Dawn of War Retrospective Part 3: Dark Crusade

Well, this week’s selection of free games was two MMOs, a VR game and a football game.

…Not interested in any of them (not a fan of football, don’t have a VR kit and I’ve not got enough time to cover an MMO), so let’s just jump back in with the retrospective. If you pardon the lack of critical commentary for a few seconds, I will freely admit that this is the game I played the most of the series, so this is probably the part of the retrospective that I’ve been looking forward to the most because it is, in my honest opinion, the best Dawn of War game. While I have played Soulstorm more since I picked up the games on Steam, for me, Dawn of War: Dark Crusade is the game which showed the series at its best and which sits in my personal gaming library as one of the best RTS games ever released. Is it flawless? No, of course not, no game is. However, it has the least flaws overall and the most to offer out of any other game in the series, and that’s good enough for me!

So, in between the release of Dawn of War: Winter Assault and this game, Relic Entertainment released two other games, both in 2006. The first game, The Outfit, was an Xbox 360 exclusive (and the company’s first game on consoles) that was a third person action game with tactical elements and apparently got mixed reviews (I haven’t played it and don’t have an Xbox 360 to allow me to play it, so I can’t say whether the game deserves the criticism or not), while the other was a game that most of you who are familiar with Relic Entertainment will have also heard of: Company of Heroes. To say this was highly regarded would be a major understatement: it stands at an average review score of 94% on Game Rankings and 93 out of 100 on Metacritic, which makes it one of, if not THE, highest rated strategy game of all time. While I personally prefer Dawn of War overall, I will say that Company of Heroes is a truly great game and that, if Relic had never made Dawn of War, they would still stand in my eyes as one of the best developers of strategy games for Company of HeroesImpossible Creatures and Homeworld.

However, I’m not doing a retrospective of Company of Heroes (although I may look into it when I’ve completed this one on Dawn of War). What I am doing a retrospective on is Dawn of War, and this monster of a game was Relic’s game to close out a highly prolific 2006 and is, for me, the game against which I judge every other strategy game. Combine that with the fact that it was a standalone sequel (you didn’t need the previous two games to play this one at all, although having the code to the original game was required to play the original four races and the code to Winter Assault was required to play the Imperial Guard in multiplayer) and it is a game that I’d have said was downright essential for any RTS player at the time. Now…well, let’s dig into it.

Let’s get the obvious comment out of the way: there’s not a lot that’s added to the previous five races. Yes, there are additional units, but the vast majority of the game is still based in what was done in Winter Assault. So, on paper, there’s not a lot to recommend the game for over it. What IS different is that the game really shakes up the force stuff more, as elite units (like Terminators) are restricted, making you really weigh up whether you need them or not. I think this was probably for the best in terms of better balancing the forces, although I will admit that I miss some of the more hilariously broken forces you could create in the original game. The new races, the Necrons and the Tau, are still pretty good in and of themselves, but I will admit that they can be a bit overpowered (especially the Necrons: it says a lot that I struggle with them on normal difficulty AI when I can usually go up against the hard difficulty AI of the other races and do a pretty good job against them, although, granted, that is in Soulstorm…trust me, we’ll get to that next time!) and the Necron’s playstyle in particular is very odd to get used to at first (they don’t need requisition, only energy, but having more listening posts build increases your build speed).

So, in the multiplayer at least, there’s not a huge amount of changes and, considering it’s the same engine as the original game, the graphics will no doubt look a bit dated compared to modern games. So why am I so enthusiastic about this game when, at first glance, there’s not a lot to be enthusiastic about?

Well, remember how I said in the article on Winter Assault that it was the first game which allowed you to use more than one race in single player? This is the game that took that game’s single player, expanded upon it and made it perfect.

In the single player for this game, you get to pick your own faction (so yes, you can play the campaign with ANY race: you’re not potentially forced to use a race you dislike and/or are awful at just because the campaign demands it!) and take it through the conquest of a whole planet against all of the other races, all aiming to conquer the planet for their own various reasons. This really gives a feeling that every battle matters: your victories give you more territory on the planet and, depending on the tile, you get different advantages: you can get powerful honour guard units which deploy with you when the battle starts, you can get various strategic assets like the ability to attack any point on the map on your turn (except for strongholds) or you can wipe an entire race out of the game. Add the fact that every battle which gives you an asset or is an enemy stronghold has its own unique mission attached to it and your commander also gets stronger as the game goes along through receiving wargear and this is a game which has insane amounts of replayability and offers a lot of tactically challenging decisions that nicely combine the typical RTS missions of the core game and the TBS of grand strategy games on the campaign map. It’s truly an excellent campaign mode and the insane amount of replayability as a result easily ascends it from your average RTS game to one of the greats.

Now, obviously, all of this is subjective, so some people may be reading this and going “This doesn’t sound that great”. For me personally, though, Dark Crusade is the pinnacle of the Dawn of War series (and, potentially, RTS games as a whole), as it has everything: excellent variety in every mode available to it, a variety of well developed races that are (mostly) very well balanced and insane replayability on a campaign mode that shows just what war on the epic scale Dawn of War showcases is all about. If this was the last Dawn of War game ever released, then it would have been the greatest end to a series ever.

Of course, it wasn’t. What came next was possibly the darkest hour of the franchise. A game which tried to live up to the legacy of this game and failed epically. A game which is so notorious among the fandom that, even now, it is still regarded as the point when the franchise took a nosedive from which it has not completely recovered. A game which was even stated to be a disaster in the game’s universe in the later sequels. A game which has been mocked for awful voice acting, awful balancing and countless other issues.

And yet…a game which, in the right hands and properly polished, could have been just as good, if not better, than this game: Dawn of War: Soulstorm.