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Warhammer – Dawn of War Winter Assault: 14 Years Later

Capturing it was easy. Holding it, will be hard. – Unknown Imperial Guardsman

Dawn of War is just so damn good. If you pretend Dawn of War III doesn’t exist, you’ve basically got the perfect Warhammer 40,000 series of games that also happen to be some of the best Real Time Strategy titles in existence. First arriving on home computers in September of 2004, Warhammer 40,000 Dawn of War let players of the tabletop game take the battle to their foes from the comfort of their own home, leading armies of Space Marines, Orks, Eldar, and Chaos Space Marines across battlefields capturing strategic outposts, fighting over resources and assassinating enemy leaders, all in the name of victory.

But why, I’m sure you’re wondering, have I opted to specifically talk about Winter Assault when Dark Crusade and Soul Storm exist? What about Dawn of War II and Chaos Rising? Well, they’re all great games in their own right, though I maintain that Dawn of War II is inferior to the original series, but Winter Assault was the first iterative step that built upon the base game. It was the first expansion for the series and it’s also the only expansion that requires the base game to be played, with Dark Crusade, Soul Storm and Chaos Rising all being standalone expansions.

Everything about Winter Assault is, in my eyes, awesome. Starting with that sick cover art.

  1. Imperial Guardsman? – Check.
  2. Imperial Guardsman firing a Plasma Gun that’s likely to explode and kill him? – Check.
  3. Commissar on the front lines keeping the men moving? – Check.
  4. Leman Russ Battletanks? – Check.
  5. Sentinels? – Check.
  6. The good old Relic Entertainment and THQ logos? – Check

Yep. That’s a good cover.

Do you remember how they marketed the “New units and Strategies” for Winter Assault? Going back to the instruction manual nowadays, it puts a smile on my face to see how much they ladled it on. “Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War – Winter Assault adds new units and new strategies to the exciting gameplay offered by Dawn of War. The Imperial Guard bring new weaponry, including heavy armor, new troop units as well as their defensive and ranged tactics of overwhelming numbers. Coupled with new abilities, this fighting force is as lethal as they come.”

They really did want to make this expansion all about the Imperial Guard, and I’m all for that, I’m a huge fan of the Imperium’s Sledgehammer. They really hammered home the importance of the new units and the new abilities afforded to players by way of the Imperial Guards prefabricated defensive structures and powerful leader units. In particular, I love how they lead with an emphasis on mass troop deployment, it would have been ridiculous to think of the Guard as being a smaller more elite force when they’ve always had strength in numbers.

  • A focus on large masses of troops coupled with deadly ranged attacks. For the Imperial Guard, mass firepower wins the day.  
  • The Commander units provide unique and powerful enhancements to an existing fighting force. Careful use of these Commander units as a supplement to an existing squad provide a unique enhancement and tactical advantage over a squad that has only the base combat unit. Units like the Commissars enhance the squad in specific ways, such as by inspiring great fear and total loyalty, thus they are a boost to morale.
  • Almost all of the Imperial Guard structures are bunkers that units can be garrisoned in. Bunkers provide an additional tactical advantage. When a squad is garrisoned inside a structure, that structure gains the ability to fire weapons, acting like a turret.
  • Safe movement throughout the complex allows units to move freely between buildings without going ‘outside’ the structure or the base, which protects them from harm.

But it’s important to remember that Winter Assault introduced new units to the other factions too, alongside the entirely new Imperial Guard faction which, on its own was made up of 15 units, not including their buildings and various special abilities. In particular, I enjoy how they omit the purpose of a Commissar from his unit entry, but sneak it in a little bit later.

Leader Ability – Commissar

Summary Execution – A Commissar has the ability to execute a member of a squad. This instantly restores nearby units’ morale, and makes them fight with redoubled fury for a short period of time. 

Your Aim Will Be True – Commissars inspire such fear and loyalty that any squad they are attached to will never break morale. They will cause their squad ignore the minor wounds that would ordinarily send them running.

Other faction units include a powerful buff unit, the Space Marine Chaplain, the damn near unkillable Ork MEGA ARMORED NOBZ, the devastating melee focused Khorne Berserkers and the bane of all armor and buildings, Eldar Fire Dragons.

Winter Assault also brought with it a number of odd changes to the in-game meta, for better or for worse. Some vehicles like Predator tanks, both the loyal and chaos versions, received alterations and hard fixes for some of their weapon options wit the Space Marine variant being limited to exclusively anti-tank weapon upgrades whereas the Chaos Space Marine variant was limited to exclusively anti-infantry weapon upgrades which made chewing through ranks of Imperial Guardsmen a breeze.

Winter Assault is simultaneously one of the best and most frustrating RTS experiences you can have. You can typically recover from any sort of rush attack and punish the enemy for overreaching in the early-game and just as easily be battered into the ground by Earth Shaker rounds fired from Basilisk artillery positions that you can’t even see. You can mow down the enemy under boot and tread, just to see it all come apart when some Mega Armored Nobz get teleported into your ranks and start tearing things apart with their huge powered frames.

If you have access to a copy of Winter Assault, I think you should go back and have a crack at it. Among my circle of gaming pals, and seemingly the larger Dawn of War community in general, Dark Crusade or Dark Crusade with the Titanium Wars mod seems to be the default game for folks to be playing. But revisiting Winter Assault, which is effectively Dawn of War going through puberty, will likely bring a fresh challenge due to a strange sense of balance and unfamiliar limitations of wargear and units, it’s 14 years old by now, but it will still give you a stiff kicking.