I’ve already written about Warhammer 40,000's bleak vision: eternal interstellar war, where no side is very sympathetic, and there are forces so incomprehensibly powerful and malicious you’d go insane if you did learn the truth. Imagine then that someone shoved you into a recruiting line, and told you to go fight these forces with little more than a helmet and a rifle. Retreat is punishable by death, by the way.
That’s the predicament of the Imperial Guard. In a universe of killing machines the size of skyscrapers, they’re about one link up from the bottom of the food chain. But being ordinary soldiers, they’re as sympathetic as Warhammer gets. Thus they’re pretty solid as a focus for expanding Relic’s 40K strategy game, Dawn of War.
I’ve spent so much time Skirmishing in Dawn of War that Winter Assault might’ve been worth buying for the new faction alone. Like each of the original factions (Orks, Eldar, Chaos, and Space Marines), playing as the Imperial Guard can be a radically different experience. The Guardsman is their core unit, but he’s extremely weak; five Orks could decimate a squad of 10 Guardsmen. So the key is to produce as many of them as you can and group them with vehicles, such as the Hellhound flame tank, and officer units such as Priests and Commissars. Even then, an IG player faces serious trouble if his enemy manages to crank out tanks or his own anti-infantry vehicles.
It’s that underdog struggle though that makes the Guard satisfying, and there are extra tools at your disposal. Critical buildings like listening posts or the HQ can be garrisoned, similarly to the Orc burrows in Warcraft III. Garrisoned units can travel through unseen tunnels to other buildings. The Basilisk mobile artillery is superior to the Marines’ Whirlwind artillery, and the Guard’s ultimate weapon is the Baneblade, a tank (limited to one at a time) with ludicrously thick armour, several heavy bolter turrets, and a cannon that will annihilate virtually anything. It’s a self-contained army.
Relic seems to have heard the criticisms of Dawn of War’s campaign and drastically reworked things for Winter Assault. There’s considerably more variety here. To start with, there isn’t a single campaign but two, ‘Order’ and ‘Disorder.’ Each has missions for two factions: the Guard and the Eldar in the first, Chaos and the Orks in the second. Complicating things further is that towards the end of either campaign, you’ll have to side with a single faction and complete a separate series of objectives from the ones you’d have had with the other faction. While the missions themselves are fairly linear, there’s certainly incentive for replay.
I would add that the objectives are a bit more diverse and challenging, especially as the Guard. Without saying too much (skip this paragraph if you’re worried about spoilers), the last mission of both campaigns involves the arrival of an alien race that would make any 40K veteran cower in fear. If you haven’t learned to wield your faction’s abilities to the fullest, this might come as a rude surprise. Mind you, I was able to finish both campaigns with a little extra patience.
Something I hadn’t expected was that the balancing of the game as a whole has been altered, in ways which would be too numerous to go into if I could remember them all. It still feels like Dawn of War, but you can’t count on certain strategies working as they used to. The example that sticks out with me is rocket launchers. Unless I’m missing something, infantry simply can’t be equipped with them anymore, so it’s not that easy to mount an operation without vehicles. Some compensation comes from units added to the original factions, like the Orks’ Mega-Armoured Nobz.
Any real complaints I’d have with Winter Assault amount to two things. The mission scripting creates unique scenarios at the expense of gameplay flexibility; frequently there’s an obvious ‘best way’ to complete an objective, even if it’s not easy or the only one. At times you can also trick the scripting into releasing new enemies only when you’re good and ready. That’s not where the ‘strategy’ in a real-time strategy game should lie.
The expansion’s new graphics options are incredibly taxing on what would normally be a powerhouse system. On a P4 3.2 GHz machine with 4 GB of RAM and a Radeon X800 Pro video card, neither persistent bodies nor persistent weapons scarring could be pushed past ‘medium’ without constant chugging. ‘Low’ is a more realistic setting. This is on top of other options being turned down, including world detail. It’s forgivable, mainly because few tactical RTS games attempt to throw as many units on-screen as Dawn of War does.
To me the question about Winter Assault isn’t its immediate value. If you still play Dawn of War, you need this. It’s a fresh shot of energy into the play experience. What I really wonder is whether people will take to the Imperial Guard in such a way that, three to six months from now, you’ll continue to find people using them online. I think so. There are enough compelling aspects to the Guard in gameplay that they’re not just a lure for Warhammer 40,000 fanatics.