Relic Entertainment’s original Dawn of War took the world by storm, bringing the grim bloodiness of the Warhammer 40K universe to the realms of realtime strategy. While the first expansion, Winter Assault added a single race in the form of the Imperial Guard alongside a new linear campaign, Dark Crusade added two more. These were the technologically superior Tau, wielding highly advanced laser weaponry, and the undying Necrons, cold metal skeletons bent on destroying the living.
The single-player campaign in Dark Crusade is radically different from its forebears - instead of proceeding through levels in a story-driven pattern, you are presented with the world of Kronus, currently being ravaged by each of the six playable races. The game plays out in turns, in which you may attack a nearby province, either taking it as your own or being repelled, after which each other faction similarly takes their turn and you may be forced to defend your territory. Over the course of the game you will aim to bring the entirety of Kronus under your dominion and wipe out all those who would stand in your way.
Once you launch into battle, the key focus is on base building and expansion, much as in the original Dawn of War. Strategic points must be captured and fortified in order to accumulate requisition points, which can in turn be used to summon units to the field. Depending on the game type, you can be required to capture and hold certain ‘critical locations’ for a period of time, or simply annihilate your enemies’ headquarters and forcibly remove them from the map. Capturing the elusive relic sites grants access to the game’s most powerful units, but as a result they are highly contested, so establishing a guarding garrison is key to victory. Enemy stronghold territories also have special win conditions associated with them and some great cutscenes which shake things up a bit.
Another new addition is the ability to upgrade your commander between missions, which improve their capabilities within missions. These upgrades are offered as mission rewards after satisfying predetermined criteria, such as successfully defending a territory from invaders or defeating 2000 enemies in combat. For example, during my playthrough as the Tau Empire (for the greater good!) Shas’o Kais, piloting the experiment XV22 armored battlesuit received accompanying drones, a stealth field for invisible attacks, and shoulder-mounted missile pods, among others.
This pseudo-RPG element is but one in a sea of ways to make Dark Crusade your very own experience. Each of the factions handles very differently, offering plenty of opportunity to play to your own strengths. Like swarming your enemy and brutally hacking them to bits? The war-loving Orks are probably your best bet. Conversely, if you prefer a more surgical approach the infamous Space Marines might suit you better. Whichever you choose, the large range of ground units and supporting vehicles provides a veritable plethora of tactical approaches.
Let me provide an example strategy - my most favoured during the campaign. Tau stealth suits would capture strategic points quickly, while my Earth caste builders assembled power generators and barracks, which would allow me to construct vehicles later and summon fire warriors, respectively. The path to enlightenment came next, allowing many unit-level ability and equipment upgrades, such as improved laser rifles and a ‘feral leap’ charge ability for Kroot melee warriors. Later I could choose between the cadre methods of Mont’ka (killing blow) or Kauyon (patient hunter). The former focuses on bringing the heaviest firepower available to bear in the form of railgun-equipped Hammerhead tanks, while the latter allows recruitment of immensely powerful melee units in the form of Kroot hounds and the gorilla-like Krootox. Lastly, capturing a relic allows requisition of the Greater Knarloc, an enormous creature reminiscent of a dinosaur, characterised as ‘a living battering ram’.
While the long cycle of attacking and subsequently being attacked can feel repetitive at times, there are certain aspects that prevent the game from becoming stale. Capturing territories allows construction of an honour guard, paid for using the planetary requisition accumulated each term, preventing you from being overrun immediately in battle. Furthermore, if you manage to capture an area with a useful structure such as a manufactorum or space relay, new actions are made available, including having pre-built bases when you arrive in battle, or the option to attack virtually any territory on the map regardless of your position.
Graphically Dark Crusade stands up very well even today, ten years after its initial release. While some textures understandably have aged poorly, the models themselves still feel exquisitely detailed, and make my inner Warhammer nerd squeal with delight. The aesthetic of each race is captured perfectly, and I strongly encourage you to zoom in and look at some of the more elaborate units close-up if you find a rare moment of respite mid-battle.
On that note, at the beginning of the game you’ll find that you can pretty easily rush an enemy base and take out all buildings within about fifteen minutes. By the end of the game however, your enemy commanders will have purchased upgrades and honor guard units of their own, so battles might take up to an hour or even longer on higher difficulty settings. Thankfully the game can be saved at literally any time to pick up later which is a very welcome feature.
Dark Crusade is also surprisingly friendly for those unfamiliar with the Warhammer 40,000 universe - there’s enough background provided for each race to easily come to grips with the general sense of what’s transpiring on Kronus, and it’s rather nice in not being split into a good guy/bad guy dynamic - every faction has positive and negative traits and is ultimately just out for its own benefit. I find this interesting because I imagine it will encourage players to direct a race that they identify with rather than simply choosing the Space Marines, as happens extremely often.
Voiceovers are delivered with the top-class conviction and gusto that we have come to expect from the series, and it never feels cheesy. I urge you to give Dark Crusade a try if you enjoy resource-centric RTS titles, even if you’re new to the lore of the far future. It’s one of the few titles in the series that is all about gameplay, and a great way to get your tactical game on.