Reviewed: October 7, 2005
Released: September 21, 2005
The Warhammer 40,000 universe has proven to be a great inspiration for video games with nearly a dozen titles based on the franchise released on multiple formats. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War - Winter Assault is the obligatory expansion pack to last year's Dawn of War that adds a new race, The Imperial Guard, new gameplay features, and 20 all-new multiplayer maps.
Warhammer fans are probably saying, "Imperial Guard...why those guys when there are so many cooler and more exciting factions to choose from?" The decision is smarter than you think. The Imperial Guard aren't the super-soldiers or powerful races that were featured in the original game. If you were to equate them to our own military they would be the National Guard compared to the Marines and Special Forces that you played last year. They aren't as experienced or powerful as the Marines and therefore require more strategy (defensive strategy) to be used with any degree of success.
But the Imperial Guard is just one element, albeit a major one, to this expansion that deliver more of the quality RTS gameplay experience that we all enjoyed last year. My only regret was that Relic didn't take this opportunity to polish up a few of the AI and quirky gameplay issues that kept the original just short of perfection.
Dawn of War approached RTS gaming from a somewhat realistic standpoint of acquisition, domination, and attrition and Winter Assault builds on that formula while increasing the defensive side of strategy gameplay. The Imperial Guard are skilled in base building, especially bunkers that are interconnected with underground tunnels allowing them to dig in and put up a formidable resistance. They also have some powerful vehicles and weapons at their disposal like the Hellhound Tank and Sentinel Walker.
Morale plays an even greater part when it comes to the Guardsmen. Since they aren't the same battle-hardened vets as the Marines you will need to make sure to attach special leader units, like the Commissar, to the troops to maintain that area-of-effect morale boost. Some units can even perform certain actions for immediate morale boosts.
The pacing of this franchise is much faster than your typical RTS game and those who played the original will remember that you didn't have much time for base-building or setup. You pretty much had to get out into the battlefield and get your hands bloody right away. This faster pace is an interesting dynamic when set against the tactics of the Imperial Guard. Even so, the pacing and the balance of this faction when compared to the others is surprisingly balanced.
You'll be forced to explore all the potential of this new faction and develop tactics based on those abiities. You'll need to use the Sentinels for quick assaults of control points and bombard the enemy with your Basilisk artillery. There is an entirely new tech tree that will deliver countless new strategies and endless possibilities for gameplay.
Relic has enhanced the existing factions as well by adding a new unit to each, and not just some lame token unit but positions that actually needed filling. The Orks get a slow-moving yet ultra powerful Mega Armored Nobz and the Fire Dragons of the Eldar are the perfect counter-unit to the Nobz. The new single-player campaign is designed to get you comfortable with these new units as well as the Imperial Guard. It is broken down into two 5-mission campaigns and you are now free to pick your sides.
The missions themselves are a huge improvement over the original and offer a variety of tactics and pacing that require a lot of strategy and battle tactics. I was a bit disappointed that some of the maps were reused between the two campaigns but the missions were structured differently enough that you might not even notice. And even replaying the same campaign mission as a different faction will create a totally unique experience.
AI is still twitchy and exhibits many of the flaws that were in the original. Pathfinding can be a bit of a problem and you will have to babysit larger groups and big units like tanks that can get hung up on objects or corners. Enemy AI is not as smart as it should be but is still challenging and good practice for the stronger online multiplayer element.
Winter Assault continues the fantastic visual experience of the original and expands upon it with even more visual style and art direction. The art design is stunning, on the level of a third-person action title. To that end you can actually zoom in on the battlefield so close that a single unit will fill your screen. Only then can you see the amazing level of detail on each unit. Scars, medals, insignia, and character specific details are all used to bring these characters to life. There are more polygons and textures on a single soldier than an entire level in some of those older RTS games. Fans of the franchise, especially those who are into the miniature figures, will certainly appreciate all the extra detail used to create these units.
The extraordinary level of detail extends into the animations for each unit, which are unique and a total blast to watch. Unlike other games where similar units all move in choreographed patterns, each unit in Dawn of War appears to be under its own AI control, working independently but still part of the overall team. This isnít scripted animation, but rather reactive AI where no two battles are alike. Some of the battle combos and fatality finishes are very bloody and a bit disturbing earning this game a well-deserved Mature rating.
The music in Winter Assault is the same thick and heavy mix of metal and industrial rock of the core game combined with the gratuitous military marches and even some haunting choir music ripped right from a gothic horror film. It works pretty well considering the futuristic heavy metal style gameplay, but it's still not my first choice for background music.
Sound effects are fun, detailed, and enhance the visuals. When you have hundreds of units on the screen the sounds of war can be quite deafening and there is excellent use of EAX surround to put you right in the middle of the fight.
The voice acting is still pretty bad and just as repetitive as before. Units give vocal acknowledgements to your commands every 10-20 seconds and itís the same sound clip over and over. Even worse, some of these clips can get rather lengthy. The new acknowledgements from the Guardsmen are really well done but that doesn't save them from being just as repetitive and annoying a few hours into the game.
Most RTS gamers will finish the 10-mission campaign in 8-10 hours, but the true staying power of this title is the skirmish modes and eventually the online gameplay. All told, Iíve spent about 60 hours with this game, the first 40 on the original and 20 new hours on the expansion. The countless skirmishes and challenging online play will offer enough content to keep you playing as long as you could possibly want.
The fact that you can now play the campaign as any race is a huge bonus and one of the things I requested in my last review. Thanks for listening.
Relic definitely took the right approach with this expansion. They didn't muck up the successful formula of the original and managed to give us a new faction, new units, a replayable campaign and a lot of new multiplayer maps to keep us busy until the next expansion or possibly a full-fledged sequel arrives.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War - Winter Assault gives us more of what we already loved. While it would have been nice to fix some of the bugs, at least things didn't get any worse. Fans of the original Dawn of War should, without a doubt, expand their gameplay and strategic horizons with what continues to be one of the finest RTS games available for the PC.