Everybody who plays Warhammer 40,000—Games Workshop’s over-the-top science fantasy wargame played with very expensive toy soldiers—wants the same thing from a video game. We want the game that unfolds in our heads while we’re planning a tabletop battle of Warhammer 40,000. The rulebooks and fiction of Warhammer 40,000 describe an opulent universe splitting at the rotten seams with every idea its designers ever had or stole. There are alien masters of bio-organic technology whose guns are living organisms that hatch their own bullets; Tolkien’s football hooligan Orcs turned into speed-obsessed revheads who spread across the galaxy as fungal spores; genetically engineered Space Marines who spit acid and eat brains. The small collection of miniatures you can afford and the slapdash paintjobs you can give them will never live up to that.
A video game might. Dawn Of War wasn’t that impossible game, but it came close.
The real-time strategy game from 2004 minimized the genre’s emphasis on building a barracks that spat out one warrior at a time in favor of giving you whole squads to control, then replenishing them via teleporter so you didn’t have to jog reinforcements across the map to get back to the good bit, which was the killing. It pushed RTS into the territory of tabletop wargames, with a focus on throwing units into killzones, only with the computer rolling the fistfuls of dice.
It couldn’t represent the full ridiculous breadth of Warhammer 40,000, though. Even with its three expansions it never covered all the ground, which is part of why it’s still popular with modders today. Just have a look at its Mod DB page for proof. New modes and forces are still being added and while the community isn’t quite big enough for you to find a multiplayer match without organizing it yourself, there are plenty of people playing through the campaigns and messing with the skirmishes.
While 2009 sequel Dawn Of War II has a modding scene of its own (check out the Elite mod for its Retribution expansion), the original is more popular with modders. Partly that’s because of how it plays: the sequel gave players smaller squads to control and made defending against overwhelming swarms of aliens into dramatic setpieces, but when you play on maps that don’t follow that format it feels undeniably pokey in comparison. It’s a game that really only does one thing well, as the slightly shit levels set on space hulks prove. The first game is robust enough to prosper even when it’s Frankensteined into new shapes, and was actually built to be modded to the Eye of Terror and back.
While the standalone expansion Soulstorm (which you’ll need to own to install the most up-to-date versions of all these mods) brought the total number of playable armies in Dawn Of War up to nine, that’s still not enough for fans of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. Not only are entire species from the tabletop games, fiction, and that one rubbish straight-to-DVD movie missing, some of them were clumped together for convenience. Blessed modders have enthusiastically taken to separating those armies into individual forces and recreating their missing units.
One of the most obvious omissions from Dawn Of War were the Tyranids, bio-organic harvesters inspired by the Xenomorphs from the Alien movies who in turn served as the inspiration for StarCraft’s Zerg. The Tyranid mod adds Genestealers, Hive Tyrants, Carnifexes and various other slimy locust-dinosaur beasts from their codex, and also reskins the interface to make it look appropriately fleshy and gross.
Finally being able to play Dawn Of War as these voracious aliens is a blast. Raveners—snakes with bladed arms and exoskeletal armor—dig tunnels under the battlefield and then burst out, arms scything into enemies. The shambling organic tanks called Screamer-Killers moan like whales when given orders, and tiny Hormagaunts leap around like hungry hopping Zerglings. It’s a rush to watch your four-armed Genestealers hunt a squad of Imperial Guard through a deathworld swamp, or use hivemind powers to deepstrike Gaunts into the middle of an unprepared opponent’s territory, capturing the undeniable thrill of being the bad guy.
Other army mods tend to focus on tweezering apart Dawn Of War’s existing factions—the Chaos Daemons mod combines existing hellbeasts from the Chaos army with a variety of new extradimensional greeblies to more accurately model the way they’re depicted in the tabletop game, for instance, and there are two mods representing the religious wing of the Imperium. While Soulstorm added the well-armed nuns of the Sisters Of Battle and their incredible pipe-organ tanks that blast out hymns and missiles simultaneously, modders have also added the alternative Inquisition: Daemon Hunters and Witch Hunters: Adepta Sororitas.
The Witch Hunters mod, which had its final release in 2015, features some excellent buildings in particular, their HQ studded with spotlights that sweep the surrounding area for signs of heresy. It’s worth mentioning that while the effort spent making all these new units, vehicles, and structures has paid off, sometimes the voice work of modders displays more enthusiasm than skill and you might want to lower the volume a touch when they imitate the ranting of the fanatical nuns with guns and warrior priests.