This is the world of Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat, a highly underrated real-time strategy game set in Games Workshop's popular Warhammer tabletop RPG world. The game places you in charge of a mercenary army in a fantasy world filled with Dwarves, Elves, Orcs, and rat-like Skaven. One of the first games that were developed specifically for Windows 95 (but still compatible with Windows 3.x), Warhammer offers solid mission-based gameplay with a fun evolving storyline. The premise goes as follows: the Empire is threatened by the forces of a demon, the Horned Rat. To thwart him, you must hire troops and lead them into over 40 battles, each of which unfolds before you in spectacular fashion.
The Super VGA 3-D graphics engine gives you a bird's-eye view of the action as you command your troops. During battle, you'll have to issue a variety of orders to your armies (charge, retreat, and use magic items are among the more useful). It can get confusing, but Warhammer is a little easier to control than other real-time games (such as Warcraft II) because your troops move in large, coordinated units. You can also zoom in and out of the battle, although the graphics is quite heavily pixellated at close range. One of the game's best features is the availability of many unique heroes and wizards you will gradually recruit as time passes. Each wizard has his own set of spells, and graphical effects of most spells are very well done and amusing to watch. Likewise, non-wizard heroes have unique abilities (e.g. magical weapons) that can turn the tide of battle if used at the right moment.
The game's only drawback in my opinion-- and a very serious one-- is the fact that it gets very difficult very fast. After the first four or five missions, you'll find yourself severely outnumbered in just about every battle. One word of advice: protect your troops. If you suffer heavy casualties early on, you may not be able to get reinforcements for subsequent battles, forcing you to restore to an earlier point. Another annoying downside is that the game's interface is quite clunky and difficult to use. The most important commands cannot be executed at one click of a mouse, and some buttons seem quite useless (for example, pounding on the fist icon, which supposedly raise morale of your troops and make them fight better, seems pretty ineffective and idiotic). Also, in the thick of a battle when many banners (carried by each regimen) are seemingly on top of one another, it's very difficult and frustrating to select the troop you want.
These gripes notwithstanding, SOTHR offers enough engaging gameplay in an intriguing fantasy plot to make you forgive its shortcomings. Even if you have to try some of the missions several times to win them, you won't mind replaying a battle in this excellent, addictive game. The extremely high difficulty level and clunky interface are the only two downsides that keep this Top Dog from entering the Hall of Belated Fame. Just be ready with some valium in case the frustration level gets too high ;-) Two thumbs up! If you like the game, also try Warhammer: Dark Omen, a vastly superior sequel developed by the same design team, released in 1998.
Note: We have been asked by Games Workshop to remove downloads of games based on the Space Hulk and Warhammer universe. Please contact the company directly if you are interested in obtaining this title.