Version tested: PC
Soulstorm is an "expandalone" in the splendidly bloody science-fiction strategy series, Dawn of War. That basically means that Dawn of War is getting a little pricey if you want to keep playing the same game, but with the extra races. They're not a bad idea if you fancy a dabble: there's no need to have the original game, and there's some new stuff bolted into a proven and familiar game. Nevertheless there's a sense of vacuity. Nothing much is being achieved by this game, and there's really nothing new to focus your attention on.
Still, someone must be making a few quid out of these expansions, since they can't be all that expensive to develop - the tech has been around for four years, and the previous races are bundled each time, with the same skirmish maps, the same art assets, the same (if slightly tweaked) army builder, and so on. It's a pity the people who actually made this game - Iron Lore, who went bust last month - won't see a penny of it. Jumping into the mire of the Games Workshop universe didn't do them any good at all.
But it's not something we need care about, because I'm sure you'll be able to pick this up for next to nothing in a couple of months. And that's what I'd recommend you do. Right now it's difficult to recommend adding this to a Dawn of War collection if it already includes everything up to Dark Crusade. This latest iteration adds two armies, Dark Eldar and Sisters of Battle, and delivers another non-linear campaign mode, but none of it's entirely vital. And of course it's only partially standalone, since it requires the original Dawn of War if you want to be able to play with Orks and Space Marines. And if skirmish or multiplayer are your thing, you're probably going to want them too.
Anyway, we're now up to nine factions in the Dawn of War universe (bio-swarming Tyranids notable by their continued absence) and the two new races are of mixed appeal.
The weakest of the new duo are the Dark Eldar. They have a squeaky-voiced piercings-and-slavery thing going on. They have some spectacular flying-boat type units and some black-and-purple-energies. It all feels somewhat contrived, and in the steroids-and-cybernetics overwrought universe of universe they're very much the leftover race. The normal Eldar might be a bit emo, but they've got some class. The Deldar are awkward pubescent posers, like they did Chaos but didn't inhale.
The Sisters of Battle on the other hand are much more entertaining. They're the ultimate religious zealots of their 40k universe, seeking out and incinerating heretics when and wherever they find them. Their high-end units have a suitable madness to them - a penitent tied to a crucifix-robot, a church pipe organ-tank that acts as a rocket-bombard, and a giant angel raised from the dead by the psychic ghost of the Emperor of all humanity. Yeah, that's the good stuff.
The least engaging aspect of Soulstorm, however, is also its central conceit: the solar-system campaign map. Theoretically this is the best way of making a strategy game non-linear - just look at the Total War games - but in practice Soulstorm doesn't make it work. The main problem is that I'm just not really interested in fighting for control of the system itself. Because the strategic game is a little shallow, there's no sense of empire-building, and because there's no real story, I might as well exit the campaign and simply play a series of skirmish games.
The bigger problem is that the campaign is overly protracted and will often force you into replaying a single map repeatedly because there's no way to adequately reinforce it and allow the battle to auto-resolve. It's not a huge problem, but enough of an irritation to actively need addressing. I seem to recall people having a similar beef with Dark Crusade, so it seems that it wasn't fixed here. Anyway, that mechanical stuff aside, I simply never found myself wanting to conquer the solar system. It doesn't have the wide open feeling of empire-building that, say, a Total War game, or even Star Wars: Empire At War offered in its conquest mode.
On the other hand the various "stronghold" maps, which are variously scripted to provide enormous challenges and varying events as you play, really do give some sense that you're defeating a particular faction and facing them on their home turf. I lost a couple of these on my first attempts because I simply underestimated what I was up against. After a couple of turgid, challenge-free skirmish-style missions, it was easily done. Speaking of skirmishes, there also seems to be a minor AI bug in some of the maps, where enemies simply don't build up very far, making them a pushover even on hard difficulty settings. It was extremely annoying, but inconsistent and I couldn't replicate it at will. Nevertheless I can't see why anyone should forgive bugs in an expansion for a four-year-old, extremely commercial game. And I've had a number of people point out that the Sisters of Battle side contains an exploit, while the Dark Eldar are suffering from a bug in multiplayer matches with spectators.
Viewed on its own merits, Soulstorm's a six. That does feel very harsh, because you could easily pick it up and play without having played any of the previous games and still have a fine time. Dawn of War is still a thrilling, explosive real-time strategy, even if it is now starting to look quite raggedy. Viewed against the backdrop of the series as a whole, however, that's looking like a fair score. It offers too little, and is without the massively appealing races of previous expansions. Anyone with an extensive Dawn of War collection is probably going to feel pretty lukewarm after the first few hours here. Hell, after a few hours of the campaign mission I found myself setting up a game as the Necrons, just to play with a more satisfying army. And then there's the huge visual gulf between this and World In Conflict, and the tactical gap between Dawn of War and Company of Heroes... Soulstorm is a stopgap game. It really feels like the last breath of the series. And that's a real shame.
When oh when will we get another potent dose of the 40k universe? I guess we'll just have to wait for that Dawn of War II that the Internet keeps murmuring about...
6 / 10