Having successfully captured the joys of bonking a scabby rat over the head with a Zweihänder in Warhammer: Vermintide 2, Swedish developer Fatshark has moved into new territory with Darktide, looking to bring Left 4 Dead-esque brawling to Games Workshop’s popular Warhammer 40,000 sci-fi universe. Imagine the gruff war heroes you find in Warhammer Fantasy, now sporting garish cybernetic monocles and wielding chainsaws, guns, and grenades. It’s violent and grimdark, and despite years of working within the genre, Fatshark continues to surprise me.
Warhammer 40,000: Darktide is a cooperative first-person shooter where you and a ragtag crew are hauled off on a series of harrowing missions for the fascist Imperium — hopefully to smash your way through the Nurgle-infected horde so that you might come back home to your Inquisitor’s starship and central hub, “The Mourningstar,” and do it all again.
Vermintide’s sturdy combat very much remains intact. There are, of course, a lot of guns now, although I’m happy to say this massive ranged arsenal doesn’t detract too much from the series’ signature chunky melee engagements. As with the 40K miniatures wargame itself, even when you’ve a heavily armed squad who can tear things up at range, melee combat often becomes its own separate phase — it always seems beneficial to charge in and finish things up close, rather than awkwardly reload and reset. Add in Darktide’s new “Toughness” system (essentially a shield that mitigates damage and regenerates when you get melee kills or remain close to allies) and Darktide becomes a clever balancing act between elegant headshots and brutal power sword swings. Eventually, when you’ve taken a few hits and your Toughness is depleted, you’ll want to wade into the mix with your buddies beside you, if only to reinforce your defenses.
One of Darktide’s biggest changes is in how it structures its missions, and as a result, its general relation to place. With both Vermintide campaigns, things were very much structured in the Fantasy tradition. There was a grand, overarching quest, and each mission was its own distinct thing that took you one step closer to saving the day. It was all forward motion that you could chart out on a hypothetical cloth map… You traveled from ruined city, dot dot dot, to an enchanted forest. While you’d often replay older missions, in-fiction, it never really made sense to do so.
Darktide’s map, on the other hand, is a holographic projection of a single location — “Tertium Hive.” A Hive, in the 40K lore, is a densely packed arcology housing billions of people. If Space Marines are unnaturally pumped-up humans, this is a city on steroids. Using the tactical map, you and your squad can travel to any of the five areas of the city, although the mission types will be slightly different each time. At one point you may be asked to travel to the manufacturing zone to assassinate an important target. Your next mission may well be in the exact same zone, but only from a slightly altered perspective, or with new rooms or routes opened, and will involve investigating an area with a hacking device.
On top of this, Fatshark periodically runs several “Conditions.” The two that have shown up thus far in the pre-order beta are Ventilation Purge, which filled rooms and corridors with a thick environmental fog, and Power Supply Interruption, in which all the lights are out and you have to wander in the dark with only a puny flashlight. Altogether, this makes Darktide more geared toward in-and-out play sessions and replayability. It makes sense that your team would be repeatedly running missions in these same zones, as you’re fighting a long campaign against the entrenched forces of Chaos. Where exactly this will progress to, and whether these evolving conditions and missions will escalate into something approaching a more traditional narrative campaign, is yet to be revealed.
Despite the variation in missions, with only five distinct zones total, it’d be fair to ask whether the Hive ever becomes tired. But it’s a fantastic discrete location — a greebled megastructure that makes you feel like a microbe trapped on the infinite surface of a transistor. I’ve long been a fan of Tsutomu Nihei’s manga Blame and its own sprawling metropolis, and Tertium Hive bears a strong likeness. For much of a typical Darktide mission you’ll be trapped underground, navigating an endless sprawl of industrial and sci-fi corridors. But even here, I feel at home. I beg my teammates to slow down as they hurtle toward the action, so that I can be left to inspect all the cool sliding doors and the labyrinthine network of ventilation pipes and cables. Then, suddenly, these corridors open up and I’m hit with a huge vista. There’s a pipe the size of Godzilla crawling up the city walls, or a hall with a starship hanging casually from the ceiling. In some cases, industrial chimneys spout flame à la the intro to Blade Runner.
While I’m in awe of the setting and enthused about the general 40K mood and tone — the irony of playing the bad guys, ’80s punk attitude, and regional British accents — there’s also a lot of stuff that’s harder to care about. Everything cosmetic seems seriously underbaked. (It took me hours to get out of my prison garb, and even now, I still look like an idiot.) There is also a slew of balancing issues to resolve and work out: It’s hard to judge, having mainly stuck to my big Ogryn “Skullbreaker,” but I’ve heard issues of other classes, like the brain-bursting “Psyker,” having been left underpowered, particularly at higher difficulties. Add to this the fact you’ll have to pray to the machine gods to get through a session without a crash to desktop (at the very least, it’s easy to join back into a mission), and this isn’t the smoothest of game launches I’ve witnessed.
Still, knowing Fatshark’s previous work, I’m confident Darktide will be in much better shape in just a few months’ time. And perhaps, in a year or two, after a couple of expansions and numerous updates, it may be something extraordinary. As things stand right now, it’s only very good… which is hard to complain about. A fantastic setting with tons of replayability and the same old juicy combat? There’s plenty to get sucked into, and no signs of slowing down.
Warhammer 40,000: Darktide was released on Nov. 30 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Fatshark. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.