I crush one plagued civilian with my door-sized riot shield, and before its organs have even had a chance to hit the floor in a puddle of pus I’ve smacked another with my maul, its head caving in like drywall under a particularly excitable workman’s hammer. Before I can celebrate my victory, a horde is upon me and I have to back up to my squadmates, fellow convicts forced into servitude to the Emperor as penance for our petty crimes, cleaving heads from shoulders as I go.
This is one of many similar onslaughts you’ll face in the Hive City of Tertium, where Nurgle’s rot has infested deep. You are here to perform brutal surgery on the infected wound of a planet, surgery by way of hammer, boltgun, and psychic brilliance. But no sooner is his Poxwalker horde reduced to little more than foetid viscera pooling around our ankles, I hear the telltale click of an oven pilot light. The flamer bathes me in toxic fire before I can react, and my Ogryn sinks to his knees, screaming ugly pleas for help. It’s down to my teammates now.
If you’re going into Warhammer 40,000: Darktide expecting a first-person shooter, you’re in for a shock. Developer Fatshark has transplanted the winning Vermintide formula into the 41st millennium, and the addition of guns has done little to change the fact that hand to hand combat is king. I can’t stress enough how good it feels. I would go as far as saying that it’s better than the combat in Vermintide, which is quite an accomplishment. However, despite the gameplay being best in class, Darktide is let down by repetitive missions, unfinished systems, and unfulfilling progression.
Before we get to that, though, I want to reiterate the brilliance of the combat. It’s gory and crunchy, but never overstays its welcome. Waves of foes are paced well to give you a little downtime between frenzied fights, but there’s never so long between them that you get bored. Foes are varied, and the Specialists and Elites, who act as minibosses, are great. Ogryns wield heavy artillery, Maulers swing huge chainsaw-toothed axes, Poxbursters run at you head-on before detonating their gruesome suicide bombs, and Daemonhosts drain your lifeforce using their demonic powers. On harder difficulties, you’ll face multiple Specialists and Elites at once, and at that point, teamwork is vital.
Much like the Vermintide games, teamwork is not only encouraged, but necessary. Your shields regenerate when you’re close to your teammates, and abilities synergise well. Plus, focused fire is a necessity to defeat tougher opponents. You don’t have to pick a balanced strikeforce, however, and some of my most fun missions were fighting as four hulking Ogryns or backed by a trio of Psykers. You lose some versatility, but gain a hell of a lot of brute force.
The levels themselves look great – I’ve already waxed lyrical about them – whether you’re fighting your way through a grotty Manufactorum producing tanks for the Emperor’s eternal war or ascending to the upper levels of the Hive World across gothic bridges that wouldn’t look out of place in Bloodborne. While they look stunning and are well designed battle arenas, this is where the problems start. Fatshark promised that Darktide’s levels would chop and change every time you played them, sending you back through locales via different corridors so you’d take myriad routes through the same location. That’s not the case in reality, and retracing your exact steps every time you head to the Foundry does get a little old.
This is the first of the problems with Darktide, which almost entirely stem from similar broken promises and unfinished systems. I avoided all the major bugs that players have experienced, but the issues extend much further than instability and server overload. We were told that we would be able to customise our characters to specialise our builds, but the six traits don’t change your playstyle at all, only slightly buffing certain stats. I don’t mind having my Ogryns bashy and Psykers head-poppy, but compared to Vermintide 2’s specialisation options, it feels underbaked and an opportunity missed.
Combat aside, comparisons with Fatshark’s fantasy action game generally leave Darktide looking worse off. There are no scoreboards at the end of rounds, your teammates don’t join you in the central hub onboard the giant technocathedral spacecraft that is the Mourningstar, and the story is threadbare. Veteran Warhammer 40,000 author Dan Abnett has penned the narrative, but you wouldn’t know it because it’s barely referenced and completely inconsequential.
The diverse character creator is great, allowing you to customise your character’s background, home planet, and reasons for arrest as much as you can their scars, tattoos, and skin tone, but none of that is used for more than your personal headcanon. I like the range of accents available – unfortunately, there’s still a distinct lack of Scousers – but it all seems a bit pointless. There’s an interesting background to Tertium, but your personal story progresses from “people don’t trust you, slab” all the way to “people still don’t trust you, slab.”
Character progression is severely limited in other ways, too. Levelling up unlocks new weapon options for your character, and you gain a chunk of three different currencies at the end of each mission – increasing to four after hitting Level 11 and unlocking daily and weekly missions. You can use these to buy new weapons or marginally upgrade your current ones, relying on rotating stores to bless you with decent wares or improved blessings. Crafting hasn’t been implemented yet, so you’re fully reliant on RNG to get the weapon you want with blessings that complement it. Progression and currency is also locked to each character, rather than shared between them as in Vermintide, so you’re best off picking one to play with each week if you want to complete your missions. I’m happy sticking as my Ogryn main, but sometimes you just want to play a round or two as a Zealot with a Chainsword and Flamer, and you feel punished for doing so.
Cosmetics for your characters are bland unless you want to spend IRL cash, and there’s no way to freely earn the premium currency in-game, despite a Discord FAQ previously announcing that would be possible. The disparity between free and paid cosmetics is astonishing, and it’s hard not to be cynical.
All of this is fixable, because the moment to moment gameplay is so good. I don’t know whether the levels will ever gain that jigsaw-like quality the developer imagined, but adding meaningful progression, more story missions and a better endgame, and actually implementing the crafting system would go a long way to improving the Darktide experience. Vermintide 2 suffered from a similarly rocky launch, but was slowly moulded into a fantastic game, so there is hope for Darktide yet. Judging the game as it currently is, however, it's not a pretty picture. How many people are going to keep coming back for the great gameplay if progression is so limiting and replaying missions feels samey?
Darktide is built on great foundations and I enjoy playing it a lot – especially with friends. There’s a brilliant game buried deep within this Hive World, filled with exciting combat and gruesome enemies in equal measure. However, to properly enjoy those glorious moments, you have to break through the pustular skin of Darktide’s pointless upgrade systems and wade through the poisoned viscera of dull progression. I just hope that the countless obstructions in the live service elements don’t turn too many players away from the game mired underneath.
Score: 3/5. A review code was provided by the publisher.
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