Review: Space Hulk: Deathwing

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only meh.

Review: Space Hulk: Deathwing
Developer: Streum on Studio, Cyanide
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Available At: Steam

David Hollingworth: I am, I admit, somewhat of a Warhammer 40,000 tragic. I may not play the tabletop game anymore, but in my past I have painted and owned about a dozen different armies, fought countless battles in the oh-so-easy to parody grim-dark future of humanity, and even cosplayed once as an Imperial Rogue Trader. 

I’m not proud.

So with all that said, I have to say that for all its flaws - and there are more than a few! - Deathwing could well be one of my favourite Warhammer 40,000 video games. It ticks off so many things that make the setting what it is - it’s dark, it’s gothic, it’s grim as heck, and it does a great job of placing you in the role of an almighty warrior of the Imperium: a Space Marine, clad in powerful Terminator armour, with a range of mundane and supernatural weapons at your disposal, fighting against an implacable alien foe in the depths of an abandoned, drifting starship. Pretty much the first time I fired my Storm Bolter, I was sold. However, I suspect you, Anthony, may not have been. Are you a 40k fan?

Anthony Fordham: My relationship with 40K has always been as a sort of distant admirer. I never had the ready cash to buy miniatures, but I used to reverently take down the boxes of boardgames like Battlefleet Gothic and Necromunda and even the original Space Hulk and admire all the pictures on the back… I do quite like the fiction of this dark and warlike universe. Sure, it doesn’t make a lot of sense if you think about it, but those miniatures just look so cool.

It was the painting that stayed my wallet though. I knew I’d never be able to make MY Terminators look as good as the ones on the box. So I stuck to the PC games. 

I did play the original Space Hulk. I found it kind of frustrating and distant. I bought Final Liberation, the Epic-scale turn-based wargame that had FMV cutscenes that were actually pretty good. (I didn’t finish the game, I just dug through folders on the CD until I found the cutscenes and watched them all.) I played Dawn of War, which is of course only really a 40K-themed game.

Actually it’s Final Liberation that puts me in mind of Deathwing the most. Oh the actual game is totally different but… what is it with 40K games having, well there’s no kind way of putting this, a whiff of the low budget about them?

Hollingworth: Full credit to developer Streum On studio, but I know exactly what you mean. While the game itself is fine, a lot of the trappings of Deathwing definitely mark it as a lower budget exercise. One of the best-known Warhammer writers was behind the game, but it’s hardly great video game writing, and the voice work is far less than stellar. Even the game’s UI seems kludged together, with repetitive screens throughout the loading process, and icon designs that are functional at best.

And the actual plot is little more than an excuse to run around and shoot the enemies of the Emperor. Thankfully, that bit really saves the game. There is suitable weight to the way characters move - those suits of Terminator armour may be powered, but they’re still ponderous, and even while running you’re not moving that fast - and you can only run in short bursts while your suit energy charges up again. The range of weaponry on offer is lovingly based on how they each work on the tabletop, from the high-capacity assault cannon, that can split hundreds of rounds down a corridor in a few seconds, but is less reliable, to the deadly plasma cannon - slower firing but capable of incinerating entire swarms. But often the most important thing with each weapon is reload time - ammunition is effectively limitless, but reloading the heaviest weapons takes time, and you simply cannot afford to be caught in the process while under heavy attack. When one of your squadmates reports they’re running low, you really need to start covering them.

Does that side of the game work for you?

Fordham: In the first couple of hours? Not… exactly. My first thought was that the traditions of a high-action FPS were immediately at odds with the way Terminator armour works. Walking around is SLOW and at the start of the game you can’t jump. Early explorations saw me go down a corridor, find a dead end and then think “Ugh, now I have to walk all the way back up the corridor.” That is NOT something you want players to be thinking at the beginning of your exploration-heavy FPS.

And when you go into the equipment list, the game says “Here is all the cool stuff a Terminator can carry and YOU DON’T HAVE ANY OF IT.” I know almost all games can be seen as digital toyboxes where you have to prove your worth before you’re allowed to play with most of the toys, but this seemed really explicit here.

I can tell right away it would be different for someone who knows what a “powerfist” is, what it can do, what its tactical place is in a 40K battle. I know that tabletop veterans will see those lists of kit and drool at the thought of eventually being able to equip all that high-end stuff. 

But I can’t help but feel the whole thing could be a lot more… narratively immersive. Don’t just give us a list, introduce us to each weapon via missions or even a simple NPC conversation with a quartermaster or something. There’s an opportunity to create a sort of living wiki of the extremely detailed Terminator lore that exists… and I’m not sure that opportunity has been taken.

As a 40K tragic, do you think this game can stand alone, and be a cool experience for someone who has only a passing familiarity with Games Workshop’s empire of plastic stuff? Am I worrying too much about the 40K-ness and not enough about the game?

Hollingworth: I think it’s possible, but I also think you’re absolutely right about a lot of the things that stand in the way. It’s like there is a truly immersive game in here just begging for the devs to have gone that little bit further. I’m more than capable of ignoring the issues because I basically lived and breathed 40k for about two decades - I know the NPCs, the history of the Dark Angels chapter, and the backstory of the Genestealers (who are the vanguard for a much scarier race, the Tyranids). I know about how the huge cathedral-like starships of the setting work, so I can appreciate the amazing detail of each level, and just how balls-out, unabashedly GOFFIK it all is. As such, I really dig Deathwing. 

But it’s sadly a harder slog for a more casual gamer to get into. 

7 10
A great game for dedicated fans of the Warhammer 40,000 setting, but a poor narrative and structure may get in the way for casual players.
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