A new Dawn for Relic

Relic are one of those companies that continually set out to improve their products and refine the genre they're currently working on. When they created Dawn of War for the PC they slammed into the RTS market with a big ball and chain and took no prisoners, creating a massively fun and enjoyable game - albeit with a short Singleplayer Campaign and some minor glitches, which they soon sorted out with a few patches.

DoW was extremely successful and managed to net a 9.0 from us in a previous review, which can be found here: Dawn of War review

Well, a lot has changed for DoW since it was first reviewed and now we enter the realms of the expansion pack.

Dawn of War: Winter Assault: Story

Rather than focussing on the Battle Brothers (The Space Marines) for this jaunt into the SP story, the developers have gone for a different approach - this time around you can play the greatly extended SP story as the forces of Order or Disorder: Imperial Guard and Eldar or the Orks and Chaos.

The story takes place on a frozen spitball of a planet that the Emperor wants taken back from the Orks and Chaos that have overrun it, but it is not going to be easy. There's a large war-machine that the Empire desires but between them and it are the forces of Chaos and the cruel, vicious Orks.

Enter the Imperial Guard; mankind's' answer to the unemployment problems of the future. There are literally thousands of them all willing to die for the Empire, all human and when a hundred die they can always get a hundred more from a backwater planet.

I won't say any more about the actual story as it twists and turns as the game progresses, and this time it's a longer campaign and definitely more fun.

What's new?

The most recent patch of DoW has made improvements to the old game and engine by leaps and bounds, the gameplay has however not altered and the game is just as easy/interesting to play. Of course the balancing of units has meant that the developers have altered some things that players have found not to their liking, such as the Chaos forces power levels being trimmed, costs being changed and their ability to have Rocket Marines etc removed.

They call it balancing; this however is a fine tightrope to walk since if you listen to your fanbase too much, you'll get conflicting ideas from everyone. Some people like the lack of Chaos' ability to add Rockets to their squads (apart from Chaos players) and so on.

The IG/Eldar or Ork/Chaos SP game story is a welcome addition and I can tell you from playing it, there's a lot of game hours in the battles to come especially when you're thrown into the action from the different viewpoints, the shadowy Eldar assisting the Imperial Guard without their knowledge.

The Imperial Guard come with their own units (some argue that the units were already there from DoW and just not playable, I beg to differ in a way - yes some IG stuff was in the game but there's a lot of new content for this pack), tech tree and play-style that requires you learn how the IG work to use them to their best advantage.

The IG are front-line assault troops that can rush an enemy and overwhelm them with sheer strength of numbers (although its wise to concentrate on defence in the beginning), they have access to older but still reliable technology and their most powerful unit: The Baneblade, is a true terror to behold in combat. This vehicle has at least twelve weapons and enough armour to go toe-to-toe with an army/base wiping it out without much trouble.

It costs quite a lot to bring out that unit however and it doesn't fare too well against a concerted attack by powerful enemy forces.

The IG can crew most buildings and fire out from the murder-holes/gun ports. They can also move about using a system of tunnels (Not actually shown in the game, but they move from building to building to simulate this). This means you can set up a defence network and quickly reinforce a position that is falling under attack.

IG Commanders can (with the correct research) be reinforced with a number of other units, such as the Commissar, Psyker and Priest.

As you build and learn the nuances of the IG they might appear weak compared to the others, but you'll soon discover they're a good all-round and excellent addition to the game, a clever player will exploit the IG's ability to trundle around in big tanks and fire from the support gun-ports while on board, their reinforcement times and certainly the technology that allows them to upgrade units with a Sergeant and troops that have grenade launchers.

It would take a longer review than this one to give the full low down on the tech-tree for the guard, suffice it to say that the new unit additions are welcome and each one is worth researching, especially for the IG's Basilisk artillery units which provide excellent cover and support from a long way across the map.

For those of you that are wondering, who know their 40K - yes, the Vindicare Assassin is in and it's a pretty good unit - but mercifully (for opposing players) you're only allowed the one.

But it's not just the IG that gets their units; each faction has a new unit addition to their troop compliment.

Space Marines: Chaplain (New Commander Unit)

Eldar: Fire Dragons (Close combat specialists, armed with devastating weapons against vehicles/buildings)

Orks: Mega Armoured Nobz (Tougher and more powerful version of Ork Nobz)

Chaos: Khorne Berzerker (Strong close combat units)

There are also new battlefields to play with in MP as well as the new environments from the SP game, set on frozen wastelands and extensive environments, the new levels are superbly done and atmospheric keeping to the original feel and introducing a whole new strategy with the IG missions.

There are a number of graphical improvements to the game, only minor ones and the addition from patch 1.4 of persistent scarring and bodies' makes for a much grittier and much more visceral gameplay experience. You can mourn the loss of your unit as their corpses lay a hundred men deep in the blood soaked and burned ground.

Or relish the victory as the bodies of Orks and Chaos scum lay arrayed around your mighty war machine as you crush the last of their pathetic base buildings with the ultimate weapon: The Baneblade.

There are numerous additions and fixes included both in the patch 1.4 and Winter Assault itself, these can be found by reading the included documentation with the game or visiting the Relic Forums (fairly friendly community) home to a number of dedicated modders and teams already beavering away at the expansion pack and adding features.

Pay close attention to the DoW AI Project people who are continually improving the game and dedicating all their free time to making it even better. Its games like this and developers that support community modding that really gets my attention.

Talking about the AI of course, the vanilla AI from the 1.4 patch and the DoW main game for Skirmish has been improved a little, they could have done a lot more for the AI in general but I am satisfied enough with it and enjoy the game immensely. (Plus I have the AI project to keep an eye on).

I can also tell you that the animations for the new units and the Imperial Guard vehicles, especially the Basilisk are excellent (You have the whole load, fire and cover ears animation set along with aiming and raising the barrel, all done by the squad in command of the gun) and keep to the tradition set out in the first game. The Guard are full of personality and the way that they battle either ranged or in close combat is totally different to the other factions, watching them finish off an Ork with a blast from a pistol for example or running it through with a bayonet are just a couple of the many finisher animations that the game employs.

All in all with the additions of new units, maps, SP campaigns and features added since patch 1.4 the expansion is an excellent addition to a gold-star game in the first place providing new voice acting, new music and turning DoW into a much more complete game. Of course the gamer's wishlist is a long as a piece of string in regards to this game, but mine has been fulfilled nicely and I cannot in all conscience score this less than the score I gave to DoW in the beginning.

Most expansion packs can be accused of padding or adding very little, you cannot accuse Winter Assault of this and I look forwards to further additions/expansions/packs from Relic for my #1 RTS game. I can't find anything wrong with it either, there are no graphic glitches and no errors with my sound or frame-rate drops, even with everything cranked to full. The only niggles I could have are from a balancing/AI point of view and I have already kind of mentioned those, and they're minor really.