Die for the Emperor as Warhammer 40k's Space Hulk gets an FPS makeover
Fans of the two Warhammer universes have certainly noted a lack of cohesiveness in who Games Workshop hands the licenses out to, and what kind of games those developers end up making.
From a horde of mobile titles of questionable quality to RTS experiences like Dawn Of War or the third person God Of War-style of Space Marine, there's just no unifying force holding the Warhammer 40k games together, and that continues with this spin-off title Space Hulk: Deathwing.
Personally I wasn't a huge fan of the recent Space Hulk rendition back in 2013 from Full Control Studios (itself based on previous table top games), which was too much like the board game and really quite frustrating for an interactive digital experience.
Now, we get to re-live that same idea and basic story in a much more action-packed first person version with a horror twist as Streum On Studio tackles the franchise. After rocky launch -- getting pushed back mere days before release for last minute bugs to be squashed -- its finally here and we're ready to dive into how it stacks up against other Games Workshop entries.
At its core, Deathwing offers a horde style FPS along the lines of Vermintide or Left 4 Dead, with enemies coming at you from all sides in large numbers, sometimes in tight hallways (which gets tense) and sometimes in more wide open chambers.
On top of the basic shooter mechanics are some minor squad commanding features as you have to order a teammate to heal you, have a fellow battle brother hack a door, order the team to follow or stay put, etc. You can also change the loadouts of your squad mates, letting you choose what combat style to utilize in any given area.
That does add a tactical feel, but unfortunately your team doesn't seem to have much of a mind of their own, or even any sense of self preservation. For instance your healer won't attend to anyone's wounds unless you order him too -- even if a teammate is clearly on death's door and there are no enemies currently attacking.
There are some unexpected abilities beyond just run and gunning as you play, like hacking turrets at long range, adding in an extra dimension. Since you are playing as a Librarian in full Terminator armor, there's a pretty wide range of guns, melee weapons, and psychic abilities to use for thinning out the Tyranid hordes aboard the derelict space hulk.
Add in a skill tree with three options to focus on and you won't run out of ways to blow up enemies or keep your squad alive.
While the bulk of the game takes place in varied environments of the space hulk -- composed of many different ships fused together -- your space marine can use limited warp gates to return to a safe zone.
Once safely back on your own ship you can repair your armor and get new loadouts. It's a nice way to re-skin the town portal concept so that it makes sense for your team to get upgrades and healing mid-level.
Graphics And Atmosphere
There's been a painstaking attention to detail in getting the Warhammer 40,000 lore right in Deathwing, but at the same time the environments do feel a little constrained, and even at maximal settings the graphics feels just a smidge shy of AAA.
There are many areas you can't access due to the Terminator's armor bulk, and these giant space marines can't jump or climb ladders, so there's a very confined feel to everything. Graphically there are also a few cut corners, like enemy bodies disappearing after dying.
Series fans will enjoy seeing details like the dead tech priests covered in mechadendrites, or servo skulls floating around the areas and taking scans as you explore. For the lore fanatics, there's a cool bestiary to see a dossier on the types of enemies you come across and a Relics screen showcasing objects of historical worth to your Adeptus Astartes chapter.
There's a huge influence in the beginning part of the game that can't be ignored: Aliens. It's a little unclear whether these are purposeful nods to the classic movie, or if there are just similarities with the fact that you are fighting fast aliens in a dark space atmosphere.
Either way, the Aliens feel is strong, with genestealers crawling along the walls out of the corner of your eye before you meet them in battle, the blipping of your mini-map, and the gore-strewn walls and hallways.
Bugs And Technical Issues
This has to be the biggest issue with Deathwing at the moment: severe stutters and frame rate drops occur fairly regularly. It was an issue in the beta that was supposedly being addressed when the game was pushed back a week at the last minute, but I'm still having tons of frame rate drops.
That's not the only tech issue either: about half the time when booting the game up on Steam, it freezes on the initial loading screen and has to be restarted. That's an annoying extra step that reduces any desire to play.
On the design front, for the most part the guns and psychic powers handle well, but I didn't care for the zoom in feature. You have to press the right mouse button to zoom in, but then you stay zoomed in until you click again, making zooming in and out far too slow.
I haven't seen that sort of zoom system used since the original F.E.A.R. and there's a reason why developers largely dropped it 10 years back -- it's just a straight up bad design choice.
The Bottom Line
Deathwing is fun and has a great atmosphere, there's no doubt about that, but it's also just not quite up to the level of the truly great FPS entries. Coupled with the stuttering frame rates, the end result is a game you should probably wait on until a patch comes out or the price drops.
Then again, considering you can always do a Deathwing Steam refund, it may be worth checking out for 2 hours now anyway for Warhammer 40,000 fans to decide if you can overlook the technical problems.
Seeing this different take on the Space Hulk game did remind me we are overdue for a proper RPG set in this universe. Think of something like Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines or even Knights Of The Old Republic but set in the Imperium of Man. A proper dialog and combat-driven RPG with you playing acolytes of Inquisition, Imperial guardsmen, or even better, secret chaos cultists, would be stellar. That's a game I'd eagerly drop $40 - $60 on.
Seeing all the different styles of games this universe has to offer, I'd also really like to see a sort of super-game encompassing all of them by a AAA developer that could do it justice. Imagine if you started a mission with ship-to-ship space combat, moved to the planet's surface and switched to an RTS with the Imperial Guard, then finished off a mission in a first or third person segment as a space marine invading an enemy compound.
Sadly, we'll probably never get either of those things, so far now we'll have to satisfy ourselves with Deathwing and patiently waiting for Dawn Of War III.