Part of this is needing something to do while my hard drive defrags...another is me wanting to see if this format still gets me on the front page.
As you may have noticed, I recently posted about the new expansion to Relic's "Best of 2004" Real-Time Strategy game, Warhammer 40,000 Dawn of War. Now, I know some of you despise RTS games, so you can stop reading here.
Now then, for those unfamiliar with the Dawn of War franchise, it's probably one of the few truly good RTS games to come out since Blizzard's *craft series. Most games focus on you building a base and gathering up some sort of resource, etc. etc. etc.
Dawn of War has a few interesting mechanics to it. First off, there's no discernible resource on the map other than taking objectives. The more objectives you seize, the faster you accure "Requisition" to purchase more stuff. Eventually, these points will decrease the amount of requisition they will supply you (eventually reaching 0) which puts much more emphasis on taking ground than base-building.
Then, Relic went a step farther. Rather than just making you smash forces into each other, they made a genuinely entertaining battle system to watch as artillery shells send troops (literally) flying through the air, battle cries get (repeatedly) shouted and bodies are strewn across the landscape (it's an option to leave them laying there if your card has the spare memory to keep drawing them, which gives the battlefield a completely gory appearance after the battlelines solidify and the real fighting begins). While you are unfortuantely going to be spending a lot of time zoomed out coordinating the action, when you zoom the camera in each unit is detailed very nicely and even fights in distinctive ways. Watching an Imperial Guard trooper impale a Chaos cultist on his bayonet and then kick the corpse off the end of his rifle...somehow this just doesn't get old. For those who enjoy watching such things, there is a replay option that let's you enjoy this beautiful animation work up close and personal.
Another of the interesting features was that it included four (now seven) unique races. While two (the Space Marines and Chaos Space Marines) start out very similar, all of them play very different at the high-end. This is somewhat interesting as Warcraft III only managed to get in four races, and there was quite a bit of similarity between some of them. The inclusion of the "Army Painter" feature that allows you to have your own custom color scheme as well as custom banners and badges for skirmish and mulitplayer games made the original a delight as you could have "your" Marines or "your" Guardsmen on the battlefield rather than "the red orcs" and "the blue orcs".
So that's a brief gloss-over of DoW, what's this Dark Crusade all about?
Dark Crusade's main feature is the map-based campaign. There are 25 territories to control and 7 different races trying to control them. Each race has their own Stronghold, and if you take it you basically knock that enemy out of the game. Unlike a lot of games, seizing this territory does not default all their territories over to you...they're still controlled by that side, they just can't attack anymore so as a fighting force they're finished. Nice touch that the survivors "go to ground" though.
Each province gives some benefit or other to the controlling player. For the strongholds, the benefit is that one of your enemies is gone. For the rest it will vary. Some provinces allow you to recruit "Honor Guards" who are fairly powerful individuals you start the game with. For example, I started my baby campaign with the Space Marines since they're the ones I played the most. The first few provinces I conquered gave me "First Company Veterans" who could get any heavy/special weapon available to the Marines at the outset of the game. Small bonus, but crucial in some circumstances.
I like the way they mix things up in the game as well. The territories that give you specific benefits (such as the space port territory which allows you to attack any non-stronghold province) have different victory conditions from the normal skirmish-style "smash the enemy" you find in the other provinces. In the case of the space port, you need to find and return six servitors (read: drones) before your opponent finds and returns them to his base. In the true spirit of warfare...there's nothing stopping you from smashing your opponent's base and stealing the drones.... <EG>
There's a lot of nice, if somewhat exploitable, things in the campaign mode too. Like the bases you build in a territory are persistent if you later have to defend that territory. It's a cool feature, but very, very exploitable as you can pen the enemy in a corner where they're effectively no threat at all to you and build up every single location on the map. It drags the game on forever to do this, but it makes later defense so lopsided it's not even funny as you're deploying elite units from the word go. However, I've heard that this holds true for the AI as well, so if you're defeated in a territory, it will become that much harder to take it on the next go round.
The Strongholds are excellent battles. I went head-to-head with the Imperial Guard and all I can say about them is "Wow". You actually feel like you're storming a Stronghold and these maps are the set piece battles you'd expect in the original Dawn of War. Multiple objectives, deck stacked horribly against you, and brutal brutal fighting. Even playing on super-easy-even-Stoke-could-look-like-a-master-tactician level, the Imperial Guard were a bitch and a half to dig out of their holes. Lost more than a few squads trying to hack through the swarms of artillery and defenses and I now have a healthy hatred of Basilisk artillery guns. Each of these battles unfolds like a mini-story, and the epilogue following each race's defeat is unique for each faction. This goes a long way towards making it fun to replay as you'll get the story from seven different viewpoints. This *partially* offsets the fact that the campaign map is static, every start point is always the same.
The crowning brilliance of the game though is that it's an insane value as it's a "hybrid" expansion. You do NOT need the other Dawn of War games to play Dark Crusade. What you need from them is their CD keys to unlock the other five races for *multiplayer*. You can play as any of the seven races in single-player reportedly. This is beyond cool, as you get essentially a massive RTS game for $25 from Best Buy right now (it's on sale...$30 normally).
If you like RTS games, this one gets Silver's "must buy" recommendation.
Final rating is:
Why not 5? Because the narrative voice acting is a bit over the top. It's not rip-your-ears-off bad, but you do wonder what is wrong with the guy narrating. It's a decent enough story though, so that makes up for some of the more overwrought renditions of the text. When the biggest fault you have with the game is the narrator's voice at times...yeah, that says something on its own.
Again, if you like RTS games the question is not "Should you buy Dark Crusade?"...the question is "Why haven't you bought it already?" $25 for a top-end RTS with 7 different races is a steal no matter what your feelings on Warhammer might be.