You have to feel sorry for the general public in the Warhammer 40,000 universe. No public holidays, trips to the beach or vegging out on the sofa with a brand new box set for them. Instead, they have a never-ending onslaught of tetchy aliens, crazed robot armies and the mucus splattered forces of Chaos kicking their door down at three in the morning. Talk about stressed. A typical Monday morning on the grim, battle-scarred front line with the titanic forces of galaxy-hopping species colliding in desperate battle for survival can't be much fun, now can it? Unfortunately, things aren't going to be settling down any time soon. Dawn of War - Soulstorm brings the sprawling slug-fest of W40K to the Kaurava system, traps nine increasingly shirty races in a Warp Storm and sees who's left standing at the end of it all.
Soulstorm is, of course, the standalone fourth installment of the Dawn of War series of real-time strategy games, following on from the original Dawn of War and its two subsequent expansions, Winter Assault and Dark Crusade. Two new factions, the Sisters of Battle and the Dark Eldar, are introduced, along with a new flying unit for every pre-existing faction. There's a campaign mode, featuring a non-linear, Risk-like map for you to scuffle over, more than a hundred skirmish maps, online multiplayer and a few other bits and pieces as well. There's no doubt that Soulstorm is a very full package, but the question remains: is there life left in the old dog yet?
There's an immediate feeling that Soulstorm has been made with one eye firmly on the purse strings. A small, and admittedly nit-picky example, but one that feels indicative of the whole Soulstorm experience, is that the opening cut-scene has been rendered with the game engine itself and then been tarted up a bit in post-production. Compared to the CGI spectacular that opened Dawn of War, it's a bit disappointing. Soulstorm seems to have assumed that no-one is really going to get all that excited about the third expansion of a four year old game, so there's no point in going overboard. That may be true, but it would have been good to see the game striving for some kind of new ground, rather than keeping its ambitions firmly in check.
Still, once you're actually into the game, Soulstorm proves to be every bit as entertaining as any of its predecessors. The basic Dawn of War gameplay is as solid as ever, and it fits like a comfy old sock. The emphasis is still very much on rapid expansion across the battlefield as each side tries to grab and hold as many control points as possible. Control points generate resources which you use to build units, buildings and upgrades. There are other faction-specific resources in play as well - the Sisters of Battle use faith generated by their troops in battle, and the Dark Eldar can harvest souls of the fallen. It's a good, solid system and makes each and every game fun and dynamic.
The Sisters of Battle are some of the fightiest nuns you're ever likely to stumble across. Intent on purging the universe of all things impure and wicked in the most violent manner possible, they're a hoot to play. Essentially Space Marines with more flame-throwers and fewer testicles, it doesn't take too long to get the Sisters working like a well-oiled death machine. There's a standard selection of ranged, close combat and vehicle/building busting units. Their ultimate unit, the Living Saint, has a particularly impressive way of hurling fiery heck all over the place.
The Dark Eldar are exactly the kind of Chaos-muddled Eldar you'd expect - lots of gurgling voices, cackling and a wide variety of tormented screams provide the soundtrack to their predominantly black and purple shenanigans. Again, there's a typical range of units to play with so you won't feel out of your depth for too long. The Dark Eldar's special trick is their ability to collect the souls of the dead and use them to fuel the dark powers of their commander, the Archon.
Both new factions are fun to muck about with but don't really introduce anything new into the game. The nine different factions certainly provide a diverse enough selection but it's probably unavoidable that with so many different options, some factions are going feel and play much like another one. Not that it really matters all that much, as Dawn of War has never been as uptight and serious as other games in the RTS genre. It's a matter of preference really - take the two fundamentally different and perfectly tuned sides in, for example, Company of Heroes or the sprawling chaos of nine different-ish factions in Dawn of War?
Every faction now has a flying unit but they also fall into the 'fun to play but don't make much difference' category. It's good to have them available and they can open up new lines of attack by going over obstacles rather than around them, but they don't by any means transform the Dawn of War experience. Everything is still going to happen on a more-or-less 2D plane. The flying units just happen to be a little further off the ground than everything else.
The strategic campaign takes place on the four planets and three moons of the Kaurava system. Every faction starts off with a home territory and has to then expand out across the system, crushing all contenders along the way. Every new territory conquered provides additional resources that can be spent to either reinforce defences or bolster an attack force. Certain territories contain jump gates that allow you to hop from one planet to another. Eventually you'll run into one of the other races home bases, which will trigger an almighty ruckus. These home base conflicts take on the form of more traditionally scripted campaign missions, where you'll have to perform certain tasks - destroy this factory, stop that convoy - as well as ultimately winning the battle. While these set-piece battles are undeniably big, loud and difficult, we felt they became a bit too much of a grind. It may just be personal preference again, but we found the skirmish battles, with their focus on capture and control, to be much more compelling than the 'run around and put out fires' nature of the home base missions.
While inevitably showing its age, Soulstorm is still a good looking game. Fire and flame effects seem to have been given a going over, presumably so the pyromaniacal ways of the Sisters of Battle can look their best. Explosions are big and chunky and the unit animations are imaginative and, at times, gruesomely excessive in the best possible way. All the uber-units have some kind of big show-offy effect to unleash on the enemy. The great benefit of a four year old game engine is that it'll run smoothly on a wide range of machines, so you should have little trouble wringing every drop of graphical goodness out of Soulstorm.
Online multiplayer is alive and well and you'll have no trouble finding a game. Be aware that if you only own Soulstorm, you'll only be able to play online as the Sisters of Battle or Dark Eldar. You can play all nine factions in single player skirmish matches, but if you fancy taking anything else online, you'll have to buy whichever expansion pack introduced the faction you're after.
So, if you're only interested in single-player skirmish matches or the strategic campaign mode, you've never played a Dawn of War game before and have an interest in the Warhammer 40K universe, Soulstorm is quite an easy recommendation. There's a huge amount to play with, and Dawn of War's RTS style remains good, solid, bombastic fun. However, if you've played through any of the other expansions, there's not all that much here to really grab your attention. The campaign mode hasn't advanced an awful lot since Dark Crusade and the new races are very much more of the same. It's worth noting that THQ have announced that anyone who owns Soulstorm will get access to the beta of the just announced Dawn of War 2.
There's no doubt you'll have fun with Soulstorm but it does ultimately suffer from over-familiarity. It's an underwhelming close to the Dawn of War series and really could have used something a bit more fresh and exciting to see the series out with a bang. It will, however, see you through until the franchise is reborn, hopefully with a burst of innovation and vigour, in Dawn of War 2.