Warhammer 40,000: Darktide Review — Smite the Heretic, Mind the Bugs (PC)

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is Fatshark's first crack at the 40K universe after their successful Warhammer: Vermintide series. While the excellent combat mechanics transfer over well to the sci-fi/gothic setting, they are unfortunately surrounded by a litany of technical issues, shallow design choices, and an inconsequential story.

Warhammer-40000-Darktide-Review-Cover

After its promising pre-release beta, Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is finally fully released. As stated in my preview of the game before release, I was cautiously optimistic. While the core gameplay was very well-designed, the game’s technical state was extremely rough. I had hoped that the prominent wrinkles in the beta would be ironed out upon release.

While some that I noticed in that beta were fixed, others reared their ugly heads, and do so prominently. The absolutely fantastic combat, interesting level design, and palatable lore references work tremendously hard to pick up for the game’s technical faults, but fall short of doing so. Here is a complete review of Warhammer 40,000: Darktide.

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is available on Steam for $39.99, with an Xbox release to come in the future.

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide - Launch Trailer

Story — Deep Lore, Shallow Story

The lore of Warhammer 40K is infamously vast and deep, covering the largest empires and the smallest mechanisms of a weapon. One thing in Darktide’s favor is its ability to give a palatable introduction to its setting and story. The well animated and directed introduction cutscene accomplishes such.

Setting and Story

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide takes place in the 41st millennium, wherein the God-Emperor of Mankind rules humanity. This empire’s zealous war against all it deems unholy brings the Imperial Inquisition to the planet of Atoma Prime, containing the hive-city of Tertium. This city is infested with the forces of Chaos: Poxwalkers, heretics, and daemons.

Atoma Prime is the planet on which all of the gameplay takes place.

Atoma Prime is the planet on which all of the gameplay takes place.

Meanwhile, in the game’s introductory mission upon creating your character, you are a convict being transported for execution. You find yourself inadvertently freed when your transport is attacked by the forces of Chaos. As you fight to survive, you save your captor, Explicator Zola. Seeing an iota of use within you, she gives you a second chance within the Imperial Inquisition aboard the Mourningstar ship, where you’ll prove your loyalty to the God-Emperor or die trying.

The story aboard the Mourningstar eventually unfolds as a traitor is suspected to be among the crew. Cutscenes will play showing the progression of the investigation, with NPC’s reminding you to prove yourself if you don’t want to be accused. Without spoiling too much, it culminates in an extremely disappointing conclusion, as you have no involvement in this story outside of just playing the game as normal. You don’t aid in this investigation at all, only watch it become a problem and then resolve itself.

Lore and Backstory

Contrary to 40K’s reputation, the story and lore presented is quite easy to understand for those who are just dipping their toes into this franchise. You’re not required to perform hours of research to fathom everything going on. The story presented in the gameplay is fairly straightforward; abhorrent monstrosities are trying to kill you, and you won’t let them.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s an oversimplification of the 40K universe. Hardcore fans of the franchise will still find references and accuracies to point out and enjoy or discuss. For example, the character creator allows you to choose your home planet, and choosing a certain one will allow you to pick a specific eye color not available to other origins, as described in other material.

The custom character creator allows you to choose your home planet, as well as significant events in your life leading up to your imprisonment.

The custom character creator allows you to choose your home planet, as well as significant events in your life leading up to your imprisonment.

Speaking of the character creator, Warhammer 40,000: Darktide allows you to choose many aspects of your character, not just appearance. Appearance is still in depth and customizable, allowing you to choose your physique, skin, voice, tattoos, hair, and more. Darktide also allows you to create a backstory for your character, as mentioned when discussing lore references. You’re able to choose your character’s suspected crime they committed, home world, early life, and more.

The only thing gameplay affecting in all of this, aside from class choice, is your character’s voice, which is tied to their personality. The intent was to give depth to your character, but the backstory is easily forgettable, and there’s no way to remind yourself of it in game, be it through a character info tab or dialogue.

The voice lines do give a good bit of characterization, though. Zealots can be overbearing and forceful, or guiding and wise; Ogryns can be bullying brutes, or loveable lugs, etc. The dialogue between player characters, with NPCs chiming in sometimes, comes in when combat lulls for a moment. This is a great way to make use of that small bit of downtime for storytelling.

Your character frees your former warden, who recruits you to the Imperial Inquisition.

Your character frees your former warden, who recruits you to the Imperial Inquisition.

Gameplay — When it Works, It Works Superb

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is a first-person horde-based co-op hack-and-slash/shooter, similar to the Vermintide games also produced by Fatshark. Darktide’s skeleton obviously pays tribute to the Left 4 Dead games, in which you and 3 other players must complete tasks during each mission to make it to the end with your lives. However, calling this game a Warhammer 40K texture pack for Left 4 Dead would be incredibly disingenuous to what Fatshark has created here.

Classes

When creating a character, you get to choose one of 4 classes. Each class has its own ultimate, grenade, and passive abilities. Furthermore, each class has a selection of 3 feats every 5 levels, up to level 30. Players can select one feat of the three per tree, giving them a total of 6 extra abilities at level 30. These feats can be changed at any time at no cost to the player, allowing for freedom of experimentation. The classes are as follows:

  • Ogryn: Skullbreaker — Large, high-health unit with heavy weaponry and crowd-control.
  • Psyker: Psykinetic — High direct or widespread damage using psychic powers and unique resource mechanics.
  • Veteran: Sharpshooter — Precision gunplay specialist that rewards accuracy.
  • Zealot: Preacher — Frontline melee combatant capable of high burst damage.
The four classes within Warhammer 40,000: Darktide

The four classes within Warhammer 40,000: Darktide

Each class, alongside the standard weapons any class is able to take, have their own unique weapons that they can choose. For example, the Zealot is the only class able to take Thunder Hammers, Eviscerator Chainswords, Heavy Swords, and Flamers. The exception to this rule is the Ogryn, who can only use weapons exclusive to that class due to the size discrepancy.

Equipment

Each player can carry one melee and one ranged weapon, as well as three defensive Curios — items that give passive benefits, such as increasing health or Toughness (explained below). Each weapon has an alternate ability or attack, though they can be disappointingly mundane. For example, an Ogryn’s Grenadier Gauntlet has an alt-fire that allows for a powerful, short-range explosion, but your standard Lasgun will have a flashlight.

Weapons in Warhammer 40,000: Darktide have their stats broken down pretty well, but there is still some ambiguity in regards to some stats and functions.

Weapons in Warhammer 40,000: Darktide have their stats broken down pretty well, but there is still some ambiguity in regards to some stats and functions.

All of these things combine to create a simple but effective buildcrafting system, allowing the player to spec into certain stats and abilities for their character. While it’s not as in depth as a traditional RPG or MMO, it does have a good amount of room to spec into a certain playstyle or niche.

One of the complaints I had in my preview was that a weapon’s statistics, properties, and values were incredibly vague. The weapon inspect screen is now very, very detailed. Inspecting a weapon will give explainations and values to most of its stats. Although, some stats remain vague, such as the critical hit statistics.

Unfortunately, there are many layers of RNG above this gear. Equipment has a chance to drop after completing a mission, but the main way players will be getting equipment is from the shop. The shop’s wares rotate hourly, and can contain any number of white, green, or blue rarity gear, of any kind of weapon or curio, at varying gear scores, with multiple varying perks…

The shop's wares in Darktide rotate hourly. Gear is completely randomized.

The shop’s wares in Darktide rotate hourly. Gear is completely randomized.

You can probably see where the RNG starts to stack up. There’s not really a way to farm the gear you want at the moment, which I can see becoming a nuisance. While there are ways to upgrade gear, the methods of applying perks that you may want are not in the game yet. 

Combat

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide’s combat is going to be the defining factor for many players. Despite all of the surrounding negatives, the core gameplay loop of Darktide is absolutely phenomenal.

First, let’s talk about the player’s options in combat. A player, as stated above, can activate melee weapons, ranged weapons, their grenade ability, or their ultimate ability. All of these things have different niches and use-cases, giving players a wide range of versatility.

For example, my Zealot has a Thunder Hammer, which is great for staggering foes in close range with wide swings. Alternatively, I can empower it to deal a devastating blow to a single target. Players can dodge, slide, block, push, counter, and use light or heavy melee attacks. These mechanics are easy to learn, and difficult to master, allowing for dynamic and fluid combat.

Combat in Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is engaging and varied. Enemies encountered may differ between instances of the same mission.

Combat in Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is engaging and varied. Enemies encountered may differ between instances of the same mission.

The health system encourages you to stick with your allies or stay in melee combat. The Toughness meter is akin to an armor value. Enemies damage your Toughness before attacking your health (sometimes, as described in the bugs section). Standing near allies or getting melee kills regenerates Toughness.

On the other hand, you can only regenerate health with Med Packs or one of the few Medicae stations scattered around the map. Your health bar will turn purple from Corruption when certain types of enemies damage your health or you go down. Essentially, Corruption reduces your maximum health, and you can only remove it with a Medicae station.

Enemies are extremely diverse in design and intent. Very importantly, though, the enemies come in absolutely massive hordes. You have your standard zombie-like dregs and Poxwalkers meant to overwhelm you in sheer numbers, as well as numerous different types of ranged units. Specialized units include heavy gunners, bombers, flamers, close-range ragers, large Ogryn units, and much more. Sometimes, a powerful miniboss will spawn that players will have to kill, most likely while dealing with a horde of other enemies. Things can get very chaotic, but very fun.

Combat in Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is all about staving off massive hordes of enemies.

Combat in Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is all about staving off massive hordes of enemies.

While Darktide encourages you to take these enemies down as a team, the game outright forces teamwork onto a player sometimes. Some units, such as Pox Hounds and Trappers, will lock down a player. That player can only be freed by another player.

Unfortunately, this can lead to some issues if, for example, a Trapper spawns behind the squad and traps a player when the rest have just dropped down a point of no return, guaranteeing that player’s death. A niche scenario, but I’ve seen it happen on more than one occasion.

The best thing I can say about combat, albeit more subjectively, is just how satisfying it all is. Bones crunch, flesh rends, bodies gib; the weapons have the feel you’d expect them to have when you wield them. Bullet-hose guns are mobile and quick, whereas a Boltgun sounds as clunky as it looks, but can easily annihilate an enemy in one or a few shots. I’ll describe this more in the sounds and graphics section, which is what helps a lot with the feel and emotional response to combat.

Missions, Contracts, and Penances

Missions are pretty varied, and you can complete them in no particular order. When in the hub of the Mourningstar, you can approach the mission table to access available missions. You can choose either one of the available missions that rotate location and type about every half-hour, or enter a playlist that puts you into a random mission.

Each location has a few missions associated with them, and these missions range from things like raids for ammunition to assassinating a heretic leader. My typical missions have lasted as short as a little over 10 minutes and as long as over 30 minutes. Missions have 5 difficulty settings, and you can only adjust the difficulty of the random mission queue.

Missions can have a secondary objective, a modifier, and be one of five difficulty levels.

Missions can have a secondary objective, a modifier, and be one of five difficulty levels.

Sometimes missions may have a secondary objective that, when completed, gives additional currency and XP. Unfortunately, secondary mission design boils down to either finding 3 holy scriptures throughout the mission, or finding 2 grimoires, which is the same as the scriptures but they also slowly give you Corruption while held. They’re more annoying to find than what they’re worth. Missions may also have a modifier that reduces visibility or increases or decreases enemy density and special unit spawn rate.

You also have weekly contracts that award a different currency. You can then exchange this currency for high-level gear. These contracts can be pretty tedious. For example, a contract I have is to complete the secondary objective on a specific mission 6 times, which is debatably more RNG-based than the armory shop, considering the rotating missions, if they even have a secondary objective, and if they’re of a difficulty I can even attempt.

Weekly contracts in Darktide earn you exclusive currency that can be exchanged for powerful gear, but take quite a while to finish.

Weekly contracts in Darktide earn you exclusive currency that can be exchanged for powerful gear, but take quite a while to finish.

Penances are essentially the achievements, and there are quite a few. They’re also really interesting and can be a good challenge for some players. For example, one Zealot-specific penance was to stun 40 enemies with my stun grenade, then kill them all within 10 seconds.

Another great thing is that penances can award cosmetics not found in either the in-game shop or the cash shop. This reminds me of the objective-specific cosmetics in games like old-school Halo and Call of Duty. Players earned the cosmetics in those games, rather than buying them. My only complaint about these achievement-tied cosmetics is that there aren’t enough — I want more of these things to chase!

Cash Shop

I fully advise against the in-game cash shop. The bundles jump between 2100 and 4600 premium currency for $9.99 to $19.99. The featured cosmetic bundles are 2500 premium currency each. This practice is textbook predatory monetization; do not encourage it!

The featured bundles cost slightly more than the amount of premium currency you can get in the closest-valued bundle.

The featured bundles cost slightly more than the amount of premium currency you can get in the closest-valued bundle.

Bugs and Stability

This topic requires its own section because of the sheer amount of bugs the average player will encounter. The bugs on display nears Cyberpunk 2077-levels of coarse design. Fatshark did fix some of the issues from the beta, such as the Backend Errors related to DNS servers. However, the game shows more technical issues the deeper I get into it. The situation is so dire that these issues will be the main things that drive players away, no matter how fun they find the game to be. Just some of these technical imperfections are as follows:

  • Taking health damage from enemies through the Toughness meter
  • Memory leaks leading to crashes
  • Rubber banding (your character seemingly vibrates as actions are taken)
  • Game crashing upon closing the game
  • Game crashing upon starting the game
  • Frequently disconnecting from missions
  • Disconnection error 2006 causing an infinite loading screen
  • Graphical errors when loading characters (floating heads and hands)
  • Audio cutting in and out during cutscenes
  • Stuttering
  • Frame drops
  • Extremely long loading screens
  • Menus and UI’s taking a while to load
  • Items within your inventory not dismantling when the action is performed
It's not uncommon to be disconnected and thrown into the loading screen in Warhammer 40,000: Darktide.

It’s not uncommon to be disconnected and thrown into the loading screen in Warhammer 40,000: Darktide.

Darktide screams with roughness. The game is simply not done. Fatshark, before any content updates, must fix these issues. Some of these are merely immersion-breaking issues, and players could overlook them. However, other issues on this list should be unacceptable in a 1.0 release, and prevent a streamlined experience — in other words, they are game-breaking. Furthermore, even the smaller technical issues are worth noting because they are just that — technical issues.

Graphics and Sound — Nearly Unmatched

So, let’s move onto something a bit more positive. The graphics and sound in Warhammer 40,000: Darktide are nothing short of phenomenal. This is in spite of the graphical errors present.

Darktide is a visually stunning video game. Fatshark have successfully brought the unique sci-fi/gothic aesthetic of the 40K universe to life. Areas not directly owned by the God-Emperor’s forces take on their own unique look and feel, too. Ruined fortresses, industrial forges, and apocalyptic sheet-metal shacks appear in various maps. These all serve to give each level unique character and an implied history. For example, you enter underneath a tram station in order to redirect a transport carrying an assassination target.

This scenery comes at a cost. The recommended specs without ray tracing ask for 8GB of VRAM. At 1080p with a GeForce GTX 1060 with 6GB of VRAM, the game still looks pretty good on low quality settings. If I want semi-consistent framerates, though, I use this setting. It smooths out the frames a bit, but causes a drastic decrease in graphics quality with expansive backgrounds and on-screen particles. These entities will create some pixilated smearing.

An example of the textures smearing, shown in the holographic projection of the mission table.

An example of the textures smearing, shown in the holographic projection of the mission table.

Characters look gritty and rough, with history running through their scars and tattoos. Fatshark stated as much as their goal when designing facial structures, and they nailed that goal perfectly. Characters look realistic without riding that uncanny line.

I mentioned in the gameplay section how satisfying combat can be. The sound design contributes to a good portion of that feeling. The sounds of weapons and how they impact the enemies and environment makes them feel exactly how you’d expect them. A charged up Thunder Hammer bellows on tremendous impact. An activated Chainsword screeches through armor before viscerally splattering blood and guts. A massive Boltgun’s mechanisms heavily clunk and set as you rack the charging handle.

The music is unique and perfectly suited for the setting. Special shoutout to composer Jesper Kyd, who combines gothic orchestral chants with industrial beats and melodies. It’s as if the environment is singing to you as you fight, with a tempo perfectly suited for the pace of combat.

Warhammer 40,000: Darktide was previewed on PC with a key provided by Plan of Attack.

Summary
Warhammer 40,000: Darktide transfers the fluid and dynamic horde-based co-op gun and blade combat from Fatshark's critically-acclaimed Vermintide series into the sci-fi/gothic setting of the 41st millennium. Unfortunately, said combat is the brightest diamond among this rough, as the technical issues, unremarkable story, and lazy design choices greatly weigh down on the experience more than its positives can uplift it.
Good
  • Satisfying and engaging combat
  • Simple but effective buildcrafting system
  • Gorgeous visuals
  • Top-notch soundtrack and sound design
  • A ton of lore references for fans of the franchise
Bad
  • Unbelievably buggy
  • Frequent disconnections from matches
  • Unfair cash shop
  • No way to focus-farm gear or traits
  • Shallow and forgettable story
6.5
Fair

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