actually letting you modify the physical appearance of the available maps. And because the game contains dozens of Eldar, Imperial, and Tyranid units, Rites of War can keep you busy for a good while.
As you play, you'll realize that the ultimate purpose of translating Warhammer 40,000 to the computer is at least twofold: The first is to eliminate the time-consuming hassle of physically playing a tabletop wargame. And the second purpose, far more difficult to accomplish, is to express the fiction more vividly through the computer game medium than is feasible on a kitchen table. Rites of War fails in this respect, which is unfortunate since its setup is so inspiring. And because the tabletop game's context is so rich, and because, at its heart, Rites of War proves to be fairly enjoyable if you can get past all its many rough edges, the game finally comes across as a missed opportunity to show off Warhammer 40,000 in all its glory.