Warhammer 40K Darktide Review – Left To Shred
When I spoke with several teams making games in the Left 4 Dead line, they had some unique thoughts on why the game, and the resulting genre, works. But they also echoed a similar thought: Pacing rules. Horde shooters, like Warhammer 40K Darktide, can live or die on the flow of co-op missions. Aided by an AI director, missions must be set to reliably challenge but not necessarily overwhelm the player. Impressively, Darktide gets this aspect of its grimdark quests just right, although the ways in which the game adds new layers don’t work as well.
Darktide is not only a Left 4 Dead-esque, it is also the spiritual successor to Fatshark’s previous series in the genre, Vermintide. Moving the experience out of the basic Warhammer world and into the vast and dark future of Warhammer 40K comes with a major makeover both cosmetically and mechanically. The biggest new addition comes in the form of an arsenal of firearms that have no place in the harsh fantasy of traditional Warhammer. But in the 40K era, things like hand cannons, assault rifles, and electricity-infused projectiles don’t fit right in, but also dramatically change the flow of combat by adding more range-based considerations.
This huge shift is well implemented, as enemies will match you blow for blow. Fighting from a distance will see them trade shots and take cover, and if you – or they – are able to close the gap, they’ll quickly switch to melee. When this happens, Darktide leans into the still-large crowd control elements first seen in Vermintide, where both nuanced sword fighting and mindless hacking and slashing are usually viable techniques – but on higher difficulties the former naturally becomes more crucial.
Gunplay is a bit uneven, but I suspect that’s sometimes on purpose. The recoil on some low-level weapons, like one I got in the tutorial, is insanely powerful, but it feels like a deliberate penalty for having such a lackluster weapon, if also an odd first impression. Other weapons, like a revolver I equipped as my witch-like Psyker character, were easier to manage but much less powerful, but she also boasts a ranged attack meant to disable or even decapitate single enemies at a time, giving her more than one way to bring down the herd.
Every class comes with trade-offs like this, requiring you to buff your allies with your own strengths to cover up their weaknesses, as the great games of this type should emphasize. Cleverly, your armor doesn’t refill unless you’re close to your allies, which adds another wrinkle to the way this type of game punishes lone wolves.
For the freshest experience for those coming over from Vermintide, the Veteran class is the best, as they are the most skilled with weapons and thus feel the most different from the archers and ax throwers of Fatshark’s predecessor series. No class is without melee abilities, thankfully, as the mix of ranged and melee is key to what makes the game’s combat loop work so well.
Darktide doesn’t shy away from tropes of the genre that have worked before, such as mini-boss enemies that often fit familiar archetypes. This includes a beast that lunges at you and immobilizes you, or another large rotter that chases you and slams you into the ground. There’s even a Tank analog, which is the toughest of the mini-bosses. Due to the shooting, some new mini-bosses also appear, such as one that fires explosive shots at you and your crew on “Rejects”.
In each case, novel or cliché, they work because their arrivals in combat are well-timed and follow the game’s exemplary pacing, also demonstrated in the steady flow of regular enemies, pouring in dozens at a time. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that players well versed in the genre will recognize some of these enemy archetypes. Mechanically, their ability to pin down players or dismantle team cohesion is critical, so it feels like there are only so many directions to take mini-bosses in when designing a game like this.
Where Darktide adds its own depth is in its metagame of upgrading the created character (or characters). Not only do you give them a long backstory that helps contextualize their story for you, but it also colors how your teammates talk to each other, teasing out tidbits among the strange bedfellows as they slice and dice their way through each horde. It’s a fun detail that might not even be picked up by some players, but no one could overlook the loot system, which adds layers not usually seen in games like this.
Completing quests and challenges will earn you money and materials, with which you can buy new weapons, even dramatically change your character build by switching to new weapon classes – after all, you can only equip two weapons – which works well in along with the skills and perks you’ll unlock as you improve each character to level 30. I created a very satisfying build that allowed me to completely ignore ammo reserves, as neither my ax nor my staff, which fired projectiles that relied on my Psyker powers , depending on ammunition.
This allowed me to lead from behind as I cleared hordes and targeted mini-bosses before they ever got close. At other times, and with a different character, I’d go more in the guns direction, with high-capacity firearms and fast-paced swordfights inviting a style where I was more front and center with the hordes, quickly cutting through them and gunning them down in conscious bottlenecks. When paired with creative teammates, the game’s tactical elements really shine. This works well even if your party has some class overlap, but works best when one of each character class is represented, as you have the full range of strengths available to you, masking weaknesses almost to the point of non-existence.
But regardless of the roster, the game really relies on such cohesive teams, as jumping into a match with random teammates turns anything above normal difficulty into a match. Damage taken skyrockets, so it becomes a situation where you almost have to operate like a well-oiled machine or you won’t get very far. Thus, as is often the case in games like this, it can be satisfying with friends and frustrating with strangers. This problem is exacerbated by the smaller rewards you unlock on lower difficulties. Without a reliable team, you may find it best to play on normal or easy, but the currency and other rewards you get for completing missions on these difficulties aren’t generous enough, dragging the unlock and upgrade system way down. At least when I’ve had enough money or supplies to improve my character’s inventory, the changes have been apparent, giving off that reliable sense of progress and improvement that video games are built on.
The free, earned cosmetic prizes in the game are more noticeably out of order. For about the cost of two or three weapons better than the ones you’ll start the game with, you can buy an alternate color variant for your pants, for example. This creates a twofold issue where the prices are too high and the rewards are not that desirable. There are other cosmetics as well, but so far they are mostly matte. The best stuff on offer is in the real money store, and there the prices are about what you might be used to – full outfits from head to toe will set you back $8-12. However, these prices are usually seen in free-to-play games, while Darktide is a fully priced game that currently has too few interesting cosmetics available for free. The game has the intentions of a live service game, and to the defense, many live service games open with too few tempting cosmetics, but the prices for what is there compound the problem.
Speaking of cosmetics, the overall look of the game is unappealing, though I admit your mileage may vary as this feeling stems from my personal disinterest in the source material. Warhammer 40K is an ugly world, both morally and aesthetically. Fatshark manages to give the levels an overall sense of scale and atmosphere that I expect is true to the IP, but the combination of ubiquitous rusted steel in vaguely church-like arenas, albeit a neat metal music video-style juxtaposition enhanced by great original music, fails to distinguish one mission from another. Thus, they all mix together quickly. Missions are selected on an overworld map within a shared social hub a la Destiny, or you can jump into quickplay according to your difficulty settings, and several times when I was thrown into a mission, it took me a surprisingly long time to realize that I had already played a particular level before. Apart from big set pieces, none of them make it a point to stand out.
This also affects the story, as you’re likely to play it out of whack given how matchmaking seems indifferent to story progression – although you can override this by choosing specific quests with potentially longer queue times. As a result, the story feels like little more than backstory, although the game likes to throw you into cutscenes at times. For players who bring Warhammer fandom into the experience, I bet they’ll get more out of it, but for others it will feel out of context and skippable.
Darktide feels both like the natural evolution of Vermintide’s best parts, as well as an example of some growing pains in the live service world. Things like combat, pacing, and team building are expertly considered and crafted, but metagame elements like loot hunting and cosmetics have some issues that are admittedly common when a team tries to create a new long-tail game. It’s both a promising Left 4 Dead-like and a lackluster live service, but the issues are fixable, and the growth of Vermintide suggests that Darktide will also have a long shelf life as one of the better games of its kind.