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Eighteen months have passed since the last Dawn of War release, and nearly four years since the original game emerged from the RTS void. In the lifecycle of interactive electronic entertainment (Sims-branded shop fodder notwithstanding), that’s a lengthy span to have to endure to keep a single game alive. Most developers, even the lazy ones, can usually find enough time to squeeze out a proper sequel. To be fair to Relic though, who’ve been credited as co-developers on Soulstorm, they have been a bit preoccupied with Company of Heroes, which (apart from being set 38,000 years before the game that first pretty much nailed down the take-and-hold RTS mechanic) was in every respect as good a sequel as we could’ve hoped for anyway.
With that in mind, you have to wonder what minds were at work to conceive Soulstorm - when in almost every area the underlying gameplay has been refined (or superseded in the case of the graphics) multiple times over. The answer to that conundrum lies within a certain magic number. Previous to Soulstorm that figure stood at seven - representing the number of 40k races that featured after Dark Crusade, Dawn of War’s last outing. Soulstorm brings the total to nine, and whilst the two latest factions might not be fan favorites, the fact that you’ll have to try them out against the seven established ones adds a considerable amount of playtime as you throw them into the fray.
Of the two newcomers to the series, the Dark Eldar are the more intriguing. Being the dark elves of the 40k universe, they’re sturdier than their leaf-eared counterparts, can hit hard and dominate a map quickly given half a chance. Their ability to keep up the pressure as a battle wears on may be called into question, since their vehicles aren’t the toughest, but their battlefield spells have enough sting to keep up the pressure. On the other side of the moral spectrum are the Sisters of Battle: a bunch of female fundamentalists that fall in between the original game’s Space Marines and Winter Assault’s Imperial Guard, and they’re hard to play because of it, being stalwart in defense and solid enough going forward that an all-arms frontal assault is often the best policy.
Although the new litter falls short of 40k’s iconic and established races, the developers certainly haven’t skimped on the details in how the units look. Dark Eldar warriors will open a vein before draining themselves to take a control point, whilst the righteousness of the Sisters of Battle is taken to extremes of parody. The Pope himself would surely laugh at seeing an Exorcist: a tank-mounted church organ ridden by an armored soldier, which fires deadly rockets into the unbelievers rather than playing out music for the soul.
Each of the seven old races has received a new unit, all being of the airborne variety. To be fair, these new flying units don’t behave much differently from the ones that skimmed above the ground in previous releases - indeed they often can get stuck behind units on the ground, highlighting the limitations of the game engine. Even so, they are a welcome addition to each races’ armory, not least because they can be pretty devastating even with the small numbers the game allows thanks to its zealous unit cap. By using aircraft to skip over terrain, and with clever use of jump units, it’s possible to really throw your enemy off guard.
The great thing about Dawn of War has always been that because you can tell by the minimap how many units your opponent will be able to field, when the fog of war lifts you can start to calculate what and where they might be. The game’s poker-like balance of quick guesswork and calculation has always been important in multiplayer games and that’s now even more true with so many different sides potentially involved. There are still imbalances: the Necrons remain the end-game master race in our book and the new Dark Eldar are hard to repel early on, but then again when you put those two head-to-head you’ve got yourself quite a game.
Soulstorm opens up all the DoW races for solo play, but if you want to try 40k’s more established civilizations online you’re going to have to pick up or dust off the DoW Anthology box set. The thing is that apart from the two new races, Soulstorm doesn’t offer up much that’s wildly new that might justify itself to lapsed fans who might have moved on to greener blood-stained pastures. The total number of multiplayer maps may be over a hundred-strong, but being a game where terrain isn’t that much of a big deal, and where maps are largely symmetrical and designed to be fair, that doesn’t really widen the potential for variety - not that the vast number isn’t welcome.
As for the single-player campaign - which will be less of a draw for the multiplayer crowd - well it’s pretty much an expanded version of the one from Dark Crusade, with the battle map stretched across a number of planets and moons rather than a single globe. You move your army between territories once per turn, and should you tread on hostile soil the 3D battles take over with increasingly bland skirmish-style battles for the most part, mixed with the more enjoyable objective-based battles when you attack a ‘stronghold’ territory. What makes the campaign an improvement on Dark Crusade’s is that the battle map has obvious choke points that cut down on having to fight over the dull maps again and again, whilst each faction has special abilities that in almost all cases either speed up the settlement part of each battle, or allow armies to attack stronghold regions more directly.
If your RTS enjoyment is about having the latest live-fast, die-young RTS with a 3D engine that’ll most likely churn your PC into an early grave and a multiplayer game that spends most of the time fumbling for a connection, then Soulstorm probably isn’t the game for you. Though it shames us to have to reel out this old line, it really is more of the same, but with this game adding the weight of its maps and playable factions, as a collection, Dawn of War with Soulstorm alongside it sets itself apart from a lot of the more youthful games out there. Being ancient in the graphics department doesn’t mean Soulstorm is in any way ugly, either. The screens are as vibrant and bombastic as ever and whilst there are textures that lack detail, for those that enjoy fast multiplayer, it will be heartening to know that you won’t have to endure the wait suffered by players whose GFX cards lag behind the times.
As for whether you should purchase what will undoubtedly be DoW’s final outing, well, we would be more tempted to pick up the Anthology first, if only because you get two single-player campaigns plus Dark Crusade’s less story-based skirmish-style campaign - all for less than the price of this standalone effort. Such has been the wait that Soulstorm will suffer from having to compete with its bargain-bin brethren, but for 40k fans there is good value for your money - certainly more than you’d get should you spend the same sum on paint and blister packs of Warhammer figures.
World in Conflict arguably took things a step further and we could reel off a whole list of RTS games that offer better graphics, bigger wars, faster cars and hotter wives than Dawn of War could ever hope to provide. But with that said, there’s still something special lurking within the series that four years of post-release love have relentlessly polished and Soulstorm is a fitting testament to that.
Mar 5, 2008