Though you can find plenty of fantasy-themed turn-based strategy games on the shelves, last year's Disciples II is still one of the most distinctive and one of the best. Featuring some unusually detailed and stylized artwork, the game also incorporates many role-playing elements to lend continuity and an epic feel to its campaigns. Now, about 18 months after its release, Disciples II finally gets a well-deserved expansion pack. Two, actually, since Servants of the Dark is an immediate follow-up to the very similar Guardians of the Light expansion. If you already know about the strengths and weaknesses of the previous Disciples II add-on, then Servants of the Dark will be exactly what you expect.
Like Guardians, Servants of the Dark isn't very substantial. It's halfway suited to new Disciples II players, who could just as well pick up a dirt-cheap copy of Disciples II from their local bargain bin, and it's halfway suited to experienced Disciples II players, who would probably expect more from this add-on than what its dozen-odd skirmish maps and two high-level minicampaigns provide.
The Servants of the Dark expansion only lets you play as the evil-aligned factions of Disciples II: the Undead Hordes and the Legions of the Damned. The Empire and the Mountain Clans, Disciples II's good factions, are still present as adversaries but cannot be controlled directly. And the recently released Guardians of the Light expansion was the exact opposite. This is a strange design that simply limits the appeal of both games, since one of the great things about Disciples II was how you could play from the perspective of four dramatically different and uniquely powerful sides.
This add-on actually contains the complete original Disciples II campaigns for both the Undead Horde and the Legions of the Damned. That's a lot of content for players new to the series, though again, they might as well just look for the original game since it's even cheaper now than this budget-priced expansion pack. Meanwhile, those who already own Disciples II have already seen this stuff.
The main reason the original campaigns are in here is that the new high-level campaigns may only be played if you have a leader character of 10th level or higher. So unless you've finished the original campaigns and still have the saved data on your hard drive, unless you've downloaded someone else's saved game, or unless you happen to look down in the game's readme file to find the clause about how some high-level leaders are hidden on one of the game discs' directories, you'll need to play through the original campaigns before you can get to the new content. The scenarios composing the two new minicampaigns are very challenging and filled with little scripted events, so they're good as Disciples II missions go. They let you fight with and against many of the game's most powerful units, which were a relatively rare sight in the original.
Other than that, Servants of the Dark offers more than a dozen new stand-alone scenarios, though in keeping with the theme, these only let you play as the evil-aligned factions (unless you also have the Guardians of the Light expansion). These new missions essentially are more of what Disciples II fans have come to expect from the game and aren't noticeably better than or different from the scenarios that shipped with the original game more than a year ago.
Servants of the Dark looks identical to Disciples II, which looked superb when it was originally released, but it was limited to 800x600 resolution. However, the expansion supports resolutions up to 1280x1024 for the map screen, and you can also choose to have the graphics for the menus and combat stretch to fill the screen in the higher-resolution modes, which helps keep the visuals looking fresh. The character art and combat still look great after all these months, but it can still be difficult to spot enemy units or key features on the overhead map. A few new characters have been added, and the graphics for the Undead's and the Legions' capital buildings have been redone, but these are minor details. Disciples II's audio has held up fine, and to its credit, Servants of the Dark contains some good, new music tracks (though they're the same ones as in Guardians of the Light). There's also a sort of multimedia gallery that lets you look at some of the artwork from the game, if that's any consolation.
This expansion also features some gameplay enhancements over the original release of Disciples II, which are available already via free downloadable patches. You can auto-resolve combat if you don't want to sit through the lengthy animations in a battle that's a surefire victory (or defeat), and the AI of the game handles alliances and certain other situations more capably. Disciples II was a notoriously difficult game, but now the "easy" setting makes it considerably more manageable. Servants of the Dark also includes the Disciples II scenario editor, which allows you to put together your very own maps and quests. The box advertises a "random map generator," one of the most-wanted features from the original Disciples II, but this is really just a way to quickly create some terrain for a custom map and populate it with monsters and treasure. You'll need to tune and balance the map yourself, and since the scenario editor is a separate executable from the actual game, this random map generator really isn't practical for the average player.
Disciples II is still a great game at its core. The highly streamlined combat and the memorable units and factions still make for some entertaining and addictive gameplay. As such, the Servants of the Dark expansion is partly suited just as a reminder for you to go back and play some more Disciples II, or pick up a cheap copy if you missed out on it. On its own merits, this expansion is a reasonably good deal, but it's best suited for the hard-core Disciples II fan who wishes to play every single official scenario for the game.