When Relic brought us Dawn of War and Winter Assault they created two of the finest RTS games on the face of the planet in my opinion. I have always loved the Warhammer 40K Universe so to see it brought to life in such visceral detail was something quite special.
Now not long after the success of Company of Heroes Relic are back with a 40K bang and present Dark Crusade, the next chapter in the Warhammer 40K games but with a total overhaul of the single player experience.
In the first two games Relic took a lot of flak from gamers over the short campaigns and the gameplay therein, they rectified it mostly with Winter Assault but they have gone for the throat with Warhammer 40,000 Dawn of War: Dark Crusade.
Set on the planet Kronus Dark Crusade is arguably the best expansion pack for a game that's ever been made. In fact to call it an expansion is a bit of a misnomer. It's a stand alone product that introduces hybrid game play if you own the other two previous Dawn of War games.
I presume there's locked content in the game and both CD Keys from the previous retail games unlock the other playable races in the new game. Personally I can't see anyone not being without the two other games because they are excellent titles, even the expansion pack brought a lot of new content to the original.
Those familiar with a RTS game will be able to jump right in, as always there's an excellent tutorial that shows you the basics and the rest is left up to you to figure out. The game play for the new game differs from the previous titles by quite a margin, the single player campaign is the meat and bone of Dark Crusade and introduces two new factions to the mix.
The Tau and the robotic undead: Necrons, both of these factions are not just a clever repaint of old ones; they are vastly different from each other and require a different strategy to use. The Tau is quite technologically superior but they do not have sentry guns or turrets that you can use to defend an area, they rely on their heavy battle armour and their heavy vehicles.
The Necron faction is slow moving and ponderous. They spread over the battlefield like a plague when they get started. There's nothing quite as frightening than seeing a fully powered Necron Monolith coming for you, that battle fortress often spells game over unless you know how to take it down.
Necrons also use power and every point on the map they capture gives them an extra percentage to their build speed, once they hit 100% they are capable of dominating the battlefield quite effectively, a key strategy to stopping them is to strike at their captured locations quickly.
With two extra factions and the hybrid game play from the other games, this brings the final total in Dark Crusade up to seven playable factions. The game also adds new units for all the armies present which I'll cover in a short while. The single player story is masterfully done and told through a mix of detailed narration and in-game engine cut-scenes.
It brings Dark Crusade closer to the Warhammer 40K Universe than ever before as now Kronus is presented as a tactical battle map, you can move and you can buy new units and structures for your bases as you progress. You can also kit out your hero unit with extra bodyguards and various wargear, you get this wargear from completing battles and defence battles on the tactical map - you cannot use this in a MP game though.
Each of the factions has their own story and primary stronghold; you battle as that faction to dominate Kronus by any means possible. The battle map plays in a very Risk style way and is accompanied by a tutorial, fans of the strategic side of war games will love this. (There is no MP version of the Risk style game mode yet)
There are also twelve extra maps to add to the mix as well, these are ideally suited for skirmishes and longer games. Relic have built on their Dawn of War engine once more and it is just as graphically pleasing as the previous titles have been, it has the bells and whistles that set it apart from a mundane RTS with a great deal of emphasis placed upon the unit animations, be they idle or in combat, every unit is always doing something.
The musical score and the sound effects are likewise top notch, with excellent voice acting provided by several actors who have worked with Relic before. My personal favourite is Brian Dobson who does the Tech Marine voices and also the voice of the new Skeletor from the new He Man cartoons.
Relic have gone to town on the game and made sure that there are also new additions to the gameplay itself; they have put a cap in on many of the major units to prevent over use and spam-win tactics. They have kept faithful to the previous games whilst being able to knock the spots off any other developer's expansion packs and additional content, Relic are the ones to watch in this respect.
It is just the same amount of fun (if not more) than the previous titles in MP, it plays the same way and with the addition of the caps to various units it has been honed into a more tactical experience, there are still unit rushes but now the big guns can't be used as much the game play has been refined. Relic are also working on patches all the time that tweak the game, showing excellent developer support.
The AI has been sharpened but still fails to deliver in many respects compared to some of the community mod projects that were done for the previous games. The AI isn't bad of course but it fails to build certain defences and units and will often spend time rushing yours aimlessly hoping to bring you down using weight of numbers.
It is also rather good at getting to all the key locations before you can even drag out your first unit, my advice here is learn the short-cut keys for the game and don't just rely on the mouse for giving out orders and building.
Relic continue to improve the Dawn of War experience and hone it, they have added a tonne of new things to Dark Crusade and the new units for each faction. The Chaos Space Marines get the Daemon Prince, the Eldar have the Harlequins, the Imperial Guard has the Heavy Weapons Team, the Orks get the Flash Gutz, and the Space Marines have the Grey Knight Terminators.
All of this with the Tau and Necron faction adds up to a well rounded and excellent product that no RTS fans or 40K fans should be without. I can't wait to see what Relic come up with next.