Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 franchise (often abbreviated Warhammer 40k), like its predecessor and source of inspiration Warhammer Fantasy is rich in the lore and military diversity that Real-time Strategy games thrive on. It should come as no surpirse that Relic Entertainment’s RTS adaption of this universe, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, is not only a superb rendition of this dark science fiction future but also a splendid RTS game overall. Dawn of War, and the first of its expansions Winter Assault (bundled together in the Gold Edition) brings the dystopian universe of Warhammer 40k to life with intense and bloody combat, superb visuals, and deeply immersive factions.
Dawn of War follows the basic RTS conventions of gameplay. Players start with a single command center (or equivalent) which produces workers and a basic military unit. These military units are used to capture strategic points, static markers around the map that passively generate one of the game’s two basic resources. Resource generation can be improved by constructing Listening Posts on these points once they are captured. Workers construct the various buildings that train and upgrade units and heroes as well as the generators that produce the second resource: plasma. Tier upgrades at the command center unlock more advanced buildings which in turn allow the construction of stronger units and vehicles.
Aside from workers, heroes, and vehicles, all units come out as squads with most squads starting at four units. Squads can be reinforced for an additional cost in resources up to a maximum that varies depending on the unit and the race (the hefty Space Marines have an average squad size of 8 while the numerous Orks can field squads as large as 14). Squads may additionally be upgraded with special weapons that can enhance the squad’s overall performance or make it more effective against one unit type versus another; as well as leader units that improve morale and combat effectiveness. Morale itself is a key factor in combat; units under fire take a steady morale loss. When morale drops to critical levels the squad ‘breaks’, an effect marked by red icons around the squad units, and loses most of its combat effectiveness. Most vehicles and some special units do not have the morale feature.
The Gold Edition features five playable factions: the Space Marines, Eldar, Forces of Chaos, and Orks of the base Dawn of War and the Imperial Guard from Winter Assault. These factions follow similar build styles and combat capability, although specifics like raising the population cap and which units can detect invisible squads do vary. The true differences lie in the offensive and defensive tactics represented in their units. Chaos and the Orks tend to be heavily melee focused with overwhelming numbers while the Elder and Space Marines are expensive, skilled combatants, with a strong emphasis on ranged combat. The Imperial Guard and Space Marines additionally are notable for being “Jacks of all trades” where their basic units are highly adaptable; the Orks, Chaos, and the Eldar often have to field many different unit types for a balanced force.
The single player campaign in Dawn of War follows one of these factions, the Space Marines, through a series of linear missions where the player faces the Orks, Eldar, and Chaos in an expanding plot about Chaos influence on the planet Tartarus. The missions are very well detailed and quite challenging allowing the player to experience the full extent of the Space Marine arsenal and the dynamics of their combat tactics against the other races. Yet while the story and experience are immersive and enjoyable the Space Marines are the only faction with a campaign, the other factions can only be used in skirmish and multiplayer.
This downside is solved somewhat in Winter Assault where every race, except the Space Marines in a very ironic design twist, gets a piece of another story based campaign of five missions divided between the order (Eldar and Imperial Guard) and disorder (Chaos and the Orks) teams where each factions attempts to gain control of an Imperial Titan super mech. Both campaigns begin with missions introducing the factions followed by a shared level where the player chooses which of the factions in their team they want to continue with (represented by a ‘falling out’ of the factions in game). The final mission takes place at the Titan regardless of which faction the player chooses; although the methods of victory differ.
The Winter Assault campaign is very flavorful and its highly interconnected missions give the player a strong sense of interactive narrative. Unfortunately the campaign’s very short duration and partial restriction on what factions are playable severely limits the opportunity the player has to engage and enjoy each faction. The highly enjoyable final mission, modified for each race, alleviates this shortchange to some degree but overall players will find Winter Assault’s replay-ability to be heavily dependent on their willingness to test the skirmish AI’s varying difficulty levels.
Upon its release in 2004 Dawn of War’s graphics and presentation were top of the line. Individual units are highly detailed and many feature very entertaining (and sometimes quite bloody) killing animations (in which the units are mercifully invulnerable to damage). Graphic detail also brings the faction flavor to life with numerous details like facial icons shifting and warping on Chaos buildings and goblin-like Gretchin crawling around the debris of Ork structures. All this detail does tax the video card to some degree and mid-line machines from the period (usually XP operating systems) may struggle with long skirmish and multiplayer games. Modern machines should have no trouble with large scale skirmish games. Dawn of War’s multiplayer is equally well done, with simple setup and connection interfaces that suffer few if any malfunctions on any connection capable of handling RTS play.
Dawn of War, Gold Edition features five levels of Skirmish AI difficulty which provide a decent challenge for players of all experience levels and, except for the hardest AI setting, do not appear to cheat. Multiplayer is even more entertaining with teamplay against the AI and player vs player matches providing ample opportunities to experiment with different faction strategies. Loading time for most multiplayer matches is more dependent on individual PC performance than shared internet connectivity and overall is quite fast allowing for multiple matches to be played over the course of a single session. The factions themselves naturally have some early game build patterns that can sideline the first five minutes into routine, but the unit trees are diverse enough to facilitate widely fluctuating combat scenarios throughout a session.
The Dawn of War Gold Edition is a very well designed strategy game with a rich plot, thematic and well balanced factions, and easily managed skirmish and multiplayer capabilities. While the single player is very linear and lacking in scope its missions and plot line are rich in flavor and abound with opportunities for intense combat. Resource and base management have been sidelined in favor of more detailed unit and army management leading to expansive and satisfying battles against the AI and other players. The graphics and UI options may seem somewhat dated by modern standards; but with the RTS market so sparsely populated gamers will be hard pressed to find a more satisfying RTS experience than Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War.