Last year’s Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War title came as a great breath of fresh air into the previously depleted Warhammer video-game franchise. Anyone remotely interested in the series in recent years would’ve come to realise that the previous titles under the Warhammer 40,000 name were incredibly dry, passionless, and didn’t quite live up to their namesake. Well, that is until Relic’s top-of-the-range real-time strategy title was released last year. While the game didn’t replicate the actual game mechanics of the insanely popular tabletop game, the Dawn of War experience translated all that was expected from the franchise and was packaged into a nice little RTS title.
Taking into account its success, and its unfairly unbalanced problems in the original, Relic decided to provide gamers with a much more satisfying gaming experience that not only expands upon the original, but iron outs some of the irritating problems as well.
As far as RTS titles go, Winter Assault doesn’t exactly introduce anything completely new to the genre – you still need to gather supplies (power and a sort of currency), produce buildings, an army and an array of tech abilities to improve your armies – however, the way the game is executed and portrayed is truly satisfying. Thankfully, rather than being too much of the same, Relic has completely reworked the entire single-player mode of the original by adding in some truly fascinating gameplay elements, as well as offering one of the best multiplayer experiences for a RTS title of this size.
In the original, Dawn of War seemed to be a title that just wanted to do what the big boys were doing, not break away too much with it’s own unique ideas. It did everything right, and it was done exceptionally well. Thankfully though, Relic, now with a bit more backbone in the title, have decided to introduce some of their own intriguing and, overall, effective features. The original the game had gamers focusing on the story of the Space Marines as they fought their way through opposing armies that were in their way of achieving domination. However, in Winter Assault, gamers are given a similar sort of path, although this time they are given the choice of how they want to play and who they want to play as. There are two separate campaign modes – either the Order (Imperial Guards and Eldar) or Chaos (Chaos Space Marines and Orks) – consisting of five missions each. Unlike the original, the expansion offers a far more complex and difficult campaign mode compared to what the Space Marine’s had originally offered. Rather than simply building your army and defeating the enemy like in the original, Relic has presented the idea to gamers to become more apart of these new playable races as they all try to gain domination. For example, the first Ork mission focuses on gamers starting with a small squad of Orks who then must travel across the board attacking opposing Ork outpost in an attempt to have them side with you. As soon as you’ve claimed the land of Orks as your own, you begin to plague the rest of land like any other stinking Ork would do.
Mentioning that the single player mode is divided with two teams also opens up for some very intriguing RTS ideas. In one of the missions you are the Eldar, who are slowing depleting in numbers and a raging Ork army is savagely attacking your base. It is then your mission as the Eldar to not fight, but to quickly teleport your existing base to other locations until you finally come in contact with your allies, the Imperial Guard. Once your army is safely defended within the Imperial Guards base, the game then switches you to be in the driver’s seat of the Imperial Guard, as they begin to hold off the opposing Ork invasion until reinforcements arrive. This switching team idea comes in effect later in the game as you have the opportunity to choose if you want to chase world domination as the Eldar or as the Imperial Guards. The decision is yours. Both the Order and Chao stories tie into one another, and in one of the missions you will have all four forces fighting against each other in an attempt to make it to a key location. The campaign mode is no longer the typical, boring, run-of-the-mill RTS experience of acquiring resources and wiping out foes, but offering one of the best campaign modes we’ve seen in the genre, that offers a lot of flexibility and variety in how gamers can approach each mission. The only real frustrating and rather annoying aspect of the near perfect campaign experience is that it can be finished fairly quickly. But, it isn’t a particularly bad thing considering the games’ length is further suplemented with the game’s skirmish and multiplayer modes.
However, the single most promising outlook on the idea to include all races into the single-player campaign is that gamers now have the opportunity to experience all races and have the chance to realise each of their strengths and weaknesses, which is something that the original and many other titles in this genre have lacked. I’ll admit that in the original I never played a single skirmish or multiplayer match with the Orks or Chaos Space Marines. They seemed difficult to play as, and their teams just put me off without even knowing of what they were capable of (and apparently they are two fairly easily sides to use compared to Eldar, which is a team I like to think I’m good with). However, having access to all the teams gives gamers a firm idea of what each team is capable and allows gamers to approach multiplayer matches with a bit more knowledge.
Speaking about new additions, Winter Assault’s most obviously new feature is the introduction of the Imperial Guard. It was a bit of surprise to hear that the Imperial Guard weren’t in the original, but their introduction into the game does manage to balance out all races a lot more, and allows beginner gamers to adjust to a team that is not only easy to pick up and play as, but are an incredibly powerful force. The Imperial Guard, as you’d expect from their appearance, are focused on their military rather than chaotic powers or technology. They are the ideal defensive team as their racial benefits tend to show when opposing enemies from afar. The Imperial Guard have the longest shooting range of any other race, their vehicles are defensive such, their structures enable gamers to place troops inside so they can hide and shoot, and their long range Basilisk artillery vehicles can shoot half the map. The Imperial Guard also include a number of other fascinating troops that do well to balance out their weak points such as the swift AT-ST look-a-like Sentinels and the special leaders force that can dish out some devastating power of their own.
Of course it wouldn’t be fair to just add a new race and leave the rest in the shadows. Relic has decided to add new units to all the old factions also. Each of the new units do an excellent job at evenly balancing the areas of which these old teams were lacking in. For example, the Eldar never had a superior vehicle destroying infantry unit. However, thanks to the welcome addition of the Fire Dragons, that is no longer a problem. The same can be said for the Orks with receiving the Mega Armored Nobz (a powerful, heavily armoured machine), the Chaos with the insanely deadly Khorne Berserkers and the Space Marines receiving Chaplains (an unstoppable unit in close-combat).
The AI is still questionable on occasions. There are areas in the game where units make unintelligent decisions, and usually end up killing all your troops because of it. When coming close to defeating an enemy, their troops that are stationed in nearby areas just stand still doing nothing as their base is being destroyed, leaving you on more occasions than not without any suppressing forces. There were occasions in the campaign mode where we had trouble with the AI also. When we came across a tight area where only one or two units could pass one at a time, we were stuck there for five minutes trying to press all our troops through the gap because of one of our vehicles was blocking the way. The AI isn’t so bad that it ruins that game, but when in tight situations the AI does have the ability to tick you off.
Probably one of the new features that may be left unnoticed is a much cleaner and user-friendly tech-tree. There have been new abilities introduced as well as new path-ways that allow for not only easier access to your unit’s most powerful abilities, but allows you to explore the possibilities of what can be achieved with units that would’ve been left untouched in the original version. Relic have also done a nice job on fixing up the game’s game board structure, adding in some nice weather elements and environmental changes, as well as finally fixing up the online lobby that makes joining games a lot more seamless.
Speaking of which, I was absolutely head over heels when I finally experienced the online mode in Winter Assault. I still to this day try to play Dawn of War whenever possible (well actually it’s Winter Assault that’s left in my CD-rom drive now) and the new layout and additions to the online interface is a truly satisfying sight. The most welcomed feature in my opinion, is the ability to observe multiplayer matches. It’s always interesting to watch how others manage to play the game, and it allows for gamers to hold tournament matches where others can watch.
Unfortunately though, Winter Assault does seem a tad rushed on the visual front. While the same basic visuals are still intact, and look pretty fantastic, the Imperial Guard looks incredibly bland and just doesn’t hold that ‘oomph’ in appearance in comparison with any other faction in the game. Their structures look incredibly similar and very dry, which can also be said about their vehicles too. The Imperial Guard’s impressive Baneblade for example is just a massive tank with dozens of weapons on it. Fairly boring when compared with some of the variety featured in the Orks vehicles. It’s hard to tell whether this is a problem caused by the original design of the Imperial Guard Warhammer 40,000 tabletop miniatures, but the overall design of the army certainly doesn’t pack enough punch compared to opposing races.
The game still doesn’t present the greatest in-game cut-scenes we’ve ever seen, with badly-synced voice acting, and jittery animation still being problems. But on the whole, these do a fairly reasonable job at telling the story of each race and breaks up the tension between missions.
As experienced with the original, the game features a truly captivating soundtrack that offers a lot of ‘wham-bam thank-you mam’, but the game’s in-game voice acting is truly frustrating and incredibly repetitive. The voice acting is absolutely incredible as a whole, sure, but while playing the game each unit has their own unique voice. They’re usually cute and pretty funny (“For the greenies” or “Up yours!” from the Orks), however when you are trying to continuously reinforce your units and move them around during the frantic moments of war, it can become incredibly frustrating as all you’ll hear is “For the greenies” over and over again, which can often become pretty nerve-wrenching when trying to compile a strategy during a battle.
Sure, Relic has sorted-out one of the best titles to be ever made under the Warhammer 40,000 license, but there are still those little issues that prevent it from being the ideal RTS title for all gamers. The expansion has done a very successful job at pushing the series forward in the right direction, however, outstanding issues with the games’ AI and the minor visual issues does set the experience a little short of the mark.
Relic have, however, captured the true essence of the brutal and chaotic universe of what is one of the most successful brands around the world. The new additions truly add to the experience and create a fairly satisfying RTS experience. The new campaign mode is one of the best we’ve seen in the genre, multiplayer is still up there as being one of my favourite games to go online with, and the new units and gameplay tweaks truly have pushed this game in the better direction. Relic have proved themselves as being an extremely talented developer that can juggle the already crowded RTS genre, and I’m sure I’m not alone when I hope to see future Warhammer 40,000 titles handled by them. There’s certainly a lot of work to be done, but from what they’ve already proven with Dawn of War, and now with the expansion, the outlook is looking great for fans of the franchise, finally!
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War Review