Sunday, May 11, 2008

Review - Warhammer 40k Dawn of War: Soulstorm

This review was a long time coming... and you know why? Because Soulstorm is a long time playing. Seriously. Dawn of War's always been one for lengthy gaming sessions, but now... well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Soulstorm is the name of the latest "expansion" for the RTS dreadnought that is Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. I put "expansion" in quotes because it doesn't quite fit with my definition of what a game expansion usually is. Usually, a game "expansion" is a lower priced piece of addon software which injects an amount of new content into an existing game, and that amount is usually somewhat less than that with which the game originally shipped. But this isn't the case with this franchise.

Each expansion in the DoW series is like a complete reinvention... or rather, a "do-over." As if they have told us, "Here's the game, enjoy. Whup, no wait! HERE's the game, this is better. That'll be another full price please. Thank you, enjoy. No wait, HERE! This is EVEN better!" and so on and so forth. The irritation I would generally feel at being yanked around like this, repeatedly and at full price, is mitigated by the fact that each time it IS bigger, and it IS better. And, like most Warhammer enthusiasts, I seem to have enough disposable income so as not to worry about how much I'm pushing down the same rathole.

I thought the previous expansion, Dark Crusade, was impressive with its 7 factions vying amongst each other. That was a remarkable increase from the previous 5 factions, and the Necrons and Tau made a very interesting addition with unconventional paradigms for play. This time around, Soulstorm has added yet another two factions: The Sisters of Battle, and the Dark Eldar. After the fresh and new feeling of the previous two races, a lot of people (myself included) raised the proverbial skeptical eyebrow at the latest addition seeming a little less than inspired... after all, the Necrons and Tau were dynamic and new... and compared to them, it was easy to write off the Dark Eldar as just a new paint job and the Sisters of Battle as "Space Marines with Boobs." Added to the fact that "Chaos" is basically "Dark Space Marines," and one was led to wonder if the ol' idea bucket was starting to run low.

Well, I am pleased to say that my reservations proved to be unfounded. The two new factions are not mere copies of any of the other factions any more than any given faction is a copy of all the rest. That is, to say, they still must adhere to the same light infantry / heavy infantry / light vehicle / heavy vehicle / artillery / superunit / hero force commander paradigm that all the factions use, but the artistry and methodry of the new races is still different enough to feel unique among the now very crowded playing field of 9 factions.

When I read that the new expansion's campaign would span an entire system (as opposed to the single planet in Dark Crusade), I was simultaneously eager and worried. Turns out I needn't have been worried. Although the scope of the battle has increased to spanning 4 planets (and some moons), the number of actual territories hasn't gone up fourfold. But there is still more ground to cover, and some new rules governing movement from one planet to another. A "warp storm" has emerged in the system making conventional space travel unusable, so to get from one planet to another requires the use of "ancient gates," which generally only connect to two other ancient gates. This dynamic prevents any player from just attacking anywhere, there's still a sense of having to conquer your way from point A to point B step by step. There's also a "supply lines" rule that prevents you from gaining resources from your territories that are cut off from you.

The one gripe I have with the expansion is, unfortunately, what was supposed to be one of its big selling points - Air units. Here, they definitely took the cop-out approach. Each faction gets a new "air vehicle" type, but for all intents and purposes these things are just ground units that can move anywhere regardless of terrain. They don't have to land, they don't have to refuel, and really they don't feel that special or even useful. They don't even have the decency to look like they're flying in a holding pattern... they just hang there defying physics until you tell them to move, like a Warcraft 2 Goblin Zeppelin or Gnomish Flying Machine. Typically their normal weapons are rather lackluster and they rely too heavily on timered abilities, meaning that they require a lot of micromanagement. The benefit they provide doesn't really justify their use of your precious and limited vehicle cap. The final straw for my mental dismissal of them came when I destroyed an Ork "Fighta-Bomma" with ground-targeted artillery.

Well, there's one other gripe, too, but it is a small one and doesn't really apply to me. The publisher chose to stick it to late adopters by making it so that you can't play as Tau or Necrons unless you already own Dark Crusade, and put your Dark Crusade CD Key in to a special place in the game's options. Thus, you can't just buy the latest WH40k:DOW game and be up to date. That seems particularly money-grubbing of them, but then I guess Games Workshop has always been about the grubbing of money. See that link 5 paragraphs above.

But aside from that, it's still a worthwhile play and a fun time. Not for the casual gamer, but what about Warhammer has ever been for the casual gamer? One last Caveat - the game itself still sports a very claustrophobic level of zoom. I don't know why they seem to think that if we can see more than 8 units at once we'll somehow be having less fun (or perhaps too much), but there's this mod out there which fixes that problem and then it's full speed ahead from there.

Verdict: A-. It's a great big ball of awesome only tarnished by a few blotches.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Soulstorm is definitely a nice update on Dark Crusade and worth getting.

However, the fact remains that the best gameplay for Dawn of War is the DoWpro mod for the more serious RTS gamer. I think it'll be coming for SS soon and I can't wait - the DC version of DoWpro is epic!