OK, so, as most of you probably will have picked up by now, Dawn of War was a series created by Relic Entertainment, a company known for creating excellent quality RTS games and a few additional games. It was a series that, while not having received a new installment of any sort since 2011, is still highly loved by RTS fans and still has a strong playerbase now.
…Well, mostly. There is one game in the franchise that is nearly always looked upon as a dark spot in the franchise’s name, a game that was not developed by Relic Entertainment and yet showed how very easily the game could be done wrong. Still mocked now among the fanbase, this is the game that most regard as the series’ descent into…maybe not awfulness, but certainly a dip in overall quality.
That game is Dawn of War: Soulstorm. Coming out a year after the first expansion to Company of Heroes (Opposing Fronts, for the curious) and a year before Dawn of War II, Soulstorm is the game with the worst reception out of all of the games in the franchise (although it still scored 75% on GameRankings and 73 out of 100 on Metacritic, so it wasn’t exactly badly received by critics) and the fact that the developer of the game closed down around a week before the game was released makes it very easy to assume that the game was only released because the developers weren’t going to be able to finish it properly (although the fact a demo for the game was released in mid-January 2008 does make me doubt the accuracy of that).
OK, quick history lesson for those of you reading this who are probably wondering what that last bit is on about: the developer for Soulstorm was Iron Lore Entertainment, who were founded in October 2000 by Brian Sullivan and Paul Chieffo. The company released their first game in 2006, which some of you may have heard of: Titan Quest. A role playing hack and slash game, it was actually fairly well received on release, scoring 77 out of 100 on Metacritic. The game was followed by an expansion/sequel titled Titan Quest: Immortal Throne, which fixed a lot of issues highlighted in the original game and currently stands at 80 out of 100 on Metacritic. Both games are available on Steam now, if you’re curious about playing them for yourself, and you can get both games for about £15, which is honestly cheaper than I was expecting them to be!
So, obviously, we know what happened to Iron Lore Entertainment after this game was released. But where are they now?
Well, surprisingly, members of the company are still active now in the games development circles as Crate Entertainment, and they have a game released now (granted, on Steam Early Access) which, again, you may have heard of: Grim Dawn. Currently shaping up to be one of the Early Access success stories, Grim Dawn, at the time of writing, is said to be basically complete, with the developers just tidying up the last few things in preparation for a full release. The developers are also apparently wanting to work on a project with the working title Black Legion in the future and do an expansion for Grim Dawn, but I don’t know any details on either of them and most of the information I have on Black Legion goes back to when Iron Lore Entertainment fell apart, so I could be very wrong on that one.
So yeah, in the long run, I think that the guys from Iron Lore Entertainment have managed to come back fairly well!
However, we have to focus on Soulstorm for now. Now, I’ll admit, I’m playing the game after it has had several years worth of patches and fixes, so I may well be approaching this after a huge overhaul, but, as it stands today, I think Soulstorm is actually better than its reputation would have you think it is. Don’t get me wrong, it is undeniably weaker than Dark Crusade, but, for what it’s worth, the game as it stands now is actually not too bad!
Again, like with Dark Crusade, there’s not a huge amount to talk about overall in terms of how the game plays, as, at its core, the game is still the same as it was in the original game. The new units, however, add some new and interesting dynamics to the gameplay, as the new units are airborne units (with the exception of the Necrons, who gain access to a new C’tan…oh, how hilarious that is in terms of Necron canon now!). They’re not bad in and of themselves, admittedly, but I personally never found a use for them in my own gameplay and my forces usually move en mass and can shoot down airborne units easily as a result, so they only really serve as a mobile irritation to me. The new races, however, are HORRIBLY balanced: the Dark Eldar are generally pretty weak unless you learn how to use them properly and their unique playstyle gimmick (requiring you to capture souls with captured slaves to use special abilities) only adds an extra side to the battle which doesn’t really need to be there while the Sisters of Battle are just plain broken, being far more powerful than they really should be. I’d argue the Necrons are still more frustrating to deal with, but trust me, the Sisters of Battle aren’t a lot better than them, especially if they get their relic unit due to it having an ability to INSTANTLY REVIVE UPON DEATH UNTIL YOU DESTROY THE BUILDING THAT MAKES THE UNIT. Yep, seriously!
The campaign version of the game is a bit hit-and-miss with me. On the one hand, it keeps the old gameplay of Dark Crusade, which is a huge plus for me, but it tries to add new elements to it which just horribly overcomplicate it (want to travel to a new planet? You have to capture a webway gate in a mission where you have to hold Critical Locations for a set length of time!) and the stronghold missions themselves are generally more noteworthy for their hilariously awful voice acting (the one which always gets me cringing is the Farseer in the introduction to the Eldar stronghold battle because (and I swear I am not making this up: you can go search this if you don’t believe me!) he speaks in a monotonous voice with a broad Yorkshire accent, although other popular ones include Indrick Boreale’s speech at the start of the Space Marine stronghold battle and the infamous “Our enemies hide in metal boxes” speech in the Chaos stronghold battle) than their actual quality. I guess it’s fun enough if you don’t take it seriously, but, compared to Dark Crusade, the downgrade in quality is VERY noticeable.
The sad thing, as I finished off the last part of the retrospective saying, is that I could totally see Soulstorm having been the follow up that fans wanted. Had the writing and voice acting been better, the new races been better balanced, the campaign’s maps kept on the same level as the previous game (or, at the very least, the idea of travelling through webway gates between planets shot down) and the new units been made more valuable to use, this could actually have lived up to Dark Crusade’s legacy fairly well. I don’t want to see like a snobby sort who feels that only Relic Entertainment can do this sort of game well (heck, StarCraft is proof of that!), but I think that part of the problem is that Iron Lore Entertainment simply weren’t up to the challenge of making a game like this (especially when you consider that the company has predominantly made role playing games rather than RTS games, although their funding issues certainly didn’t help matters) and that, in the hands of a company already used to making RTS games and with the right talent, there could have been a strong game here.
However, that is not what happened. Is Soulstorm a bad game now? Not really, no: it’s definitely playable and, while there are still a few bugs, it’s now a decent multiplayer game. However, it is a step down from Dark Crusade and, while the franchise has never sunk as low as Soulstorm, it’s fair to say that, as a conclusion to the legacy of the original games, Soulstorm dropped the ball.
But a new chapter was around the corner for the franchise, and, though it was a very different chapter, it is one that shows that sometimes, change can be its own reward.