If you’ve played the Vermintide titles, you already know what to expect here — you and three other players engage hordes and hordes of enemies in a largely melee-focused experience second only to the real-life activity of smashing inanimate objects with a large hammer.
Warhammer fans have had a pretty tough break when it comes to video game adaptations of their beloved universe. There are a few notable exceptions, like the Total War games and Vermintide (developer Fatshark’s previous venture), but the 40,000 universe in particular seems to be particularly difficult to capture. It’s easy to understand why — it’s a maddeningly complex, brutally dystopian, and alien reality. When I think of Warhammer 40K, I imagine a lot of gothic windows, especially things that aren’t gothic windows shaped like gothic windows. And I think, for the first time, this essence is captured in Warhammer 40K: Darktide.
Only this time, it’s a little (read: little) less melee-focused. There’s a bigger emphasis on guns and ranged abilities, like the Psyker’s head-explosion force-grip type thing (I don’t know what it’s actually called, I only play the brutish best-boy Ogryn). This means some of your team will be engaging hordes in melee range while others will be ensuring you aren’t mulched by Gatling gunners, snipers, and grenadiers keeping their distance.
The story is aggressively simple — you’re an inmate given temporary amnesty in exchange for the murder of thousands of plague-infected citizens and heretics alike in pursuit of carrying out the Emperor’s divine will.
Picking up my comically-oversized combat knife, which is comically undersized for his immense stature, my Ogryn, Lorge, embarked on mission after mission of killing dudes, killing weird mold, placing hacking devices, defending hacking devices, and moving batteries. There’s one boss in there too, but my point is that I wish there was a little more variety to the missions available at launch. I sort of wish there was more variety to everything, but we’ll get to that later. It was a little disheartening to get to a cool new locale only to realize I’d be carrying out one of the three tasks the game offered.
The combat, as expected of Fatshark, is great. Melee swings are just as crunchy as they were in Vermintide, and ranged combat feels well-balanced. There’s a very natural mix of close and long-range encounters, and plenty of ways to close the gap for classes who are less focused on shooting from afar, like the Ogryn’s bull rush ability.
Further enhancing the feeling of hewing enemies in twain with a giant shovel is the soundtrack. Darktide has some of the best combat music I’ve heard in a game… maybe ever? The orchestral choirs’ melodic chants swell to dizzying heights, combining with the industrial-style electronics to perfectly capture the gothic mood of a universe enraptured in a militant, zealous fervor.
The special units you’ll encounter are largely holdovers from the legacy left behind by Left 4 Dead — a Hunter-like Hound unit, Charger-like Mutant, Witch-like Daemonhost, and Smoker-like Trapper to name just a few. There’s a reason, of course, why these archetypes are so common — they inspire great multiplayer cooperation. And rest assured, you’ll be cooperating, or you’ll be dying, so stick with your team if you want to live. Literally, sticking together recharges your temporary shields, and Darktide does everything it can to encourage working as a unit, which is greatly appreciated in a matchmaking-heavy experience.
There are five difficulty levels to choose from, ranging from very easy to very hard to very very hard and beyond. Luckily, you’ll also be leveling up and collecting better weapons as you progress, so the medium difficulty and higher become much more manageable down the line. Experimenting with different weapon combinations is rewarding, but the promised weapons at launch (after the pre-order ‘beta’ concluded) have yet to be added, so pickens are still a little slim. Also not included at launch is the full crafting system, which means you aren’t able to craft your favored type of weapon that’s level-appropriate and are instead relegated to the luck of the draw in the rotating shop, the prohibitively expensive upgrade station, or the chance rewards at the end of missions. This is incredibly frustrating, as entire playstyles can live and die by your choice of weapon. There are no alternatives to the Ogryn’s shield, for instance, so if you’re having trouble finding one that’s good enough to take with you on harder missions you’re out of luck.
If you thought unlocking weapons was hard, wait until you try your hand at cosmetics. Tired of looking like a bum who just crawled your way out of Shawshank? Prepare to engage in team sabotage as you try your hand at some ludicrously difficult, and sometimes, purely luck-based “challenges” in the form of penances that unlock cosmetics. Or you could buy some much worse cosmetics for in-game currency, or slightly better cosmetics for cold hard cash. Good luck.
And if you thought unlocking weapons and cosmetics was hard, wait until you try running the game. With a 3070, I get, on a good day, 80 FPS on medium settings. DLSS seems to either be malfunctioning or nonfunctioning, and RTX is a pipedream for even those with 4000 series cards. Optimization is woeful, as it was in the pre-release beta, and as it will likely continue to be for the coming weeks and months.
The unfortunate bottom line is this: Darktide is a fundamentally fun, and literally incomplete game. I can’t think of a good reason this couldn’t have been released in early access, and it follows Fatshark’s trend of releasing shaky titles and continually improving them (mostly) until they live up to expectations. This isn’t that far off from the rest of the gaming industry, sure, but there were so many core ideas in Vermintide that seem to have been discarded or retooled into something worse, like the crafting system and cosmetic unlocks. To be fair, the atmosphere, presentation, gameplay, and music are top-notch, truly inspired and top of their class. It’s the other things: performance, progression, and content variety, that are enough to seriously hold the package back. Emperor willing, Darktide will see the same post-launch support as Fatshark’s other titles and become the game it is destined to be.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided by review by Fatshark.
One day, Warhammer 40K: Darktide will be a great game. Fatshark, like many developers, has yet to perfect the art of the rough landing. A polished core experience can't overcome woeful performance and blatantly unfinished features, like the (almost) entirely missing crafting system. I'm confident, however, support will continue until Darktide ends up being the game we all hoped it would be.