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Warhammer 40,000: Darktide review - a horde of minor flaws can be overcome by faith

Ogryn from ear to ear.

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Much like its endless enemies, Darktide's many small issues add up to a real nuisance - but stupendous atmosphere and vicious action just about prevails.

If I were writing this a couple of weeks ago, when Warhammer 40,000: Darktide had only just launched and when reviews typically tend to go out, I'd have warned you to maybe hold off a little longer. I'd have told you it was a little too demanding for most PCs, that its store was miserly for a full-priced game, that it had a little too much jank and crucially, a little too few of those intangible, in-between features that can make or break a multiplayer game. Thankfully for Darktide though, I'm not. Now, a couple weeks into its life, there are still gaps and flaws and little quibbles that can get in the way of the fun - but crucially, the fun is there, it's a little easier to reach than it was a few weeks ago, and it really is a blast.

Some players will already be familiar with the formula. Darktide is a spiritual follow-up to Vermintide and Vermintide 2, developer Fatshark's previous two games set in 40k's old-timey parallel (or same-but-much-earlier?) universe of fantasy Warhammer. Instead of hordes of rat people, you're now mowing down waves of zombified plague-people, corrupted or otherwise made gross by the plague god Nurgle. Much of it really is the same: you play as a given class of your choice with three others, either bots or humans, and you fight off waves while completing fairly simple objectives. But there are departures, the most significant being the introduction of guns.

Cover image for YouTube videoWarhammer 40,000 Darktide PC - DF Tech Review - Optimised Settings, Performance Analysis + More
Here's Digital Foundry's tech review of Darktide on PC.

Darktide, unlike its ratty cousins, is really a hybrid between hack-and-slash and FPS, and its four classes reflect that, each with a primary and secondary weapon that generally represents a melee and ranged option and each, at least in theory, as viable as the other. The Veteran is the most gun-focused, a character that allows you to play Darktide like it's the zombies mode of Call of Duty: Black Ops, mowing down hordes while aiming down sights - emphasising longer-range with weapons that can charge up for high damage single shots, but still with the option of a tasty power sword if enemies get in too close.

The Zealot is the inversion of this, leaning more towards melee with a range of upclose options, the meatiest being a hammer and most viciously satisfying the chainsword, a 40k staple capable of shredding foes into neat slices. The builds here are all about gap-closing - a special lets you dash to enemies and lop them up, recharging your Toughness in the process (Darktide has a two-health bar system, your Toughness bar acting as a shield, which charges through staying in close proximity to your teammates or via other special means, and an actual health bar below that which requires treatment from health packs or healing stations.)

Darktide review - the Ogryn Feats screen showing your skill tree options
Darktide review - a cutscene with a holographic head on a mechanical body talking to you
Darktide review - an end-of-mission cutscene as cahracters walk across a bridge to their ship, with a sandy yellow hue
Darktide review - an end-of-mission cutscene as characters walk across a bridge to their ship, with a green hue

Combine that build with a flamer - another staple - and you have a delectable means of dashing about and eviscerating both hordes and tougher one-offs, complimented well by the Psyker, which functions almost entirely around an ability to repeatedly pop the heads of individual enemies at the risk of overuse (and then: death). Finally, there's the Ogryn, the class I opted to spend the most time with and came to both love and loathe.

Ogryns are one of those cursed classes that look and sound like a tank - big, high health, slow - but operate a little differently, causing anyone who hasn't played them to wonder why you aren't standing in the middle of a wave taking infinite damage. Really they're more like support classes, suppressing enemies with brute force weapons like grenade launchers or blocking them with physical riot shields; or, high-risk, high-reward berserkers, who charge into massive waves and dishing out melee attacks, which certain perks might grant you Toughness regen from.

The good news to all this is that there is some proper variance here, even within classes. The bad news is that there's nothing quite as flexible as you might have been led to believe from Darktide's marketing. You can't really play an Ogryn as a long-range gunner, even with its immensely enjoyable machine gun or even more immensely enjoyable ripper gun - a shotgun with a bayonet that can go full-auto if you take a second to steady it, bellowing out damage that rips off enemy limbs like a sonic boom. No: these are fun weapons that can be worked into one of one or two viable builds at best.

Darktide review - the Ogryn Feats screen showing your skill tree options
Darktide review - the mission select screen, showing twelve missions plus a quickplay option, over a techno-green background map of the hive
Darktide review - the upgrading station in the hub area
Darktide review - the end of level screen showing some rewards but not enough info

This is down to Darktide's perks system, which is one of its weakest points. Every five levels, up to the cap of 30 (which has taken me upwards of 20 hours to reach on first attempt), you unlock one new selection of three perks to choose from - the issue being that at least one tends to be unviable for anything but the easiest difficulties. They also don't do enough to vary playstyles beyond the basics of that predetermined class: at level 25, for instance, my Ogryn can choose between a perk that lets you deal more damage to enemy types that damage you (melee or ranged, but offensive only), a cleave-based perk for fully charged attacks (melee, and fully charged attacks are almost never worth using), or one that gives you more melee damage for each hit against the same target, which is of course also melee-focused.

Again though, I have to emphasise the fun of the few viable builds that there are. A support-based Ogryn using a shield-and-bleed damage build for close quarters fights where you try to draw enemy attacks for your squishy friends, and a longer range weapon for big wave suppression, is properly rewarding. The constant pop-head-and-recharge rhythm of the Psyker is dark and horrible and wonderfully 40k. There's an excellent push-and-pull to the dashing damage of Zealots and the all-important 'gunfeel' of the Veteran is present and correct. This is important because it carries Darktide where there's a real risk of it becoming a pain. One other aspect does that too, which would be pure heresy to not mention: Darktide's exemplary 40k atmosphere.

Darktide review - another large horde in combat
Darktide review - a vast horde in close quarters being killed by your knife and your ally's flamer
Darktide review - mowing down a horde with the ripper gun
Darktide review - a mulch of zombies

Darktide must be the best realisation of this universe - at least since the original Dawn of War strategy games; at least in first person - that we've had to date in a video game. Levels can blur into one, what with the relentless emphasis on grimness and darkness being a factor at all stages, but none of them are anything less than reverent in their approach to making this silly, grandiose satire real. Great cathedrals to the God-Emperor tower over you, only to seem nestled amongst bigger buildings of even more preposterous size and pointy, gothic excess. Your superiors - quest-givers who deliver orders to you by way of radio snark or brief, comically imperious appearances in cutscenes - all have an air of 70s public school headmaster about them, the middle-managers like uppity prefects keeping the rabble of fresh meat in check. There's an ineffably British bleakness to it, lit in toxic greens and hazardous reds, woven into the fabric of this world by Warhammer's original creators and now by Dan Abnett, writer of the many Horus Heresy 40k novels who joined Fatshark for story duties here.

But some quibbles persist - all small enough to be ignored on their own but plentiful enough to add up to a bit of a problem en masse. Difficulty is uneven: missions are picked from a randomised selection in Darktide, with each refreshing every hour or so, and each having a difficulty rating from one to five. One and two are barely worth playing after you learn the mechanics, while three feels about right, and four and five feel near enough impossible, even at full build, unless you have a full, highly coordinated squad of four. Even then, I can't imagine ever beating level five. The result is an over-reliance on the middle difficulty, and with only seven mission types - all ultimately revolving around "work your way to place, interact with/carry/guard things with a waypoint on, repeat" - things get stale fast, as you crave a greater challenge but struggle to make the jump to it.

Darktide review - inserting a data interrogator, which you will do very often
Darktide review - looking out over a rare exterior area in a mission, with a sandy yellow hue, holding a club

Less notable but still annoying: the shops and sense of progression are somewhat naff. Earnable cosmetics, paid for with money you earn in abundance from completing missions, vary from a pair of black trousers to a pair of very dark grey trousers with some small pads on them. There's a system called Penances, effectively in-game achievements, some of which reward you with more cosmetics but still only enough for one or two less-than-impressive sets (and Fatshark has mentioned already that this is likely to be reworked somewhat).

The premium shop once had a countdown timer for a refresh but when that expired, the timer disappeared and the same one outfit per class stayed behind. This may seem minor, but a sense of progress, however artificial, is important for persistent multiplayer games like this, and other games have existed for long enough for the solution to be more self-evident: League of Legends' budget may be in another galaxy, but the basic principle of earning some cosmetics at random from playing, or having the option to buy the ones you want, is simple and popular. Likewise, this is Warhammer 40k we're talking about: a universe of obscene outfits that range from jumbo power claws to magic capes. A few more options besides a larger bum bag or different coloured dirty rag would fit in well enough.

Darktide review - looking up at some large gothic statues in an a dark, red-lit interior area
Darktide review - looking up at a giant spire of servitor skulls that you need to switch back on for a mission
Darktide review - the familiar loading screen, with rotating 40k quotes. This one reads 'Happiness is the delusion of the weak.'

Post-game summaries are a big miss, with just a collective kill and death count that doesn't serve much of a purpose (and only works about 20 percent of the time). Individual stats, even if kept hidden from others to avoid toxicity, would be a huge help for learning how and where to improve. Pings are a little unsophisticated, and the click-and-drag wheel of options is a little broken, your reticle moving when you drag to select the right ping, meaning you're always a little off the thing you're pointing at. And loading times, despite a series of patches improving other areas of performance noticeably since launch, remain a dirge. I moved the game to an NVMe drive and still sit through minutes of load, enter character select screen, load, enter hub area, load, enter mission. Regular crashes - again reduced, but still present - and bugs where I'm flung through the walls of the map, caught on structures, or teammates are spawned back at the beginning of level while we can't progress without them, persist too.

It adds up to a conundrum, and with that, a question of trust - or more appropriately maybe, faith. On the one hand, this has been a scrappy, rickety attempt at a launch, arriving with bugs and technical difficulties and making huge demands of PCs, as well as systems that need tweaking and an Xbox version still lacking a release date at all. On the other, work from developer Fatshark to remedy those issues has been rapid and dedicated - you hope, naively, without too much crunch (I also feel Covid-19 should always be mentioned when talking about rough launches these days - this game was developed entirely during a pandemic, and a bit of slack needs to be cut). Things have improved both on the technical and gameplay front, further changes to both have been promised, based on the things players have raised already. The sense is this version of Darktide is far from the final thing you'll be playing next year, or even next month. For now though, this great hive of action lives by its vampiric atmosphere, its booming, eviscerating, and just apocalyptically scaled take on grimdark violence. That, and by the grace of the Emperor's mercy.