Warhammer 40,000: Darktide Review
Purging on a budget
Developer Fatshark have earned themselves a reputation for creating some exciting action games in the Warhammer universe. Licensed products can be difficult to pull off, but with the Warhammer license being seemingly very open and easily obtained, it's more surprising that the games have been higher quality. With Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide and Vermintide 2, they created some exciting first-person action titles with a focus on melee combat, cooperative play, and replayability. Their latest effort is Warhammer 40K: Darktide, another first-person multiplayer co-op action game that brings some of the formula over, but also has some issues of its own.
As one might expect in a game of this type, the narrative does not get much attention in Darktide. During the character creation and subsequent tutorial mission, the player character is accused of a crime and thrown in jail. However after an enemy assault, they are incidentally freed and save the life of an officer, who as a thank you gives them an opportunity to keep their relative freedom by fulfilling dangerous incursions. Suicide Squad notions aside, it's a flat and not overly engaging premise. There are occasional cutscenes, but for the most part there's not much of a story to follow.
That's not to say Darktide isn't fully committed to the Warhammer 40k lore. As the developers have already explored this vast setting before, hardcore fans are likely to appreciate their focus on recreating the world authentically. You can customize your face and body type with decent enough variety, and then further go through a series of choices that determine your background. It feels like the start of an RPG - but it's also seemingly pointless, as apart from having one type of voice locked to a certain upbringing, your background choices seem to have no impact.
What's more important is the character class. There are just four to select from, and no sub-classes, which puts this below the previous games in this series. Each class has access to a few special weapons, while the rest are a shared pool amongst everyone; each also has a single special ability, and an associated passive perk tree, as well as unique type of grenade. Psyker is a sort of magic-wielding class that uses ranged and special abilities to deliver damage, and build up a Warp Charge meter to then push enemies away. The Veteran is a typical soldier, who also prefers ranged weapons; their arsenal includes a typical frag grenade and the special ability temporarily boosts their ranged damage to tagged boss enemies.
The Zealot is more melee focused, with the goal of delivering quick and fast blows - with increasing damage the lower their health gets. Their grenade is of the stun variety, and the special attack makes them dash forward and deliver big damage. Finally, the towering Ogryn is a non-human character that can equip tower shields and is meant to be a tank of the group. His special ability lets him rush ahead and push foes out of the way, clearing a path and letting the team pick off the stragglers. The team is encouraged to stick together with the Cohesion mechanic, offering passive boosts when everyone is near the action.
While there are unique mechanics to each class, the moment-to-moment gameplay isn't always vastly different. Each class can hack and shoot with equal gusto, and so their differences are not monumental, especially in the face of a huge horde and the chaos that ensues.Everyone has a role to play when things go bad, but the experience isn’t different enough to want to grind each class - which you must do, as there is no sharing experience, currency, or even items between different characters.
Before you get to the missions, you're dropped off at the game's hub, a small shared online space where you can visit a couple of vendors and look at your inventory. This is your opportunity to change your loadout and perks, as it cannot be done during a mission. There is not much to look at, however - you only have one melee and one ranged weapon, as well as up to three trinkets for more passive bonuses. There's no armor or any deep RPG elements to worry about. The available loot can be sorted by rarity or gear score, as well as salvaged for a bit of coin.
Once you've got equipped for the battles ahead, players can select any of the currently available random missions. These can have different gameplay mechanics, special conditions such as fog or increased/reduced enemy hordes, and also come in up to five difficulties. All these parameters are randomized and presented for the players to choose from, so you always have a pool of matchmaking partners to join you - the structure is similar to Deep Rock Galactic. You'll be matchmade with others or can group up ahead of time, and the four players will venture forth into the mission.
Unlike DRG though, which has randomized worlds, the missions are all static and the same each time you visit. This means that it doesn't take long before you've seen every mission available, and the feeling of repetition sets in. There are a few different and well-created biomes, such as a weapons factory, a smelter, a desert outpost, and others, but you'll see them all fairly quickly. Missions take on average 20-30 minutes, and have you push through the mostly linear paths, often stopping to fight off a horde or complete tasks. These tasks are typical for a co-op action game: collecting some power cells while enemies continuously attack, defending something for a time and occasionally having to run over to different terminals to play a minigame to restart them, and so on. After that, you continue on and eventually reach extraction. Even some of the finales are underwhelming - instead of a frantic escape, you are asked to clear every enemy, and then leisurely board the aircraft.
The mission objectives are not particularly imaginative, but they are functional and fit the genre. The level design is decent, often having side rooms and elevation changes. There are also special objectives that crop up, such as having to collect up to four items hidden throughout - though the item spawns are fixed and randomized, so again after a few visits it becomes rather trivial. Randomly appearing mini-bosses try to put up a fight, however there are just a couple of them and they are easily bested, and do not have any memorable or cool abilities to make you re-adjust your strategy. Having to run through the same missions isn’t always a point of criticism - some of the biggest titles such as Destiny or The Division base their entire post-game on it - but the missions need to be memorable and fun to begin with, and that's often not the case with Darktide.
Another key element to replayability is of course the gameplay itself. As a game that focuses on team combat against massive enemy hordes, Darktide offers decent action. As mentioned, all four classes can go in with a melee weapon, or use something ranged. The ranged combat feels a bit lacklustre - even with some big grenade-launcher type weapons, you find yourself trying to do precision damage instead for more effective results. The arsenal includes shotguns, laser rifles, grenade launchers, flame throwers and more - all with their own damage stats and specific perks, such as cooldowns or special reloads. The shooting often does not feel overly satisfying or powerful, though making heads explode as the Psyker is gleefully amusing. With the overwhelming odds, you will often resort to grenades, and these cause satisfying area of effect impacts.
So where the action is probably at its best is in melee - perhaps unsurprisingly, given the previous games also focused on this as the core mechanic. It's not as deep as more specialized games such as Chivalry, but delivering blows with a hammer, axe, or even a sword with a chainsaw, all feel quite satisfying. Here again, different weapon types have specific quirks, but the general idea of swinging and aiming remains the same. There are other mechanics too - such as blocking and then pushing back the attackers, which can be lifesaving. Less helpful is the ability to dodge, which often doesn't get you far in a mob of enemies, and the stamina meter that's only needed for defence and not attack.
Those enemies that you're being swarmed by include all sorts of wretches and goons, hideous in appearance and dangerous in their attacks. Swinging away or taking shots into the crowd of foes swarming the team is usually fun, though things get complicated when special enemies appear. These include armored, heavy-weapon wielders, grenadiers, and even snipers. They pose a more immediate threat due to a bigger health pool and damage output, and can be marked out of a crowd for your team to focus on. Some enemies even immobilize players, such as trapping them in an electric net or pouncing on them, requiring a teammate to get free. The sheer volume and good variety of enemies makes for entreating action.
If a player loses all their health, they enter a downed state, but can still be picked up - at the expense of a part of their health bar being permanently gone. That is, at least until you find one of the healing stations in the level, with its limited charge prompting a discussion of who needs it the most. You will also find ammo and health kits, which can be carried around and deployed once when needed, adding some more strategy. If you happen to fully die, the team can push on and rescue you at an upcoming area, akin to Back 4 Blood and other games. But if all players perish, the mission is failed and you are only given some of the promised experience. You don't lose anything, so it's not a big problem.
While failure isn't overly punishing, there is still the question of difficulty balance. The game offers no indicators (such as a required gear score level) when choosing a mission difficulty. Level 1 and 2 are quite easy even in your early adventures, but level 3 makes a big jump, with increased damage from enemies. Further levels escalate things, but it's this middle ground that probably needs a bit more fine tuning. This is one of the few issues that the game needs to address.
Darktide has a variety of gameplay and progression design choices that feel poorly executed. Experience (called Trust) is earned by completing missions and adds to your overall level. At around every five levels, up until the current level 30 maximum, you also get to pick one of three passive perks. These perks can be swapped out anytime between missions, to slightly alter your playstyle and provide bonuses such as free grenades or more damage in specific scenarios. The problem is that you earn the same amount of XP regardless of how you perform, or what weapons you use. It seems like a missed opportunity to have XP earnings based on the different types of combat, or simply even for eliminating more enemies, and so on. The game lacks a scoreboard entirely, so you have no way to check how much you're contributing to the effort. It takes a while to earn experience - and as already mentioned, you have to level each class separately, which can be quite a grind and really puts the lack of mission and objective variety into the spotlight.
Item progression is another strange point. You can get new weapons from three sources - random drops after a mission, or buy them at one of two shops. The first shop rotates its inventory on a timed basis, so you can very well miss out on a weapon that you may have wanted, or in fact it can have nothing of interest at all. Recent Borderlands games did this, but with only a couple of weapons that are appropriate for your class and level being available at a time, it creates a rather limited shopping experience. The other shop uses special currency - earned by completing weekly tasks - and lets you buy either very powerful weapons or something entirely random and hidden until you buy it. Those weekly tasks, by the way, expire at the end of the week, even if you made progress in them.
Getting new types of weapons is exciting, but you have no way to test them without going into a mission, where you're stuck with it until the end. With the weapons you do have, you can spend yet another type of rare currency and upgrade them to the next level/rarity tier, which boosts their stats. This is a fairly shallow mechanic, and the vendor seemingly has crafting planned for the future - but this was apparently not ready for launch. What was ready is the typical cosmetic item shop, where you can use in-game currency or real cash to buy skins for your weapons and character, again on a limited time basis. It's also perhaps why the game switches to a third-person view in the hub level, so you can see your own outfits.
The presentation and technical aspects of Darktide are also a mixed bag. On the one hand, the multiplayer and connectivity features are very solid. Players can join mid-mission, and bots fill any open slots in the meantime. If you had a crash, you can rejoin your friends with relative ease. The matchmaking seems to be fast during launch week, and the game tries to put together teams with each character class represented - though there is no hard limit, so any combination is allowed. Connectivity seems good in general. Audio design is also strong, with great music and solid special effects. Characters will chat amongst each other and there's seemingly enough variety to avoid repetition of dialogue. The art style is also rather good, as the developers have honed in on their recreations of the Warhammer 40k worlds, with immersive and highly detailed environments.
Where things get worse is in visuals and performance. This isn't a full-priced release, but still the animations, quality of the textures and some of the environmental details are of lower quality. But what's worse is the game's instability, with instances of frequent crashing and a lot of framerate problems. Even on high-end hardware, there are performance issues throughout, and not even related to the amount of enemies on screen; special effects and certain areas of levels just seem to kill the framerate, even when you drop down to medium settings at 1080p. Loading times are also incredibly slow even on SSDs. The technical stumbles can be amusingly surmised by what it takes to get into the hub - the initial logo screens you have to click past, then the intro movie only accepts Escape key to skip it, and finally to start loading the game you can only press Spacebar at the splash screen.
Warhammer 40K: Darktide follows on the formula that the developers have done well with in the past, but it's lacking in many areas. Its core combat is satisfying enough, though better with a melee focus, but it can't carry the lack of variety and content. There are not enough missions and their content is too predictable, and while the four different classes have some unique mechanics, the moment to moment gameplay of desperately fighting a horde of enemies is very similar no matter who you choose. This makes the experience feel like a bit of a grind, and leveling more than one character is a daunting task. The performance issues and lack of crafting further punctuate the thought that the game wasn't entirely ready to leave its Early Access model. If you loved the Vermintide games, the basics are all here to enjoy once again, but fans of Deep Rock Galactic, Killing Floor or even Rainbow Six Extraction that are hoping for a more complete and polished experience won't find it here just yet.