It's always difficult to step back to a previous version.* So, having tasted what the the Dawn of War II beta had to offer, I'm doing my best to give Dawn of War: Soulstorm, the latest stand-alone expansion for Relic Entertainment's Warhammer 40,000 RTS franchise, the benefit of the doubt. I still, however, find myself disappointed – not with the graphics (not as shiny as DoW2, but still very solid), but with the backwards step into being just another real-time strategy game.
The opening movie is inauspicious, to say the least. There is (in the typical manner of these things) perilously small justification for the Imperial Guard, Sisters of Battle, Space Marines**, Orks, Chaos Marines, Necrons, Tau, Eldar, and – just for good measure – the Dark Eldar, all converging on one system to blow each other to smithereens. The introduction, though, seems to think it wise to take this supposed justification, and spread it as thin as possible over several minutes. I followed along happily as far as when the Guard were faced with a Warpstorm and an assumedly linked Chaos invasion. I assumed from the game's cover that the Sisters would be along at some point. But by the time the Tau and the Dark Eldar wandered into the fray, the whole setup had become rather ludicrous (and yet oddly lacking in any moments of stock Games Workshop humour).
At some point, I think it would have been wise just to decide between having a coherent plot and a giant list of playable factions. Since Relic have failed to do this, I would suggest you simply skip the intro and get right down to enjoying the choice of sides (who, I must point out, seem to have a baffling disinclination towards alliances: I can understand why Space Marines, Orks, Eldar, and even Chaos might just end up in a battle royale – but I defy you to provide a rational explanation why the Sisters of Battle would start off their campaign by blowing the crap out of fellow servants of the Emperor).
Anyway, once you get into the game's campaign mode, you're presented with a view of the Kaurava system – four planets, plus associated satellites. This is the game's turn-based strategy map – a feature from the last expansion, actually, although this time spread over numerous planets (not that it's really any bigger in game terms). It functions in a similar way to the turn-based layer of the Total War games, although it is much less sophisticated. I really like what Relic have attempted here – and it's something I would love to see done more often in real-time strategy games. However, the actual implementation of TBS elements in Soulstorm is poor. Spreading the map over a whole system makes it very fiddly. Even with the help of the tutorial, the unintuitive and unrealistic interface takes a lot of getting used to, and never fully manages to justify itself.
The RTS gameplay (the real gameplay, that is) is good. It isn't too difficult to pick up, and the battles are exciting. But, even with nine playable factions (two more than its predecessor, Dark Crusade), Soulstorm fails to offer anything beyond the same old RTS experience. That is to say, it's good – but if you have already played through Dawn of War and its other expansion packs, there isn't really a lot left to give here. This iteration of the franchise has, I think, run its course.
There are things, good and bad, that I could tell you about the gameplay. The fireworks are good – flame weapons look excellent, and vehicles explode in a very satisfying manner (actually, vehicles are all round pretty impressive – though the added aerial units don't really add a huge amount to the game, and feel a little tacked on). It falls down a little on ease of moving round the map: 3D terrain is great, but can get confusing to the point of frustrating, especially when you can only view a small amount of map at a time.
But, good or bad, it's just more of the same. Not a recommended buy, unless you've lost your copies of the original Dawn of War and the other expansions, and still have a hankering to play.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War - The Complete Collection
What I can recommend, however, for those who have not yet tasted Dawn of War, and can't wait for (or won't be able to run) the upcoming sequel, is the new repackaging of Dawn of War with expansions Winter Assualt, Dark Crusade, and Soulstorm. For around NZ$80, this is a excellent deal, on a very good series of games. And in this context Soulstorm sits well, delivering the widest range of options for different sides in multiplayer.
* Except if you're running Windows Vista, in which case using a computer that still has XP is like having a chocolate fudge sundae followed by a whiskey on the rocks.
** Only the Blood Ravens chapter (which, I guess, passes for restraint in the 40k universe).