Winter Assault is not an expansion pack. That is to say, those gamers that own Dawn of War should not expect Winter Assault to merely add to the original DoW, but can expect an all new experience. While most expansions pale in comparison to their standalone forefathers, Winter Assault could have been sold as a stand alone product and no one would have complained.
Winter Assault, or WA as it’s already being referred to online, introduces a more varied single-player experience than DoW, providing both a ‘good’ and ‘evil’ campaign. Furthermore, both campaigns allow the gamer to choose the race they play as in the ultimate battle, instigated through how they played the penultimate mission. In effect this means that there are four possible endings to the campaign, showing how each race would use the ‘prize’. However, this isn’t exactly a lengthy process and for all the variety that WA provides, the campaign takes roughly the same amount of time to complete as the original DoW campaign. It’s certainly enjoyable, but I found the original campaign slightly more interesting and fun: the whirlwind tour of the races in the WA campaign negates any army mastery that was forced upon the player in DoW, although this does have an affect within the online game, but more on that later.
One of the major gripes against DoW was its poor skirmish mode and seeing as how this is the only alternative to campaign for the solo-player, it really did weaken the game’s single-player experience. Relic has heard these criticisms and the skirmish experience has been greatly improved, simply by altering the mentality of the CPU opponent. Rather than attacking in sporadic waves, the computer will now attack with the strongest army it can put together and with a degree of intelligence, e.g. its anti-tank units will attack your tanks rather than your commander unit. Whilst this might have caused the difficulty to be ramped up somewhat, it has made the game a far more lasting and enjoyable experience, capable of occupying the time of those gamers out there without a broadband connection.
As expected, the online mode is by far the greatest aspect of WA and is where WA and DoW really become separate entities. The new race, the Imperial Guard – think lots of squaddies with big tanks – has been tailored to fit in with the other races perfectly and feel as though they could have quite easily been in the game from the start. The other races have also been bolstered with new unit types or special characters to add a little something different, but the surprising change comes in how Relic have altered the tech-trees. A tech-tree represents how you play with an army and how you’ll develop the army and build over the course of a battle – the phrase associated being ‘to tech up’. Effectively, all of the original forces feel totally different with these new tech-trees, calling for entirely new tactics to play and defeat the original DoW races
The problem with the original’s campaign was that it taught everyone how to be good with Space Marines and left the other races alone. This meant that you saw an incredible amount of games online where everyone would play as Space Marines, which as you might expect, didn’t lead to varied games. The WA ‘Jack of All Trades’ approach may not lead to an overly satisfying campaign but at least it encourages the online contingent to play as all the races (though invariably the new race gets the most play).
Whilst WA brings a new race to the table it also brings some unwelcome additions in the form of the majority of the new multiplayer maps. Whilst there are a few gems in the collection, most of the maps are simply too small. Being too small may not sound like the greatest crime ever committed, but in an RTS the size of a map affects how a game is played; constantly playing games that last around six minutes, fought with tech-tier one troops, or tier-two if the game reaches the lofty heights of eight minutes, can quickly become monotonous and dull, rewarding those players who simply rush (the not so noble art of attacking right from the off without spending time to prepare for battle). The current result of this is that only a few of the new maps are ever played online – a poor show considering that so many new maps were included in the expansion.
Whilst WA may feel like an entirely new game in some respects, it does suffer from most of the problems that afflicted DoW, namely the poor path-finding of vehicles and the sometimes atrocious attack patterns of units – there’s nothing more frustrating than watching a close-combat unit standing around firing a pistol rather than getting into the enemy with a sword. It really is a pity that Relic didn’t take time to fix these little bugs because they lead cause much frustration, often leading to multiple anger outbursts during a game – although it can be amusing to read the virtual screams of your opponent complaining about his ‘moronic dreadnaughts failing to attack.’
Winter Assault has also seen a few minor upgrades as well. The graphics are a little prettier and the army painter has been modified to allow you to alter more colours on your units, although these will have to be done from scratch as it doesn’t appear that the old DoW colour schemes are compatible. Of course these pale beneath the sheer weight of the new tech-trees and other genuine gaming additions that ensure that Winter Assault is just as essential an online experience as the original DoW.