Warhammer 40K: Darktide review: Left 4 Dead-like coop in a sci-fi world
After managing to capture the joys of cracking a scabby rat over the head with a Zweihänder in it Warhammer: Vermintide 2has the Swedish developer Fatshark moved into new territory with Polar Nightwant to bring Left 4 Dead-like fighting Games Workshop’s popular Warhammer 40,000 sci-fi universe. Imagine the rugged war heroes you’d find in Warhammer Fantasy, now with sparkling cybernetic monocles and swinging chainsaws, guns and grenades. It’s violent and dark, and despite years of work in the genre, Fatshark continues to surprise me.
Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is a co-op first-person shooter where you and a motley crew are whisked away on a series of harrowing missions for the fascist Imperium – hopefully to smash your way through the Nurgle-infested horde so you can get home to the Inquisitor’s starship and central hub, “The Mourningstar,” and do it all over again.
Vermin timehis solid fight very much remains intact. Of course there is one a lot of weapons now, although I’m happy to say that this huge ranged arsenal doesn’t detract too much from the series’ signature chunky melee engagements. As with the 40K miniatures game itself, even when you have a heavily armed team that can tear things up from a distance, melee often becomes its own separate phase – it always seems advantageous to charge in and finish things off at close range, rather than difficult. load and reset. Put in Polar Nightits new “Toughness” system (essentially a shield that reduces damage and regenerates when you get melee kills or stay close to allies) and Polar Night becomes a smart balancing act between elegant headshots and brutal power sword swings. Eventually, once you’ve taken a few hits and your toughness is depleted, you’ll want to wade into the mix with your friends by your side, if only to beef up your defenses.
One of Polar NightThe biggest changes are in how it structures its missions, and as a result, its general relationship with the place. With both Vermin time campaigns, things were very structured in the Fantasy tradition. It was a grand, overarching mission, and each mission was its own distinct thing that took you one step closer to saving the day. It was the whole movement forward that you could chart on a hypothetical fabric map … You traveled from a ruined city, dot dot dot, to an enchanted forest. Although you often replayed older missions, in-fiction, it never made sense to do so.
Polar Nightthe map, on the other hand, is a holographic projection of a single location – the “Tertium Hive.” A Hive, in the 40K story, is a densely packed arcology that houses billions of people. If Space Marines are unnaturally bloated people, this is a city on steroids. Using the tactical map, you and your squad can travel to all five areas of the city, although the mission types will be slightly different each time. At some point you may be asked to travel to the production zone to assassinate an important target. Your next mission may well be in the exact same zone, but only from a slightly altered perspective, or with new rooms or routes opened, and will involve investigating an area with a hacker unit.
On top of this, Fatshark periodically runs several “conditions.” The two that have appeared so far in the pre-order beta are Ventilation Purge, which filled rooms and corridors with a thick environmental fog, and Power Supply Interruption, where all the lights are out and you have to wander in the dark with only a small flashlight. All in all this does Polar Night more geared towards in-and-out play sessions and replayability. It makes sense for your team to repeatedly run missions in the same zones as you fight a long campaign against the determined forces of Chaos. How exactly this will progress to, and whether these developing relationships and missions will escalate into something approaching a more traditional narrative campaign, has yet to be revealed.
Despite the variety in missions, with only five distinct zones in total, it’s fair to ask if Hive ever gets tired. But it’s a wonderfully discreet location – a hideous megastructure that makes you feel like a microbe trapped on the infinite surface of a transistor. I have long been a fan of Tsutomu Nihei’s manga Blame and its own sprawling metropolis, and the Tertium Hive bear a strong resemblance. Too much of a typical Polar Night mission, you will be trapped underground, navigating an endless amount of industrial and sci-fi corridors. But even here I feel at home. I tell my teammates to slow down as they rush towards the action so I can be left to inspect all the cool sliding doors and the labyrinthine network of ventilation pipes and cables. Then these corridors suddenly open up and I get a huge view. There’s a Godzilla-sized pipe crawling up the city walls, or a hall with a spaceship hanging randomly from the ceiling. In some cases, industrial chimneys spew flame à la the intro Blade Runner.
While I’m in awe of the setting and excited about the overall 40K vibe and tone—the irony of playing the villains, the 80s punk attitude, and regional British accents—there’s also a lot that’s harder to care about. Everything cosmetic seems seriously underbaked. (It took me hours to get out of my prison suit, and even now I still look like an idiot.) There are also a number of balancing issues to solve and figure out: It’s hard to judge, having stayed mainly to my big Ogryn “Skullbreaker”, but I’ve heard issues with other classes, like the brain-busting “Psycher”, being left underpowered, especially on higher difficulties. Add to this the fact that you have to pray to the machine gods to get through a session without crashing to the desktop (at least rejoining a mission is easy) and this isn’t the smoothest game launch I’ve witnessed to.
Still, I’m sure I’m familiar with Fatshark’s previous work Polar Night will be in much better shape in just a few months. And maybe, in a year or two, after a couple of expansions and a lot of updates, it could be something extraordinary. The way things are right now, it just is very good… which is hard to complain about. An amazing setting with tons of replayability and the same old juicy combat? There’s a lot to soak in, and no signs of slowing down.
Warhammer 40,000: Darktide was released on November 30 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Fatshark. Vox Media has affiliated partnerships. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find more information about Polygon’s ethical guidelines here.