Dear Santa, for Christmas please bring me a Warhammer 40,000 MMO. This is, after all, the franchise that cheerfully pilfers every single great idea sci-fi has ever had, sticks it all in a giant fiction-blender and then adds several pints of bubbling blood. Just imagine all that presented as a living online world to carve your way through. The sights you'd see, the things you'd kill and be killed by - aliens, mechs, demons and men in a startling array of flavours, all itching for a taste of your Heavy Bolter. Imagine, just imagine playing as a Space Marine and falling prey to the corruption of Chaos, then choosing the fascinatingly monstrous ways in which your body mutates and gains dark new abilities. But no, instead we get another couple of dozen cheerless grind marathons filled with elves and wizards. I'm so bored of elves and wizards. If I met one in the street, I'd probably punch him. Why, why, why is the first Games Workshop MMORPG the upcoming Warhammer Online, which, however good it may turn out to be, enters into such an overcrowded online fantasy market when there's a near-vacant sci-fi one GW could just stroll right in and, thanks to that incredibly rich Warhammer 40,000 universe, take without contest? Sigh.
Which means, for now, that the 40K RTS Dawn of War is as good as we get. But man, it really is good. Most games are lessened come the second expansion pack, but DoW is as strong as ever. It's a significantly flawed expansion pack, true, but the two new factions it brings to the table are so spectacularly over-the-top that the weaknesses seem far more marginal than they are. The flaws certainly don't matter if you play DoW predominantly online - the Necron (voodoo death robot-things) and Tau (stealth, heavy armour and bestial aliens) will slide proudly into the existing roster of playable races, and are so much ultra-violent fun that you'll have a hard time wanting to play as anything else ever again.
Without having undertaken a few dozen online bouts with them though, it's tricky to know for sure whether the new factions are entirely balanced with the older ones. They're both very different to what's gone before, especially compared to the rather subdued nature of the Imperial Guard introduced in the last expansion, Winter Assault. For instance, the Necron especially are incredibly deadly, and all-but unstoppable once they reach the peak of their powers. Being demolished in seconds by a city-sized floating pyramid firing Death Star lasers at everything you own, while a hundred-foot high Grim Reaper (scythe and all) picks off any stragglers, is certainly a spectacular way to die, but is it fair? It essentially forces the Necron's opponents into rush tactics, hoping to wipe them out before they hit the top of the tech tree.
That said, there are signs of meticulous balancing - the Necron will build incredibly slowly unless they've captured large numbers of strategic points, so clearly are carefully designed to be that much more vulnerable in the game's earlier stages. They also don't have any vehicles or troop transports to speak of, but by way of return, some of the infantry can teleport over huge distances of the map. Whether ultimately such mechanics prove totally fair or not (either to the Necron or their foes), they do genuinely introduce new strategies to a game that could otherwise have been considered set in its ways. Dawn of War is all the fresher for it. Is it fair to presume that any imbalances that do appear from weeks of online battles will be addressed by later patches? We're not talking about bugs here, so I think it is - look how many patches down the line Warcraft III or DoW itself is, all as a result of careful monitoring of how people play, forever tweaking here or retuning there to ensure the playing field remains ever-level. Creepy and anal, in a way, but also effective.
Noble intentions are also evident in the revamped single-player campaign. As described in our preview a couple of weeks back it throws out the linear string of missions offered in the previous two DoW instalments in favour of a strategy map whose territories you conquer in an order of your pleasing, each offering different resource rewards. This is A Very Good Idea, for the reasons outlined in said preview. Disappointingly, it's not quite as good in extended practice - with every one of your chosen faction's unit types already sampled in the campaign's earlier stages and the storyline cut-scenes not being hugely gripping, the impetus to strive onwards begins to atrophy. There are no surprises, simply long, grinding repetition and ever-escalating difficulty. Only a dedicated and insane few are ever going to tackle the single-player with each of the seven factions.
And with that, we're circling around Dark Crusade's fundamental flaw. The campaign's really, relentlessly hard, even if you set the AI to easy. The enemy builds and attacks at inhuman speeds - making it a sterling challenge even for DoW vets. That's fine to a point, but men of similarly imprecise RTS skills to mine will pray for a patch that activates Very Easy mode. That fundamental trouble is that this is a standalone expansion, and therefore hoping to ensare newcomers to the game. Without the mollycoddling of Dawn of War vanilla and Winter Assault's fixed campaigns, they're in for a hell of a tough time. They'll quite likely either give up, default to the far easier but less interesting skirmish missions, or dabble online - only to find that the five non-Necron or Tau races they've been cheerfully campaigning and skirmishing with aren't available in multiplayer. Unless, of course, you already own DoW and Winter Assault, in which case you'll lap up both the new races and the additional units for the existing factions.
So, though standalone, Dark Crusade doesn't really make sense on its own. Through-and-through it seems made for long-term players; for them, this is mostly great news, though the single-player difficulty and repetition will frustrate them too. It's only masquerading as its own game - really, coming straight to this without having played its predecessors will be frustrating and bewildering, and the inability to play as Space Marines, Orks et al online a real slap in the face.
Don't think of it as its own game and the red mist recedes fast. The new races are incredible, some of the most imaginative fare the often too stiff-upper-lipped RTS landscape has ever seen. They're going to make for some spectacular online clashes, far more so than Winter Assault's guardsmen ever did, and devout DoW players will be the happiest of genocidal bunnies for their inclusion. That brutal learning curve aside, you can't really wish for more from an expansion pack. It's hovering on the absolute razor's edge of scoring an 8 - and if the punishing campaign gets a spot of noob-friendly spit and polish down the line, it'll almost definitely get one, but until then...