The Warhammer 40,000 franchise is well-known for its absurd, maximalist scale. It takes place tens of thousands of years in “the grim darkness of the far future, where there is only war”. A galaxy-spanning fascist empire ruled by a living corpse wars endlessly against equally unpleasant hordes of aliens, heretics, and mutants. Fatshark’s new game, Warhammer 40,000: Darktide, manages to capture this sense of vastness not by expanding a player’s perspective, but by reducing its scope. You’re not witnessing the battles of massive armies, but struggling to stay alive against the hordes with three buddies at your side.
Those acquainted with Fatshark’s work on the Warhammer: Vermintide games should find Darktide familiar. Like the two titles set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe, Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is a four-player co-op experience pitting a quartet of players against hordes of enemies. The main difference is the presence of guns: Every character has a ranged weapon drawn from Warhammer 40k‘s deep arsenal of crazy sci-fi-tinged firearms. But don’t call it a shooter! Everyone’s got guns, but when the crowds close in, out comes a wicked array of melee weapons, ranging from spiked pipes and sharpened trench shovels to psychic swords and Thunder Hammers. This “hybrid combat” approach pretty much ensures that there’s a time and a place for either.
Players can choose from four different classes of character to start: Veteran, Zealot, Psyker, and Ogryn. But rather than drawing from Vermintide‘s system of named heroes and careers, Darktide lets you create your own character. The character creation process is surprisingly in-depth. After you choose your character class, you’ll be able to choose elements of their background and backstory, as well as from a selection of personalities available. These personalities amount, basically, to profiles that determine how your character sounds when they interact with the team and the NPCs. Your Veteran Sharpshooter could be a stern and determined member of the Imperial Guard, or a cutthroat cynic just waiting to be hung out to dry by uncaring superiors. Male and female options are available for every class, too, except for the Ogryns, who all look like someone gave the Hulk too many steroid injections.
Don’t expect much in-depth storytelling with these characters, though. This is less an RPG in the vein of Mass Effect and more a co-op action game in the vein of Left 4 Dead, and your act of creation is more a function of choosing your flavor voice than determining the shape of the game’s story. That story involves the “Hive City” of Tertius and its battle against legions of heretics backed by the cult of Chaos. The game involves the writing of legendary Warhammer 40k author Dan Abnett, though I didn’t see much in the way of plot during the period of the closed beta. Each of the four available missions was in fact relatively perfunctory, a simple set of objectives to barrel towards for the next 20 minutes. That Warhammer 40k texture shined through in the character interactions and mission chatter from NPCs. I’d hear my Ogryn character asking my Zealot teammate if the “Emp-rah of Mankind” really was God, or listen to a Sharpshooter that lived through the destruction of Cadia recount the horrors they’d seen.
And of course, all of that was undergirded by some engaging co-op slaughter. Despite being almost uniformly urban and industrial in nature, the environments of Darktide‘s closed beta manage a surprising amount of variety. Sewers give way to rickety catwalks and barricaded urban plazas, while interiors look like a cursed fusion of a gothic cathedral and a Cold War prison. All these spaces are teeming with myriad enemies. Large waves of Chaos cultists crash against your squad like a ram against a sturdy wall, while larger threats like shield-bearing Ogryns or corrupted Guardsmen force your team to prioritize threats and mix up their tactics.
Each character class also plays quite differently. The Veteran likes to keep their distance, with their perks and abilities focused on enhancing their guns and landing precision headshots on priority targets. The Zealot likes to crash in and fight at close range with rapid-fire weapons and unstoppable melee swipes. The Psyker can level a crowd with a shockwave or pop the heads of tougher foes with psychic energy. The Ogryn can charge straight in, opening a path or moving to a friend’s aid with a bull rush. Their extra-large weapons also stagger and throw around smaller enemies, making them ideal to go toe-to-toe with the more menacing armored melee elites.
Other than the kinds of technical hiccups that can be expected from a closed beta (I was disconnected from sessions a few times in the twelve or so hours I was able to play), Warhammer 40,000: Darktide makes a good first impression. That said, I do hope they’ll retune the grind for cosmetic unlocks and new equipment to be a bit more rewarding. It took me at least a dozen sessions before I even earned a new shirt for my Ogryn, and even then I didn’t earn a new ranged weapon choice for any of my characters.
Warhammer 40,000: Darktide will launch on November 30, 2022, on PC. An Xbox Series X|S launch will happen “shortly after”.