Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War: Soulstorm First Impressions

THQ, Relic, and Iron Lore are looking to deliver the biggest Warhamer 40,000: Dawn of War expansion yet, and we have the first details.

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It's not unusual to see PC games get an expansion pack after they're released, though it's rare when a game that's not named The Sims gets a second expansion. So what does it say about Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War that we're now up to Soulstorm, the recently announced third expansion to 2004's real-time strategy game based on the popular sci-fi miniatures franchise from Games Workshop? Relic Studios is responsible for some amazing and innovative games, from Homeworld to Company of Heroes, but the Dawn of War series may very well be its most enduring and popular. However, even Relic and collaborator Iron Lore Entertainment face a daunting task with Soulstorm, as last year's Dark Crusade expansion raised the bar considerably for what fans expect. The solution? Top Dark Crusade by offering even more.

Let's get the basics out of the way. The big news in Soulstorm is that there are two new factions. The first is the previously announced Dark Eldar, while the second is the previously unannounced Sisters of Battle. The popular strategic campaign from Dark Crusade that featured an entire planet to conquer has been trumped by Soulstorm's epic strategic campaign, which features a whopping four planets and three moons. Just like Dark Crusade, this will be a stand-alone expansion, which means you will not have to own any of the previous Dawn of War games to play it. If you only own Soulstorm, you'll have access to all nine Dawn of War factions in the single-player campaign or in single-player skirmish games, but in multiplayer you'll only be able to play as the Dark Eldar or the Sisters of Battle. To access the other factions in multiplayer, you'll need to own the respective Dawn of War games that they appear in. Oh yeah, we should also mention that there are air units in Soulstorm (a first for the series), as well as achievements.

The Sisters of Battle are one of the two new factions in Soulstorm.
The Sisters of Battle are one of the two new factions in Soulstorm.

Soulstorm takes its name from the region of space it takes place in. A strange warp storm around a group of planets draws the various factions in to investigate, but the storm also wreaks havoc with their navigation systems, stranding them on the planets where full-fledged chaos then ensues. You can command any of the nine factions in the turn-based strategic game, which lets you plot moves and attacks on planetary maps, sort of like the board game Risk. Battles are then resolved in real-time strategy style. Like in Dark Crusade, territories can confer special bonuses to whichever faction possesses them. One example is the ability to move twice or attack twice in a single turn; normally armies can just move once or attack once per turn. There will also be planetary bonuses if a faction can seize an entire world.

The Dark Eldar and Sisters of Battle will offer up some interesting new approaches to the game. The former are an offshoot of the Eldar faction, though much more evil. The Dark Eldar is basically a pirate race that specializes in quick strikes, using speed and poison abilities to stun the enemy. Their units tend to be fairly mobile, such as the scourge, which are heavy infantry equipped with bat wings that let them jump and hover. On top of that, the Dark Eldar utilize a third resource that's unique to them: souls. The Dark Eldar consume souls, so when they kill an enemy they can collect the soul essence that is left behind. The Sisters of Battle, on the other hand, are basically heavily armed warrior nuns and the feared enforcers of the Imperium. As described to us, they're basically the Spanish Inquisition in space. The Sisters are driven by faith, which lets them call on their God-Emperor for "Acts of the Faith," which are powerful abilities, like a protective hand that shields them from damage or raining brimstone down on the battlefield. These acts are fueled by faith, which can be generated if the Sisters divert resources from unit production and research. That will make you have to choose how much to spend on the economy and how much to spend on generating faith.

This is actually the first Dawn of War game that's not being developed primarily by Relic. Instead, the studio turned to Iron Lore, of Titan Quest fame, for the expansion. It turns out that having an outside perspective allowed Iron Lore to approach the game in different ways. Perhaps that explains the addition of air units, which adds a whole new dimension to the battlefield that wasn't there before. Not only will the new factions have air units, but each of the existing factions will also get air units to balance things out.

The Dark Eldar are an evil pirate race that eat souls. That is indeed pretty evil.
The Dark Eldar are an evil pirate race that eat souls. That is indeed pretty evil.

Finally, Soulstorm will introduce achievements, which will help reward longtime players online, though these are not Games for Windows - Live achievements. Dawn of War is a popular multiplayer game thanks to the fact that it lets you take all those incredibly elaborate, detailed units online to crush other players. Each faction will have its own unique achievements, such as Force Commander, which is rewarded if you win 25 ranked games with the Space Marines. Or there are general achievements, like Hot Streak, which you get if you win 10 online matches in a row. These new achievements should help fuel the competitive fires in terms of multiplayer.

We only got to an early glimpse of Soulstorm, but publisher THQ, Relic, and Iron Lore look like they're going to deliver the biggest Dawn of War expansion yet. Considering how excellent the gameplay was in Dark Crusade--not to mention how great a value it was--Soulstorm is simply bigger and more improved in every possible way. And if the Dawn of War series continues to sell like it has, Soulstorm may not even be the last expansion. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War: Soulstorm will ship sometime in the first half of 2008.

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