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Review: Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War - Dark Crusade (PC)

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War - Dark Crusade (PC)
Review by Robin Derwent


It would not be completely unreasonable to accuse Relic of playing it safe when they developed Dawn of War: after all this was no Homeworld. Homeworld, the game that made Relic famous, broke into wholly new RTS territory by presenting a fully 3D take on space combat, with a persistent fleet and an epic, artistically-told story. Dawn of War instead took an established license and furnished it with tried and tested mechanics borrowed from classics of the genre such as Starcraft and Total Annihilation. Still, the end result was definitely pleasing – though the story was unremarkable and the gameplay unoriginal, it was visually impressive and a heck of a lot of fun to play.

This then is the second expansion to a fun but unoriginal RTS. Not a particularly auspicious beginning perhaps, but in more ways than one Dark Crusade is a surprising addition to the franchise. Of course the fundamentals of the game remain unchanged – by taking and holding ‘strategic points’ scattered around the battlefield you gain resources for yourself, and deny them to your enemy. Discerning RTS gamers will note that this is essentially identical to the idea of metal deposits in Total Annihilation, though the mechanics here are more refined and make for a very solid tactical basis to the game. The four factions from Dawn of War (Marines, Chaos, Orks and Eldar) are still playable here, as is the fifth faction (Imperial Guard) added by the previous expansion Winter Assault and Dark Crusade’s main selling point is that it adds not just one more faction, but two – in the shape of the Necron and the Tau Empire. And no, that’s not the surprising part.

The first surprising part is that Dark Crusade doesn’t actually require the original game to play, it’s a stand-alone expansion – in the same sort of vein as Factions and Nightfall for Guild Wars. You do need the original game if you want to play one of the four original factions in multiplayer, and likewise you need Winter Assault if you want to play the Imperial Guard in that mode, but since both the Tau and the Necrons are extremely capable, you won’t be at a disadvantage if this is the first game to attract you to the series.

Also somewhat surprising is the extent to which the gameplay has actually changed. Winter Assault tweaked the game balance in many small ways, subtly enhancing some units and slightly nerfing others, as well as adding a new unit to each of the existing factions - and Dark Crusade continues both those trends. More significant though is the increased focus on ‘infiltrator’ units. Previously these invisible units were of only limited value, since they couldn’t attack or take territory while cloaked – but it’s now common to find yourself under attack from invisible Space Marine Scouts or being sniped at by a cloaked Vindicare Assassin - and in desperate need of a detector unit to flush them out. It’s all very reminiscent of Starcraft and actually it’s a lot of fun, with stealth now an integral but rarely overpowered element of the game. Oddly there also seems to be a lot less use of cover in Dark Crusade maps than in the previous campaigns; this seems like a bit of a shame since it’s a nice idea in theory, but to be honest it doesn’t really hamper the gameplay much.

The final surprise is that instead of the solid yet unremarkable story of the original, or the two short and flawed campaigns provided by Winter Assault, Dark Crusade ditches the concept of a linear story completely and instead opts to add a strategic layer to the game – allowing you to play as any of the seven factions and chose which provinces on the planet of Kronus you wish to try and conquer. Every province you succeed in taking confers certain advantages – providing ‘global requisition’ which can be used to reinforce the territories under your control, ‘honour guard’ units who accompany your commander into battle or special bonuses such as the ability to air-drop onto any province you choose.

There’s a lot to be said for the strategic campaign mode: for starters, it adds a lot of potential replay factor, lets you play as you favourite faction throughout the game and provides some fresh gameplay elements. There’s even a little variety in terms of mission objectives, with some provinces tasking you with unusual tasks such as collecting neutral units or gathering power quickly rather than merely wiping out the enemy. Plus unlocking the various bonus abilities, recruiting honour guard units and gradually equipping your commander with more and more ‘wargear’ upgrades gives a nice feeling of progress – and a certain ‘gotta catch em all’ element that is normally absent from RTS games. The strongest element though is probably the idea of ‘stronghold’ maps, each of which is an epic battle to drive one of the enemy factions off the planet for good. These maps are varied, interesting and challenging and are excellent examples of RTS mission-design – putting the vast majority of previous DoW missions to shame.

Sadly though, there are also some significant downsides to the new campaign mode. For starters, the enemy commanders don’t seem to have any real understanding of strategy and frequently achieve nothing on their turns. This leaves you free to grab any useful provinces you fancy with no real consequences and seems to largely undermine any real notion of strategic play. In fact it would probably be more accurate to just say that you have can choose which order you want to play the missions in. Even worse though is the extremely uneven difficulty – some provinces are vastly harder to conquer than others, with difficulty not only somewhat unpredictable but also rarely tied to the value of the province in any apparent fashion. Indeed some of the best rewards available are actually unlocked by some of the easiest missions and while some strongholds are very tough nuts to crack, they are by no means the hardest missions overall. In fact once you’ve recruited a few honour guard units to defend you from early scripted rushes, strongholds are frequently easier than the standard skirmish-style maps provided by the bulk of the provinces. This is not to say that the stronghold maps are too easy mind you, but rather that Dawn of War’s skirmish AI is not to be taken lightly.

Overall opinions on the new campaign mode are bound to vary; those looking for a story to lead them through the new units gradually and ratchet up the difficulty little by little will be sadly disappointed while RTS veterans looking for challenge and replayability will be right at home. A patch to even out the difficulty and improve the AI’s strategic play would not go amiss either way however.

To summarise then, Dark Crusade is an unexpectedly ambitious expansion to a fun but unoriginal RTS – although it falls short in a few areas, it adds a great deal of new content to the game and manages to make this the most enjoyable version of Dawn of War so far. Taking into account that it’s priced as an expansion even though it doesn’t require the original game to play, it’s fair to say that this is excellent value for money and, niggling difficulty issues aside, should please fans of the series and new recruits alike.

Presentation 7/10
+ Highly animated units and impressive, bloody battles bring the Warhammer 40,000 universe to life.
- Graphics are now somewhat dated. Repetitive unit confirmations get rather tiresome.

Interface 7/10
+ Fully 3D camera and standard RTS controls. Stance system allows fine control of units.
- No Guard or Patrol functions. Could use some automation of repair units.

Immersion 4/10
+ Does a mostly good job of presenting the various factions of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.
- Almost no story. Cut-scenes don’t tie in well to the actual battles. In-battle voice-overs repeat annoyingly often.

Gameplay 7/10
+ Solid tactics, a choice of seven well-developed factions and plenty of replay factor.
- Weak strategic element and seriously uneven difficulty in the main campaign mode.

Overall [not an average] 7/10

Reviewer’s Bias: Fan of the Franchise
I’ve played both Dawn of War and Winter Assault pretty much to death, or at least their story and skirmish modes (I’ve never had much interest in playing versus strangers online). I enjoyed DoW a lot, but I felt that Winter Assault was a slightly lacklustre expansion.

Comments

A helpful review, thanks. I've really enjoyed the first two games - purely as multiplayer/skirmish, since the campaign modes weren't ever much cop - and have been sorely tempted by this one. I think I may hang fire for a month or two, though, till my current Guild Wars addiction has faded and I've finished Dark Messiah of Might and Magic.

I notice that you do mention that you've played this online, though - let me know if you feel like a game at some point.
Thanks, glad you liked the review :)

nick_stewart and I actually tried some online multiplayer earlier on today (us vs the computer in a 2v2 team game) and it was a lot of fun, so I'd definitely be up for more online multiplayer if we can find a time that a few people can manage.

November 2006

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