Brace for impact: grandmaster developer Relic has fired another shot in the battle for strategy gaming supremacy - and this time they intend to redefine what "expansion pack" really means.
The war-scarred planet of Kronus is the home to this expansion, called Dark Crusade, the second add-on for Relic's Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. The most vile and powerful races in the universe have converged for a final showdown for domination of its technology and artifacts. There is no peace to be made here on Kronus - your Hero must lead your faction to complete victory - or face total annihilation.
The single player campaign progresses in turns between real-time skirmishes. The order in which your army sweeps across the 25 finely detailed battlegrounds is wide open and non-linear. Conquering some territories requires completion of a unique mission type, keeping the long campaign fresh. For example, you may have to lead your forces to victory with no reinforcements, or with a given amount of a certain resource.
Additionally, defeating one of the six faction's central strongholds requires a special effort, as each army is dug into their territory in such a way that suits their own tactics. You'll also need to defend your home base against frequent counterattacks. Losing your own stronghold means getting permanently pushed from the planet.
Veterans of the Dawn of War series will benefit by receiving a new unit or two to the five previously existing armies, but the Dark Crusade expansion focuses on two entirely new factions: the gunslinging Tau and the monstrous Necron. These two long-anticipated additions are favorites of the tabletop version of Warhammer 40K.
The first of the new armies, the Tau, are commonly known as "glass cannons" - sporting powerful rifles, and little armor, they depend on killing their enemies at a distance. The Tau are joined by two allied races called the Kroot and the Vespid. These two insectoid allies are the Tau's answer to close quarters fighting, and offer a sharp one-two combo for commanders of a balanced army.
Expensive and fragile, the Tau gunners require a great degree of tactical management - sending them headlong into close combat against burly opponents will leave you reeling. In fact, everyone is tough compared to the quick-but-flimsy Tau riflemen, and the finesse required while commanding these powerful shooters underscores the extremely divergent gameplay of each faction.
Given careful spotting, the Tau forces are capable of extremely long-distance attacks. Due to the close-in view of Dawn of War, this typically means that the Tau will frequently engage off-screen enemies. Taking the lid off of the claustrophobic battleground view would have been nice, although widescreen resolution support was welcome.
Compared to the high-tech Tau, the Necron offer a completely different approach to battle. Sluggish, but forgivingly sturdy, they automatically repair themselves on the run and may spontaneously bounce back up after being killed altogether. Furthermore, slain armies can be resurrected en masse by the Necron Lord. The Necron’s resurrection ability made for last-minute reversals of fortune on the battlefield that often left us awestruck.
We’d frequently leave a squad of weakened Necron for dead, attend to other skirmishes and find later that they were still pounding away at our enemies. Indeed the hearty Necron are like a steam train: slow to get going, but nearly unstoppable once they’ve achieved momentum on the battlefield.
The Necron are unique in the sense that they do not use the “Requisition” resource, and only capture strategic points to deprive it from their enemies. Each strategic point captured, however, serves as a building point for a Necron tower, which in turn speeds the time required to train units and perform research.
The Necron economy and research center on bringing their dormant main base to life - called the Monolith. This towering pyramid eventually becomes a mobile death wagon - a horrifying sight to see teleport onto your base's front lawn. A fully-upgraded Monolith spells doom for all who oppose its deadly might save those who have a ready reserve of heavy firepower.
Multiplayer fights take on a fresh component by loosing all seven factions in up to four versus four mashup sessions - blood-soaked cauldrons of death for the uninitiated, but always intensely fun.
The multiplayer browser is refined and trouble-free in this third iteration of DoW, and even includes an observation mode so you can watch and learn just how the best players crushed you during the previous battle. Latecomers to DoW should expect to be manhandled by veterans in multi, but with two new factions to learn, everyone should be on even footing, at least for a while.
Right now, developer Relic is the veritable schoolyard bully of strategy gaming - stealing lunch money and handing out wedgies to all challengers to its towering Dawn of War franchise and its recent strategy triumph, Company of Heroes.
A bully perhaps, but an incredibly generous one - Dark Crusade is standalone, and doesn't require the original Dawn of War to play. You may lead any one of the seven races in the thrilling single player campaign, and add the Tau and Necron to your lineup for multiplayer beat downs. Dark Crusade is an enormous amount of top-drawer content for $29.99, and newcomers may rightly mistake it for a full blown sequel. Highly recommended.