The latest trend with real-time strategy games is to develop a successful product, and then turn it into a money-printing franchise by churning out unimpressive expansion discs. Fortunately, Activision has done just the opposite by making Dark Reign: Rise of the Shadowhand almost as good as an entirely new sequel.
So what makes this expansion disc so special? Well, for starters, it raises the amount of playable sides in the game from two to four, effectively doubling the depth of the game with that feature alone. While these new sides (Xenites and Shadowhand) aren't as diverse as the three found in Starcraft, they are different enough to encourage Dark Reign veterans to learn numerous new techniques. The Xenites, for example, are derived from the original game's Freedom Guard while the Shadowhand are similar to the Imperium. Each side has just enough units handed down from its predecessors to make experienced Dark Reign players feel comfortable, but there are plenty of new units that make it fell like an entirely new game. The Shadowhand are a slightly more powerful, less versatile version of the Imperium. They come equipped with the EMP device, a new superweapon that scrambles communications between the opposing player and his units, in addition to scrambling his radar and communications . The new, "conventional" units include a transformable Gemini Tank, a fire-spewing Hades Bomber, the powerful Fury robot, and giant infantry called Reapers. The Xenites are a stronger, but less stealthy Freedom Guard. They have enlisted the help of large, alien mutants that include energy-emitting Grendels and Gants that must be micromanaged by keepers. The Xenites also have a devious new superweapon called the Power Striker that can knock out the power of an entire base by simply sabotaging a single energy plant. Both sides are equipped with terrain-sculpting devices called Terraformers. Suffice to say, Rise of the Shadowhand provides a diverse and interesting set of new units to play with. And better yet, after many hours of rigorous multiplayer testing, it seems that all four sides are well balanced.
Aside from the new combatants, Rise of the Shadowhand provides 14 new single-player missions, numerous new multiplayer maps, and an entirely new soundtrack to set the mood. Activision even included the best fan-made Dark Reign game "conversions" and multiplayer maps. In addition, there are now multiplayer missions where you must achieve certain goals. Technically, the multiplayer engine has been improved by fine-tuning the network code, expanding ActiveLink (Activision's Internet server) multiplayer support to eight players, and adding a new automatic map-transferal system. There is also a rather thoughtful patch that allows non-owners of the expansion disc to play against the new sides in multiplayer games (but not as them).
Clearly, Dark Reign: Rise of the Shadowhand accomplishes the challenging feat of significantly improving one of last year's best and most complex real-time strategy games. It's just unfortunate that Activision's commendable effort may be obscured by the large and ominous shadow cast by Starcraft.