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Warhammer 40K: Darktide Review - Thou Shalt Kill

Darktide satisfyingly scratches that Left 4 Dead itch, but after multiple delays, it's still rough around the edges.

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Warhammer 40K: Darktide is developer Fatshark’s attempt at making a grimdark spiritual successor of its lauded Warhammer: Vermintide 2. Comparing the two multiplayer co-op games against each other is inevitable, though to be fair to Darktide, Vermintide 2 was released in March 2018 and has spent the last four years adding plenty of new classes and so many bells and whistles that it plays significantly better than it did at launch.

As you might expect, Darktide is pretty much in the same ship, so to speak, as Vermintide 2 was during its initial release. The core gameplay loop is fantastic, supported by a strong audio design and visceral melee combat, but it’s still very much a work in progress. At launch, the game lacks some core features, the number of classes is relatively low, and some performance issues still plague it, though the Day One patch has significantly improved stability. Still, Darktide scratches that four-player Left 4 Dead itch like little else at the moment.

“Innocence proves nothing”

The Warhammer 40K lore is notably vast and intimidating, so while Darktide is the developer’s love letter to the popular miniature wargame by Games Workshop, getting into the game’s world will take some time to get accustomed to if you don’t know much about the base inspiration. It’s more than understandable if you’re thrown by all the Latin-based jargon, like the Sanctum Dictatis and the Psykhanium. Darktide doesn’t have a codex or glossary of terms to explain the different factions and monsters in the game, so it can feel like the larger context of the narrative is placed at arm’s length.

But at the end of the day, you don’t need to worry too much about fully comprehending Darktide’s bleak and serious interpretation of the lore. You don’t need to know the ins and outs of the Warhammer 40K setting, which is meant to be satirically severe and authoritarian, to enjoy spraying undead enemies with a hail of bullets. As explained by the prologue, you’re a prisoner trying to earn back your honor after being incarcerated for a crime by becoming a fledgeling warrior of the Astra Militarum, which in service to the God Emperor of Mankind, fights against all agents of Chaos. It’s essentially lawful neutral versus chaotic evil, though that “lawful neutral” veers into “lawful evil” on occasion, as any perceived dissent is treated as heresy. And you’ll be killing a lot of heretics in Darktide.

After the prologue and several brief tutorial missions on the main ship called The Mourningstar, the story pretty much takes a backseat. Unlocking additional cutscenes requires that you reach specific Trust levels, but the ratio is about five hours of gameplay for three minutes of story at best. So by the time you’ve completed enough missions to watch the next cutscene, you would be forgiven for forgetting who the main characters are, since they really only pop up through audio dialogue during a mission. Besides, most cutscenes essentially boil down to them saying something along the lines of “Wow, you’re still alive? I guess you don’t suck as much as I thought you did.”

You’re just fresh meat

A creature being torn in half by a chainsaw sword.
Chainsaw sword, baby! Vroom, vroom!
Source: Shacknews

Narrative issues aside, it doesn’t take long after character creation before you’re dropped into your first mission. Your most important choice is your class, which is woefully limited to four at launch: the burly tank Ogryn, the ranged specialist Veteran, the melee all-rounder Zealot, and the ranged caster Psyker. Both the Ogryn and Zealot function as main frontliners, with their special ability allowing them to charge through the battlefield. The Veteran effectively turns the game into a traditional FPS, while the wizard-like Psyker can burst the brains of the undead at the cost of accumulating Peril.

Customization options don’t go much further than that. The choices for faces, tattoos, and hairstyles are limited, and the options for cosmetic garb are quite expensive early on, so don’t be surprised to find players of the same class looking very similar to one another. Selecting your character’s background and homeworld is more substantive, providing some context and variation to the character’s dialogue during missions. My main Zealot had the gruff personality of a Judge, so he would give general badass, standoffish comments on the fights he’s been thrust into, but I also briefly tried a psychotic Psyker who seemed to talk to a woman in his imagination. Overall, the dialogue isn’t as immersive as the preset characters from Vermintide 2 or Borderlands, but it does serve as a welcome bridge between the gameplay and the lore while allowing you to customize a character of your own.

Once you’re done with basic training at the Psykhanium, you are soon thrust into your first mission with only your prison garb as armor (because I suppose “fresh meat” isn’t worth the steel). With a low-level melee weapon and a gun, you’re sent out to kill poxwalkers by the thousands. Innocence proves nothing in the eyes of the Inquisitors, but proving your worth against the hordes of undead and all manner of monstrosities will hopefully let you live another day.

Left 4 Darktide

A Plague Ogryn attacking the player.
By all that is holy, kill this Plague Ogryn with fire!
Source: Shacknews

Where Darktide shines is in its team-based gameplay, coupled with solid graphics and brilliant audio design. Every mission lasts around 20 to 25 minutes, depending on your party’s composition, overall skill, and familiarity with the map. That’s enough time to smash hundreds of dregs and skags with a chainsaw sword, which is as viscerally satisfying as it sounds. With a flurry of light attacks or a string of wide-swinging heavy attacks, my Zealot was able to wipe out hordes of infected grunts without breaking a sweat. If engaging an enemy up close is either unwise or impossible, you can whip out a gun instead for a few well-placed headshots or suppressive fire. Exploring the map a bit will also yield the occasional chest, ammo tin, or medicaid station to restore any lost health and clear any corruption you have accumulated in your fight against the Chaos.

To ensure that the party stays together, Darktide has several mechanics for what it calls squad coherency. Being next to group members provides passive regeneration to toughness, which is effectively a shield against all attacks, though enemy melee strikes will still inflict some health damage. Toughness can also be restored by performing melee kills, but sticking together is the main way to get through hordes relatively unscathed. That said, you'll still encounter some players who want to be the next Leeroy Jenkins and get themselves killed and captured. Dead players can be rescued somewhere later in the map, but it's up to your group if you want to save them. Most people do, even if they might not deserve it. I must also mention that some penances, or in–game challenges, like one that requires a Psyker to kill a monstrosity without your team damaging it is strangely obnoxious and leads to selfish play.

Beyond squad coherency, remaining close to one another is key to surviving the elites and special enemies, especially on missions with a difficulty level of three skulls or higher. Vermintide fans will recognize some of these enemies as effectively reskins of Marauders, Berserkers, Chaos Warriors, and Maulers, but even so, the challenge level is suitably high. Trappers will ensnare players in a net until another can free them, while the Pox Hound will pin a player until another is able to kill it. Snipers are a challenge to deal with as they can knock your toughness down to zero with a single shot. Pox Bursters will kamikaze themselves into the party if you can't dispatch them fast enough from afar. Randomly, bosses will appear too, like the monstrous Plague Ogryn or the slug-like Beast of Nurgle. The worst of them all is the Daemon Host that can shred through toughness with just a few swipes; in fact, they are harder to kill than some fixed bosses at the end of assassination-type missions.

The intense boss fights are paired with an equally intense soundtrack composed by Jesper Kyd. The most memorable tracks, like “Unrest in Throneside” and “Immortal Imperium,” deftly combine a pounding beat with choral chants in Latin for that epic “heavy metal church” feel. On the other side of the spectrum, there are also plenty of tracks with spatially open, metallic vibes that capture the numerous dystopian, industrial hellholes you’ll be fighting through, chock full of steel pipes, bleak sewers, and power plants. Let’s just say that wherever you’re heading, it probably smells like two parts iron and three parts sulfur. But it’ll look fantastic at least, in a desolate, bloodstained, corroded kind of way. Both the graphics and the sound design work together to bring the uncompromising and oppressive atmosphere in Darktide to life.

May I be spared this heresy

An image of the Penances menu.
This ridiculous Malleus Monstronum penance requires a Psyker to solo a Monstrosity without the help of team members.
Source: Shacknews

As Darktide just came out of the pre-order beta, it’s not surprising that the game is rough around the corners. First and foremost, it’s missing several features at launch, with no option to create private lobbies or a solo match. Fatshark plans on introducing dedicated servers in December, so I won’t knock it too much for that. The limited number of classes, though, makes party composition a bit too predictable. This will become less of a problem over the next couple of years as more classes are added in future updates, but the number of classes is still relatively low.

More to the point, Darktide could use more variety in general. The dozen or so missions blur with one another over time, as they sometimes recycle the same map and have more or less the same objectives. Fortunately, some of the new maps at launch like Throneside and Spireside give a welcome change of scenery to the usual dingy power plant aesthetic, but there are only so many times you can restart an upload or slash demonic tendrils before it becomes wearisome. Also, the random map rotation means that you’re stuck playing a limited set of missions at the difficulty you want. The developer might have done this to make sure that players can’t spam the same mission, but not being able to select a certain map at a specific difficulty feels more restrictive than it needs to be.

Class progression is also rather limited as you can only select six feats along the way to Level 30, and most of these feats usually bestow minor bonuses for specific situations. Classes don’t gain new abilities either, so the main difference between characters of the same class is based primarily on weapons, and the weapon variety is only average. On the upside, the occasional global challenge, like Lights Out for less lighting and Endless Horde for more enemies, helps add some variation to missions. But otherwise, by the tenth mission or so in the game, you've seen the majority of what Darktide has to offer.

Back during the pre-order beta, I would have said that weapon stats were unnecessarily obfuscated, but the Day One patch has thankfully turned this around. Instead of weapon attributes being explained by vague bars, symbols, and terms, you can now inspect each piece of gear with precise numbers and clear definitions. The overall item rating is no longer as much of a mystery, and you can now compare two weapons without having to count pixels.

It’s still frustrating, though, that the vast majority of your weapons are purchased instead of being earned by beating missions like in Vermintide 2. Every mission simply earns you Ordo Dockets as basic currency, which you primarily use to buy weapons from the robot vendor with a stock that rotates every hour or so. This means that while you will unlock new weapons at every new Trust level, you’ll have to wait (and pray to the RNG gods) for them to appear in the store first. The same goes for just finding better weapons and curios in general.

Grinding to a halt

An image of the Weekly Contract screen.
Completing all weekly contracts will net you a bonus. Luckily, you can spend coins on switching some of them out.
Source: Shacknews

At Trust Level 11, you’ll unlock the Shrine of the Omnissiah, where you can spend rare currencies such as Plasteel and Diamantine to consecrate weapons with stronger blessings. With the ability to earn and combine blessings, in addition to re-blessing and refining items, this is where most endgame players will spend their time. This is because at the current level cap of 30, basic currency is easy to accumulate and experience points don’t mean anything.

Unfortunately, earning Plasteel and Diamantine takes a while to grind out, even with high-difficulty missions earning you more of these two rare currencies. Fatshark should consider having elites, specialists, and bosses drop rare materials, making secondary objectives more enticing than awarding coins and XP, and giving out more rewards to players or teams that perform. Right now, there’s no real reason to kill some of the difficult monsters, unless they’re directly in your way. More than once my party decided to skip a Daemon Host altogether because there’s no point to it other than wasting time and resources. Some of the weekly contracts also take a long time to complete, like having to finish a specific secondary objective six times, which only adds to the grindfest. You can use extra Ordo to swap out these contracts, but they should be less of a time sink in the first place.

I managed to play a few hours of the game with the Day One patch without experiencing any crashes and less framerate stutter than before. During the pre-order beta, I had several crashes in seemingly random places like browsing the weapons at the vendor and entering a mission through quickplay. My rig, which has an Intel i7 and RX G700 XT, is able to meet the requirements for Medium settings for Darktide. That said, Fatshark has admitted that the Day One patch has had to fix countless issues with crashes and that it continues to work on better optimization and stability issues, so there’s a risk that Darktide may not perform well on your particular rig.

“Seek not justice, but vengeance”

An image of the Tigrus Mk 2 Heavy Eviscerator chainsword.
The Day One patch adds a weapon stats page that provides numbers and breaks down attributes.

Despite the growing pains, Darktide is a solid co-operative action game that’s great for a group of friends to play in spurts. At launch, the experience is limited in progression and variety, but the gameplay is challenging and viscerally satisfying enough to keep your attention. It doesn’t hurt that the soundtrack slaps and, performance issues aside, the graphics pack a punch. Since Fatshark is known for updating the Vermintide series over time with frequent content updates, Darktide is expected to improve as well. It may even deserve a higher score within the next six months, but I can only review what’s available now. So if you’re considering a purchase of the game, think of it as an investment that will likely pay off in a few years. It’s more than understandable, though, if you would rather wait for Darktide to meet your standards for a full release.


This review is based on a PC (Steam) copy of the game supplied by the publisher. Warhammer 40K: Darktide is out now on PC and will launch for Xbox Series X|S at an unknown date.

Contributing Editor

Once upon a time, Nick's parents confiscated his Super Nintendo because he was "playing it too much." He has secretly sworn revenge ever since. Nick worked with co-EIC Blake in what feels like a lifetime ago and is now a freelance writer for various video game sites. Powered by iced green tea, he typically plays RPGs of all kinds like Shin Megami Tensei, Elder Scrolls, and Fallout. In his spare time, he plays Pathfinder 2E and follows the latest season of Critical Role.

Pros
  • Visceral, cooperative multiplayer combat
  • Squad coherency mechanics
  • Solid variety of elites and special enemies
  • Stellar soundtrack and audio design
  • Well-crafted graphics
  • Authentic to grimdark version of Warhammer 40K lore
Cons
  • Story loses steam early on, could have basic codex
  • Needs more mission variety and character progression
  • Restrictive mission selection and weapon rotation in the shop
  • More grindy than it needs to be
  • Fatshark still working on performance issues
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