"Finally, a series I don't mind seeing show up again on store shelves every year. Relic takes the idea of an expansion to a whole new and utterly worthwhile level." That's what I said when Dark Crusade came out. It was an excellent expansion pack that re-envisioned the rock-solid gameplay brought to us in the original Dawn of War, but much the way Winter Assault seemed more like filler compared to Dark Crusade, so does Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War - Soulstorm while we wait for a proper sequel.
It was co-developed on some level by both Relic and now-defunct Iron Lore, both respected developers in their own right. However, something intangible is missing from Soulstorm that I can't quite put my finger on, and might be the result of this multi-studio development process. Don't get me wrong; it's still as good as it ever was. It's just that it doesn't do a whole lot to push the series forward this time. However, with the recent announcement that Dawn of War 2 has begun development, it makes a little more sense. There's certainly more than enough game here to keep you busy until that comes along, but it doesn't feel quite as compelling or imaginative as Dark Crusade did.
The game's packaging reads like a constant sales pitch, with bulleted lists of new features here and breakdowns of how many races you'll have if only you buy all the other content (also available in a Gold Edition now; grab it!). I didn't think they really needed to sell it that hard because the series already has a respectable following. Maybe they knew something was missing.
You get one intro movie explaining that a Warp Storm appeared near four planets in the same system, which caught the attention of every race in the game. Everyone sets out to conquer and subdue the territories and newfound power, with minor ulterior motives. The Sisters of Battle come to cleanse away the filth and heresy of the other races, the Dark Eldar want to feast on the souls of the fallen, the Tau simply want to kick out all the human races to prevent allowing disorder into their pristine civilization, and so on. That's all you get from the game in terms of a story line. If you want to know anything else about the new Sisters and Dark Eldar, there's a bit in the manual about them, or you could go to the local tabletop gaming shop and grab a WH 40K handbook.
As is noted in four separate places on the packaging, Soulstorm is a standalone expansion, but can be integrated with any or all of the previous Dawn of War games to bring up to nine total races into the fold. Over two dozen new multiplayer maps are along for the ride, likely designed for the expanded Risk-inspired campaign mode. Each of the new races has their own distinct look, though they feel more like combinations of other pre-existing races than something entirely unique. By comparison, the play style of the Necrons and Tau introduced in the prior expansion felt more unique, the former being slow, lumbering undead machinery that could be rebuilt on the battlefield, and the latter giving you the option of going down two unique development paths, either toward higher-end war machines, or enlisting further aid of the vicious and feral Kroot. The Sisters play like a holier version of the Space Marines, perhaps a logical extension to better counteract the Marines' mortal nemeses, the Chaos Marines. As such, the Dark Eldar play like a cross between the cruelty of the Chaos, and play styles of the Tau (pack hounds) and Space Marines (ranged and melee infantry).
Vehicles and special powers are where the new races stand out more, and are balanced by somewhat weaker infantry overall. The Sisters of Battle draw on their buildings and certain units to generate Faith, which is used for some of their more destructive abilities. The cooldown on the abilities were long enough that I never ran out of Faith. Similarly, the Dark Eldar harvest power for their unique abilities by consuming the souls of their enemies. This can be a little trickier, since you sometimes have to actually get your relatively fragile workers out onto the battlefield for collection purposes right after a firefight. Torture Pits work similarly for collecting on the home front. Again, it didn't take long to have a full supply, so it doesn't make resource management any more taxing to have these new powers in play.
The new territory-based campaign introduced in Dark Crusade is back, but now spans four planets and a couple of moons, up from the sole Pangaean landmass used last time. It's much bigger and will take even more of your time. Launching into enemy-controlled areas affords you a small place to touch down and start building, but you'll have to hurry. You'll be under fire in a matter of minutes and have to reclaim every inch of ground between you and the enemy base. They have all the resources. They're dug in. It's going to take a good slaughtering to pry them loose. Despite the sometimes-edgy difficulty, every victory feels earned, not handed over.
As in Dark Crusade, you're again given the opportunity to fortify a territory once you take it, and taking more and more areas nets you both more planetary requisition to spend on those fortifications, and bonuses to your commander including bodyguards and upgraded gear. The pacing is even, though with all the time and work you put into each territory, it can sometimes seem like you deserve more. Then noticing other unique bonuses granted by either adjacent territory keeps you plugging away. The campaign alone should keep you busy for quite a while, especially if you play through it with each race. The new scope of the campaign makes sense, but it's also kind of unsurprising.
If you finish all that, the skirmish and multiplayer modes will fill any potential voids, much as they did in previous versions. The plethora of new maps is worth checking out, but doesn't break the mold or do anything radical. Speaking of broken things, there's a nice big bug list growing over at Relic's forums. Work on a patch is supposedly underway, and a few of the problems make multiplayer a serious gamble, allowing resources for the new races to either be limitless, or to be squandered by observers of the match. One thing I ran into personally was when trying to host a LAN game on a computer with both wired and wireless connections; I had to either disable one of them or connect directly to the correct IP by guessing which one it was using before it would join. It's a minor issue, but still weird and confusing. In the meantime, you can always bone up on developing strategies for the new races.
There are new air units for each race in Soulstorm, but they're nothing special and don't change gameplay much. Often, simple infantry or Listening Posts can shoot them down, and they can't take much punishment. They're not terribly good at recon and can't transport troops for a discrete drop, but they can traverse uneven terrain. I have jetpack troops that can do that, and they don't die as easily. They're not worth spending your vehicle cap on, when you could invest in more tanks, artillery, or the behemoth unit for each army, from the Tau Gnarloc to the Sisters' Living Saint.
In terms of graphic design, the newcomers definitely have their own distinct and creative look. The Sisters of Battle bring holy light to the field as a weapon, their Penitent Engines have their pilots crucified to the unit, the Exorcist artillery tank's firing tubes are arranged to look like the pipes on a chamber organ, and the Living Saint occasionally releases sparkling doves when idle. They can summon the spirits of the fallen to their aid in a pinch, bringing golden glowing angels of death upon the enemy.
Similarly, the Dark Eldar bring horror to the conflict by using tortured slaves as workers, succubus minions as soldiers, and spiky armored platforms that resemble the product of a Chinese Junk and a Viking warships. Their dark powers counter the Sisters nicely, but don't reinvent the wheel. There's always balance.
In general, the visuals are starting to show their age but still hold up fairly well. If you tilt the camera down even a little, you start to see the limits of draw distance, the performance-enhancing visual fog rolls in, and the 2-D wraparound scenery in the distance becomes apparent. It looks as good as it ever did, but running on an engine that's now almost four years old, it's not going to compete with the likes of Supreme Commander or Universe at War. On the other hand, it's very stable and time-tested, and it won't require you to get a state-of-the-art video card, either. It looks decent, and that's fine by me for an expansion. If Dawn of War 2 doesn't up the visual ante, though, that's another story.
Sound effects are also on par with the series standards. Things go boom just fine, the Dark Eldar workers sound shrill and freaky, and there are still audio cues for virtually everything that happens in Soulstorm, including nice new sounds for the additional powers of the Sisters and Dark Eldar. A few of the new unit action/selection acknowledgements can start to grate and get repetitive after a while, but you can always turn them off if you want. Music is largely unchanged from before.
Controls and HUD are also largely the same, which isn't a bad thing. If it ain't broke, why fix it? The Dark Eldar have a few new buttons on the HUD for their particular brand of nasty, and both they and the Sisters have new resource meters for their respective soul/faith acquisition, but everyone else managed to remain within the confines of the existing template. It'll feel familiar to anyone who's played before.
Soulstorm adds enough to the familiar and satisfying formula to be worth a look for series fans, but isn't the best starting point for newcomers. Grab the Gold Edition and get your hands dirty with the three original games, and then check out this title (by which time there will likely be a Platinum Edition with Soulstorm included).
It's hard to say if Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War - Soulstorm would have been a stronger title if completely done in-house by Relic. Did the dual-development nature fragment the focus? Did Iron Lore's closing up shop have anything to do with this project, and/or did the game suffer from said closure? It's anyone's guess, but with the size of the current bug list and not-quite-amazing feel of the final product, I wouldn't blame you for being a little wary of it right now. It'll be a worthwhile expansion once everything is fixed. Whether it's actually worthy of its pedigree is another matter. New races, new maps, shoddy air units, and an expanded campaign add up to the biggest expansion in the series yet, weighing in at over 5GB, and it includes a second disc with a making-of video and demos of Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts and Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance. It's a solid addition, if not the best expansion in the series overall, and while I'm enjoying it, it really is just more of the same, and I can't help but feel like it could have been a little better.
More articles about Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War - Soulstorm