Games Workshop's influential tabletop wargame Warhammer 40,000 has inspired many different PC games over the years, but arguably none so good as 2004's Dawn of War. Not only did it capture the gritty, violent feel of the source material better than any game before it, but the game also did a great job of delivering an action-packed, real-time strategy experience that put the focus on combat, not on base-building or resource-managing. Dawn of War became a hit, and when a real-time strategy game is a hit, you can count on expansion packs adding more of what fans crave. Last year's first expansion, Winter Assault, introduced a new playable race and improved multiplayer features, tiding over competitive Dawn of War players. However, the next expansion pack sounds considerably more ambitious: Not only will Dark Crusade add two new races to the mix (for a grand total of seven), but it will also include a new open-ended strategic campaign, new hero customization options, and more. With Dark Crusade, Relic's intentions are nothing less than to produce "the greatest expansion pack ever made," according to one company rep.
Before going into a lot of the other details, let's give a warm welcome to the Necrons, who'll be making their appearance for the first time in a Warhammer 40,000 computer game in Dark Crusade. According to the series' mythos, the Necrons are a long-dormant race that's more than 60 million years old...so, in a sense, they're all long dead. Now these warriors are awakening with intent to harvest the souls of the living to suit their needs. The Necrons have a robotic appearance, reminiscent of The Terminator, and they share in common an inability to easily be killed. As a playable race, the Necrons' distinguishing feature will surely be their propensity to come back to life after being shot to pieces--you'll sometimes see the pieces literally pull themselves back together, stand back up, and keep fighting. That may sound like seriously bad news for the other races fighting over the galaxy, so you'll be comforted to know that the Necrons' significant battlefield advantage should be counterbalanced by the slow, lumbering speeds at which Necron units tend to move.
We got a chance to see the Necrons in action for the very first time at a THQ pre-Electronic Entertainment Expo event. While we didn't get our hands on the game, the developer had prepared an in-engine demonstration of the new races, which gave us a sense of both how powerful the new Necron and Tau units will be, but also how they can be beaten. Necron units will include standard Necron Warriors, which are equivalent to the other frontline riflemen for other races but capable of coming back to life; Wraiths, which are bony, flying creatures that can rip apart units if they can get their claws on them; Scarabs, which are swarming buglike creatures that can overwhelm enemy forces but are highly vulnerable to explosive damage; and, of course, the Necron Lord, who is leader of the Necron army. In one scene we saw, the Necrons seemed on the verge of losing a pitched battle against a Space Marine squad...but all of a sudden, the Necron Lord casts one of his ultimate abilities and the entire defeated army gets back on its feet. You can imagine what happened next to the Space Marine remnants. And if that doesn't sound bad enough, consider that the Necrons' ominous black base is capable of transforming into a nearly invincible flying fortress, bristling with extremely powerful weaponry. As a Necron player, you'll constantly be challenged to decide whether to invest in more troops or build toward this final weapon.
While the Necrons will likely appeal to players who like to do the equivalent of slowly strangling their opponents, the Tau will be Dawn of War's most accomplished sharpshooters. In the Warhammer 40,000 mythos, the Tau are the closest thing to being the "good guys." A relatively young race, they preach unity and enlightenment across the galaxy, accepting new allies with open arms...and ferociously defending against those who would threaten their lives. Tau Fire Warriors stride into battle wearing high-tech battlesuits and wielding deadly pulse rifles. The withering firepower from these weapons is usually sufficient to bring down most foes, which is fortunate for the Tau, because they aren't nearly as proficient at close combat as a lot of their rivals. Exemplifying the Tau's strengths is the Tau Commander, equipped with a jetpack for great mobility, missile launchers, a plasma rifle, and more. The best advice is to not get anywhere near this guy, and yet, seemingly the only way to bring him down is engage him up close. Overall, the Tau seem like they'll be well suited to players who like keeping their foes at a safe distance. And their impressive-looking battlesuits, reminiscent of anime robots, give the Tau a distinctive appearance even among the other heavily armored races in the game.
Next, we'll tell you about the game's strategic map and other new features. The new races may be the obvious new attraction, but Dark Crusade's strategic campaign sounds like it'll add a lot more meat to the single-player experience.
One of the relative weaknesses of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War was its relatively brief single-player campaign, which focused exclusively on the Space Marines, pitting them against three other races. The Winter Assault expansion introduced the Imperial Guard as a playable race (they made a cameo appearance in the original), and its two tag-team-style campaigns let you play from multiple perspectives. As a result of the added variety, though, the campaigns felt a little disjointed. Dark Crusade seems like it'll be built off of the lessons learned from these first two Dawn of War outings, but we'll have to see if third time's the charm in this case. What Relic has lined up certainly sounds appealing, that's for sure.
The game's strategic campaign will let you wage war in an attempt to wrest control over the planet of Kronus--a planet that seems to hold a great, great strategic importance, since all seven of Dawn of War's races want a piece of it. You'll be able to conquer the planet (or at least try) from the perspective of any of the game's seven races, and Relic tells us that the storyline will be different depending on your choice of race. (Presumably you won't be able to play as the Imperial Guard unless you own Winter Assault.) What's more, the order in which you attempt to conquer the territories on the map is going to be your choice--this isn't a straightforward linear campaign as in the original Dawn of War. Instead, this Risk-style strategic layer is reminiscent of games such as Medieval: Total War or the War of the Ring mode in Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth II (or, for you RTS old-timers, even the original Dune II). However, bear in mind that this isn't a full-fledged sequel but an expansion pack building on an already-solid foundation. It's exciting that the single-player campaign game will be structured so much differently than what we've seen from Dawn of War thus far, and the result has the potential to give Dawn of War tremendous single-player lasting value beyond the skirmish mode.
So what happens when you capture a territory on the strategic map? We didn't get to see it in practice, but Relic reps told us that territories would absolutely yield strategic benefits. You'll earn an additional resource by conquering parts of the map and be able to spend it on reinforcements, such as in defense of regions you've already occupied. So if one of your enemies tries to reclaim one of the territories you rightfully took over, they might find some nasty surprises waiting for them when that battle begins. Presumably allegiances can be forged and broken during this battle. Should one side start to take over a majority of the map, it'll pay for any remaining races to band together, at least temporarily, to slow the encroaching threat. Of course, a lot will ultimately depend on how well the game's artificial intelligence plays on a strategic level, as well as on the tactical level. Whatever the case, the mere idea that you'll get seven different stories rolled up in this one epic-scale campaign is quite exciting all by itself.
The new strategic campaign demonstrates Relic's intent of making the Dark Crusade expansion all about player choice, as opposed to forcing players down a particular path. To that same end, Dark Crusade will be introducing another feature that many Warhammer 40,000 fans have surely been hoping for: the ability to customize your hero units with high-powered wargear. As you win successive missions in the campaign, your army's leader will continue to gain prestige, and with it comes certain perks that can help him live longer or make his enemies' lives a lot shorter. Custom weapons and new special abilities, as well as improved armor and other wargear should be available, and each of the different races will have its own options to choose from. These upgrades are reflected visually on the game's nicely detailed character models and should help make you feel more attached to your army's hero character as the campaign unfolds.
All that's being added to Dark Crusade sounds like it should do a lot to make an aging real-time strategy game feel fresh and interesting all over again. Though the developer won't be making radical changes to the previously available Dawn of War races, having two completely new races to play around with should introduce all-new levels of strategic depth--and Relic reassures us that they've been working hard all along to make sure all the races end up being well balanced once this expansion is ready. We're looking forward to seeing how it all pans out and bringing you more information along the way. Dawn of War: Dark Crusader is scheduled to ship sometime this fall.