For something that started out as a tabletop wargame, the Warhammer 40K setting has turned out a lot of spinoffs, especially in the video game space. Some have been wildly successful, such as the original Dawn of War. Others, like Eisenhorn: Xenos, have not. So here we are with another video game set in the grimdark future of the 41st Millennium, awaiting judgment from an Inquisitor, praying for the Emperor’s mercy (or at least the editor’s). And the only thing that comes to mind is, “Your case is pending.”

Warhammer 40K: Darktide puts players in the unenviable role of acolytes for the Imperial Inquisition, sent to the world of Atoma Prime and ordered by the enigmatic Inquisitor Grendyl to purge the heretics and Chaos-spawn who’ve taken over the hive city of Tertium. Playing as one of four classes, you traverse sprawling complexes, batter and slash your way through hordes of nameless mooks, and lay down Imperial judgment through various weapons and special abilities while attempting to complete your mission objectives. As your operative progresses through Trust Levels, new ability modifiers are unlocked and improved gear becomes available. You will be teamed up as part of a four-man squad, and you will live and die by those teammates’ actions.

“It’s a lovely view from here. Pity we’re probably going to have to call for Exterminatus eventually.”

There’s no question that developer Fatshark nailed the visual elements of the Warhammer 40K setting almost perfectly in Darktide. You’d think that would be difficult to screw up, but there’s always the possibility, and Fatshark put that possibility to rest. The environments have the right blend of industrial brutalism and space Gothic ornamentation to them. Weapon models look like they came right out of the Imperial Munitorum Manual. You have a modest degree of character customization, which lets you build your operative in a visually striking manner, though it lacks the fine control you might find in more RPG-centric games. Think Destiny 2 or The Division 2, but with more bits and pieces, and a slightly broader color palette for skin, hair, and eyes. I will say, however, that some of the customization options feel kind of wasted, since you’re unlikely to be seeing most of any of the body tattoos. Walking around shirtless in the hub area is not only frowned upon, it’s not physically possible. Enemy models are kind of varied, but you’re going to be seeing a lot of the models used over and over again briefly before striking them down. Visual effects abound, as one would expect, and they are just glorious. You may be intensely angry about the flames pooling around you because somebody shot the wrong barrel, but you can’t deny they look cool.

Sound in Darktide doesn’t quite have the same hard-and-fast rules to operate under as the visuals, which means that they’re more free to play around with audio elements. The voice acting in Darktide is very well done, though you’re probably not going to find highly recognizable actors among the ranks. One of the few rules that is apparently “hardcoded” into the setting is the British accents for character voices. But these are, for the most part, not the posh accents of richer areas in great metropolises like London. They’re the working class blokes, which adds a subtle tone to the team dynamics and the cutscenes, and helps reinforce the setting’s theme of countless millions toiling for the glory of the God-Emperor on Holy Terra. As far as sound effects, they’re clean and well-integrated. Fatshark’s interpretation of how a lasgun sounds when you pull the trigger is distinctive and unique. There aren’t a whole lot of what you’d call “generic” sound effects present. Jesper Kyd (Assassin’s Creed, the Borderlands series) brings his considerable talent to Darktide‘s soundtrack, mixing orchestral, choral, and techno elements to deliver a score which helps enhance the feeling of the grim far future setting.

“And no, turning in your boots after leaving the mission area does not count.”

It’s in the critical element of gameplay that Darktide stumbles, and it stumbles hard. As far as core mechanics, moving, shooting, melee, special abilities, those are easily done and well handled. If anything, you’re probably going to be doing more melee combat than gunplay. You’re tasked with undertaking seven different types of missions across thirteen different locales. Each mission has a threat rating, as well as the occasional secondary objective and mission modifier, with higher threat ratings providing higher XP and coin. This doesn’t sound too bad, except that certain mission types are locked to certain locales, so there’s a dangerous level of repetitiveness built into the gameplay loop. This is alleviated, to some extent, by the appearance of random waves of enemies and differing “elite” enemies which have special abilities and attacks. But the major mission beats are always the same. Picture Destiny 2 as nothing but Strikes, and you begin to see what the problem in Darktide is. Additionally, you can only select missions which are currently open on the Mission Table, or choose a Quickplay option which will throw you into who knows what. There are achievements, referred to as “penances,” which one accomplishes as the game goes on: Killing X number of enemies, killing certain enemies in a certain timeframe, pulling off a certain type of trick shot, all of these are tracked. But other ones, such as the mission types, are tracked without actually telling you what you’re missing. And certain mission types seem to come up less often on the Mission Table than others.

Compounding this is the fact you’re obligated to play multiplayer, which brings Sartre’s observation that “hell is other people” rather forcibly to mind. Each player gives off an aura effect, which provides different benefits based on character class. In a perfect world, such an arrangement would promote a desire for players to stick together, allowing for concentrated firepower and swift destruction of enemy forces. In the world we live in, it all too often means somebody is going to race ahead, screaming, “YOLO for the Emperor!” and get themselves in trouble. Or somebody’s going to get left behind and promptly get brutally murdered by an enemy they can’t easy solo. Since we don’t really have a good indicator of the range of the auras, it’s hard to gauge when we’re gaining the benefits and when we’re not. People will screw the pooch, for any number of reasons, and ultimately cause a failed mission because they can’t or won’t act strategically. This, in turn, leads to drastically slower character progression because you don’t get nearly as much XP or in-game currency for failed missions, which leads to a slower upgrade path in terms of gear and ability modifiers.

Pick your poison. They’re all fatal.

Bots get assigned if you pick a mission which doesn’t fill up completely before launch, but they are swapped out instantly by another player joining you mid-mission, which occasionally causes some disorder in your efforts because the newcomer doesn’t know how far along you are. There is no option for solo play or permitting players to lock-in bots on their team. This is particularly aggravating when a player who’s showing as a level 1 character tries to hang with higher level characters, hoping they’ll get carried through higher difficulty missions to get big rewards, and ultimately end up causing a mission failure because they weren’t able to support their comrades sufficiently. The threat level gating needs to be radically reworked, and towards the more restrictive end of the scale. Which, perversely, will undoubtedly lead to an even more oppressive sense of grind. Not that it will matter in the end, since there’s precisely nothing in terms of endgame content. No horde modes (outside of the training room), no PvP, no open world exploration, no personalized missions, nothing but incremental improvement of gear and the nebulous promise of “improving your skills.”

We’re told that Dan Abnett, a well known writer of Warhammer 40K novels, worked on Darktide’s story. Which is mystifying as hell since there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of story. We get some cutscenes periodically that tell a small slice of the purported story. We get character barks while traversing from one mission spot to the next that fill in other bits and pieces. But none of these feel particularly like Abnett worked on them. There’s not enough there to make his particular style felt. Compounding this, we’re taken through an intricate character creation process at the start, laying out your origins, your background, the path you’ve taken in life before you were imprisoned and subsequently shanghaied by the Inquisition. And all of it has precisely zero impact or relevance. Sure, you might get a slightly different character quip during a firefight, but it’s honestly pretty hard to tell what choice might lead to what. It’s a neat idea which is utterly wasted. And since there’s nothing resembling actual story missions or even mission objectives specific to your character class; there’s no real character development, narratively speaking.

“‘Join the Inquisition,’ they said. ‘See the Galaxy,’ they said. Karkin’ liars.”

The final insult in Darktide concerns gear and cosmetics. As far as actual gear, you’re restricted to one melee weapon slot, one ranged weapon slot, and up to three defensive item slots which are level locked. There is an item shop whose inventory refreshes every hour, providing you random gear choices based on what your particular toon has unlocked at that point. At level 11, a “boutique” shop opens with high quality gear, but requires you to complete various objectives over the course of several days to gain the currency needed to buy those items. In theory, you should be hitting these objectives without any difficulty because you’re already grinding away. In practice, anything more than the simplest tasks are going to be a chore because failed missions do not count towards success of these objectives. Beyond that, your appearance is dictated by cosmetic items which don’t have any actual impact on your survivability, but potentially let you look cool which being chewed on by a Chaos Hound. Certain cosmetics are unlocked in gameplay, a reward for hitting milestones or completing certain achievements. Others can be purchased for ridiculous amounts of in-game currency. In either of these cases, the cosmetics are not particularly satisfying, slight variations on a theme which don’t appear especially unique or distinctive.

Of course, you can shell out real money to buy a third type of currency, “aquilas,” needed for the cosmetics shop. And this shop has the truly elaborate and intricate cosmetics. All the really unique pieces and costume sets currently available that are striking and iconic are found only here. With a conversion rate of roughly two US pennies to the aquila, it doesn’t sound too bad at first blush. But the prices for full sets and individual items make it clear that you’re going to pay through the nose if you want to stand out visually. And with no mechanisms similar to EVE Online‘s PLEX or Destiny 2‘s Bright Dust, such a system seems borderline irresponsible in these economically stressful times. The loading screen quote of “Duty is its own reward,” is a bitter joke in light of the cash shop.

“Fat bastards look better than I do, and I know they didn’t work to get that look!”

As a fan of the Warhammer 40K setting in general, I wanted to like Darktide. I wanted to fall into the warrens of Tertium the same way I fell into the streets of New York and Washington D.C. in The Division games or the various worlds of the Solar System in Destiny 2. I wanted to experience an interesting story with fast paced action, the typical fare provided by Dan Abnett. Instead, what’s presented here meets only the bare minimum requirements for a game, functional but with minimal enjoyment. At best, Darktide feels like it was released owing to a contractual obligation to kick a game out the door before the end of the year, with a perverse promise of fixing the game’s problems “with the first DLC.” At worst, it feels like a shameless and cynical cash grab, putting out just enough to get people playing, expecting those who may already be conditioned by Games Workshop’s extortionate prices for physical miniatures to shell out even more money for virtual items. Either way, this is not a worthy addition to your library, and probably won’t be even when Fatshark decides to expand upon it.

Axel reviewed Warhammer 40K: Darktide on PC with a review code. 

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