Every Warhammer 40,000 player has a favourite faction. For many it's the Orks; for others it could be the Tau or the Space Marines. But since Relic's Dawn of War premiered in 2004, the faction I've always wanted to try was the Necrons. You have to admit - an ancient machine race bent on genocide is an inherently fascinating concept. Indeed, the fiction of the tabletop game suggests that the Necrons are so powerful, they're all but guaranteed to grind the rest of the universe into dust.
Dark Crusade fulfills this wish and more. Not only can you play as the Necrons in the expansion, but also the Tau, and all previous Dawn of War factions. This applies to the single-player campaign as well as multiplayer. You don't even need the core game(s) unless you want to play with earlier factions online. So just in terms of quantity for price, Dark Crusade might already be a healthy value.
The campaign is set on a world called Kronos, where all seven Dawn of War factions are engaged in a struggle for supremacy. The Tau are the de facto governors of the planet at the game's start, but the Eldar, Marines, and the Imperial Guard have recently arrived with their own motives, and the local Ork Waaagh! is leaving its own path of destruction. The biggest threat of course is the Necrons, whose underground stasis crypts have been disturbed.
Unlike the fairly linear campaigns of the core game and Winter Assault, the one in Dark Crusade is based around a turn-based strategic mode, where battles are dictated by circumstance. Each faction has a stronghold province that must be protected; to win, players have to annihilate their opponents' strongholds. Armies move one turn at a time as they cross intervening territories. These are mostly obstacles, but captured territories produce Planetary Requisition points, and some of them hold benefits like production bonuses.
Requisition is needed for three things. First is the defense of your homelands, since enemy armies won't remain static as you cross the map. You can auto-resolve defensive battles, but without garrisons, conquered regions are guaranteed to be retaken. Attacks, meanwhile, are all in real-time, and so benefit greatly from the purchase of special Honor Guard units to accompany your commander. The commander himself can be equipped with Wargear which boosts his offensive and defensive capabilities in the field.
In keeping with the tradition of the other factions, the Necrons and the Tau play very differently from one another. The Necrons are a juggernaut - most of their units, especially the Warriors, move with all the speed of glacier. What they lack in agility however, they compensate for with firepower and toughness. They're difficult to kill, and even when they are destroyed, there's a chance they'll self-resurrect.
Their resource system is unusual in that they don't need Requisition. They do need plenty of Power, but interestingly, that demand can be satisfied fairly easily. No, what makes the Necrons distinct is that when they take a Relic, Critical, or Strategic Point, it improves their production speed. Their troop-building is extremely slow at the start of a battle, so it behooves them to capture as many points as they can in a hurry. To counterbalance the potential for rushing, only the defenseless Builder Scarab can actually seize a point. This leads to a strategy of quick expansion followed by a long, methodical march towards an enemy base.
The Tau are better suited to most players, crossing the battlefield faster and using a more familiar resource model. In fact, the Tau are arguably the speediest faction in all of Dawn of War, relying mostly on hard-hitting ranged units that can occasionally fly. This can give aggressive players an edge in the game, but only the tactically-minded ones; the Tau can't take much damage and have little in the way of melee defense. Their best approach is to hit and fade, or else make a series of pinpoint strikes while taking minimal damage. In this sense they add much-needed depth to DoW's gameplay.
The amount of content in Dark Crusade should leave no shortage of things to do. It can take 10 to 20 hours to finish one campaign game, and with six other sides to try, you could spend most of 2007 trying to see everything the title has to offer. This is ignoring AI skirmishes or online play, of course.
I'm bothered though by the lack of reward or differentiation between campaign battles. Some territories may have special objectives to receive their bonuses, and stronghold sieges are always unique, but most engagements are reduced to a glorified Skirmish mode. This means they have few cutscenes, and they always end in of one of two ways: the destruction of your base or the enemy's. For that matter, you'll never fight more than one faction at once in real-time.
The lack of narrative in Dark Crusade hurts more than I thought it would. While the acting and writing in Dawn of War has always been hokey, leaving it out drains the game of purpose. Warhammer 40,000 is as much about its background story (‘fluff') as its bloodshed, so to find less of it is disappointing, especially when you consider the possibilities offered by having so many participants in the story.
Mind you, I imagine that some gamers will consider these complaints to be positives. Because the game is as straightforward as it is, battles can take less time to complete, which should be beneficial to casual gamers - you're not going to get stuck in any ‘puzzle' missions in Dark Crusade. Moreover, players who genuinely hate Relic's cutscenes will get some relief. The game is simply a different take on the concept of Dawn of War.
In that regard, how much you'll like this expansion depends on what you liked in the past two titles. If you only touched the campaigns in DoW and Winter Assault, you may not find much to latch onto here. The open structure of the Dark Crusade campaign is not far removed from multiplayer or Skrimishes.
Naturally, people who've been playing those modes constantly should be ecstatic with the new material. It gives them new maps, new enemies, and new context to their playing experience. That's what an expansion is supposed to be for perhaps, but it seems like Relic is deliberately targeting gamers who've grown past the need for plot or cutscenes.
In spite of that, I can easily recommend the game to people who've never before tried Dawn of War. The basic gameplay should be enough to keep them enthralled. And if it's not for some reason, they can probably find Dawn of War: Gold Edition for the same price. They'll only be missing their genocidal killing machines.