What’s better than two new friends? Two new ones and five old ones! Like a bloody game of Jenga, Relic keeps stacking crazy new stuff onto their already burly science-fantasy pile. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War: Dark Crusade, the second expansion pack in as many years, bristles with an all-new single player campaign, two new races, new units, and complete standalone functionality for thirty bucks. Wow.
The technologically adept Tau and the ancient-evil-space-robot-zombie Necrons (that’s so cool we couldn’t even make it up) jump from the tabletops to join the already ample five races bent on capturing a new planet.
The Tau Empire is a ranged-fire powerhouse, but their allies the Kroot back them up in melee combat. Their units boast extremely long range and tons of upgradeable weapons. The Necrons, on the other decaying hand, are largely as slow as you’d expect slumbering genocidal terminators to be, but even their basic units become very powerful through upgrades. They only use one resource for all their units and structures, but their defenseless builders are the only units that can capture strategic points. Relic’s racial balancing act is as good as ever, somehow breathing life back into a two-year old game.
While it might use the same engine as the original Dawn of War, Dark Crusade has an entirely new single-player campaign playable by all seven races, the conquest of the planet Kronus. In a very Risk-like fashion, you’ll move your force’s commander around a map of twenty-five or so territories, assaulting and defending against the other six factions.
Initiating an attack on an enemy province drops you into a real-time battle with varying objectives depending on what you’re fighting over. While most scenarios are solved with a simple skirmish (blow up enemy base = win), there are territories on the map that have interesting victory conditions as well as bonuses for whomever holds that territory. Capturing the space port, for example, allows you to move to or attack any spot on the map. Zones not offering map bonuses allow you to train honor guard troops who appear with your commander at the start of battles, beefing up your initial forces.
Another stack of toys comes in the form of wargear, items that enhance your commander’s combat abilities. Earned by fulfilling requirements in battle, like inflicting a three-to-one kill ratio, a few pieces of wargear will evolve your little trooper into a nigh-unstoppable killing machine, making you the proud parent of an unspeakable horror (Lionel Richie? Oh, you said “Horror.” – Ed.)
Conquering another race’s stronghold takes them out of the game, complete with cut-scenes and historical monologues, often from the perspective of your chosen faction. The fights themselves are wild, with secondary objectives to draw out the encounters, but they’re also challenging, since you get pounded on from the moment you start. Most of all, these epic battles are fun, because each stronghold has a creative weakness to exploit. For example, you can take over the Space Marine’s orbiting spaceship and turn it on them. They may be in space, but you can still hear them scream.
What’s not so fun is the lack of activity on the overall map. Even on hard mode enemies rarely attack each other, and never go for strongholds or critical territory. Eventually, you’ll have so many honor guard units, map bonuses, and requisition points built up that you’ll have an easier time finishing than you did starting, even as the computer sends unbelievable swarms of enemies at you.
This leads to a real sense of accomplishment as the bodies stack up. Dead units litter the map by the time you get to the other side of it, and the craters left by explosions and artillery remain as well. In spite of the impressive looking mass graves, Dark Crusade
looks a little dated. Oh well, at least you don’t need a new video card to run it. The visual styles of the Tau and Necron forces are detailed and cool, and the amount of variety across the factions and terrain is deep. The animations are particularly well done, especially if you zoom in and watch the Necron Lord impale and toss Space Marines away like bloody rag dolls.
You can also custom paint an army for use in multiplayer, so if evil pink robots are your thing, then they’re all yours. If you only have Dark Crusade, your online play will be limited to the Necron and Tau forces, but if you have the original game and Winter Assault, you can play as all seven races. The online interface is slick, listing games and ranks next to a battle.net-like text window, helping you get your chat on.
Considering the thirty dollar price tag and the fact that it’s essentially its own game, I’m surprised Relic even calls this an expansion. The sheer amount of content alone in Dawn of War: Dark Crusade is worthy of respect. This is the kind of rampant generosity that we love, and it’s worth going to war with robot zombies over. Then again, what isn’t?