Dawn of War: “United in Hatred”
Sit ye down, weary traveller, and I shall tell ye a tale.
Back in the hallowed histories of the era we now call 2007, I used to play the original Dawn of War on my shitty little laptop. This was a laptop that strained manfully to run the opening cinematic, and turned the in-game graphics into something resembling blobs of angry Play-Doh marching into noble battle with slightly different coloured blobs of Play-Doh. To give you a better idea of its technological might, I once tried to play World of WarCraft on it, and its reaction to that otherwise undemanding game was to turn blue, shit itself, and die screaming in my trembling hands.
But that was later. Let’s go back to 2007, and the event forever cemented in my mind as United in Hatred.
I like co-op games, which is no big secret, nor is it particularly interesting. In the case of Dawn of War, it was usually me and my friend Barney against various AI enemies in carefully arranged scenarios that essentially ended up as “How long can we hold out against X number of orks?” in some pointlessly awesome last stand. I usually played White Scars. He usually played Ultramarines.
Barney had a certain coldness to him when he played Dawn of War. Once, when I was desperately in need of reinforcements, this conversation took place over the in-game chatbox.
[Aaron]: I need reinforcements, dude.
[Barney]: Stand your ground.
[Aaron]: No, for real, though. I’m going to lose my base.
[Barney]: Hold in the name of the Emperor.
He was like this, sometimes. He still is. The alarming focus. The merciless refusal to give ground. Incidentally, the more astute among you will realise that this is indeed the same Barney I mentioned in the dedication of Betrayer:
One day, Barney suggested something new. Something bold. He suggested we play Dawn of War with his friend Greg, who I barely knew. I had mixed feelings about this. Some of those feelings were very childish and territorial. All of them, in fact. What a wondrously petty creature I am.
But we did it. The White Scars and the Ultramarines went to war alongside Craftworld Biel-Tan, standing against an unending tide of orks from various clans.
Here’s a screenshot of the White Scars and the Ultramarines on that sacred, wonderful day.
The battle played out with a strange, almost haunting sense of slowness. Very few orks attacked us. Those that did were slaughtered with laughable ease, popping open under massed bolter fire like teased, squeezed boils between a teenager’s fingertips. Where a boil might rupture with a spillage of thick, warm pus, the orks burst open with alien blood and broken dreams. It was a super deep narrative.
Barney and I did what we always did, which is to say we stuffed as many squads as possible into drop pods while defending every bridge into our territory with dug-in artillery. We built up our bases into unassailable fortresses, ready to repel any assault.
This approach, variously called “turtling” and “cowardice”, seemed to bore Greg. He gathered the forces of Craftworld Biel-Tan and proceeded to march north through the ruined city, ready to annihilate any orks that he found. Those of you with a grasp of eldar lore will no doubt be shivering in delight, thinking “Greg’s awesome. Not like those pussy Space Marines. Greg unleashed the motherfucking Swordwind.”
Greg did just that. Unfortunately, the game was bugged and the reason we’d endured almost no assaults on our pristine, perfect fortress-monasteries was because the enemy AI wasn’t spawning any units apart from gretchin, who were largely standing around and building shitty little gun towers between long bouts of sticking their green fingers up their noses.
The first ork base fell. Undefended, it burned and exploded beneath the eldar attack. Greg said:
[Greg]: that’s one
…which, again, was true. I can’t overstate the military force he’d taken north to achieve this curbstomping triumph over the defenceless orks. I don’t just mean Fire Prism tanks, either. He had an Avatar of Kaela Mensha Khaine striding around up there – a literal incarnation of the eldar God of War made out of lava and murder and really sharp knives – waving a magic sword made out of fire. As I watched him sweep through the defenceless ork settlements, I couldn’t help but wonder at how many innocent orklings and grot-babies he was culling to feed the the soulfires of this bloodthirsty war god.
At this point, my pettiness began to bubble up again. I scrolled with all the tender care of a sneering, snivelling armchair general, mousing over Greg’s empty, undefended eldar base. I remember, very clearly, running my thumb across my lips, and I remember a moment later that I said “Hmmmmm” in a way that lasted almost ten full seconds.
I clicked back to my base.
I checked what squads I had in orbit, ready to land via drop pod.
I narrowed my eyes and said “Hmmmmm” again.
Fantasies of the purest dickery swirled hot and cold through the squidgy grey slush behind my eyes. Would I do this? Could I do this? Is this who I was? Had I been alive for a quarter of a century only to evolve into this?
My cursor was over the QUIT TEAM icon when, completely out of the blue, the following message pinged into existence:
Barney has left the team.
And I knew. We’d had no communication at all, but I knew.
Aaron has left the team.
Barney wishes to join your team. Accept?
I’ll never forget the absolutely unparalleled skullfucking slaughterfest that followed. No war movie has ever quite matched it. No battle scene in any book. Sometimes people will come up to me at signings and say how they loved the battle scenes in Helsreach or whatever, and I’ll look them right in the eye as I reply. “Thanks,” I’ll say. But really I’m thinking “You don’t even know what battle is. You weren’t there that day. You didn’t see what we did to Greg.”
Drop pods rained from the sky like the fire-iron tears of weeping metal gods. The White Scars and the Ultramarines committed to planetary assault in the same moment, in the same location. I remember every thunderclap of the pods striking the earth. I remember the animation as Space Marine squads spawned from the opened pods, right in the heart of the eldar base. I remember – with a clarity no hangover can ever steal – the way all those squads shouted “SPACE MARINES ATTACK!” one after the other, over and over. It was like a prayer. A shouty, angry prayer.
Eldar buildings cracked, crumbled, detonated. Land Raiders and Predators began to rumble in from the east and west as our battle tanks pulled up a few seconds after the first wave of orbital deep strikers. Lascannons flashed across the screen in their blue-white retina-aching resonance. The poor Bonesingers responsible for eldar base construction ran for cover, only to be cut down by merciless torrents of bolter fire. The orks had escaped Imperial rage on account of an AI bug. The eldar would not be so fortunate.
And then… this.
[Greg]: hang on guys
Not even a full-stop. Not even, as our American friends would say, a period. Just that one request, delivered as the eldar army was in the north, doubtless seeing the horizon light up with their burning homes in the south. And that’s when I felt myself infected with the tendrils of true dickery. As if this humiliating betrayal wasn’t enough, I actually answered in-character. Barney’s cold-hearted immersion ran through me. I became more than a traitor. I became a fuckhead.
[Aaron]: The alien speaks our language, Brother-Captain.
[Barney]: Then we shall deliver unto him the Emperor’s message.
I’m ashamed to admit that by this point I was laughing so hard I was having trouble seeing clearly, let alone breathing. The possibility of actual asphyxiation through wheezing, painful, gut-clenching laughter was a very real threat. It was all I could do to focus through the tears of mad laughter to click on new eldar buildings to destroy.
Craftworld Biel-Tan brought its army back south, but by then it was far too late. The eldar Avatar led its warriors into the craters where its base had been, only to be confronted by two fully-deployed and dug-in Space Marine armies. We took minor casualties… and wiped the eldar from the face of the planet, like excrement from a power-armoured boot.
I remember two specific things before it hurt too much to continue. The first was the Avatar itself, down on its hands and knees and turning to ash, one hand reaching up in futility to an uncaring sky. The Space Marines surrounding it had already turned their bolters away, firing elsewhere, bored with the death animation of an alien god.
And the second, as you might imagine, was this:
Greg has left the game.
I won’t lie to you, dear readers. Greg and I haven’t talked much since then.
United in hatred, brothers and sisters.
Remember this tale, for in such moments are the truest friendships forged… and the darkest enemies made.