We don’t get big-budget Warhammer 40,000 games all that regularly. And when we do, they’re rarely action-packed shooters. That already makes the upcoming Warhammer 40,000: Darktide, from Vermintide developer Fatshark, a rarity. But, based on the 30-minute, four-player co-op session I played at Gamescom 2022, I think Darktide may be the rarest of rares: a genuinely good 40k FPS.
Anyone who loves Games Workshop’s grimdark future will know that it’s the specific details that make the setting what it is. A lasrifle, for instance, is not the pew-pew E-11 blaster that the Stormtroopers of Star Wars use. It shares more in common with the infantry rifles of World War 1 than it does a sci-fi laser weapon, and Fatshark has captured its character perfectly. It jolts in the hand with each blast, the laser scorching the air around it as it travels. Pulling the magazine from the gun causes sparks to erupt, a nod to it being a cheap, mass-produced killing machine.
All the equipment I used in the demonstration had this attention to detail. The hacking device, used as part of a choke-point defence objective that anyone who’s played a Left 4 Dead-alike will recognise, was a servo skull (a computer that’s literally made from the head of a former servant of mankind). As I defended that skull from waves of oncoming enemies I occasionally had to recalibrate it via a mini-game played on an Auspex scanner. Its green-glowing screen displayed lines of symbols that Warhammer fans will have seen printed on many a Codex and transfer sheet.
The first-person perspective of Darktide means all these recreations of 40k lore items feel much more detailed and immediate than they would in a tactics or strategy game, the setting’s typical genre. It’s genuinely exciting to see up close a weapon that you’ve personally painted or read about in a Black Library book.
But perhaps my favourite thing about my short time with Darktide is how it captures the shooting and fight phases of the tabletop game. While Darktide definitely has a lot more shooting than Vermintide, it’s not abandoned the melee brawls that are important to both its fantasy predecessor and Warhammer in general. The mission was a constant push and pull between intense ranged volleys and gory hand-to-hand battles.
Because I wanted to see how much of a role guns would play in Darktide, I played as the Veteran, who Fatshark told me was the most ranged/close hybrid of the four roles available. Armed with the aforementioned lasrifle, I was able to snipe targets over much longer ranges than I’d ever do with Vermintide’s bows and flintlocks. This is particularly useful against the numerous pockets of ranged enemies you come across, as actually advancing while under fire feels incredibly difficult. As a Veteran you can thin out those gangs of gun-wielding foes in order to allow more melee-focussed allies to get into range.
But that lasrifle felt next to useless at close-range, where its single-shot nature meant it was just too slow and unwieldy to deal with the colossal hordes of zombie-like Poxwalkers that flooded the corridors. Just like in the tabletop game, being up close felt like I’d transitioned into a different combat phase, with its own rules and methods. In Left 4 Dead guns are useful at pretty much any distance, which makes for gameplay that’s similar regardless of range. I really like how Darktide forced me into a different routine when the enemies got in my face. In the Veteran’s case, that meant swinging around a chainsword and cutting things into wet, sloppy chunks.
That divide between long and close range is likely to feel quite different based on which character or equipment you use, though. In my co-op session, another player was armed with an Autogun assault rifle, which while technically ranged seemed better suited to mowing down enemies who were inches away. On the class side, The Psyker was able to destroy the minds of far away enemies in glorious fashion with their space magic, but seemed to be the character in most need of ally support in close combat.
Of course, much of all this is true of Vermintide, too. I’ll need to play many, many more missions to learn all of the nuances that separate the two games. And there are other questions, too, particularly around the progression systems that Fatshark has struggled with before. But what I can say is that Vermintide was the action game that Warhammer Fantasy Battle deserved; it was clear that Fatshark adored the setting, and it lovingly recreated that world in exceptional detail. The same seems true of Darktide. From the colossal, industrial-gothic architecture to the way the chainsword roars as it churns away at a Poxwalker’s flesh, this seems like an absolute love letter to sci-fi’s grimiest setting. It doesn’t just feel good to play, it feels like genuinely special fan service. After years of poor shooters such as Necromunda: Hired Gun, Space Hulk: Deathwing, and Eternal Crusade, it finally appears that 40k is getting the action game it deserves. And, with Space Marine 2 and Boltgun on the horizon, perhaps the (dark)tide really is about to turn.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.
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Author: Matt Purslow