I never played Dawn of War back in the day. I remember it being a big deal and I remember friends being obsessed with it (and the sequel), but a combination of my household having a Windows 95 PC until 2005 and my lack of interest in Warhammer meant I missed out on this amazing series. And it is fantastic. Playing through Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War for the first time has been a revelation. Now that I’m a big ol’ 40k nerd and have a functioning computer, I can enjoy Dawn of War to its fullest. Although, to clarify I’ve only played the campaign as I couldn’t find anyone to multiplayer with (I also think my ageing brain wouldn’t be able to keep up with the pace needed for a competitive game). To move onto why Dawn of War is a mechanical and narrative achievement, please move down to the next paragraph.
For those of you who were like me and never played a Dawn of War game before, essentially this is a Warhammer 40,000 RTS. You can see the DNA of this game in Relic’s other titles like the Company of Heroes series. Essentially, you build a base but rather than harvesting your environment, you need to control specific points to gain resources. From there, you can use those resources on troops, upgrades and more buildings. The aim is to destroy the other person’s base before they do the same to you. It’s a simple premise that is executed spectacularly.
There’s a wonderful ebb and flow to a game of Dawn of War, almost like fencing. Since you need these specific points to build anything, the game forces you into conflict over these scarce resources. This means that Dawn of War is always aggressive, which perfectly matches the tone of the 40k universe. So maybe less an elegant fencing match and more two people throwing rocks at each other but in very specific locations. Either way, what you get with Dawn of War is an incentive to always go on the attack.
As you might imagine from Warhammer, characters have special abilities, the units are digital replicas of their tabletop equivalent and the story hits the right level of silly and bombastic. Speaking of Dawn of War’s plot, it sees you taking control of the Blood Ravens Space Marine Chapter and guiding them through a series of scenarios. Throughout, you’ll battle Orks, Eldar and Chaos as you try to take control of Tartarus in the name of the Emperor.
While this a long way from the best 40k fiction has to offer, the story is more than enough to keep you playing through all the scenarios. You follow Captain Gabriel Angelos who is joined by Librarian Isador Akios as they first try to stop an Ork invasion and later uncover hidden truths about the planet. There are a few twists and turns and it all comes together for an epic battle to stem the tides of Chaos. The voice acting is solid throughout and hits the right balance between cheese and cool, which suits Warhammer 40,000 perfectly. And while the mission structure, minute to minute gameplay and a steady stream of unlocks are enough to keep you playing, I was committed to seeing where Gabriel’s journey took him.
Dawn of War does an excellent job of turning the campaign into a tutorial for the multiplayer part of the game. It slowly drip feeds you units, enemy types and mission objectives so that you never feel overwhelmed. It also always ties in organically with the narrative, to the point where only in retrospect do you release what a fantastic job it was doing in teaching you the game’s many systems. When you first unlock a Dreadnaught and sending it stomping across the battlefield to smash apart your enemy, it feels amazing. It’s like you’ve just unlocked a superweapon and there’s no way the Orks can stop you now. So when you later unlock Terminators and Predator Tanks, the feeling is again that you are an unstoppable force. And then when you gain the ability to do an Orbital Strike, that feeling continues.
And yet, you never feel overpowered and like you can simply make a lot of units and steamroll the enemy. Instead, Dawn of War rewards smart tactical decisions. Choosing which points to take, when to harass your enemy, which bottlenecks to defend, which troops to recruit and myriad other decisions will shape your game. And even throughout the story mode, those choices will differ from player to player. This creates your own mini-narrative within the larger one told by Relic. Where you might have completed a mission with a horde of Tactical Marines shepherded in Rhinos, another player might favour the manoeuvrability of Assualt Squads with their jetpacks and melee abilities. So while we’ll all explore Tartarus together, we solve problems in different ways.
This is further layered in missions with multiple enemies or allied units. It was exciting to get to use the Imperial Guard to bolster my forces and equally fun to balance defending against Ork attacks while trying to conquer the Eldar. In Dawn of War, like Warhammer 40,000, each faction is radically different. They have different play styles, units and heroes. This means that once you’ve mastered the campaign mode, you’ll be excited to dive into a multiplayer match (if you have found someone to compete against).
And then there are the expansions, which I won’t cover in this review. Instead, I’m going to play them all and give them their own space to shine. However, for those who don’t know (I didn’t), there are three expansions to the original Dawn of War – Dark Crusade, Soulstorm and Winter Assault. From my understanding, they are all different and offer distinct experiences. For example, Dark Crusade gives you a world map to battle over similar to something like the Total War games (and you can pick from one of five factions including the newly added Tau and Necrons), and Winter Assault is another story mode campaign that follows the Imperial Guard. I’m excited to play through them all and play more Dawn of War.
So, if like me you slept on the Dawn of War series for 17 years (this has officially made me feel old) or if you’ve been thinking of revisiting the original but are concerned by how well it’s aged, you don’t need to worry. Dawn of War is as fantastic a Warhammer 40,000 RTS as I’d heard it was all those years ago and holds up exceptionally even in its story mode. And keep an eye out here for more Dawn of War coverage as the year continues.
Thanks for reading. If you want more Warhammer 40,000 strategy games, then why not check out our articles on Space Hulk: Tactics or Battlefleet Gothic: Armada. Alternatively, for some excellent stories check our review of the Black Legion novel or Tales of Heresy.