Developer: Relic Entertainment
Release Date: October 9, 2006
It's not enough that Dark Crusade is the second follow-up to Dawn of War, a game they had to buy a bigger mantle for to house all its awards. Oh no. They had to go and literally make a whole new standalone game that just happens to contain everything that made the original great, polish it to a sheen, and pile on a whole extra heaping helping of Warhammer 40k goodness on top of it.
The premise going into the main campaign here is that powerful relics have been discovered on the planet Kronus and all the races in the WH 40k universe (save for the Tyranids) are vying for the rights to them. The race is on, and a war that will consume several days of your life begins.
First you pick your hero, the figurehead who will lead whichever race you fancy into this conflict, and then get dropped onto a Risk-style map representing the Pangaea-looking landmass that is Kronus' surface, divided into 25 provinces, each held by one of the seven civilizations vying for power here. It's like old school Defender of the Crown, only with blaster pistols and hulking mechs.
Before picking a fight, you are faced with several other options, such as which (if any) Honor Guards to attach to your leader, troops who appear right at the beginning of the battle to lend a hand. You can also gradually equip your hero with different weapons and armor, permanently granting him improved stats and abilities. You choose which ones to equip, and in what order, but once you click Continue, they stay set. There's no right or wrong way to do it, and no single upgrade is going to be the deciding factor in a battle. They're just nice to have around.
Jumping into the fray feels identical to Dawn of War, a decidedly good thing, except with some visual touch-ups (pivot and zoom the camera in close for a look) and new terrain to cover. The expansion adds a slew of original maps for single player and multiplayer, so bring your thinking cap.
Much in the gameplay department is the same as before. You spend a small amount of time building a base and buffing your stats and abilities, then set out to capture Relics, Strategic Points, and Critical Points, which all give you Requisition, the only resource besides Power that the game makes you harvest for unit production. From there, it's all about combat. Once you have a sizable army, get moving, and stomp a hole in some enemy faces, but don't leave your tail completely unguarded. Most missions in the campaign decide victory by who destroys whom's HQ first. Leave yours empty and you're in for a nasty surprise.
The balancing act of offense and defense is complicated but evened out by redoing unit counts and limits, and the requisites for building some of the more powerful units in the game. In addition, each race has a few new tricks up their sleeves. Some of this was done to counteract other additions or modifications in the game, while others tweaks were done to put all the races on even ground, what with the coming of the Tau and the Necrons into the fold. They each have their own unique abilities that undermine everyone else, so there had to be some compensation.
For instance, the Tau and the Eldar are big on cloaking their units and hitting you while disguised. This makes the Space Marines very dependent on their Librarian (he sounds dull, but he kicks ass) since he's one of the only units that can unmask these sneaks. It's fun to watch them turn tail as the Librarian charges into the fray and all the surrounding friendlies open fire on the cocky mofos.
The Imperial Guard returns from Winter Assault, but the real news here is the Tau and Necrons. Let's look at them in a little more depth.
The Tau are an interesting hybrid of technology and savagery. They bring pulse rifles and mech battlesuits to the field for ranged attacks, but what are they to do when the enemy gets up close? They turn it over to their allies the Kroot, with their Carnivores, Hounds, and the Godzilla-esque Knarloc. These unruly beasts excel in melee combat and have foot-speed that can overrun just about anyone trying to escape their grasp.
Where the Tau and their allies are fast, agile, and quick to spawn, the Necrons make the most of each and every undead cyborg unit they make. Not only are Necron units resurrectable, but they're also damn hard to knock down in the first place. They aren't terribly fast, but they pack a punch and can take a lot of punishment before they roll over and rust. Send a pack of Pariahs into a squad of enemy infantry and watch the bodies go flying.
The Necron strength comes not only in their toughness, but in their lack of dependence on Requisition, their mobile (albeit slow) fortress, and their Wraiths. Rather than getting Requisition from Strategic Points, Necrons get a reduction in the time it takes to produce units for each point they hold. Their Tomb Spyders can also recollect the parts of fallen Necron troops to be reassembled and re-deployed later from anywhere on the battlefield. Then we have the Wraiths, the fastest units in the game, with the ability to phase (making them invulnerable for at time), and being especially potent versus infantry units. They won't last long against a Dreadnought, but they can phase out and surround it, making them impervious to damage and immobilizing the enemy while other units move in for the kill. The Necrons really do have the most interesting stuff going for them here, and will be a troublesome adversary for even seasoned Dawn of War veterans.
This brings to mind one of the series' strongest points, which is that every race in the game plays so entirely differently from the others. Sure, they have some kind of infantry and some kind of armor typically, but factor in the order in which you have to build things and what's available, not to mention race-specific special abilities and each unit types' individual strengths and weaknesses, and you've got a game that never gets old. They're all very different, but so well balanced it makes you wonder how they did it.
As you battle through the single player campaign, you move further from your home base, leaving reinforcements in each held province along the way. On one hand, this makes your captured provinces easier to defend when the enemy attacks them directly (it's not all about YOU here), but it will show off just how fierce your cornered foes are. They have no supply lines to maintain or other plots of land to worry about. When you get down to the final showdown with each race, prepare for a really tough engagement. The AI ramps up perfectly, showing not only the desperation of the defending faction, but when the dust settles, odds are you'll have a newfound respect for your adversaries.
Different parts of the overall continent grant you different abilities when you take them, like reduced cost to set up reinforcements, the ability to attack non-adjacent provinces, or being able to take two turns per turn. These are always located in the same place on each map, so where you start in relation to them and everyone else changes how you have to play it with each race. Strategy indeed.
Multiplayer play exposes the only possible weakness in this package. In every other mode, you have access to all seven races (the unholy Chaos, tech-savvy Eldar, noble Imperial Guard, horrific Necrons, bloodthirsty Orks, crusading Space Marines, and the clever Tau), but for multiplayer, unless you own the original Dawn of War, you can only play as the Tau or Necrons. The other races may appear in your games; you just can't play as them.
If you have no one to play with but don't want to get sucked into the campaign right away, that's where Skirmish mode comes in. Pick a map, then depending on the size/population allowance of it, you pick your races, how many of whom, difficulty, victory conditions (any of a number, including Assassinate, Destroy HQ, and Take and Hold Victory), and away you go. It's a good way to get used to the new races before jumping into battles that count toward the overall campaign, and it adds nearly unlimited replay value to the game, not to mention doing the same thing with friends over the Internet or via LAN play.
I've been a sidelines kind of Warhammer 40k fan over the years. I always admired what it was about, starting with the original Space Hulk and then enjoying the finer points of the FPS Fire Warrior, but I always wanted something deeper. Finally, Dawn of War won me over, and Dark Crusade dealt the final blow. There's so much more to do, and it sounds, looks, and plays so well (even better than before), I may never need another RTS. Relic, keep the expansions coming.