I’m a Warhammer fan by proxy. I’ve never played the tabletop game (for the fantasy or 40K variants), but I’ve sure had some fun with various games in the series. In terms of 40K stuff, the Dawn of War series is right at the top, but I also dug what I played of Space Marine (vale, THQ) and I even enjoyed the challenge of the flawed-but-fun strategy game Battlefleet Gothic: Armada.
But for every majestic instance of a Warhammer 40K, there seems to be at least one other dud holding it back. I didn’t have much fun with Eternal Crusade, and I’m currently struggling with Space Hulk: Deathwing. Part of the problem is likely the anticipation surrounding the product, which is pitched as a kind of Left 4 Dead meets Warhammer 40K, built atop the glorious visual fidelity potentiality of Unreal Engine 4.
For me, the problems started early on. Deathwing doesn’t load particularly fast: into the game and between missions. Once the game finally loaded, I did what I normally do and played the tutorial first, to have the best understanding of whatever mechanics I would otherwise likely figure out just by playing the game (it’s a paranoia thing in case I miss something).
There’s nothing particularly wrong with the tutorial, and while it doesn’t talk down to you and nor does it outstay its welcome, I was forced to do it again when I started a new solo campaign. Like the beginning of Alien: Isolation, Deathwing doesn’t mind taking its time, setting the mood in a poorly lit, abandoned and moody space vessel. Unlike Isolation, Deathwing doesn’t drag that atmospheric opening out for a couple of hours.
Playing alone, I was flanked by two AI-controlled Terminators: one armed with a minigun-like Assault Canon, and the other playing medic with a bolter. I only had the choice of a Storm Bolter for my primary, but switched from my Force Sword to a Power Fist (I really shouldn’t have: the Sword was more fun) for my melee weapon.
I enjoyed the creepy sounds and eerily empty state of the ship, complete with clear signs that some nasty shit had gone down prior to my arrival. The cramped interiors and positively claustrophobic lumbering space suits are a great conceptual mix.
What I didn’t enjoy was having to constantly refer to my fullscreen map to figure out which way to go. There’s a mini-map, but it does a poor job of offering navigational input. Certain areas are blocked, and there are other inaccessible spots that seem like you should be able to bypass them, but because they’re marked as blocked, they stay blocked.
You can lock, but those same doors can also be destroyed with a single melee strike, so I didn’t really have any use for closing doors behind me during the opening hours of the game. When the enemies first appeared—Tyranids, in the instance of the opening chapter—that’s also when the frame drops started rearing their ugly heads.
What was once a smooth 60fps experience on High settings (not Maximum), dipped into single digits as the Tyranid menace swarmed towards me. Their appearance also highlighted the limited intelligence of my AI-controlled squad mates. Where humans could assumedly agree to hold down particular sides of a corridor with their hulking forms, the AI partners have a tendency to stand next to each other a few steps behind you, effectively blocking your shots at threats from behind.
They do a decent job of protecting your six, but they don’t fire as accurately as I do, so I tend not to trust them. You can control them to a certain extent with a spacebar-activated command wheel, but that requires some mental rewiring if you play inverted (as I do). At first, I thought the mechanic was broken, but eventually realised that I had to reverse my mouse movements to issue orders, which meant I stopped giving them in the heat of battle because I had to stop and think about it first.
That command wheel also sits atop your crosshair, which makes it difficult to decipher what certain options do. Given that there are limited health boosts per level, and you want to (ideally) divvy those up between squad mates and yourself, the limited situational awareness and finicky command wheel made squad management a frustrating addition.
There’s also some noticeable missed opportunities for enhancing the survival elements. Those lockable doors I mentioned earlier that can be bashed down with a single melee strike remove the risk/reward of being able to lock them in the first place. It’s a missed opportunity to create tension as ammo runs low and you’re forced to block off a corridor just to stop a seemingly never-ending threat.
From what I’ve used, weapons have unlimited ammunition, and the ones that hold oodles of ammo don’t overheat, even if some of them are incredibly inaccurate, so there’s little deterrent to holding down fire and reloading between waves.
I could likely stomach this and have fun if the multiplayer wasn’t the worst part of the game. Initially, I couldn’t find a game, but Deathwing crashed to desktop when trying to connect to others, and had a friend disconnected when he tried to connect to me.
For a game that could have been Left 4 Dead in the Warhammer universe but with better survival elements, it’s hard not to be disappointed by Space Hulk: Deathwing. It reeks of an all-too-common ‘release date over a polished product’ mentality that’s unfortunately rife in this industry, and even though I’ve returned after my initial pre-patched experience (the frame drops aren’t as massive now), Deathwing is still so bug infested at the time of writing that it’s impossible to recommend.