Today we will be taking a look at an older series of AAA games spanning from 2004 till 2008 – the legendary Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War! The first one, not its excellent though quite different sequel. Let me tell you why you owe it to yourselves to try this old gem of a game!
Who is this Warhammer guy exactly, and why is he 40 000 years old?
I will be honest – explaining the Warhammer setting in simple terms is outside of my capability. But to put it simply it is a vast universe set into the distant future and focused in interstellar conflict between multiple factions, all of whom are some shades of grim or dark or failing that – dark and grim. It is centered mostly (but not exclusively!) on the Empire of Mankind and its many wars to survive and keep its apex position as the most powerful faction within the galaxy, besieged on all sides by traitors, aliens, mutants, and heretics. Known for its extreme grandiosity and vast over the top nature, it features soldiers and genetically modified transhumanists fighting ancient aliens or demons or sentient fungus-like creatures… you just must experience it yourself. It is as insane as it is fun and as fun as it is grimdark and it takes itself as seriously as it winks and nods about how much fun it has. It isn’t a universe for everyone but it is one hell of a fun one!
This universe is used as the springboard for many books and movies, many of whom are fan-made. The heart of the matter of course is the tabletop game itself which seems like a lot of fun but is also an expensive hobby to get to.
Inspired by the tabletop, you can paint your own armies in whichever colours you choose and add custom banners and badges for them!
The Dawn of War series of video games themselves take more localized (though still planet-wide) conflicts as their setting and are generally reasonably close to the lore of the setting. There are some inconsistencies and weird stuff lore-wise but honestly it is a very good introduction into this vast and interesting setting and it is obvious that extreme care has been taken to pay respects to the setting and its characters, factions, and themes!
How does this game play actually?
Being a classical RTS, you build bases, construct defenses and units. However, in order to translate some of Warhammer’s wackiness and tabletop rules, there are some unique ideas thrown in. For example, almost all infantry units are in squads and have both melee and ranged attacks, not the classical just one attack or the other of other games like Warcraft or CNC for example. A unit entangled in melee will fight back in melee using its ranged only while closing in melee (if possible) as its units move around and fight the other squad. By themselves the features are rare but not fully unique, but when we add cover mechanics, anti-cover mechanics, upgrades on a per squad level (such as heavy bolters/machinegun/plasma guns for a squad) and then add hero units or commanders, spellcasters… it starts adding up.
Space Marine Predator tank alongside their librarian (magician) opposing the Eldar!
One cool idea is that most units have morale and once it is broken (from spells, demonic stuff, flamethrowers, grenades, or just being outmatched hard) they become far less effective at fighting but also gain a movement speed bonus to fall back and regroup. Squads can also reinforce their losses at all times (though the speed may vary as per other conditions) and certain commanders or leaders can boost certain units or give them unique abilities.
The Baneblade is the Imperial Guard’s superheavy tank – the ultimate vehicle for attack and defense!
Relic units are a faction’s absolute most powerful hammer and give each faction a powerful unit that can turn the tide of battle. The require reaching the pinnacle of a faction’s research tree and controlling a relic point on the map to spawn, but they are usually worth it. For example, the Space Marines get their land raider – a superheavy infantry fighting vehicle that can not only fight other tanks well but can also transport the powerful Terminator infantry squads into the heart of the battle. The Necrons can turn their base structure (Monolith) into a powerful if slow moving fortress of doom that can still pump out units while in combat. The Chaos Bloodthirster is a big demon guy who can slug it out with other relic units or destroy bases or squads in close combat, while the Eldar Avatar of Khaine is a powerful warrior in his own right but gives notable boosts to his army (which is why players usually keep him protected instead of fighting on the frontline as much ;d ).
Dawn of War is eternal! (Part 1 is just as good)
Each faction is quite unique in how it handles its economy, base-building, and other secondary but very important aspects of gameplay. Most factions need requisition and power to function, but some like the Necrons do not need requisition per say. They still should capture requisition points on the map since building on top of them adds a time bonus to research and unit production while denying resources from the enemy, but their main resource is just power. Some other factions like the Orcs require an orky bonus and building their flag banners to hype them up for battle. The Imperial Guard can use most structures as bunkers and move around on underground tunnels linking their bases to one another, giving them impressive defense and speedy offense capabilities. The list goes on and on and all factions have their unique elements in one way or another. A couple feel a bit gimmicky like the soul powers for the Dark Eldar, though the concept (and faction) are still overall solid.
How does it look? It’s been like 19 years since it released…
One final less important for gameplay but in my mind key thing to add is that Dawn of War 1 nails one aspect that is important for all RTS games and all Warhammer games. It is a spectacle. And it flaunts how epic and awesome it is at any chance it gets. When artillery strikes – the ground shakes. Massive war machines or beasts feel like massive monsters of war. Bolter fire or gauss rifles, tank guns, sheer spectacle – the one thing which many staler and more competitive RTS titles forget these days is here in spades. It looks awesome, it sounds incredible, it feels like an epic fight. Even the voiced lines of the units and their leaders ooze with zeal and fanaticism or genuinely humorous and downright inspiring lines. Warhammer 40K is an epic and insane setting and Dawn of War 1 is grandiose and proud of it.
The engine can handle an ABSURD number of bodies… more games need to emulate this carnage!
Of course, it does help that its audio and graphical fidelity were near top tier for its day and the art design has made it age very well even almost 2 decades later. A testament to Relic’s ability. It also helps that they know when to slow down and give the game and it’s pacing some space to breathe, to take in the macabre or the comedy or the grimness and darkness. If one stops and looks at the maps themselves they will see a lot of detail thrown in, world building through level design. This is a high end RTS developer at their golden age and it shows.
The sync kills system is very cool! There are many many more still!
Lastly, the animation quality is immense for a 2004-2008 era RTS and most units even get unique melee animations while in combat. Some of those are desperate brawls, others are just sheer brutality unleashed. Obviously the slightly stylized style and old graphics mean it can’t be too brutal but it still feels like seeing a real battle to the death between your little army/heretic/robot/alien men.
Four different campaigns, two of which lend themselves to multiple replays!
The Dawn of War 1 series of games is made up of 1 game and 3 expansion packs. All of them have their own single player campaign and multiplayer modes and all of them have mod support.
The original Dawn of War takes us through a somber tale of a planet’s last weeks during a major invasion by alien forces as its planetary defenses are dwindling but still fighting on. That is where the player comes in with their Space Marines (elite transhuman soldiers) to help the defenders and uncover a deeper, more insidious plot hiding behind the invasion. The second game, the expansion pack Winter Assault, has a split campaign model. The “Order” campaign has the Eldar (space elves) and Imperial Guard (standard human soldiers) trying to reach a fallen superweapon and assist some other imperial forces. Their uneasy alliance mirrors the one in the “Disorder” campaign between the daemonic forces of Chaos and the Orcish hordes who oppose them.
Dark Crusade and Soulstorm are unique in that their campaigns take place on a global map reminiscent of a tabletop game and you can play as whichever faction you want while conquering the entire world(s). As certain conditions or achievements are met, this unlocks new gear for the player’s commanders making them into monstrously powerful entities. This is while unlocking honour guard units to help in the conquest. Honestly, it is a lot of fun and has a LOT of replay value though I must admit Dark Crusade is a better made campaign than what Soulstorm has, unfortunately.
The strategic map in Dark Crusade.
The total playtime of these campaigns alone without factoring in Dark Crusade and Soulstorm’s replay value is around 50 hours. Factoring in the replay value it goes into the 100+ hours. This is ignoring any mods or online play… which is awesome.
Multiple different factions, very different play styles
Originally, Dawn of War came out with four different playable races. Namely the Space Marines, which are comprised of elite infantry and powerful vehicles. They have strong all-around capabilities but do not excel in any one single particular thing though they can adapt to all situations. A very solid starter faction though mastering them will take effort. Their arch-nemesis are the forces of the traitorous Chaos Space Marines alongside their daemonic entourage. Not quite as adaptable (though still quite good!) and with some powerful daemonic units and spells, as well as brutal close range melee fighters. The Eldar, Warhammer’s version of elves is the third faction and they rely on units with more limited adaptability but quite excellent at what they specialize. That plus stealth and fast assaults which makes them hard to master, though they are a bit overpowered in the multiplayer if you do. Rounding out the four initial factions from the original game are the Orcs! Melee specialists that rely on vast numbers of weaker or less capable units. Very funny to play as and quite decent for an experienced player.
The Hammer of the Human Empire – quadrillions of soldiers, trillions of vehicles! Their Alien Gods stand no chance.
Winter Assault added my favourite faction to the series – the Imperial Guard. They make a minor appearance in the first game but ascent to a full faction in the aforementioned expansion. Relying on a ranged horde army of normal humans who rely on their powerful commanders and extremely powerful artillery, heavy weapons, and tanks or specialist vehicles to fight – they are the “Hammer” of the human empire and a wall of guns, steel, and sheer bravado. The Baneblade superheavy tank and his “We shall leave nothing standing” quote usually spells the end of the game no matter the opponents.
Necron hover tanks fighting the Orcs and the Tau!
The next expansion, Dark Crusade, added two more factions. The Necrons who were teased at the end of the original Winter Assault campaign are finally a full faction and rely on undying, extremely powerful heavy infantry that can revive when killed. Their vehicles are decent though somewhat hard to use and have little armour or health. Still, these guys are very strong and are compensated by high power requirements and being very slow compared to other factions to get going. The next faction is the Tau empire – an elite ranged army with some wacky powered armour mech suits and powerful vehicles and auxiliary armies. A more expert faction to use, they are really cool as well.
Wargear can upgrade and make your commander much more powerful for the campaign!
The final expansion called Soulstorm added the final two official factions. The Dark Eldar, the eviler version of the elves who specialize in extremely quick and dirty assaults and dark magic. Lots of firepower but they can’t take it as well as they dish it out. The Sisters of Battle are fanatics of the Imperial ecclesiarchy who operate as a sort of middle ground between the Space Marines and Imperial Guard. But with a love for flamethrowers. So many flamethrowers for all the heretics to burn.
As you can see there is a vast amount of options catering to different play styles. Every faction can be quite strong and overall balance in Soulstorm is… reasonable. Good for such a complex game though obviously I do believe a bit more work could be done. Still, there is something for everyone here. I found my favourite faction, but this is a rare case where I like pretty much all factions in a game universe!
Though… modders have added a lot more. A whole lot more…
The Mods! The online skirmishes!
This would not be an article written by me if I didn’t mention the modding scene! Dawn of War Soulstorm in particular has a LOT of mods. From the insane Ultimate Apocalypse to the quite polished Unification mod and many other smaller mods in-between – you will have fun for sure with what the community has achieved. Not to mention numerous custom factions.
A new faction – Farsight enclave (shared by u kosmosfantasias)
I do believe Unification is the current best overall mod for Soulstorm apart from some of the competitive rebalance mods that the elite players use. This mod (and Ultimate Apocalypse) add numerous new factions to the game such as the mysterious Inquisition Daemonhunters, the other biggest “evil” faction – the Tyranids! Numerous Imperial Guard regiments with different gameplay such as Krieg or the Armageddon Steel legion, the Legion of the Damned, the Daemons as their own faction… modders have added a lot of new factions and all of them have their own quirks and pros and cons and make perfect sense withing Dawn of War. Some factions also have great voice acting to boot, almost as good as the original series!
Big demon guy (Soul Grinder) is a new unit in Ultimate Apocalypse!
The online skirmish mode exists for the unmodded games, usually Soulstorm but some games on Dark Crusade and Winter Assault/Original can still be found. If you need even more factions and content, this is where modding comes in clutch with excellence itself again – many of the mods I mentioned above can be played in multiplayer too.
Holding the line is what they do best!
And for the people who worry that they aren’t good enough for PVP remember – you can play against the AI too! Comp-stomp games are a lot of fun and can allow human players to fight off huge AI-driven hordes of enemies. It is a lot of fun for sure!
So which one should I get?
These games are old and frequently on sale. I personally believe you should try to wait and buy a package containing the full Dawn of War 1 series – this happens quite frequently.
However if you want to be more cautious before jumping into the series, here is my recommendation.
If you love multiplayer play and mods – Soulstorm is your best bet. It has the largest online community, the most factions out of the gate, and it has the most mods and overall best and most modern engine.
If you want a replayable good singleplayer experience – Dark Crusade is optimal.
Make no mistake, the original and Winter Assault are absolutely awesome. In fact, their single-player missions are somewhat more classical than Dark Crusade’s. If you fall in love with the series – for sure play them, they are really good. But due to the lower amount of replay ability and content I do consider them the lesser choice for a newcomer who has to pick and choose.
Doing an 1812 on the filthy eldar!
Lastly, if I convinced you to try out these games do be warned – Dark Crusade and Soulstorm work quite easily at 16:9 and modern resolutions. Force in some Anisotropic Filtering from your GPU’s control menu and anti-aliasing (if needed) and you will be set mostly, even before taking into account ini tweaks for better models or textures (or mods!). Winter Assault and the Original work fine, but may need more work to be made to work in modern resolutions. Their engines are stable but are even older still.
Remember, a mind without purpose will wander in dark places.
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