After the two Vermintide games, Fatshark has returned with another take on Valve’s original Left 4 Dead formula, one that I will dub the “zombie survival horde shooter”. This time, the game is Warhammer 40000: Darktide, which is basically the same game but with a uniquely 40K twist in mixing up sci-fi and fantasy. And if you’re like me, a casual fan of the grimdark sci-fi fantasy hybrid, this is the game for you.
That is, with a few major caveats, because your enjoyment of this game hinges on two things really. This is especially important considering its current state. The first is if you like games like Left 4 Dead to begin with; bonus points if you have a few friends who also like the genre. And two, if you like the 40K setting and all that it brings. The first one should need little elaboration, considering the genre is a decade-and-a-half old.
But for the latter, boy is there a lot to talk about. With Warhammer 40000: Darktide, Fatshark has nailed the franchise’s grimdark aesthetic to a T.
In Darktide, you don’t play as a Space Marine, the most prominent super soldiers of 40K. Instead, three of the four classes of characters dictate that you are an average human of the 41st millennium. The exception sees you play as an Ogryn, an ogre-like mutant subspecies of the human race that boasts immense physical strength, but with a childlike mental capacity. Whichever class you pick, the story sees you being a clandestine agent of the Inquisition, the in-universe equivalent of the secret police force.
The More Grounded Side Of 40K
All this means that while your team of four operatives will be facing zombie-like Poxwalkers in the hundreds in any one mission, you won’t be getting any of the grand scale wars that 40K is known for. No battles where thousands of lives are lost within the first minute. Darktide lets you see the more, shall we say, grounded, encounters of the universe. At least, by its own grimdark standards.
As for its plot, Warhammer 40000: Darktide sees you fight seemingly endless battles in the Hive City of Tertium on the planet Atoma Prime. Your foes are the aforementioned Poxwalkers, as well as members of the Moebian Sixth Traitor Guard regiment, all under the influence of the Chaos God Nurgle.
Being a derivative of the Left 4 Dead formula, you can expect there to be a fair number of special enemies. There are direct equivalents to the Hunter, Smoker, Boomer, Charger, Spitter, Witch, and Tank, as well as a few original spins to fit the 40K setting. All of them are well done, with fair audio cues when one is nearby or about to launch an attack. Though one in particular feels a bit out of place, with the Rager being something that would fit a Khorne cult more than a Nurgle one.
Beyond explaining the 40K coat of paint to newcomers, the gameplay of Darktide doesn’t really need much further elaboration. It’s mostly the same inexplicable fun that the Left 4 Dead formula has always had, with a different flavour coating over it. That being said, it’s really that coating that deserves an immense amount of praise.
As Accurate A Depiction As A 40K Game Can Be
Due to the immense scale of the universe as well as its lore and complexity, games have had a hard time trying to accurately depict the world of 40K. This even extends to the tabletop games that spawned the lore to begin with. Despite this, Warhammer 40000: Darktide is among the best when it comes to reaching that high bar. From its characters to the depiction of the Hive City of Tertium, this game is about as close as it gets to being the visual representation of a 40K novel. No surprise here, considering the fact that Fatshark has gotten Dan Abnett, the writer of the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, among other 40K novels, to co-write the world of Darktide.
You may have read complaints that the levels in the game look very same-y, with little variation between them, compared to Vermintide 2 for example. For better or worse, that’s pretty much what a Hive City looks like. Changing that and giving levels more variety will also mean changing the look of Tertium, making the game all the worse for it.
On the flip side, not up for dispute at all is the brilliant voice work for the many combinations of classes and their personalities, as well as the other NPCs. Their random small talk in mission serves as exposition as you’d expect, as well as the occasional comedic moment to break the tension. You can expect a better variety when you have one of each class in the party, especially when they start gossiping about their commanders.
Also brilliant in the whole Darktide formula is the soundtrack. Jesper Kyd returns as the music maestro for the game, just as he did for the Vermintide series. But there’s just something that I can’t quite put my finger on about the soundtrack for this game that makes it just better than Vermintide. My best guess would be the more synth-gothic twist to it that makes it the absolute banger that it is.
A Very Good But Incomplete Game
Now, despite all my gushing over this game, I will need to be the one to deliver the reality check as well. As a game, Darktide is in a pretty dire technical state. Despite being a full release, it still feels very much like a beta title. Sure, Fatshark has rolled out a number of fixes since the actual pre-order beta, but it still feels pretty inadequate, the reasons for which I will now explain.
To start, the crafting system for your weapons is still incomplete. At the time of writing, half of the features under this system are inaccessible, with the text “open soon!!” over them. The second option that reads “Refine Item” was not yet available when the above screenshot was taken. When getting better gear is effectively the gameplay loop here, having such a significant portion of the system unavailable is just not a good look. But as you’d unfortunately expect, the cash shop, despite this not being a free-to-play title, is fully functioning. Sure, the inventory here is still a little small, but it’s otherwise the familiar pattern of messed-up priorities that the studio management is showing.
Another very jarring issue is the underutilisation of the brilliant voice acting mentioned earlier. As mentioned, banter and callouts mid-mission is great. But your character is oddly silent during cutscenes beyond the ones that are a part of the prologue mission. There are other story cutscenes where the other NPCs speak, but your character walks in, gets their ear talked off, and walks away. On a related note, there’s also not much in terms of story or plot, even if the developers say that the game will have a sort of ongoing story or developing narrative over time.
Nurgle’s Rot Infecting The Game Itself
And then there’s all the other technical issues that the game is suffering from. This ranges from cosmetics having lots of pop-in and clipping issues while your character model is visible, to frequent crashes and abysmally long load times. I’m running a relatively old system, with the game installed in a platter drive, but I’ve heard others who have their games on SSDs suffering from the same issue.
Overall, Darktide as a game is still in serious need of optimisation, which is unfortunate considering it had both a closed beta and a pre-order beta. I’ve specifically held off from reviewing this game during those two to give it a fair chance, especially given Fatshark and its reputation with the early days of both Vermintide games. But it looks like things have only gotten worse since.
In conclusion, Warhammer 40000: Darktide is an incredibly fun game, especially if you’re a fan of the more human sides of the 40K canon. But if you’re not, and you’re just looking for a good time with a game that runs with the Left 4 Dead formula, then this is probably not a game that you should pick up right now. Because without the 40K IP carrying it, the game is really being bogged down by its poor technical state.
The game definitely needs more time for the devs to work on. And being a new game, it definitely won’t be eligible for major price cuts during the ongoing Steam Winter Sale. But hopefully, whenever the next sale rolls around that sees the game getting a steep discount, that would be enough time for Fatshark to shape Darktide up into a technically sound game. Because it is definitely fun enough to stand on its own without the 40K franchise propping it up, but not so much so that it can do that with bugs bogging it down.